Part One

What happened to the mother of Jesus Christ at the end of her life? The answer you get depends upon whom you ask. “Nothing at all unusual,” say Protestants. “A miracle! She was taken directly to heaven!”, say Catholics—at least those who know that Pope Pius XII solemnly proclaimed the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma which we must believe:

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 (1).

As a general matter, Protestants have been averse to honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary ever since the Reformation persuaded them that such veneration is a vestige of “Popery” (2). Moreover, their view of an individual’s conscience as being the supreme moral arbiter has led them to reject papal infallibility and the binding nature of the Magisterium in general. But, for many of them, the Assumption represents the quintessence of what they reject in Catholicism because it lacks the Scriptural support which they insist must underpin dogma (3).

Catholics who are accustomed to praying the Rosary might assume that all of the 20 events memorialized by it can be found in the Gospels or at least elsewhere in the New Testament, but the Assumption is an exception to the rule (4). Not only is there no eye-witness account or even an unattributed description of the Assumption in Scripture, there is absolutely no hint of it. By way of comparison, think of the accounts of the Ascension of Christ given in the Acts of the Apostles and Luke, which have the Apostles as witnesses looking on as Christ rises up to heaven (5).

What, then, lies behind the mystery of the Assumption? Did it really take place? There are two ways to approach an answer to that question. The first is to search the historical record for some credible account, and here we begin with Munificentissimus Deus, the Apostolic Constitution on the Assumption which Pius XII promulgated in 1950. There we find the dogma set forth in the conclusory sentence quoted above, without a description of the happening itself. Yet there are statements scattered throughout the Constitution which allow us to establish a bare-bones chronology. First—Mary died (6). That may seem to go without saying, but the Old Testament records that two people, Enoch and the Prophet Isaiah, were assumed bodily into heaven while they were still living; also, some early writers questioned whether Mary had really died or merely fallen asleep. And so the phrase Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary came to be used and still is, although it carries the latter connotation (7).

From the beginning, Christians, like their Jewish predecessors, believed that the soul parted from the body immediately upon death (8). There was never any question but that Mary’s soul went directly to Heaven; the issue was what happened to her body. As to that, the Pope declared that “her sacred body had never been subject to the corruption of the tomb” (9). By itself, that would not seem remarkable, as there have been instances of the bodies of saints being disinterred and found incorrupt after lying in the grave for many years.

Besides, the incorruptibility of her body flowed naturally and as a matter of course from two settled dogmas. In the dogma of the Immaculate Conception the Church had formally proclaimed its longstanding belief that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin” (10). And the theoretical possibility that she had sinned thereafter had been denied by a pronouncement of the Council of Trent:

If any one saith, that a man once justified can sin no more, nor lose grace … or, on the other hand, that he is able during his whole life, to avoid all sins, even those that are venial, except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in regard of the Blessed Virgin, let him be anathema (11).

Inasmuch as the Church regards bodily corruption as the punishment for sin, and the Blessed Virgin Mary was sinless, it could hardly have avoided reaching the conclusion that she could not have suffered corruption.

But the Pope went further: “she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body” (12). Without specifying a precise timetable, the Pope declared that her incorrupt body had been taken to heaven. More than that—the Pope declared that her soul had been reunited with her body (though he did not specify where this occurred). He noted that what happened to her is in contradistinction to what happens to the bodies even of the other just, which “only on the last day will … be joined, each to its own glorious soul” (13).

The propositions that her body has already been transported to heaven and has been rejoined with her soul were not compelled by doctrines of her incorruptibility. What support did the Pope Pius XII have for those further propositions? He acknowledged seeking it in the beliefs of the early Christians concerning Mary’s fate. The Pope stated that he asked his experts to study “with the greatest diligence all the attestations, indications and references in the common faith of the Church regarding the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven … in the most ancient cult of the Church” (14). And there was no shortage of such stories—more than 50 have survived in whole or in fragmentary form since ancient times (15). Indeed, the Pope directly took note of the traditions in his reasoning that:

From the universal agreement of the Church’s ordinary teaching authority we have a certain and firm proof, demonstrating that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven—which surely no faculty of the human mind could know by its own natural powers … is a truth that has been revealed by God. … Various testimonies, indications, and signs of this common belief of the Church are evident from remote times down through the course of the centuries (16).

However, notwithstanding the plethora of dormition narratives, the Pope chose not to cite to any of them as authority for his proclamation. A number of reasons can be advanced for the Pope’s prudence. To begin with, although the earliest written stories come from “remote times,” as the Pope said, they are really not “early,” at least by comparison with the Gospels and letters of the New Testament, or even such important documents as the Didache, which are universally accepted as having been written by people alive at the time of Christ, or the disciples of such people. Rather, there is general agreement that the earliest Dormition narratives we have in writing only date back to the late 400s A.D (17). Such a “late” dating invites the question of whether the Assumption was in fact reliably witnessed, as opposed to being a mere later invention, for if so, why was it not earlier described in Christian sources?

