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The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Blessed John Paul II's Catechesis
General Audience, Wednesday, 28 August 1996 - in Italian & Spanish

"1. The Church has constantly professed her belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. The most ancient texts, when referring to the conception of Jesus, call Mary simply "virgin", inferring that they considered this quality a permanent fact with regard to her whole life.

The Christians of the first centuries expressed this conviction of faith in the Greek term aeiparthenos— "ever virgin"—created to describe Mary's person in a unique and effective manner, and to express in a single word the Church's belief in her perpetual virginity. We find it used in the second symbol of faith composed by St Epiphanius in the year 374, in relation to the Incarnation: the Son of God "was incarnate, that is, he was generated in a perfect way by Mary, the ever blessed virgin, through the Holy Spirit" (Ancoratus, 119,5; DS 44).

The expression "ever virgin" was taken up by the Second Council of Constantinople (553), which affirms: the Word of God, "incarnate of the holy and glorious Mother of God and ever virgin Mary, was born of her" (DS 422). This doctrine is confirmed by two other Ecumenical Councils, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) (DS 801) and the Second Council of Lyons (1274) (DS 852), and by the text of the definition of the dogma of the Assumption (1950) (DS 3903) in which Mary's perpetual virginity is adopted as one of the reasons why she was taken up in body and soul to heavenly glory.

2. In a brief formula, the Church traditionally presents Mary as "virgin before, during and after giving birth", affirming, by indicating these three moments, that she never ceased to be a virgin.

Of the three, the affirmation of her virginity "before giving birth" is, undoubtedly, the most important, because it refers to Jesus' conception and directly touches the very mystery of the Incarnation. From the beginning it has been constantly present in the Church's belief.

Her virginity "during and after giving birth", although implicit in the title virgin already attributed to Mary from the Church's earliest days, became the object of deep doctrinal study since some began explicitly to cast doubts on it. Pope St Hormisdas explains that "the Son of God became Son of man, born in time in the manner of a man, opening his mother's womb to birth [cf. Lk 2:23] and, through God's power, not dissolving his mother's virginity" (DS 368). This doctrine was confirmed by the Second Vatican Council, which states that the firstborn Son of Mary "did not diminish his Mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it" (Lumen gentium, n. 57). As regards her virginity after the birth, it must first of all be pointed out that there are no reasons for thinking that the will to remain a virgin, which Mary expressed at the moment of the Annunciation (cf. Lk 1:34) was then changed. Moreover, the immediate meaning of the words: "Woman, behold, your son!", "Behold, your mother" (Jn 19:26), which Jesus addressed to Mary and to his favourite disciple from the Cross, imply that Mary had no other children.

Those who deny her virginity after the birth thought they had found a convincing argument in the term "firstborn", attributed to Jesus in the Gospel (Lk 2:7), almost as though this word implied that Mary had borne other children after Jesus. But the word "firstborn" literally means "a child not preceded by another" and, in itself, makes no reference to the existence of other children. Moreover, the Evangelist stresses this characteristic of the Child, since certain obligations proper to Jewish law were linked to the birth of the firstborn son, independently of whether the mother might have given birth to other children. Thus every only son was subject to these prescriptions because he was "begotten first" (cf. Lk 2:23).

3. According to some, Mary's virginity after the birth is denied by the Gospel texts which record the existence of four "brothers of Jesus": James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (Mt 13:55-56; Mk 6:3), and of several sisters.

It should be recalled that no specific term exists in Hebrew and Aramaic to express the word "cousin", and that the terms "brother" and "sister", therefore had a far broader meaning which included several degrees of relationship. In fact, the phrase "brothers of Jesus" indicates "the children" of a Mary who was a disciple of Christ (cf. Mt 27:56) and who is significantly described as "the other Mary" (Mt 28:1). "They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 500).

Mary Most Holy is thus the "ever virgin". Her prerogative is the consequence of her divine motherhood which totally consecrated her to Christ's mission of redemption."