On 25th March, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The great mystery celebrated on this day is the virginal conception of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity in the womb of the Virgin Mary. For in that very moment when Mary pronounced Her Fiat, the Son of God became flesh in Her womb.
But the virginal conception of the Son of God in the womb of the Blessed Virgin came about within the context of another mystery, a Marian mystery: The Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And just as the dogma of the Divine Maternity guarantees right faith with regards to the divinity of Christ, so also does the dogma of the Perpetual Virginity safeguard the truth of His virginal conception in the womb of His Mother.
The Catholic Faith teaches us that God miraculously preserved the bodily integrity of the Blessed Virgin Mary before, during and after childbirth. One of the first companions of St. Francis of Assisi was a humble lay brother by the name Giles who today is venerated as a blessed by Franciscans all over the world. Blessed Giles was plain and simple in mind and of a mild temperament. But he had a very strong character, and this was manifested when once a religious of great learning came to him for advice concerning the virginity of Mary. Despite his great learning, this religious was very much troubled by doubts regarding this singular privilege of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The response of Blessed Giles was prompt and immediate. He struck the earth with a stick and at the same time cried out: “Yes! yes! She was a virgin before the birth of Jesus!” and immediately a beautiful lily sprouted forth from the stick. Giles struck anew and said, “She was a virgin during the birth,” and again a lily sprouted forth. Then he beat a third time upon the earth, saying the words, “She was a virgin after the birth,” and the third lily sprouted forth. So, when we speak of the perpetual virginity of Mary, we refer to these three moments: ante partum, in partu and post partum.
Even though we always refer to Mary as the Virgin, yet the dogma of the Perpetual Virginity is not the subject of reflection for many souls. Instead, we hear a lot being said about Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Her Divine Maternity. These two great privileges proceed from God and they indicate the holiness of Mary, the gift of the fullness of grace that was communicated to Her. Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, however, is something that originates in Mary and disposes Her to receive this gift of sublime holiness. Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is the expression of her correspondence to the sublime gift of the fullness of grace. St. Luke tells us that once, while Jesus was preaching to the multitude, a woman from the crowd stood up and said: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” What was the reply of Jesus? “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” The woman tried to praise Mary, the mother of Jesus, but Jesus, with his words reveals to us the true greatness of Mary. Yes, Mary was the physical mother of Jesus, but that physical maternity would have been worth nothing if she had not first of all conceived Christ in her heart spiritually.
Apart from not being a widespread subject of reflection among devout souls, there has also been a tendency, in recent times, to question the relevance of this dogma for the Church today. Hence, there are some who question the alleged disparity between virginity and marriage. But these errors exalting marriage over and above consecrated virginity can be traced to Jovinian, a monk of the 4th century who denied Mary’s Perpetual Virginity. Jovinian felt that virgins, widows and married women, are of equal merit in the Christian community. Jovinian was condemned as a heretic for his erroneous teachings regarding the Perpetual Virginity of Mary and his glorification of marriage over virginity.
But, instead of considering virginity and matrimony as being opposed to one another, we must learn to understand them as being forms of Christian Life, having one goal in common: the perfection of charity in the Christian soul. In one form of life, this perfection is a good to be acquired in the future, in the other, this goal is already visibly present and made manifest in this life. And we see in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary a model of Christian Perfection.
Mary’s Virginity before childbirth regards the Incarnation of Christ, brought about without the concurrence of any male seed. Mary’s Virginity during childbirth refers to the truth that Christ, in being born of His Blessed Mother willed to conserve her corporal integrity. Mary’s virginity after childbirth is the consequence and realisation of a vow which she made, at an early age, to conserve her corporal and spiritual integrity entirely for God. According to the Fathers of the Church, Mary first conceived Christ in her soul before she conceived him in her womb.
The virginal conception and the virginal childbirth were two miracles worked by God in order to respect Mary’s vow. When the angel announced to her that she would conceive and bear a son, she asked, How shall this be since I do not know man? These words of Mary to the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation show that Mary did not intend to have conjugal relations with a man, even though She was already espoused to Joseph.
St. Augustine rightly says, that “Mary certainly would not have spoken those words If she had not vowed her virginity to God.” In fact, only by admitting Mary’s virginal consecration to God, can it be understood why she found herself facing an unsolvable dilemma: How to reconcile her virginal offering to God with the request of maternity on the part of God? How could she become a mother without betraying a promise of virginal consecration to God?
In Mary, virginity and matrimony find a harmonious union. The Catechism tells us that Mary’s virginity is the sign of the undivided gift of herself to God. But she did not refuse matrimony, and because of her fiat she became the mother of Christ and of all who will follow Him in the Christian Life. The Catechism also says that: “At once virgin and mother, Mary is the symbol and the most perfect realisation of the Church: ‘the Church indeed… by receiving the word of God in faith becomes herself a mother. By preaching and Baptism she brings forth sons, who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God, to a new and immortal life. She herself is a virgin, who keeps in its entirety and purity the faith she pledged to her spouse.’” (CCC 507).
