“I am the Immaculate Conception.” These simple words, with which Our Lady identified herself to St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, were the subject of constant meditation for the Martyr of Charity, St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe. A Franciscan religious,1 an accomplished theologian and a great devotee of the Blessed Virgin, he made several commentaries regarding this title, which he thought concealed a sublime mystery to be unveiled: “These words came from the mouth of the Immaculata herself; therefore they must indicate with the utmost precision and in the most essential way who She is”; “This name contains many mysteries that in time will be revealed.”2
And in this regard, he concluded: “God said to Moses: ‘I am who I am’ (Ex 3:14): I am existence itself, therefore I have no beginning; the Immaculata, on the other hand, said of herself: ‘I am the Conception,’ but, unlike all human beings, the ‘Immaculate Conception’.”3
The Immaculate Conception defines the person of the Mother of God
From these presuppositions, the Saint begins to build his lofty considerations: “Let us meditate on these words. She did not say: ‘I am She who has been conceived without sin,’ or ‘She who has been preserved from original sin,’ or other similar formulations, but She said: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception,’ as if it were to signify not only a fact, not only a dignity or quality, but to designate her very person: ‘I am’ (cf. Ex 3:14; Jn 8:58; Rv 1:8). Immaculateness is identified with Our Lady, and Our Lady with immaculateness personified.”4
According to St. Maximilian, the Immaculate Conception is therefore the very definition of the person of the Mother of God. What did the Blessed Virgin want to communicate to humanity with this title? The Franciscan religious’ considerations on the subject are among the most profound and unprecedented explications on Mary in existence. To follow them better, I invite the reader to join in a reflection.
Why did an entirely happy God create?
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). In the Book of Genesis, the sacred author begins the story of creation with these brief words.
If we could glimpse through a “crack” what existed outside of time, even before creation, we would fall to our knees in adoration! In eternity, the Holy Trinity exists – the verb is necessarily in present tense – in perfect and total happiness. The Father, in knowing himself fully, begets the Word, and from the love between them proceeds the Holy Spirit. In this eternal coexistence between the Three Persons who make up the one God, nothing is lacking. No creature can add anything to His infinite glory or complement His absolute joy.
What, then, moved God to create?
Our mind, subject to time, imagines the plan of creation unfolding chronologically: the Angels and the material universe are created, a portion of them sin and are condemned; man is also created, commits original sin, and the Word becomes incarnate to redeem humanity.
In reality, with a single eternal act of His will, God determined the entire plan of creation, foreseeing everything that would happen until the consummation of the ages.5 When He conceived this work, what was the highest and noblest point in His mind? Obviously, the Incarnation of the Word. St. Francis de Sales explains that, just as “the main purpose of planting a vineyard is the fruit, even though the leaves and flowers precede it in the process,” so the “Saviour was first in the divine designs, and in the eternal plan of Divine Providence for the creation of beings.”6 For this reason, St. Paul teaches that Our Lord Jesus Christ is “the First-born of all creation” and that “all things were created through Him and for Him” (Col 1:15-16).
Why did the Son take flesh?
God the Father created the world for His Son to take flesh.7 But why did He become incarnate? This question, which greatly intrigued the Fathers of the Church, caused a lively debate in the Middle Ages, especially among the Franciscans and the Dominicans.
To this day, a multitude of theologians – mostly Dominicans – maintain that the Incarnation took place for the Redemption of humanity. Therefore, if Adam had not sinned, Christ would not have become incarnate. Great doctors, including St. Thomas Aquinas himself,8 tended towards this hypothesis. However, others argue that the Incarnation, being God’s greatest work in creation, would have taken place regardless of the fall of our first parents. This hypothesis is supported above all by the Franciscans, and its greatest adherent was Blessed John Duns Scotus. It became known as the Franciscan thesis par excellence: the absolute primacy of Christ.9
Although the debate is a captivating one, this is not the place to examine all the excellent arguments on both sides. The supporters of the thesis of the Incarnation irrespective of sin, following the opinion of the majority of the Fathers of the Church, especially those of the East, summarize their thinking with the classic formulation of St. Athanasius: “The Son of God became Man in order to make us gods.”10 In other words, the Word took on our flesh above all to communicate to men, and to the Angels themselves,11 a participation in divine life through grace.12
Following the tradition of the whole Eastern and Western Church, this work of deification is attributed to the Divine Holy Spirit.13 Therefore, the Father created in order for the Son to become incarnate, and the Son became incarnate in order for the Spirit to deify.
