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Mary’s Death and Bodily Assumption

Updated: May 29, 2020

On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of the Blessed Mother of God into heaven in the following words:

Wherefore, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God Who has lavished His special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by Our own authority, We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that 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)

Meaning and Scope of the Definition

1. We define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: In the definition of the Immaculate Conception of Our Blessed Mother, Pope Pius IX used a somewhat different formula.

(2) The formula used by Pope Pius XII in the definition of the Assumption is, however, similar to that used by the Fathers of the Vatican Council in their definition of Papal Infallibility. (3) By the terms revealed dogma is meant that the Assumption of Mary body and soul into heavenly glory is a fact contained within the deposit of revelation given to us by God and is now solemnly proposed by the Pope to be believed as such by all the faithful.

2. Having completed the course of her earthly life: Due to the dispute over the fact of Our Blessed Lady’s death, the question of the precise scope of the doctrine of the Assumption was likewise a matter of dispute among theologians prior to November 1, 1950. Some maintained that the object of this privilege is the glorious resurrection of the Blessed Virgin, presupposing, therefore, the fact of her death. (4) This opinion was based upon the reasoning that in theological investigation we must not separate those truths which are inseparable in Tradition, the Liturgy, and the pious belief of the faithful. This opinion took for granted that the death, glorious resurrection, and bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin were taught as inseparable truths in Tradition and were always believed to be such by the faithful. Other theologians, on the contrary, maintained that the doctrine of the Assumption has within its scope only the glorious Assumption of Mary, body and soul into heaven, whether she died or not. (5)

The fact of Mary’s death and subsequent resurrection is uncertain. We cannot say, therefore, that they are included within the scope of the definition of Pope Pius XII. (6) For a Pope defines only what is certain. And should it be established later beyond shadow of doubt that Mary actually died and subsequently rose again before her sacred body saw corruption, this new discovery would have no bearing whatever upon the scope of the definition in the Munificentissimus Deus. For that alone is within the scope of a definition which the Holy Father or an Ecumenical Council intends to define at the moment of definition. And, by the same reasoning, those who maintain that Mary did not die cannot say that Pope Pius XII defined that Mary was assumed into heavenly glory without having previously died and risen again. The fact alone of her Assumption, body and soul, into heaven is now of faith by virtue of this Constitution, and not her death, resurrection, or bodily immortality.

A brief glance at the history of the doctrine of the death and insurrection of Mary and at the theological arguments adduced in support of them should serve to justify the opinion just stated.

In the first three centuries there are absolutely no references in the authentic works of the Fathers or ecclesiastical writers to the death or bodily immortality of Mary. Nor is there any mention of a tomb of Mary in the first centuries of Christianity. The veneration of the tomb of the Blessed Virgin at Jerusalem began about the middle of the fifth century; and even here there is no agreement as to whether its locality was in the Garden of Olives or in the Valley of Josaphat. Nor is any mention made in the Acts of the Council of Ephesus (431) of the fact that the Council, convened to defend the Divine Maternity of the Mother of God, is being held in the very city selected by God for her final resting place. Only after the Council did the tradition begin which placed her tomb in that city.

The earliest known (non-Apocryphal) mention concerning the end of Mary’s life appears in the writings of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia, the ancient Salamina, in the isle of Cyprus. Born in Palestine, we may assume that he was well aware of the traditions there. Yet we find these words in his Panarion or Medicine Chest (of remedies for all heresies), written in c. 377: “Whether she died or was buried we know not.” (7) Speaking of the cautious language used by St. Epiphanius, Father Roschini says:

To understand his words fully we must remember that he was conscious, when writing, of two heresies which were then living and dangerous: that of the Antidicomarianites, and that of the Collyridians. The former denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, the latter, erring in the opposite direction, maintained that divine worship should be given to her. To assert that Our Lady died was to give a handle to the one heresy (for it was to suggest that the body of Mary was subject to the corruption of the tomb, and thus minimize her prerogatives); to assert that she did not die was to encourage the other. (8)

And with the exception of a so-called contemporary of Epiphanius, Timothy of Jerusalem, who said: “Wherefore the Virgin is immortal up to now, because He who dwelt in her took her to the regions of the Ascension,” no early writer ever doubted the fact of her death. They did not, however, examine the question; they merely took the fact of her death for granted.

