I still remember the moment when I first “heard” the Church’s teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity. I was at Mass one day, and we were praying the Confiteor, the prayer that begins with the words “I confess.” Perhaps you are also familiar with it: “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore, I ask blessed Mary, ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”1 I had said this prayer, week in and week out, for years, without giving it much thought. But suddenly the words hit me: blessed Mary, ever Virgin. I remember thinking, “Hmm, that’s curious. What do we really mean by that?” Needless to say, I was interested to know more.
As I soon discovered, the Church teaches that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was a virgin before, during, and after His birth – without interruption.2 The word “perpetual” comes from the Latin, perpetuālis, meaning “permanent,” so not a lot of room for interpretation there. But how can we be sure? What evidence is there for this belief? And why is it so critical that we believe? In other words, why would the Church Fathers make it a tenet of our faith?
Virginity is at the core of Our Lady’s identity: she is the Blessed Virgin Mary. Understanding Mary’s virginity is important not only for her sake but for that of Our Lord. Just as the unbroken line of ancestors recounted in the Gospels helps us understand Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Chosen One,3 Mary’s perpetual virginity affirms, along with the Passion, Death, and Resurrection, that Jesus is God’s own Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. What’s more, this truth about Mary is essential if we are to understand God’s plan for humanity and for the Church – His desire for each one of us.
Virginity is one of the most misunderstood ideas in our world today. Because we live in an oversexualized world, virginity is often associated with negative qualities, with “impotence of body and mind, emotional and spiritual impotence.”4 To our modern sensibilities, it seems prudish and outdated, a “loveless and joyless attitude to life.”5 As British mystic and author Caryll Houselander explains, “We no longer think of virginity as the first-fruits laid upon the fire of sacrifice, but rather as a windfall of green apples, which are hard and sour because the sun has never penetrated them and warmed them at the core.”6
But we’ve got it all wrong. Virginity isn’t emptiness; it’s receptivity. It’s foregoing one thing for something else – for a higher purpose. We understand this attitude in other areas of life – such as when we abstain from certain foods or products out of respect for animals, for example. But when it comes to abstaining from sex (for pretty much any reason), we see it as strange – unnatural. We can comprehend ‘vegan’ but not ‘virgin’! Sadly, few can appreciate the offering of body and soul to God “to be consumed in the fire of love and changed into the flame of its glory.”7
Virginity as Identity
In Isaiah 7:14, we first hear the prophecy of the Virgin Birth: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This prophecy, along with countless others, was fulfilled with the birth of Jesus.8 It’s not difficult to see why Jesus’ mother needed to be a virgin. He is God’s Only Begotten Son, pure, holy, and blameless. How could purity and perfection come from stain and imperfection? If God could create His mother to be perfect (and He could), why wouldn’t He? As Archbishop Fulton Sheen explains, “No great triumphant leader makes his entrance into the city over dust-covered roads when he could come on a flower-strewn avenue. …If [Christ] came to this earth through the wheatfield of moral weakness, He certainly would have some chaff hanging on the garment of His human nature”9 Mary’s virginity is “the safeguard of the sinlessness of the human nature that Our Blessed Lord assumed.”10
The Blessed Virgin was kept “immaculate” for the entirety of her life – not only born without sin but, through God’s grace, never falling into sin. Yet to be clear, “Mary was not sinless because she was a virgin, but the best sign of her sinlessness was her virginity.”11 Virginity and sinlessness needn’t go hand in hand necessarily, but in Mary they did, and for good reason. The “Gospels disassociate Mary from all sin in order to show her to be as much as possible ‘in the image and likeness of God.’”12
How Can This Be?
Just as Mary was preserved from all sin, so was her virginity also preserved – safeguarded. Mary was unique in the order of creation, so in her, God chose to bring forth His Son in a wholly unique way. “The Virgin Birth, indeed, was a new type of generation. As our mind begets a thought without in any way destroying the mind, so Mary begot the Word within herself without in any way affecting her virginity.”13
Precisely how it happened isn’t known, because no one save Joseph was there. But what we can say with certainty is that nothing would be “lost” or diminished in Mary by giving birth to Jesus. Rather, she was blessed beyond belief!14 She herself proclaimed through the power of the Holy Spirit: “…all generations will call me blessed.”15
Miraculous births were par for the course in the Old Testament. Case in point: Abraham. God had promised that he would become the “father of a host of nations.”16 But how would this happen since he was already an old man and his wife Sarah was barren? Only divine intervention – the power of God – could make it possible. After Isaac was born and became a man, he married Rebecca; but they soon discovered that she also was incapable of conceiving. Then, miracle of miracles – Jacob was born.17 If we fast forward many more years, we see this pattern repeated once again with Jacob’s wife, Rachel.
Likewise, in the New Testament, God intervened so that Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist, could conceive. And though it’s not recorded in the Bible, we know that Saints Anne and Joachim prayed for many years before they were blessed with a child, who was, of course, Mary, the Mother of God.18 Given that the birth of these great prophets and Jesus’ own mother took place in such a miraculous way, wouldn’t it have been unusual for our Lord’s birth to be ordinary and routine? Would we expect any less for God’s own Son? The Almighty is obviously well-versed in bringing His chosen ones out of the ‘barren desert’. Likewise, virginity is no obstacle for God.