Why does the Holy Spirit deify?
While the Word is the “Image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), the Father’s knowledge of himself, the Holy Spirit is the Love between the Father and the Son, personal Love within the Trinity, Love “which is of God, and which is God, […] through whom is poured forth in our hearts God’s charity which makes the Trinity dwell in us,”14 according the lofty flight of St. Augustine.
Here we come to the heart of St. Maximilian’s Marian thought, and the reason for the name Immaculate Conception. Taking the word conception – the reception of life by conjugal union – as analogous to the fruit of love between spouses, St. Maximilian begins by formulating surprising considerations on the internal life of the Trinity. A few hours before being taken prisoner by the Gestapo, he dictated this brief summary of his thoughts:
“Who is the Father? What constitutes His Being? Begetting, for He begets the Son from eternity, and for all eternity He always begets the Son. Who is the Son? He is the Begotten One, since He is always and eternally begotten of the Father. And who is the Holy Spirit? He is the fruit of the love of the Father and the Son. The fruit of created love is a created conception. Thus, the fruit of Love, the prototype of created love, is nothing other than a conception. Consequently, the Spirit is uncreated, eternal Conception, the prototype of every conception of life in the universe. […] The Spirit, therefore, is a most holy conception, infinitely holy, immaculate.”15
For the Saint, then, Immaculate Conception – considering the term conception as an analogy of love – is the name with which we can address the Holy Spirit, personal Love in the bosom of the Trinity.16 If the Holy Spirit is the infinite and uncreated Immaculate Conception, Mary is the created and finite Immaculate Conception. This is the deepest meaning of the name by which the Blessed Virgin made herself known at Lourdes. From which St. Maximilian infers: “If among creatures a bride takes the name of her husband, because she belongs to him and joins him, becomes like him and, in union with him, becomes a creative factor of life, with all the more reason the name of the Holy Spirit, ‘Immaculate Conception’, is the name of the One in whom He lives with a love that is fruitful in the entire supernatural order.”17
Thus, the love between earthly spouses is a pale image of the bond between the Holy Spirit and Mary:18 “Among the created likenesses, the union of love is the most intimate. The Scriptures assert that they will be two in one flesh (cf. Gn 2:24) and Jesus emphasizes: ‘So they are no longer two but one flesh’ (Mt 19:6). In an incomparably more rigorous, more interior and more essential way, the Holy Spirit lives in the soul of the Immaculata, in her being and makes her fruitful, and this from the first moment of her existence and throughout her life, that is forever.”19
So we may conclude that if the Holy Spirit deifies, it is because of Mary. She was not the first to be deified in time, since God created the Angels and our first parents in grace. However, in God’s designs, She has primacy in the intention for the deification of all creation: “The creature totally filled with this love, with divinity, is the Immaculata, without even the slightest stain of sin, She who never deviated in any way from God’s will. She is united in an ineffable way to the Holy Spirit, by the fact of being His Spouse, but She is so in an incomparably more perfect sense than this term can express in creatures.”20
The complement of the Blessed Trinity
St. Maximilian does not consider the Immaculate Conception only in its negative aspect, that is, complete preservation from the stain of sin through the merits of the Redemption wrought by Our Lord Jesus Christ. For him, the word immaculate, applied to Mary, means above all a perfect union of will with the Holy Spirit.21
For this reason, St. Maximilian will say that the Blessed Virgin was not only conceived without sin, but is “immaculateness itself”22 or “immaculateness personified,”23 just as “a white object is different from whiteness itself, or a perfect object is different from perfection itself.”24 She is Immaculate not only because She is free from sin, but above all because She is fully united to the divine will without any blemish.