Mary’s virginity gives birth to Christ. And in giving birth to Christ, Mary gives birth to the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. In Catholic thought, Mary is the figure of all virgins who remain such physically and of all other Christians who, as members of the Body of Christ, must practice spiritual virginity. St. Augustine writes: “The only-begotten Son of God deigned to take upon Himself a human nature drawn from a virgin so that He might thus link a spotless Church to Himself, its spotless Founder. In doing so He not only thought of virgins undefiled in body, but He also desired that, in that Church which the Apostle Paul calls a virgin, the minds of all should be undefiled. ‘For I betrothed you to one spouse, that I might present you a chaste virgin to Christ’ (2 Cor 11:2). The Church, therefore, imitating the Mother of her Lord in mind, though not in body, is both mother and virgin. Since the virginity of His Mother was in no way violated in the birth of Christ, He likewise made His Church a virgin by ransoming her from the fornication of demons.”
In another sermon, St. Augustine addresses the following words to all Christians in general: "I speak to all; I include in my exhortations the whole Church, that chaste virgin whom the Apostle speaks of as espoused to Christ. Do, in the inner chambers of your soul, what you view with amazement in the flesh of Mary. He who believes in his heart unto justice conceives Christ; he who with his mouth makes profession of faith unto salvation brings forth Christ. Thus, in your souls, let fertility abound and virginity be preserved.”
Christian souls, married and unmarried alike, must look to Mary Ever Virgin as their model in the practice of the virtue of chastity. Married persons should practice conjugal chastity, never forgetting what St. Paul says about Christian marriage being a symbol of the bond between Christ and His Church: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her… This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:22-32).
How do Christian couples practice conjugal chastity? First of all, by mutual fidelity to one another. Using the words of St. Francis de Sales, husbands should preserve a tender, constant and cordial love for their wives. He says: “If you desire that your wives should be faithful to you, give them a lesson by your example.” Then he says to the wives: “But you, o wives, whose honour is inseparably joined with purity and modesty, be zealous to preserve this your glory, and suffer no kind of loose behaviour to tarnish the whiteness of your reputation.” He admonishes married women to be wary of wanton praise from whomsoever, and not to even permit anyone to ridicule the honour of their husbands.
A practice that helps preserve mutual fidelity between couples is prayer and devotion practised in common. The ideal is that both spouses go to Mass together, both spouses take part in devotional activities together, and that they say their prayers together. Another advice that St. Francis de Sales gives is that between spouses: “…their mutual bearing with each other ought to be so great that they should never both be angry with each other at the same time, so that their dissension or debate be never seen between them. Therefore, if one be angry, let the other hold his peace, in order that peace may be restored the sooner.”
Conjugal chastity also requires that couples reverence the holiness of the marriage-bed by the purity of their intention and the decency of their relations. Their intention should be the same as young Tobias when he took Sarah for wife. On their first night together, they both prayed and Tobias said: “And now, O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her” (Tob 8:7). Couples should always remember that the primary end of Christian marriage is the procreation of children who are to be reared in the fear and love of God. The secondary end of marriage is mutual help to bear the sufferings of life, and to overcome passion by subordinating pleasure to duty.
Reverence for the holiness of the marriage-bed means that couples will faithfully and sincerely fulfil their marriage obligations. Couples should strive to promote the transmission of life in accordance with the Church’s moral teachings. Any act that hinders the primary end of procreation constitutes a grave sin, since it is against the essential purpose of marriage. They should keep in mind the words of St. Paul: “Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control” (1 Cor 7:5). Even with regards to the use of the marriage right, it is praiseworthy to practice continence for a time. But this cannot be possible unless the couples are used to the practice of mortification and self-denial, and to the frequent reception of the Sacraments.
What about the unmarried, how can they practice chastity? “Absolute continence is the duty of those who are not united in the bonds of wedlock”, says Adolf Tanquerey. It must be practiced by all before marriage as well as by those who are widowed. Absolute continence must always be practice by consecrated souls either in the religious life or the priesthood. They can preserve the virtue of chastity by means of humility which produces self-distrust and prompts the avoidance of dangerous occasions; mortification of pleasures and desires, even licit ones; diligence in the performance of the duties of one’s state of life so that the perils of idleness are removed; love of God which fills the heart and prevents it from giving itself over to dangerous occasions.
Mary Ever Virgin is the model of the soul who gives her undivided love to God. May She teach us all how to love God with an undivided heart. A filial relationship to Mary is the royal road to fidelity to one's vocation and a most effective help for advancing in that vocation and living it fully (Pope John Paul II).