Related to that problem, although the customary dormition narratives have the Blessed Virgin Mary being buried in Jerusalem, in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, we have no indication in the first four centuries of a burial place for her body there. The Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, toured the Holy Land in 327-328 A.D., marking out and building churches at the site of holy places, such as the spot where Jesus was buried. Certainly she would not have overlooked a tomb of Christ’s Mother, or relics of her body, had she heard of such—and the same is true with regard to other pilgrims of the period, such as Etheria (18). The earliest indication of a tomb in Jerusalem for the Blessed Virgin Mary only dates back to the fifth century (19).

The foregoing defects are not all. The stories do not agree with one another as to key details. Two main families of narratives have been identified, the “Palm Narratives,” and the “Bethlehem-Six Books Narratives,” and there are many tales which do not fit either of these categories (20). Additional severe problems can readily be apprehended if one reads even a summary account of the purported event.

In the Palm Narratives, Mary is given a palm from the Tree of Life (and/or a book of secret wisdom) by an angel, who tells her that she is nearing her death. The Apostles are summoned and carried by angels from their widespread locations to her house in Jerusalem. John alone is entrusted by her with the palm/book. Peter gives a lengthy sermon, and at the appointed time, the onlookers are put to sleep, except for the Apostles and three virgins. The latter see Christ arrive and take Mary’s soul—in the form of an infant clothed in white—into his hands and give it to St. Michael for transport to Paradise. (This scene is a traditional one in Byzantine iconography, appearing little changed over the centuries) (21).

The Apostles carry Mary’s body to a tomb at the Mount of Olives for burial, but their way is impeded by Jewish leaders intent on destroying her body. The latter are stricken with blindness, which is cured only in the ones who repent, and an angel cuts off the hands of a man who grabs her bier (his hands are reattached upon his conversion). The Apostles wait at the tomb for several days, and are rewarded by the sight of Christ, who returns for her body, but without bringing the soul back with him. Christ bears the body to Paradise, where it is reunited with Mary’s soul, and he proceeds to take the Mary and the Apostles on a tour of Paradise and the places of punishment for the damned. The Apostles then are brought back to earth, while the Blessed Virgin Mary remains in Paradise.

Anti-Jewish elements in the Palm Narratives are greatly expanded in the Bethlehem-Six Books accounts. In particular, Jewish leaders force Mary to leave Jerusalem for Bethlehem; there she works so many miracles that these leaders ask the Roman authorities to send soldiers to apprehend her and the Apostles. She and the Apostles are miraculously transported back to Jerusalem, where the Jews attempt to burn down her house, killing many of them in the process. Eventually, the Apostles carry the still living Virgin Mary to a tomb near Gethsemane, despite being attacked again by Jews, one of whom has his arms severed by an angel (but miraculously restored through Mary’s intercession). Christ appears and takes her soul to Paradise. Her body is also transported there, but in some versions it is not reunited with her soul; thus she must await the general resurrection of the dead when body and soul are rejoined (22). The above summaries demonstrate why one scholar asserted that the narratives are “a sour mixture of credulity and prejudice” and “are barren of spiritual content” (23).

If those were not sufficient reasons to regard the dormition narratives skeptically, consider also that they treat the fate of the Blessed Virgin Mary casually and inconsistently, as noted by Dr. Shoemaker in his magisterial treatise:

(The early) accounts diverge quickly, offering various assessments of the Virgin’s return to the Garden and its eschatological significance. In some instances, Mary’s restoration to Paradise is seen as her attainment of the final reward awaiting all the just, while in other traditions, Mary’s presence in Paradise is merely representative of the intermediate state presently shared by the righteous departed, who will together receive their final reward only on the day of resurrection, at the end of time. In most cases, however, the theological importance of Mary’s presence in Paradise is rather difficult to assess, since the eschatological function of Paradise is either unclear or confused (24).

All of the stories do include the transport of Mary’s body to the Garden/Paradise, as a mark of divine favor towards Mary, but even those that mention the reunion of her body and soul do not treat that additional step as being of importance, either for her or for us. It would seem that the reason why some stories recount such a reunion is merely to establish that she was a real person at the time of her tour, with the Apostles, of the places of torment for the damned and also the places for the blessed in Paradise. In the latter regard, the dormition narratives are just undistinguished Jewish and Christian “Cosmic Tour” apocrypha regarding the afterlife, like many others written in the first few centuries A.D. (25).