In other words, Our Lady is, as it were, the “personification of the Spirit,”25 according to Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, a contemporary theologian and great authority on the Mariology of St. Maximilian.
With true audacity, the Franciscan Saint goes so far as to draw an analogy between the Incarnation of the Word and the union between Mary and the Holy Spirit: “[The Holy Spirit] is in the Immaculata, just as the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the Son of God, is in Jesus, but with this difference: that in Jesus there are two natures, the divine and the human, and a single Person, the divine. The nature and person of the Immaculata, on the other hand, are distinct from the nature and person of the Holy Spirit. This union, however, is so ineffable and perfect that the Holy Spirit acts through the Immaculata, His Spouse… In venerating the Immaculata, therefore, we venerate the Holy Spirit in a very special way.”26
Just as the Son was sent by the Father to become incarnate and, above all, to unite God with creation, the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father and the Son to deify Mary and, in this way, unite creation to God.27 In Her is realized the miracle of the return of the work of the six days to the Eternal Father. St. Maximilian comments on this: “The return to God, the equal and opposite reaction, proceeds along the opposite path to that of creation. As far as creation is concerned, [this path comes] from the Father through the Son and the Spirit, while here, through the Spirit, the Son becomes incarnate in her womb and, through Him, love returns to the Father. She, integrated into the love of the Most Holy Trinity, becomes from the first instant of her existence, forever, eternally, the complement of the Most Holy Trinity.”28
The apex of love that returns to the Creator
If it was the “key of love” that opened God’s creative hand to bring the universe into being, according to the beautiful expression of St. Thomas Aquinas,29 the return of creation to God can only come about through love. The Father chose to create so that the Son could become incarnate, the Son became incarnate so that the Holy Spirit could deify us, and the Holy Spirit deifies us so that the love of creation could return to the Creator. And this miracle, by God’s will, is realized through Mary:
“The apex of the love of creation returning to God is the Immaculata, the being without stain of sin, all fair, entirely of God. Not for an instant did her will depart from God’s. She always belonged freely to God. In Her is the miracle of God’s union with creation.”30
In fact, “in the union of the Holy Spirit with Her, not only does love unite these two beings, but the first of them is the entire love of the Most Holy Trinity, while the second is all the love of creation, and so in this union Heaven is united with earth, all of Heaven with all the earth, all Uncreated Love with all created love.”31
“For You God created the world”
We end these considerations with a thought from St. Maximilian that is truly moving for its Marian piety and invites us to trust in Mary Most Holy with all our heart, having recourse to Her in everything and always: “For You, God created the world. For You, God called me into being. Where does this good fortune of mine come from? Allow me to praise You, O Blessed Virgin!”32◊
1 In the Middle Ages, the Franciscans were the greatest defenders of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, which the Church only defined as dogma in 1854. It was therefore common to find images of the Immaculate Conception with the words: “Per Christum præservata, per Franciscum defensa – Preserved by Christ, defended by Francis.” It was the Franciscan John Duns Scotus who developed the definitive arguments to resolve the theological debate that had led various Doctors to deny Mary this privilege.
2 EK 1318, p.2021; 1331, p.2043-2044. The excerpts from St. Maximilian’s writings quoted in this article with the abbreviation EK – Escritos Kolbe [Writings] – have been taken from the work: ST. MAXIMILIAN MARY KOLBE. Escritos. São Paulo: Paulus, 2021. The references indicate the number of the writing and the page on which it is found.
