I was driving with a Protestant friend of mine the other day, and he asked me about our parish at Immaculate Conception.
"Oh, the Immaculate Conception, hey?", he said, " ... that is when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and she conceived Jesus."
"No, no," I said. "The Immaculate Conception refers to the great truth that Our Lady was conceived in her mother St. Anne's womb without the stain of Original Sin."
"But, doesn't St. Paul say in the letter to the Romans that all men have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God?" (Rom 3:23).
"Right!", I said. "And also, Our Lady herself said, 'My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.'" (Luke 1:46)
So if these bible quotes are true, and all people fall to sin and Our Blessed Lady herself talks of her Savior, how could it be that Pope Gregory XVI declared infallibly* that Our Lady was immaculately conceived?
This is a serious, serious problem - it tripped up many of the great thinkers of the Church throughout the ages, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux (founder of the Cistercian Order), St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure; Doctors of the Church all.
It fell to Blessed John Duns Scotus, OFM, to puzzle out the answer. According to Duns Scotus, the answer to the riddle is that Our Blessed Mother in fact did need redeeming as per Romans; did need a Savior, as per Luke. But, in her case, the method of redemption was different. Duns Scotus realized that Our Lady was saved prior to her Immaculate Conception.
A story I heard one time might help illustrate this. Picture yourself walking down a jungle path. Ahead of you is a bottomless pit - but it is covered with vines and leaves and is invisible. You take a step - and fall headlong into the pit, screaming "AHHHHHH!" and calling out, "Jesus, save me!". And Our Lord does that - He reaches out, grabs your arm, and pulls you from the pit and sets you down on firm ground. You have been saved.
Now imagine our Blessed Mother on that same path. Her foot reaches out as she steps over the pit - and Our Lord pulls her back, and keeps her from falling. He has saved her.
Is there any significant way in which the saving act is any different? No! In each case Our Lord performed a saving Act that preserved the person from the depths of the pit. Except in Our Lady's case she doesn't fall - she doesn't get muddy or torn up by her fall as we all do. To stretch the metaphor a little, she doesn't experience the after-effects of the fall, which tend to lead to more mud, more scratches, more torn white garments for us - what the Church calls concupiscence.
This truth is a Doctrine of the Faith - a Truth that all Catholics are obliged to believe. And I don't find it hard to believe at all. Could Jesus do something like that? Sure he could! All power under Heaven and Earth has been granted to Him. And, of course, He is not subject to time in the way we are. As God, there is no reason to suppose he could not have been present at His own Mother's conception. And finally, it just makes sense. What son doesn't love his mother? And wouldn't do something special for her, if he could? I know I would. We can be sure, with the sureness of Holy Faith, that Jesus did.
*It's important to note that while Ineffabilis Deus declared this doctrine officially in 1854, Catholics have been celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception since at least the 5th century, and that this truth has been known since apostolic times. So why do Popes (and Councils) write Catechisms and Professions of Faith and papal encyclicals on things Catholics have always believed? Good Question! and one I'll write a post on later.