For a final judgment on this matter, let us consider what Joseph Ratzinger wrote while he was still a priest-professor in Regensburg:

We face the even more insistent objection that the raising of Mary is a fact that must be witnessed and communicated, not just invented. This was behind the emphatic protest of German theology before the official proclamation of the dogma, most insistently in the famous series of articles by B. Altaner, whose entire historical erudition demonstrated that, as far as sources are concerned, there is no witness to such a doctrine before the sixth century. So it is clear that the point at issue cannot be a historical tradition of an historical fact; the affirmation is misunderstood if it is considered or presented as such (26).

In the absence of a credible dormition narrative from the early Church, is there any other source to turn to for a plausible description, at least one which can be used with benefit in meditation on the mystery of the Annunciation? I suggest that there is—in the recorded visions of the Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, a stigmatic Augustinian nun who died in 1824. Throughout her life, she had visions of the life of Christ in such detail that they run to thousands of pages, which I have summarized and analyzed elsewhere (27).

To begin with, she saw the events as occurring in Ephesus—not in Jerusalem. That is exactly what one would expect given that the Lord entrusted his Mother to John at the foot of the Cross, “and from that hour, the disciple took her into his home” (28). The tradition in the Church is very strong that John moved to Ephesus, where he exercised his ministry for many years (29). Moreover, Pope Benedict XVI and a number of his predecessors have celebrated Mass at a small house there in the countryside, where the Blessed Virgin Mary is believed to have lived (30). What then accounts for the tradition (and the majority of dormition narratives) claiming that Mary’s tomb was in Jerusalem? According to Sister Emmerich’s visions, a tomb in Jerusalem was in fact prepared for Mary when she took ill on a trip to Jerusalem a few years before she died, but it was not used because she recovered and returned to Ephesus.

Now let us consider the supposed gathering of Apostles to bid Mary farewell. It does not seem unlikely that, as set forth in the dormition narratives and by Sister Emmerich, the Blessed Virgin was given a premonition of her impending demise—after all, many saints have had as much—or that she should wish to impart a final blessing to her Son’s closest companions. It also does not seem unlikely that they were supernaturally summoned to her at that time. (Compare St. Paul’s vision of a man from Macedonia imploring him to come there, and also an angel of the Lord directing Philip to chase after an Ethiopian on the road to Gaza) (31). And, positing a gathering of the Apostles at Mary’s Assumption would provide a solution to a mystery especially emphasized by Dr. Shoemaker:

Once we reach the late fifth and sixth centuries … there was suddenly an efflorescence of diverse traditions, both narrative and liturgical, all celebrating the Virgin’s departure from this world. … Only a very few themes are common to all (or almost all) the earliest narratives. … The nature of the earliest traditions themselves strongly suggests the existence of multiple ‘origins,’ which together have given rise to the complex diversity of the traditions as we now find them. The progressive development of each narrative type out of another, which it ultimately displaces, extending back to a single origin, seems comparatively unlikely (32).

What more logical way to account for diverse narratives, not derived one from another, than to have the Apostles as multiple witnesses, with them scattering to different territories after her death, carrying with them memories of the event?

What makes the deathbed scene problematic in the dormition narratives is not the gathering of the Apostles as such, but the detail that they were miraculously transported to Mary through the clouds by angels. Of course that could be just a pious embellishment of ordinary journeys (and compare how Philip was snatched away by the Spirit of the Lord after he had baptized the Ethiopian eunuch) (33), but Sister Emmerich’s account is more believable in that she saw no angelic airlift. Further, she saw no palm or secret book being handed to Mary by an angel, or passed on to St. John.

According to Sister Emmerich, not all the Apostles were present. In particular, St. James was already dead (34), St. Paul was not summoned, and St. Thomas did not arrive on time—all contrary to the traditional narratives. She saw each of the Apostles kneel in turn for Mary’s blessing, after which Peter anointed Mary and celebrated Mass in her small house. Sister Emmerich saw that after Mary’s body was prepared by the women, the Apostles carried it to a burial place prepared for it in a little grotto at the end of the outdoors Way of the Cross which she had frequently walked.

In the Palm and the Bethlehem-Six Books dormition narratives, Our Lady’s soulless body was borne aloft by angels after lying in a tomb for a number of days; in Paradise it was reunited with her soul at that time (or it rested there, awaiting reunification at the general resurrection). What Sister Emmerich saw in her visions was very different:

I saw a broad pathway of light descend from heaven and rest upon the tomb. In it were circles of glory full of angels, in the midst of whom the Resplendent soul of the Blessed Virgin came floating down. Before her went her Divine Son, the marks of His Wounds flashing with light. … These apparitions, becoming more and more distinct as they approached nearer, floated over the grotto, and another pathway of light issued from it and arose to the heavenly Jerusalem. The blessed soul of Mary, floating before Jesus, penetrated through the rock and into the tomb, out of which she again arose radiant with light in her glorified body and, escorted by the entire multitude of celestial spirits, returned in triumph to the heavenly Jerusalem (35).