You can usually learn a lot about someone when you look at their family, and Jesus is no exception. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the most compelling reason to believe that He was indeed their Saviour and King was where He came from – not Nazareth but His ancestors. Here was this man teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming to be God, which meant that unless He truly was God, He was a lunatic. So, His family of origin was important.
It was well known that the long-awaited Messiah would come from the line of King David, as the prophet Jeremiah had foretold over 600 years before: “Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “that I will raise to David a branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth…And He will be called The Lord, our Righteousness.”19 The prophet Samuel had also revealed that a line of kings would come through David’s family, culminating in One “Eternal King” whose kingdom would never pass away.20 The Jews of Jesus’ day knew all this – they were well-versed in these passages and expected the promised Saviour to be a descendant of the great kings.
What does all this have to do with Mary and her perpetual virginity? In the Gospel of Matthew, we are given the genealogy of Jesus – His ancestors beginning with Abraham, that Father of a Great Nation, down through the ages to Jesus’ foster father, Joseph.21 There can be no doubt that Jesus was born into the right family, since Joseph came through David’s most famous son, Solomon.
What’s interesting, though, is that Mary is also a descendant of King David, through another son, Nathan. Her lineage goes back even further, all the way to Adam.22 How fitting that Jesus’ unbroken lineage corresponds to Mary’s unbroken virginity, as both are important in helping us establish His identity – His humanity as well as His divinity.
Jesus was an Only Child
Which brings us to another point that is sometimes a source of confusion: Did Jesus have siblings? Officially, the Church teaches that Jesus had no biological brothers and sisters.23 Yet some believe otherwise, quoting a line from Mark’s Gospel (6:3), which is also recounted in Matthew 13:55: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” John 7:3 also speaks of “brethren.”
But these verses are misleading to our modern ears. In Jesus’ day, brethren generally meant any extended relative – cousins, or distant family members. As Scripture scholars have often pointed out, the word ‘brethren’ (adelphios in Greek) was even used for members of the same close-knit community. Notice also, here and elsewhere, that Jesus is referred to as “the son of Mary” not “a son of Mary”. In another verse, Matthew 12:46, two of the names – James and Joseph – are given as sons of a different “Mary”.24
Beyond such confusing semantics, Jesus’ actions speak even louder. For if He had brothers, why wouldn’t He have chosen one of them to lead the fledgling church instead of Peter? And why would Jesus have entrusted his mother to the Apostle John if natural brothers had existed? Because bloodlines were so important, this makes little sense. The only logical conclusion is that since there were no biological brothers to call upon, Jesus chose His disciples – His closest and most trusted companions – to fill these significant roles.
Virgin and Mother
Besides, what man (or woman) could possibly share the same womb that had held the Saviour of the world? As scholars and theologians throughout the ages have consistently upheld, Jesus is God’s only Son, but He is also Mary’s only Son. Her maternity extends to all humanity – not just a chosen few. God’s plan for Mary’s motherhood was unique: to be our mother, in the order of grace. She is the “window through which our humanity first [caught] glimpse of Divinity on earth,” and, through love, will continue to do so.25
In her, there is no contradiction in being both virgin and mother. She is an “everywoman” – the prototype of womanhood. Uniting both virginity and motherhood in this one woman, God “willed to show how both are necessary for the world”– how they “complement one another, like the sun and the rain.”26
Ultimately, this is why it was so important that Mary remain a virgin: so that her motherhood would remain intact, for all eternity. So that she’d continue to bear Christ, and He alone, into the world – which is precisely what each of us is called to do, as well. In Our Lady, we experience “the wholeness of Love through which our own humanity has become the bride of the Spirit of Life.”27 “At once virgin and Mother, Mary is the symbol and the most perfect realization 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.”28
– Kelley Holy
1 To avoid confusion, I have included the version of the Confiteor that we use now, though it would have been different at the time of my “revelation.”
2 The Council of Constantinople II in 553 declared Mary “Ever-Virgin.” The other four Marian dogmas are the Immaculate Conception, Mary’s Assumption into heaven, and her designation as the “Mother of God”. For more information, go to http://catholicism.org/four-great-marian-dogmas.html.
3 Cf. Luke 3:23-38
4 Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2006), 16.
7 Houselander, The Reed of God, 17.
8 Here’s a good list of many of the prophecies fulfilled by Jesus: https://www.scripturecatholic.com/messianic-prophecies-fulfilled-jesus-christ/
9 Fulton J. Sheen, The World’s First Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 65.
10 Sheen, The World’s First Love, 69.
11 Sheen, The World’s First Love, 68.
13 Sheen, The World’s First Love, 71.
14 Cf. CCC, 499.
15 Luke 1:48
16 Genesis 17:5
17 Genesis 25:21
18 For more info on Sts. Anne and Joachim, see http://bustedhalo.com/questionbox/who-were-mary%E2%80%99s-parents-what-do-we-know-about-them
19 Jeremiah 23:5-6
20 Cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-16
21 Cf. Matthew 1:1-16
22 Mary’s lineage is found in Luke 3: 23-38.
23 Cf. CCC, 500-501.
24 Cf. Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, Commentary and notes for Matthew 12:46, The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 29.
25 Sheen, The World’s First Love, 76.
26 Sheen, The World’s First Love, 86.
27 Houselander, The Reed of God, 17.
28 CCC, 507.