Many people confuse the Immaculate Conception with Jesus’ conception (which is called a virgin conception or virgin birth). The Immaculate Conception, in fact, refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother (Anne).
However, unlike regular conceptions, Mary was conceived without sin (that’s the ‘immaculate’ part) due to the intervention by God that protected her from the stain of sin. It is considered a special grace granted to her and befitting the mother of the redeemer.
Although the doctrine was not defined by the Church until 1854, it was widely believed among Christians dating back to the early church communities. It was vigorously debated by theologians over many centuries.
This conviction was strengthened and confirmed by a number of apparitions of Mary where she identified herself as “the Immaculate Conception” or as having an ‘immaculate heart’. St Bernadette of Lourdes is the most famous of these.
On December 8, 1854, Blessed Pope Pius IX declared that “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”
Hang on! Mary was preserved from sin by her son Jesus before she was born and before he was even conceived?? It’s a tricky concept to get our heads around, let alone explain to children. Here’s a good analogy from Catholic Answers.
“Suppose a man falls into a deep pit, and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been ‘saved’ from the pit. Now imagine a woman walking along, and she too is about to topple into the pit, but at the very moment that she is to fall in, someone holds her back and prevents her. She too has been saved from the pit, but in an even better way: She was not simply taken out of the pit, she was prevented from getting stained by the mud in the first place. This is the illustration Christians have used for a thousand years to explain how Mary was saved by Christ. By receiving Christ’s grace at her conception, she had his grace applied to her before she was able to become mired in original sin and its stain.”
Did you Know?
The date, December 8, occurs nine months before Mary’s birthday on September 8, just as the conception of Jesus (also called the Annunciation, March 25) occurs nine months before Jesus’ birthday on December 25. Consistent with the teaching that Mary does not compete with Jesus for glory, but merely reflects the glory of her son, when either of her feasts fall on a Sunday, the day reserved for honouring the resurrection each week, the Marian feast is transferred to the following Monday, or in the case of the Annunciation occurring during Holy Week, to another week altogether.
O Most Blessed Mother,
heart of love, heart of mercy,
ever listening, caring, consoling, hear our prayer.
As your children, we implore your intercession with Jesus your Son.
Receive with understanding and compassion
the petitions we place before you today, especially …(special intention).
We are comforted in knowing your heart
is ever open to those who ask for your prayer.
We trust to your gentle care and intercession,
those whom we love and who are sick or lonely or hurting.
Help all of us, Holy Mother, to bear our burdens in this life
until we may share eternal life and peace with God forever.