Sister Emmerich saw no transportation of Apostles to the heavenly realm, or “cosmic tour” there for them. However, the Apostles received verification of Our Lady’s Assumption the following day, when St. Thomas finally arrived at Mary’s house from India. Upon being told that Mary had already been buried, he requested and was granted the privilege of having her tomb opened so that he could pay his last respects. When the tomb was opened, her shroud was discovered to be empty, and the others recalled a train of light they had seen in the sky the night before. They thus understood that her body had been taken up to heaven.

What might be said, pro or con, about Blessed Emmerich’s account? Obviously, it gains in credibility from the fact that it completely lacks the elements which comprise almost all of the verbiage of the dormition accounts, viz., polemics against and haranguing of Jews, gnostic nonsense about a palm from the tree of life and a book of secret wisdom, and an imaginary cosmic tour.

The question must be raised: could she have drawn her account, consciously or subconsciously from the dormition narratives or other apocryphal tales? In studying her visions in general, and comparing their details with the apocrypha, I had no difficulty in reaching the firm conclusion that her visions—accurate or not—were not rehashing or pastiches of material already in the public domain.

With regard specifically to her account of the Assumption, there are three issues to consider. Dr. Shoemaker has noted that there is an atypical “late apostle tradition,” in which a late arriving apostle, usually Thomas, demands to have the tomb opened, and thereby receives proof that the Blessed Virgin Mary has been taken to heaven. This tradition is found in various sources, including two which Dr. Shoemaker dates to the period of 550 to 750 A.D.: a Coptic dormition narrative falsely attributed to Evodius (the first bishop of Antioch after St. Peter) (36); and the so-called Euthymiac History (Euthymius was an abbot in Palestine, d. 473 A.D.), which asserts that Juvenal told of this event during the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) (37).

The reason that I do not believe that Sister Emmerich was aware of this tradition is that by the time she lived (1774-1824) it had long been embellished with a strong motif absent from her vision. That motif was the miraculous gift by the Virgin Mary of her girdle—she or an angel dropped it from heaven for Thomas as a further proof that she had been raised. The miraculous relic, which purportedly exists today in a Jacobite Syriac Church in Syria (38), became enshrined in the popular fancy, including, in the 13th century, in Jacobus de Voragine’s widely popular collection of apocryphal tales, The Golden Legend—Readings on the Saints (39). It also was featured in mystery plays (40), and the scene became a favorite for Italian painters; the Madonna della Cintola by Benozzo Gozzoli (circa 1450) is particularly well known (41). Given the popularity of this motif, and the fact that Sister Emmerich’s vision accorded with the late Apostle tradition, I think it unlikely that she would have omitted this miraculous feature of that tradition if the sources of her account of the Assumption had been the apocrypha.

The other two issues are her setting of the scene in Ephesus rather than Jerusalem, and her vision of the reunion of Mary’s body and soul here on earth—following an initial ascent of her soul to heaven and return to earth—as opposed to having her soulless body transported to heaven. Her visions are flatly contrary to the Golden Legend and the mystery plays on the former point, and to the Palm and the Bethlehem-Six Books dormition narratives on both points. I suggest that her visions gain in credibility because they cannot be traced to any likely source. In the last analysis, however, while the visions of the Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, in contrast to the dormition narratives, offer a pious and not inherently dubious account of the events at the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we are left without the comfort of an acceptable historical record for the Assumption.

Part Two

And so we return to the question of whether the Assumption really occurred. The lack of a historical record in no wise disturbed then-Professor Ratzinger’s faith in the dogma of the Assumption, for he arrived at its correctness through a process of reasoning based on the unique graces given to the Mother of God.

The text of the Bull of 1950 … does not speak of Mary’s resurrectio (anastasis), but of her assumptio ad coelestem gloriam—not of “resurrection”, but of the “assumption” of the body and soul into heavenly glory. In this way it clearly defines the content of the article of faith as a theological, not an historical, affirmation.

… To clarify the matter, one would have to pay attention to the dogma’s historical development and the factors in its formulation. This would show that the decisive driving force behind the dogma was veneration for Mary, that the dogma, so to speak, owes its origin, impetus, and goal more to an act of homage than to its content. This also becomes clear in the text of the dogmatic proclamation, where it is said that the dogma was promulgated for the honor of the Son, for the glorification of the mother, and for the joy of the entire Church.

