The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Issue:
What does the Church teach concerning the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary?

Response:
The teaching is aptly summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 974:

The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up [“assumed”] body and soul into the glory of heaven, where
she already shares in the glory of her Son’s Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of His Body.

The doctrine of Mary’s Assumption is firmly rooted in sacred Scripture and Tradition, and this constant teaching was infallibly defined as a dogma of the Catholic faith by Pope Pius XII in 1950.

Discussion: In a document entitled Munificentissimus Deus (1950), Pope Pius XII solemnly defined the dogma of the Assumption as follows:

The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

In defining the Assumption, Pope Pius XII refers to the other three Marian dogmas: Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, and Mother of God. This illustrates the point that the Assumption is intimately connected to other Marian doctrines, especially Mother of God and Immaculate Conception.

No one obeys the Fourth Commandment of honoring father and mother more fully than Jesus, who is Son of God and Son of Mary. It is fitting that Jesus would uniquely honor His mother—truly the Mother of God—by preserving her from the corruption of the grave and by glorifying her body in heaven before the general resurrection of the body for all the other saints on the last day.

There is even a stronger connection between the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception. The key Scripture verse is Genesis 3:15, in which the Lord says that He will put enmity between Satan and the “woman,” who is identified as the Mother of the Redeemer. “Enmity” means “total opposition.” This verse foreshadows Mary’s participation in the absolute victory of her seed (Jesus) over Satan.

According to St. Paul, the consequences of Satan’s influence on the human race are twofold: sin and death (e.g., Romans 5:21; 6:16; 6:23; 8:2; Galatians 6:7-8; Hebrews 2:14-15). Therefore, Mary, who shared in her Son’s victory over Satan, would have to be saved from both sin and the corruption of death. Thus, her enmity, or “total opposition” toward the devil.

By a special favor granted to her by her Lord and Savior, Mary indeed did triumph over sin in her Immaculate Conception. Corruption of the body is a result of original sin. Because Mary was preserved from original sin in her Immaculate Conception, and since she sustained the fullness of grace given to her by God (cf. Lk. 1:28), Our Lady could not have experienced the consequences of original sin. So Mary also triumphed over the bodily corruption of death in her glorious Assumption.

The Assumption in Divine Revelation

In addition to Genesis 3:15, there are several other Scripture passages that point to the Assumption of Our Lady. For example, there is Luke 1:28, since her bodily assumption is a natural consequence of her being “full of grace.” Other passages include Revelation 12:1, in which Mary’s coronation implies her bodily assumption, and 1 Corinthians 15:23 and Matthew 27:52-53, which support the possibility of a bodily assumption. And lastly there is Psalm 132:8, which provides: “Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark which you have sanctified.” Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, who physically bore the presence of God in her womb before bearing Christ to the world.

The Assumption is also witnessed by sacred Tradition. For example, St. Gregory of Tours (d. 593) wrote: “The Lord commanded the holy body [of Mary] to be borne on a cloud to Paradise where, reunited to its soul and exalting with the elect, it enjoys the everlasting bliss of eternity.” The doctrine was also explicitly taught by Church Fathers such as St. Germain of Constantinople, St. Andrew of Crete, and St. John Damascene.

There is a maxim that provides “Lex orandi, lex credendi” (“the law of praying is the law of believing”). This maxim summarizes the truth that the liturgical life of the People of God plays an important role in preserving and celebrating the Faith of the Church. Already in the sixth century there were liturgical feasts dedicated to Mary’s Assumption. And indeed, from the 13th century on, the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption was taught with near unanimity in both the west and east. And the Rosary, which includes a decade on the Assumption, has been an important part of Catholic piety since the early 13th century.

The Extent of the Magisterial Teaching

In defining the Assumption as a revealed dogma, Pope Pius XII did not infallibly answer all the questions that relate to the “where, when, and how” of the Assumption. For example, we do not know how old Mary was and whom she was with at the time. Also, the Holy Father did not attempt to resolve the controversy as to whether she was in Ephesus or Jerusalem, as there was no mention of where she was at the time of her Assumption. In addition, Pope Pius XII’s definition said nothing about Mary’s mediation, her queenship, or other privileges.

And significantly, Pope Pius XII left open the question of whether Mary “died.” Note that the definition intentionally uses the ambiguous phraseology, “having completed the course of her earthly life.” Some maintain that she did not die, because her Immaculate Conception freed her from the effects of original sin, including death. Others maintain that it would have been fitting for her to die, so that she could be fully conformed to Christ her Son. Thus she freely accepted death in order to more fully associate herself with her Son’s redemption (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no. 58). It is important to note in this regard that if Mary did die before being assumed into heaven, it was a voluntary death and did not involve the bodily corruption that usually accompanies death as a consequence of original sin.

Why a Dogma of the Faith?

It is fair to ask why it was necessary to have the dogma defined. After all, the doctrine of the Assumption was already accepted throughout the Church, and, unlike the Immaculate Conception before it was solemnly defined in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, the teaching of the Assumption was never the subject of controversy.

However, following the definition of the Immaculate Conception, the Vatican received millions of petitions from bishops, priests, religious, and laity asking for the definition of Mary’s Assumption. The Popes after Pius IX encouraged the movement for the dogmatic definition. Finally, Pope Pius XII in 1946 sent a letter entitled Deiparae Virginis Mariae to all the bishops in the world in which he asked them whether (a) the teaching can be proposed as a dogma and (b) whether the people desired it. The result was staggering. Out of 1232 bishops, 1210 answered “yes” to both questions. Such near unanimity among the bishops regarding doctrinal pronouncements is almost unprecedented in Church history. And so the theological principle used to justify the proclamation of the dogma was the uniform faith of the whole Church. In his dogmatic pronouncement, the Holy Father appeals to the Church’s teaching authority and the constant faith of the Christian people, which that same teaching authority “sustains and directs” in proclaiming Mary’s bodily Assumption to be a revealed truth (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, nos. 12, 25).

The solemn proclamation of God’s word has historically been an occasion of tremendous joy and grace in the Church. One calls to mind, for example, the celebration of the faithful when Mary was declared “Mother of God” (theotokos) at the Council of Ephesus in 431 or, in Old Testament times, the tears of the Israelites when Ezra read the words of the law to them after their return from exile (cf. Neh. 8:5-12).

At the close of Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII exhorts the faithful as follows:

[T]his solemn proclamation and definition of the Assumption will contribute in no small way to the advantage of human society, since it redounds to the glory of the Most Blessed Trinity, to which the Blessed Mother of God was bound by such singular bonds. It is to be hoped that all the faithful will be stirred up to a stronger piety toward their heavenly Mother, and that the souls of all those who glory in the Christian name may be moved by the desire of sharing in the unity of Christ’s Mystical Body and of increasing their love for her who in all things shows her motherly heart to the members of [Christ’s] Body. . . . In this magnificent way, all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally, it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.

Recommended Reading

Holy Bible (Catholic Edition)

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Documents of Vatican II

Lumen Gentium; Dogmatic Constitution on the Church; Vatican II

Munificentissimus Deus; Pope Pius XII

Précis of Official Catholic Teaching on Marian Devotions and the Last Things

Introduction to Mary; Mark Miravalle; Available from Queenship Publishing Company, P.O. Box 42028, Santa Barbara, CA 93140-2028; (800) 647-9882.

Queen Mother: A Biblical Theology of Mary’s Queenship; Edward Sri

Catholic for a Reason II: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mother of God; Scott Hahn and Leon J. Suprenant, Jr.

To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Date edited:
4/18/2006

Associated PDF File:
Download Here

You may need to obtain a free copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to use this
PDF file.