Apparently influenced by the apocryphal Transitus writings of the fifth to the seventh centuries, later Fathers and Church writers likewise spoke of the death of Mary as a fact taken for granted. For all men, including Christ, died: therefore, Mary, too. Like their predecessors, they did not consider ex professo the theological arguments for or against.

St. Isidore of Seville (d.636) appears to be the first to cast some doubt upon the fact of Mary’s death. Obviously ignoring the Apocrypha, he said of the death of Mary: “. . . nowhere does one read of her death. Although, as some say, her sepulcher may be found in the valley of Josaphat.” (10) Tusaredo, a Bishop in the Asturias province of Spain in the eighth century, wrote: “Of the glorious Mary, no history teaches that she suffered martyrdom or any other kind of death.” (11) Although St. Andrew of Crete (d. 720) generally introduced much theological argumentation into his writings, he states, with very little argumentation, that Mary died because her Son died. (12) The same is true of a similar teaching of St. John Damascene (d. 749). (13) And about one hundred years later, Theodore Abou-Kurra (d. c. 820) likened the death of Mary to the sleep of Adam in the Garden when God formed Eve from one of his ribs. (14) This, obviously, was not a true death.

All the great Scholastics of the thirteenth century taught that Mary died. The principal reason for their so teaching was obviously the fact that they denied the Immaculate Conception in the sense in which it was defined by Pope Pius IX. (15) Thus we read in the writings of St. Bonaventure: “If the Blessed Virgin was free from original sin, she was also exempt from the necessity of dying; therefore, either her death was an injustice or she died for the salvation of the human race. But the former supposition is blasphemous, implying that God is not just; and the latter, too, is a blasphemy against Christ for it implies that His Redemption is insufficient. Both are therefore erroneous and impossible. Therefore Our Blessed Lady was subject to original sin.” (16)

After the definition of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 the question of whether or not Our Blessed Lady died gradually became a subject of wide theological discussion and is today one of the most widely disputed Mariological questions. The impetus to further study out of which arose the present state of dispute was given by the writings of Dominic Arnaldi of Genoa who died in the year 1895. Arnaldi defended the thesis that Our Blessed Lady’s complete freedom from sin demanded her freedom from the penalty of death. (17)

Today we have diametrically opposed views on the death of Mary supported by outstanding Mariologists. The most outspoken proponents of the thesis that Mary did not die are Roschini and Gallus. (18) Father Freithoff, O.P., expressed the view that “the death of Mary is not certain, either historically or from revelation.” (19) On the other hand, Father C. Balic, O.F.M., maintains that “the terminus a quo of the Assumption is the death of Our Lady, the terminus ad quem is the glorification of her body in heaven. The object of the Assumption in recto is the glorification of the living body, and ex obliquo her death and resurrection.” (20) Father J. F. Bonnefoy, O.F.M., goes so far as to state that “the death of the Most Holy Virgin may be considered as historically proved and explicitly revealed: as such (explicitly revealed) it may be the subject of a dogmatic definition: there is no reason why it should not be.” (21) And the Mariological Week held at Salamanca (Spain) in 1949, which was devoted exclusively to the question of the death of Mary, sent a petition to the Holy See requesting the definition “… of the bodily Assumption of the B. V. Mary into heaven, after death…” (22) It is little wonder, then, that Cardinal Pizzardo, the Secretary of the Congregation of the Holy Office, in an address on the occasion of the First International Mariological Congress in Rome (1950) referred to the question of the end of the life of the Blessed Virgin as a very obscure problem, and one which demands further study and clarification by theologians. (23)

All theologians agree, of course, that Mary was not subject to death as a penalty for sin. However, God willed that “she die for higher reasons pertaining to her relationship with Christ and the part she was to play in the work of Redemption.” (24) The reasons brought forth by those who maintain that Our Blessed Mother actually died may be reduced to the following two:

a) Conformity to Christ: The condition of the Mother should not be better than that of her divine Son. The Verbum willingly assumed passible and mortal flesh and came into the world “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” (25) in order that, through it, He might redeem us from our sins. As the Mother of the passible and mortal Redeemer from whom He took His mortal flesh, Mary, too, had to be passible and mortal. She did not, however, voluntarily assume mortal flesh as did her divine Son as something from which she was exempt. This was God’s will for her although she died not as a penalty for sin but pro conditione carnis.