… Every veneration involves the predicate Sanctus (Sancta) and has as its presupposition life with the Lord; it only has meaning if the object of veneration is alive and has attained that goal. To that extent one could say that the dogma of the Assumption is simply the highest degree of canonization, in which the predicate “saint” is recognized in the most strict sense, i.e., being wholly and undividedly in eschatological fulfillment.

… Here also we see the connection with the Immaculate Conception. It can perhaps be paraphrased like this: where the totality of grace is, there is the totality of salvation. … We are mortal due to the usurped autarchy of a determination to remain within ourselves, which proves to be a deception. Death, … the collapse of autarchy is not merely a somatic but a human phenomenon of all-embracing profundity. Nevertheless, where the innate propensity to autarchy is totally lacking, where there is the pure self-disposition of the one who does not rely upon himself (= grace), death is absent, even if the somatic end is present. Instead, the whole human being enters salvation, because as a whole, undiminished, he stands eternally in God’s life-giving memory that preserves him as himself in his own life.

… We said that whoever may be glorified and praised together with God’s name is alive. We added that in the case of Mary and in her case alone (as far as we know) it applies in a definitive, unconditional way, because she stands for the Church itself, for its definitive state of salvation, which is no longer a promise awaiting fulfillment but a fact (42).

There is a great deal encompassed and compressed in those passages. The future pope did not deny (while not conceding) that Mary had died in the sense which all human beings die, i.e., their bodily processes cease (the somatic end). However, according to him, she had been, since her Immaculate Conception, and remained, alive in God. How was she different, then, from the saints we venerate? While our veneration of the saints shows our belief that they too are alive in God, he did not argue contrary to the Apostolic Constitution either that they too have been embodied in heaven, or that she, like them, exists there only in spirit. Rather, he concluded that through the graces she had received, she enjoyed a greater degree of realization of this divine life than they did, in being “corpore et anima” “wholly and undividedly in eschatological fulfillment.”

While I would not for a moment question the explanation of the future Pope as to the theological basis for reaching the dogmatic definition of the Assumption, I am not prepared to give up so easily in trying to establish the facticity of the Assumption. To that end, I suggest that we ask the question, Apart from paying Mary the homage due her, why does the dogma of the Assumption matter?

Pope Pius XII professed a hope that the dogma would prove relevant for ordinary Christians: “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 (43). Granted, the Church has rightly expressed its concern that “the Christian … often refrains from thinking about his destiny after his death” (44). However, given the undeniable fact of Christ’s resurrection, and the letters of St. Paul repeatedly expressing its significance as a foretaste of our own bodily resurrection at the Last Judgment (45), I suggest that the relevance of the dogma is not in reminding Christians that one day we too will be raised (to our everlasting glory or to our shame). The relevance which I see—and the reason for our believing the dogma of the Assumption (apart from loyalty to the Magisterium)—lies in the doctrine that she is the Queen of Heaven and Earth.

While we pray to saints in heaven for their intercession with the Lord, we regard them as intrinsically less powerful than Mary—even apart from the suggestion made by some popes that all graces flow from Christ through Mary (46). Her special standing is reflected in her title as “Queen.” It is unclear when the timeline started for recognition of her in that capacity, but Pope Pius XII noted that: “art … has since the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) portrayed Mary as Queen and Empress seated upon a royal throne adorned with royal insignia, crowned with the royal diadem” (47).

In part, Mary’s queenship is conceptually based on the vision in the Book of Revelation 12:1: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” The whole context in which this verse is set makes it most difficult to interpret—even as to who the “woman” was meant to be. Some of the earliest Church commentators expressed the view that she was the Church itself (48); and even today the suggestion is made by commentators that she was Zion or Israel (49). However, the Church came to identify the woman as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it still does today. See, for example, this passage from Pope John Paul II’s Holy Thursday letter, Behold Your Mother:

Together with John, the Apostle and Evangelist, we turn the gaze of our soul towards that “woman clothed with the sun,” who appears on the eschatological horizon of the Church and the world in the Book of Revelation (cf. 12:1ff.) (50).

