The Church’s reflection has made explicit the profound meaning of the
words ‘full of grace’ spoken by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin of
The perfection of holiness that Mary enjoys from the first moment of
her conception was the subject of the Holy Father's catechesis at the
General Audience of Wednesday, 15 May. The Pope went on to say that the
recognition of this perfect holiness "required a long process of
doctrinal reflection, which finally led to the solemn proclamation of
the dogma of the Immaculate Conception". Here is a translation of
his talk, which was the 20th in the series on the Blessed Virgin and was
given in Italian.
1. Mary, "full of grace", has been recognized by the Church
as "all holy and free from every stain of sin", "enriched
from the first instant of her conception with the splendour of an
entirely unique holiness" (Lumen gentium, n. 56).
This recognition required a long process of doctrinal reflection,
which finally led to the solemn proclamation of the dogma of the
The title "made full of grace", addressed by the
angel to Mary at the Annunciation, refers to the exceptional divine
favour shown to the young woman of Nazareth in view of the motherhood
which was announced, but it indicates more directly the effect of divine
grace in Mary; Mary was inwardly and permanently imbued with grace and
thus sanctified. The title kecharitoméne has a very rich meaning
and the Holy Spirit has never ceased deepening the Church's
understanding of it.
Sanctifying grace made Mary a new creation
2. In the preceding catechesis I pointed out that in the angel's
greeting the expression "full of grace" serves almost as a
name: it is Mary's name in the eyes of God. In Semitic usage, a name
expresses the reality of the persons and things to which it refers. As a
result, the title "full of grace" shows the deepest dimension
of the young woman of Nazareth's personality: fashioned by grace and the
object of divine favour to the point that she can be defined by this
The Council recalls that the Church Fathers alluded to this truth
when they called Mary the "all-holy one", affirming at the
same time that she was "fashioned as it were by the Holy Spirit and
formed as a new creature" (Lumen gentium, n. 56).
Grace, understood in the sense of "sanctifying grace" which
produces personal holiness, brought about the new creation in Mary,
making her fully conformed to God's plan.
3. Doctrinal reflection could thus attribute to Mary a perfection of
holiness that, in order to be complete, had necessarily to include the
beginning of her life.
Bishop Theoteknos of Livias in Palestine, who lived between 550 and
650, seems to have moved in the direction of this original purity. In
presenting Mary as "holy and all-fair", "pure and
stainless", he referred to her birth in these words: "She is
born like the cherubim, she who is of a pure, immaculate clay" (Panegyric
for the feast of the Assumption, 5-6).
This last expression, recalling the creation of the first man,
fashioned of a clay not stained by sin, attributes the same
characteristics to Mary's birth: the Virgin's origin was also "pure
and immaculate", that is, without any sin. The comparison with the
cherubim also emphasizes the outstanding holiness that characterized
Mary's life from the very beginning of her existence.
Theoteknos' assertion marks a significant stage in the theological
reflection on the mystery of the Lord's Mother. The Greek and Eastern
Fathers had acknowledged a purification brought about by grace in Mary,
either before the Incarnation (St Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 38,
16) or at the very moment of the Incarnation (St Ephrem, Severian of
Gabala, James of Sarug). Theoteknos of Livias seems to have required of
Mary an absolute purity from the beginning of her life. Indeed, she who
was destined to become the Saviour's Mother had to have had a perfectly
holy, completely stainless origin.
4. In the eighth century, Andrew of Crete is the first theologian to
see a new creation in Mary's birth. This is how he reasons: "Today
humanity, in all the radiance of her immaculate nobility, receives its
ancient beauty. The shame of sin had darkened the splendour and
attraction of human nature; but when the Mother of the Fair One par
excellence is born, this nature regains in her person its
ancient privileges and is fashioned according to a perfect model truly
worthy of God.... The reform of our nature begins today and the aged
world, subjected to a wholly divine transformation, receives the first
fruits of the second creation" (Serm. I on the Birth of Mary).
Then, taking up again the image of the primordial clay, he states:
"The Virgin's body is ground which God has tilled, the first fruits
of Adam's soil divinized by Christ, the image truly like the former
beauty, the clay kneaded by the divine Artist" (Serm. I on the
Dormition of Mary).
Mary's original holiness is beginning of Redemption
Mary's pure and immaculate conception is thus seen as the beginning
of the new creation. It is a question of a personal privilege granted to
the woman chosen to be Christ's Mother, who ushers in the time of
abundant grace willed by God for all humanity.
This doctrine, taken up again in the eighth century by St Germanus of
Constantinople and St John Damascene, sheds light on the value of Mary's
original holiness, presented as the beginning of the world's Redemption.
In this way the Church's tradition assimilates and makes explicit the
authentic meaning of the title "full of grace" given by the
angel to the Blessed Virgin. Mary is full of sanctifying grace and is so
from the first moment of her existence. This grace, according to the
Letter to the Ephesians (1:6), is bestowed in Christ on all believers.
Mary's original holiness represents the unsurpassable model of the gift
and the distribution of Christ's grace in the world.