3 EK 1292, p.1975.
4 ST. MAXIMILIAN MARY KOLBE. Conference VI. In: Roman Conferences. New Bedford: Academy of the Immaculate, 2004, p.41.
5 Cf. ROSCHINI, OSM, Gabriel. Instruções marianas. São Paulo: Paulinas, 1960, p.22.
6 ST. FRANCIS DE SALES. Traité de l’amour de Dieu. Paris: J. Gabalda, 1934, t.I, p.91.
7 Although creation, like every ad extra work of the Blessed Trinity, is carried out by the three Divine Persons, it is attributed to God the Father: the Eternal Father creates through His Son, who is His Word, and in the Holy Spirit, the Love between the Father and the Son (cf. EMERY, OP, Gilles. The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p.338-342).
8 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. III, q.1, a.3.
9 For an introduction to this topic, see: DEAN, FI, Maximilian Mary. A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ. New Bedford: Academy of the Immaculate, 2006. To explore this subject further, see also: BONNEFOY, OFM, Jean-François. Christ and the Cosmos. Paterson: St. Anthony Guild, 1965.
10 ST. ATHANASIUS. De incarnatione Verbi, n.54: PG 25, 191.
11 This point is a corollary of the Franciscan thesis of the absolute primacy of Christ (cf. BONNEFOY, op. cit., p.282-308).
12 For a detailed explanation of the subject based on the Fathers of the Church, see: ARINTERO, OP, Juan G. La evolución mística. Madrid: BAC, 1959, p.23-61.
13 Idem, p.170-171.
14 ST. AUGUSTINE. De Trinitate. L.XV, c.18.
15 EK 1318, p.2022.
16 St. Maximilian was well aware that, in theology, the word conception is used to signify the generation of the Word. He uses it here as an analogy of love between spouses to signify the procession by the volitional way of the Holy Spirit, distinct from the procession by the intellective way of the Word, designated by the word generation (cf. FEHLNER, OFM Conv, Peter Damian. The Theologian of Auschwitz. Hobe Sound: Lectio, 2019, p.286-295).
17 EK 1318, p.2024.
18 The title Sponsa Spiritus Sancti – Spouse of the Holy Spirit – was applied to Mary by St. Francis of Assisi in the antiphon Santa Maria Virgo from the Office of the Passion that he composed. Perhaps he was the first to use it. St. Maximilian, as a good Franciscan, makes generous use of this title to explain the relationship between the Paraclete and Our Lady (cf. SCHNEIDER, OFM, Johannes. Virgo Ecclesia Facta. New Bedford: Academy of the Immaculate, 2004, p.105).
19 EK 1318, p.2023.
20 Idem, ibidem.
21 Cf. FEHLNER, op. cit., p.166.
22 ST. MAXIMILIAN MARY KOLBE, apud PIACENTINI, OFM Conv, Ernesto. Immaculate Conception Panorama of the Marian Doctrine of Blessed Maximilian Kolbe. Kenosha: Franciscan Marytown Press, 1975, p.14. Fr. Piacentini goes on to explain that St. Maximilian does not attribute infinite perfection to Our Lady, which is God’s alone, but only states that Mary reflects the divine perfections in the fullest way possible for a creature.
23 ST. MAXIMILIAN MARY KOLBE, Conference VI, op. cit., p.41.
24 EK 1224, p.1846.
25 FEHLNER, op. cit., p.143. St. Maximilian states that “the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity did not become incarnate. Yet the expression Spouse of the Holy Spirit is far profounder than this title bears in earthly affairs. We may also affirm that the Immaculate in a certain way is the incarnation of the Holy Spirit” (ST. MAXIMILIAN MARY KOLBE, apud FEHLNER, op. cit., p.250).
26 ST. MAXIMILIAN MARY KOLBE. La Inmaculada revela al Espíritu Santo. Barcelona: Testimonio, 2014, p.57.
27 Cf. FEHLNER, op. cit., p.143. For more on this topic, also see pages 174 to 178.
28 EK 1318, p.2023.
29 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Super Sententiis. L.II, proœmium.
30 EK 1310, p.1997.
31 EK 1318, p.2023-2024.
32 EK 1305, p.1993.