In Munificentissimus Deus, the Pope stated that Mary, “as Queen … sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of Ages,” and he quoted with approval the insight of St. Bonaventure that “her blessedness would not have been complete unless she were there as a person. The soul is not a person, but the soul, joined to the body, is a person” (51). The Pope focused on Mary’s queenship in an encyclical he issued four years later, Ad Caeli Reginam. In it, he proclaimed the Queenship of Mary, and instituted the liturgical feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen, explaining the basis for her title with these arguments among others:

As We have already mentioned, Venerable Brothers, according to ancient tradition and the sacred liturgy the main principle on which the royal dignity of Mary rests is without doubt her Divine Motherhood. … It is easily concluded that she is a Queen, since she bore a son who, at the very moment of His conception, because of the hypostatic union of the human nature with the Word, was also as man King and Lord of all things. So with complete justice St. John Damascene could write: “When she became Mother of the Creator, she truly became Queen of every creature.” …

But the Blessed Virgin Mary should be called Queen, not only because of her Divine Motherhood, but also because God has willed her to have an exceptional role in the work of our eternal salvation. …

“With a heart that is truly a mother’s,” to quote again … (Pope) Pius IX, “does she approach the problem of our salvation, and is solicitous for the whole human race; made Queen of heaven and earth by the Lord, … she intercedes powerfully for us with a mother’s prayers, obtains what she seeks, and cannot be refused.” On this point … (Pope) Leo XIII has said that an “almost immeasurable” power has been given Mary in the distribution of graces (52).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, on Mary’s current roles:

Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix (53).

Pope John Paul II saw Mary active in yet another way, in our world today:

It is not difficult to recognize in her the same figure who, at the beginning of human history, after original sin, was foretold as the Mother of the Redeemer (cf. Gen 3:15). In the Book of Revelation we see her, on the one hand, as the exalted woman in the midst of visible creation, and on the other, as the one who continues to take part in the spiritual battle for the victory of good over evil. This is the combat waged by the Church in union with the Mother of God, her “model,” “against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness,” as we read in the Letter to the Ephesians (6:12) (54).

Advocate, Mediatrix, Spiritual Warrior—it is impossible to imagine how Mary could play the vital roles the Church credits her with if she were only a disembodied soul. And it is also impossible to suppose that her Son would ask her to do so. I suggest that her role as Queen of Heaven and Earth requires that she be in the state which Father Ratzinger referred to as “eschatological fulfillment,” through her Assumption body and soul into heaven. Which brings us to one final issue. Just as the proof of the pudding “lies in the eating,” so the proof of the actuality of Mary’s Assumption lies in whether she has “delivered the goods” as Queen. Has she been demonstrably alive and responsive to the prayers of her children?

In this regard, I would point not just to answered petitions to her—including one for the deliverance of western Europe from Moslem invaders in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto (55)—but more particularly to evidence of her motherly interventions in person. Over the centuries, a number of people have reported that she—appearing to be very much alive, and not a ghost—has visited them. Did a camera record those scenes? No—but the objective proof lies in the miracles which have occurred in connection with such visitations. Among the better known are those: to an Indian in Mexico City, where she left a miraculous portrait of herself on his outer garment; to a nun in Paris, instructing her to promulgate the so-called “Miraculous Medal”; to a peasant girl at Lourdes, France, where she directed the digging of a fountain to provide healing waters; and to children at Fatima, Portugal, where she foretold the miraculous dancing of the sun witnessed by tens of thousands (56). And, some would add, to children in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where numerous miracles are reported to have occurred during her extended visitation (57).

In summary, we have no need of a written record because we have experiential proof that the Blessed Virgin Mary was indeed “assumed” body and soul into heaven, from her performance of her role as Queen of Heaven and Earth. Truly, there is reason for all generations to call her blessed!


(1) Munificentissimus Deus, §44 (1950) (hereinafter in notes MD). This definition was reaffirmed in section 59 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, a Vatican Council II document promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1964. Magisterial documents are available at the Vatican’s website unless otherwise indicated herein ( For a good general description of the development of the dogma, see Joseph Duhr, The Glorious Assumption of the Mother of God (P.J. Kenedy and Sons 1950).

(2) See generally the Agreed Statement of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission: “One powerful impulse for Reformation in the early 16th century was a widespread reaction against devotional practices which approached Mary as a mediatrix alongside Christ or sometimes even in his place.” Origins, v.35, 602 et. seq., §44 (February 2, 2004). Recently, there have been indications that Protestants are reevaluating some of their views regarding Mary. See, e.g., Timothy George, Evangelicals and the Mother of God, First Things, No. 170, 20 et seq. (Feb. 2007).

(3) For Protestant reactions at the time to the proclamation, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries, 204-05, 210-11 (Yale U. Press 1996). Typical current attacks on the dogma can be found at numerous Web sites, such as, notes/christian_worship/assumption_virgin_mary.html, and at The Anglican position has softened somewhat; while the Anglican Communion does not subscribe the Assumption as such, the recent Agreed Statement made this concession to Catholics: “we can affirm together the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory as consonant with Scripture.” Agreed Statement §58 (emphasis added).

