St. John Paul II once called St. Maximilian Kolbe “the patron saint of our difficult century.” He is best known as the “Saint of Auschwitz” who offered his life in exchange for the life of another prisoner. What many do not know about him is that, like many of the saints of the 20th Century, he was also a great Marian saint. He tells of Our Lady appearing to him at an early age, two crowns in her hands, “one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.” True to her word, Blessed Pope Paul VI beatified him a confessor and St. John Paul II canonized him a martyr. From that day on, he was animated by a great desire to know Jesus through His Mother and to do “All for the Immaculata!”
In coming to know her, there was one thing he puzzled over his entire life. This was Mary’s identification of herself as “The Immaculate Conception” when she appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes. Specifically he asked why she did not simply say “I am immaculately conceived” but chose instead to call herself “The Immaculate Conception.” He knew well the biblical importance of a name and so thought that she was saying more than just the fact that she was conceived without sin. He thought she was revealing “something that belongs to her very nature” (Letter, Feb 28, 1933). But he did not fully grasp what this meant until shortly before he was arrested a second time. In fact, just a few hours before the Gestapo came to round him and four other friars up on February 17, 1941, Fr. Kolbe wrote what would be his last and definitive teaching on the Immaculata.
What Fr. Kolbe focused on was Mary’s unique relationship with the Trinity. She is the beloved daughter of God the Father, Mother of God the Son and Spouse of the Holy Spirit Who overshadowed her in the Incarnation. What Kolbe focused on specifically was her relationship with the Holy Spirit. Because the Immaculata is united to the Holy Spirit as His spouse, she is united to God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be said of any other creature (note that she is still a creature though). He posited that if in human affairs the wife takes the name of her husband to show she belongs to him and is one with him then how fitting should it be that Mary take the name of her Spouse, Who is the Divine Immaculate Conception.
This is an extremely bold claim and one would be tempted to call it a heresy if not for the fact that it was the last spiritual testament of a man whom the Church calls Saint Maximilian. For the Church not only canonizes a saint for his or her life, but also as a reliable teacher. To be clear then, what St. Maximilian is teaching has to do as much with the Person of the Holy Spirit as it does Our Lady.
To begin to grasp this, it is first necessary to see if there is something like an Immaculate Conception in God and whether it is appropriate to call the Holy Spirit by this name. When we speak of divine Conception we must first admit that we can only do so by way of analogy and that to understand this analogy you have to move beyond the idea of physical generation and think of conception in the manner that an artist conceives a painting. In a spiritual sense “to conceive” has two primary meanings. First as an intellectual act by which we form an idea. By way of analogy, this describes the conception of the Son (as Logos) by the Father. Secondly in the area of the will in which we say “I have conceived a deep affection for him” to describe the experience of a sentiment or passion. Again, by way of analogy we can speak of the Holy Spirit as being “conceived” through the love of the Father and the Son (St Thomas has a fuller treatment of this in the Summa—ST I qq.44-45 for those who might want to try and tackle it ).
If we work with this same analogical understanding of God and call to mind that it is the mother’s love that links the father and the son, then analogously we can say there is a certain motherhood appropriated to the Holy Spirit. This is not by way of generation but by way of love and it links the Father and the Son. This helps us to understand something of the maternal love that we find in God in the Scriptures. Understanding this as well, helps us to avoid the trap that many revisionist theologians fall into in which they call the Holy Spirit a “she” or speak of God as Father and Mother. That is not at all what St. Maximilian is saying. He is simply saying that in God there is something like the love of a mother. It also helps us to understand what John Paul II meant when he spoke of Mary sharing in the “the motherhood in the Holy Spirit” in his Encyclical Redemptoris Mater(RM, 43). All of this leads St. Maximilian to conclude that Mary is so completely overshadowed by the Spirit that when she says “I am the Immaculate Conception” she means “I am the manifestation of the Holy Spirit.”
There is a danger at this point to think what St. Kolbe is proposing is that the Holy Spirit took flesh in Mary—another Incarnation of a Divine Person. However he went to great lengths to reject that and coined the term “quasi-incarnation” to describe what is going on. Certainly we all agree that if a spirit of evil is capable of “possessing” a human creature to the point of identifying the latter with itself even in a sort of personal way (this is the anti-Christ) then surely the Spirit of God can take possession of his privileged creature Mary. It is absolutely a marvelous mystery that a human person can be so taken up into the control of God so that her will is completely united to the divine will, but one must readily admit the possibility. The evil spirit enslaves the poor creature he takes over whereas the Holy Spirit stirs up and strengthens liberty deep in the soul of the one he deigns to possess. Mary describes herself as the “slave of the Lord” but she is the freest human person that ever lived.
Mystery or not, we can begin to understand something of this “quasi-incarnation” if we look at the Christological heresy that led to the Church giving Mary the title, Theotokos, or “God-bearer”. The Nestorian Heresy said that there were two persons in Christ. These two persons were united in will and action. They were also united by inhabitation. Nestorius said the Word dwelt in Jesus as in a temple. This is the same way that Lumen Gentium describes Our Lady’s relationship with the Holy Spirit calling her, “Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit” (LG, 53). While we are all temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20) by virtue of our baptisms, the Immaculata was so by her very nature.
The point is that the Holy Spirit and Mary are two distinct persons, but that Mary is so fully possessed by the Holy Spirit that He acts in and through her perfectly. This is where the title of Mary as Mediatrix comes from—her wholly unique relationship with the Holy Spirit Whose mission is one of sanctification.
Even if we are willing to concede everything said so far, why does it matter? Aren’t these just theological ramblings that could easily lead us down into a heretical rabbit hole? Not at all. In truth Christians suffer greatly from not knowing the Holy Spirit. He remains a great mystery to many of us and that greatly limits His ability to work in and through us. After all, He is still a Person and to claim to love a Person while not really knowing Him is disingenuous at best. What if we do not know Him because we are looking in the wrong place? What if Catholics, in turning away from Marian devotion after the Second Vatican Council, also turned away from the Holy Spirit? What if Protestants, in rejecting the unique role Mary plays in salvation, have also lost sight of the Holy Spirit, Whom they claim to need no mediator for?
Blessed Paul VI also recognized this danger when he wrote in his 1974 Apostolic Exhortation, Marialis Cultus:
It is sometimes said that many spiritual writings today do not sufficiently reflect the whole doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit. It is the task of specialists . . . to meditate more deeply on the working of the Holy Spirit in the history of salvation, and to ensure that Christian spiritual writings give due prominence to His life-giving action. Such a study will bring out in particular the hidden relationship between the Spirit of God and the Virgin of Nazareth, and show the influence they exert on the Church. From a more profound meditation on the truths of the Faith will flow a more vital piety. (MC, 27).
The point is that we do not know the Person of the Holy Spirit because we fail to see Him in the one whom He overshadows. As we develop our relationship with Our Lady, not only does she lead us to her Son, but she does so through the Holy Spirit that dwells uniquely within her. When we offer her the unique honor due to the Mother of God, we are worshipping the Holy Spirit. Or as Fr. Kolbe said “[W]hen we honor the Immaculata we are, very specifically, adoring the Holy Spirit.”
St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!