In St Luke’s Gospel, Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary presents her as
the one whose faith makes her the model of all who live according to the
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 3 July, the Holy Father
returned to his catechesis on the Blessed Mother. In speaking of Our
Lady's response to the angel's announcement that she would be the mother
of the Messiah, the Pope said: "Mary is asked to assent to a truth
never expressed before. She accepts it with a simple yet daring heart.
With the question: 'How can this be?', she expresses her faith in the
divine power to make virginity compatible with her exceptional and
unique motherhood'. Here is a translation of his catechesis, which was
the 25th in the series on the Blessed Virgin and was given in Italian.
1. In the Gospel account of the Visitation, Elizabeth, "filled
with the Holy Spirit", welcomes Mary to her home and exclaims:
"Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of
what was spoken to her from the Lord" (Lk 1:45). This beatitude,
the first reported in Luke's Gospel, presents Mary as the one who, by
her faith, precedes the Church in fulfilling the spirit of the
Elizabeth's praise of Mary's faith is reinforced by comparing it to
the angel's announcement to Zechariah. A superficial reading of the two
announcements might consider Zechariah and Mary as having given similar
responses to the divine message: "How shall I know this? For I am
an old man, and my wife is advanced in years", Zechariah says; and
Mary: "How can this be, since I have no husband?" (Lk 1:18,
34). But the profound difference between the interior attitudes of the
principals in these two episodes can be seen from the very words of the
angel, who rebukes Zechariah for his disbelief, while he gives an
immediate reply to Mary's question. Unlike Elizabeth's husband, Mary
fully submits to the divine plan and does not condition her consent on
the granting of a visible sign.
The angel, who proposed that she become a mother, is reminded by Mary
of her intention to remain a virgin. Believing that the announcement
could be fulfilled, she questions the divine messenger only about the
manner of its accomplishment, in order better to fulfil God's will, to
which she intends to submit with total readiness. "She sought the
manner; she did not doubt God's omnipotence", St Augustine remarks
Intense listening and pure faith is required of Mary
2. The context in which the two announcements are made also helps to
exalt the excellence of Mary's faith. In Luke's account, we see the more
favourable situation of Zechariah and the inadequacy of his response. He
receives the angel's announcement in the temple of Jerusalem, at the
altar before the "Holy of Holies" (cf. Ex 30:6-8); the angel
addresses him as he is offering incense, thus, as he is carrying out his
priestly duties, at a significant moment in his life; the divine
decision is communicated to him in a vision. These particular
circumstances favour an easier understanding of the divine authenticity
of the message and offer an incentive to accept it promptly.
The announcement to Mary, however, takes place in a simpler, workaday
context, without the external elements of sacredness which accompanied
the one made to Zechariah. Luke does not indicate the precise place
where the Annunciation of the Lord's birth occurred: he reports only
that Mary was in Nazareth, a village of little importance, which did not
seem predestined for the event. In addition, the Evangelist does not
ascribe unusual importance to the moment when the angel appears and does
not describe the historical circumstances. In meeting the heavenly
messenger, one's attention is focused on the meaning of his words, which
demand of Mary intense listening and a pure faith.
This last consideration allows us to appreciate the greatness of
Mary's faith, especially in comparison with the tendency, then as now,
to ask insistently for sensible signs in order to believe. In contrast,
the Virgin's assent to the divine will is motivated only by her love of
3. Mary is asked to assent to a much loftier truth than that
announced to Zechariah. The latter was invited to believe in a wondrous
birth that would take place within a sterile marital union, which God
wished to make fruitful: a divine intervention similar to those
benefiting several Old Testament women: Sarah (Gn 17:15-21; 18:10-14),
Rachel (Gn 30:22), the mother of Samson (Jgs 13:1-7), Hanna, the mother
of Samuel (1 Sm 1:11-20). In these episodes the gratuitousness of God's
gift is particularly emphasized.
Mary is called to believe in a virginal motherhood, for which the Old
Testament mentions no precedent. In fact, the well-known prophecy of
Isaiah: "Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and
shall call his name Emmanuel" (7:14), although not excluding such a
view, was explicitly interpreted in this sense only after Christ's
coming and in the light of the Gospel revelation.
Mary is asked to assent to a truth never expressed before. She
accepts it with a simple yet daring heart. With the question: "How
can this be?", she expresses her faith in the divine power to make
virginity compatible with her exceptional and unique motherhood.
By replying: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power
of the Most High will overshadow you" (Lk 1:35), the angel offers
God's ineffable solution to the question Mary asked. Virginity, which
seemed an obstacle, becomes the concrete context in which the Holy
Spirit will accomplish in her the conception of the incarnate Son of
God. The angel's response opens the way to the Virgin's co-operation
with the Holy Spirit in the begetting of Jesus.
4. The free co-operation of the human person is realized in carrying
out the divine plan. By believing in the Lord's word, Mary co-operates
in fulfilling the motherhood announced to her.
Mary's act of faith recalls the faith of Abraham
The Fathers of the Church often stress this aspect of Jesus' virginal
conception. In commenting on the Gospel of the Annunciation, St
Augustine in particular states: "The angel announces, the Virgin
listens, believes and conceives" (Sermo 13 in Nat. Dom.).
And again: "Christ is believed and conceived through faith. The
coming of faith first occurs in the Virgin's heart and then fruitfulness
comes to the Mother's womb" (Sermo 293).
Mary's act of faith recalls the faith of Abraham, who at the dawn of
the Old Covenant, believed in God and thus became the father of a great
posterity (cf. Gn 15:6; Redemptoris Mater, n. 14). At the
start of the New Covenant, Mary also exerts a decisive influence with
her faith on the fulfilment of the mystery of the Incarnation, the
beginning and the synthesis of Jesus' entire redeeming mission.
The close relationship between faith and salvation, stressed by Jesus
in his public life (cf. Mt 5:34; 10:52; etc.), helps us also to
understand the fundamental role which Mary's faith exercised and
continues to exercise in the salvation of the human race.