(4) The Mystery of the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven also is without explicit support in the Gospels, but at least Revelation 12:1 can be read to refer to her. See infra at 11-12.

(5) Acts 1:6-12; Lk 24:50-53.

(6) MD §§ 17, 20, 21, 35, 40.

(7) The Latin verb ‘dormire’ means ‘to sleep.’ Compare St. Paul’s description of those who die before the Second Coming as having “fallen asleep” in Christ (1 Thess. 4:13-16). The Eastern Orthodox churches also teach belief in the assumption, which they refer to as the “dormition.” See, e.g., the Web site of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, for a description of the annual Feast of the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. special_listen_share/dormition/learn/. As to the Russian Orthodox, see, e.g., pontifical_councils/chrstuni/card-kasper-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20040826_ homily-Kazan_en.html.

(8) The earliest Hebrews believed that the soul went to the underworld, where it merely had a physical presence, like a “shade” in the Greek Hades. At a later stage, Jews, and then Christians, came to believe that the souls of the dead were held in a sort of suspense, awaiting the general resurrection of the dead, when the virtuous would be rewarded and the evil punished. This gave way, at least among Christians, to a belief in an instantaneous individual (particular) judgment—with the bodily resurrection still deferred to the Last Judgment. As to this eschatalogical development, see generally, Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead—Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (Brill 1998) (hereinafter in notes Fate of the Dead). The immediate reward or punishment of souls after death was declared by the Council of Florence in 1439. See Council of Florence and Council of Basel, available at

(9) MD §§14, 5.

(10) Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

(11) Council of Trent, 6th Sess., Canon XXIII, available at

(12) MD §5.

(13) MD §4.

(14) Pope Pius XII, Homily on the Assumption (Oct. 30, 1950) (St. Paul Editions 1950).

(15) Mary Clayton, The Apocryphal Gospels of Mary in Anglo-Saxon England 25 (Cambridge U. Press 1998).

(16) MD §§ 12-13. (Emphasis added.)

(17) See, e.g., Stephen J. Shoemaker, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, 26 (Oxford U. Press 2002) (hereinafter Ancient Traditions).

(18) See Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex—The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, 86 (Alfred A. Knopf 1976) (hereinafter in notes Myth and Cult). Pope Pius XII noted as a fact in support of the Assumption that the Church had never claimed to have a bodily relic of the Blessed Virgin Mary. MD §33.

(19) Ancient Traditions, 98-107.

(20) Shoemaker’s Ancient Traditions is an exhaustive survey and analysis of all the narratives. The earliest Palm Narratives consist of Syriac fragments referred to as the Obsequies of the Holy Virgin, which scholars fill out using a later, complete Ethiopic text, titled Liber Requiei; the Latin Transitus Mariae (the account of St. John the Theologian), belongs to this group. The earliest account in the Bethlehem tradition is the Syriac Six Books.

(21) Compare, for example, the 15th-century “Heavenly Blue Dormition” icon (, with a modern icon used by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America to illustrate its description of the Feast of the Dormition, celebrated on August 15th each year ( learn_share/dormition/learn/).

(22) The reader who wishes to study the individual narratives can find them in many sources, especially the appendices in Ancient Traditions, but also in sections of Montague Rhodes James’ The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1953 ed.), and Henri Daniel-Rops’ The Book of Mary (Hawthorn Books 1960). Some versions are available online at Professor Shoemaker’s Web site,; also at schaff/anf08.toc.html.

(23) Myth and Cult, 86.

(24) Ancient Traditions, 179.

(25) That genre of stories, including the dormition narratives, is treated extensively in Fate of the Dead, 332-62.

(26) Joseph Ratzinger, Daughter Zion, 72 (lectures given in 1975, published by Ignatius Press in 1983).

(27) Hurd Baruch, Light on Light: Illuminations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the Mystical Visions of the Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich, 252-55 (Maxkol Communications 2004). The Annunciation visions themselves can be found in Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Life of Jesus Christ and Biblical Revelations, v.4, 458-472 (TAN Books and Publishers 1986), also in her Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 346-383 (TAN Books and Publishers 1954).

(28) Jn 19:27.

(29) See, e.g., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v.3, 885 (Doubleday 1992).

(30) See Where Mary is Believed to Have Lived, and Papal Homily at Marian House in Ephesus, available at

(31) Acts 16:9-10, and 8:26-29.

(32) Ancient Traditions, 1-5.

(33) Acts 8:38-39.

(34) Acts 12:1-2.

(35) Emmerich, op. cit. supra n.27, at 469-70 (Life of Christ), and at 377 (Life of B.V.M.).

(36) Ancient Traditions, 57-63.

(37) Id 67-69.

(38) See the Web site for Manarcaud St. Mary’s Jacobite Syrian Church, at ManarcadChurch.htm, which even has a picture of the relic. It claims that Mary’s girdle was transferred from India to Syria in 394 A.D., together with the coffin of St. Thomas, citing a Syriac source for its claim. Dr. Shoemaker was kind enough to look into this and advise me that the Syriac source, the Chronicles of Edessa, only note the transfer of the coffin—failing to mention the girdle, a clear strike against its authenticity.

(39) Vol.2, 77-97 (Princeton U. Press 1993). He was an archbishop of Genoa.

(40) See The Weavers’ Play: The Assumption of the Virgin, performed at York, England in the 1500s, available at; Margaret Mary Raftery, Devils, Detractors and Dogma: The Dormition and Assumption of Our Lady in the Brussels Play “Die Sevenste Bliscap van Onser Vrouwen”, available at

(41) A reproduction of the Madonna della Cintola appears at

(42) Ratzinger, op. cit. supra n.26 at 72-73, 74, 78-79 (emphasis added, except for Latin and Greek words).

(43) MD §42. Also, Pope Benedict XVI has said: “This mystery reminds us that our definitive homeland is not here on earth, and that our longing for fulfillment finds complete satisfaction only in eternal happiness.” (Address at general audience, August 16, 2006.)

(44) The Church has warned catechists not to neglect teaching about life everlasting, including these specific doctrines: 1. The Church believes (cf. the Creed) in the resurrection of the dead; 2. The Church understands this resurrection as referring to the whole person; for the elect it is nothing other than the extension to human beings of the resurrection of Christ itself; 3. The Church affirms that a spiritual element survives and subsists after death, an element endowed with consciousness and will, so that the “human self” subsists. To designate this element, the Church uses the word “soul,” the accepted term in the usage of Scripture and Tradition; … 6. In teaching her doctrine about man’s destiny after death, the Church excludes any explanation that would deprive the assumption of the Virgin Mary of its unique meaning, namely the fact that the bodily glorification of the Virgin is an anticipation of the glorification that is the destiny of all the other elect. See Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter on Certain Questions Concerning Eschatology (July 21, 1979), available at retrieve_ full.cfm?RecNum=4382.

(45) E.g., Rom 8:11.

(46) See, e.g., Leo XIII, Encyclical Octobri Mense §4 (On the Rosary) (1891): “by the will of God, Mary is the intermediary through whom is distributed unto us this immense treasury of mercies gathered by God. … No man goeth to Christ but by His Mother.” Reprinted in Carlen, The Papal Encyclicals 1878-1903, 271 (Pierian Press 1990).

(47) Papal encyclical, Ad Caeli Reginam §32 (1954). (Emphasis added.)

(48) See, e.g., writings of Hippolytus, Methodius and Tyconius, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, N.T. vol. xii, 173-76 (InterVarsity Press 2005).

(49) See, e.g., J. Massyngberde Ford, The Anchor Bible: Revelation 195 (Doubleday 1975).

(50) Letter of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II to Priests for Holy Thursday 1988, §7. (Emphasis in original.)

(51) MD §§ 40, 32. (Emphasis added.)

(52) Ad Caeli Reginam §§34-36, 42 (1954). (Emphasis added.) Similarly see Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris Mater, §41 (1987): “The glory of serving does not cease to be her royal exaltation: Assumed into heaven, she does not cease her saving service, which expresses her maternal mediation ‘until the eternal fulfillment of the elect.'” It was exactly Mary’s role as mediatrix which the Anglicans refused to accept in the Agreed Statement. For a less temperate Protestant reaction, see, e.g., Myth and Cult at 117: “It would be difficult to concoct a greater perversion of the Sermon on the Mount than the sovereignty of Mary and its cult.”

(53) Catechism of the Catholic Church §969 (Urbi and Orbi Communications 1994). As to Mary’s role as “Mediatrix” of graces, see especially the encyclical of Pope Leo XII, Octobri mense (1801) (“Mary is the intermediary through whom is distributed unto us this immense treasure of mercies gathered by God”; “no man goeth to Christ but by His Mother”.), and an article by William G. Most, Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces (available at teachings/marya4.htm).

(54) Pope John Paul II, op. cit. supra n.50 at §7. (Emphasis in original.)

(55) See, e.g., Mary and the Moslems, available at

(56) See, e.g., John J. Delaney, A Woman Clothed With the Sun (Doubleday Image Books 1961).

(57) See, e.g., Sister Emmanuel, Medjugorje, Triumph of the Heart! (Grafotisak, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1990s rev. ed.).