This argument, however, might justly be called a post factum argument, proposed to explain the fact of Mary’s death after her death had been taken for granted. However, in its favor is the theological axiom: lex orandi statuit legem credendi. And until recently these words were in the Secret of the Mass for the Assumption. One may argue, however, that the Liturgy in this instance merely stated a popular belief, one which everyone took for granted in view of the fact of Christ’s death. For, the Second Council of Orange is quite explicit in its teaching that those who hold that the penalty of death (reatus poenae) is transmitted to the body without the transmission of sin or the death of the soul (reatus culpae) to all the children of Adam, do an injustice to God. (26) Hence, where there is no sin there can be no obligatory death of the body in a child of Adam. Hence, it would appear that if we are to defend the fact of Mary’s death we must look to another reason, one wherein the acceptance of death by Mary would be a voluntary act. Theologians see this in Mary’s role of Coredeemer of the human race.

b) Mary’s role of Coredeemer: Due to the teaching of the Second Council of Orange, many theologians who maintain that Mary died claim that she had a right to immortality but, like her Son, freely accepted death in order that she might coredeem the human race together with Him. Yet the objection is raised against this opinion that Mary should then have died on Calvary with Christ. For, with the death and resurrection of Christ the Redemption was completed in actu primo and, consequently, the Coredemption. This, too, goes counter to the traditionally accepted belief that Mary coredeemed us by a spiritual compassion, suffering in her soul the agony Christ suffered for us in His Body.

The Constitution Munificentissimus Deus leaves the question open. In the words of the definition death is not mentioned but only “having completed the course of her earthly life.” The question of the death of Mary is not treated as a subject bearing upon the Assumption. True, the Holy Father frequently mentions the death of the Blessed Virgin in the body of the document, but in every instance he quotes someone else. He does not give his own views on the subject. Consequently, I believe we can say with Father Roschini that “the question of Mary’s death is a matter for free discussion.” (27)

Finally, we should note here that whether Mary died or not, she was not subject to the law of death, the corruption of the grave. If she died, then she was assumed into heaven before her sacred body saw corruption. For, so long as the bodies of the just remain in the dust of the earth, they are under the dominion of death, and they sigh for the ultimate redemption of their bodies. (28)

3. Was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory: The Assumption of Our Blessed Mother was a privilege granted not to her body alone nor to her soul alone but to the person, Mary. True, we speak of the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin but this is due to the fact that there never has been any dispute over the question of her soul enjoying the beatific vision once she completed the course of her earthly life. Thus, the Holy Father said: “. . . the ever Virgin Mary . . . was assumed.”

The precise degree of glory to which Our Blessed Mother was assumed has never been defined by the Church. It is, however, certain theological teaching that her degree of grace at the first moment of her Immaculate Conception was greater than that possessed by any individual angel or man at the first moment of sanctification. This teaching is based on the law of filial piety whereby the Verbum loved His designated Mother more than any other creature. That the first influx of grace was greater than the consummated grace of any individual man is the common teaching of theologians and taught for the same reason as that given for the above opinion. And that Mary’s first influx of grace was greater in degree than the consummated grace of all men and angels together is a solidly probable opinion. (29)

Add to this the fact that the degree of sanctifying grace received by Mary at the moment of her Immaculate Conception was increased ex opere operato through the great dignity of the divine maternity and her reception of some of the sacraments, as well as ex opere operantis during every moment of her life on earth, and we find that the degree of glory to which she was assumed is beyond human comprehension and second only to that of Christ as Man. For the degree of glory enjoyed in heaven is determined by the degree of sanctifying grace with which the soul is adorned at the moment bf death.

We shall now outline and comment upon the reasons given in the Constitution Munificentissimus Deus which led the Holy Father to the definition of Mary’s Assumption into heaven. The Constitution may be divided as follows: (30)

I. The Assumptionistic Movement (31)

II. The teaching of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium;

III. Indications of our present belief found in remote testimonies;

a) The faithful have professed this faith under the leadership of their shepherds;

b) This faith is shown in temples, images, various exercises of devotion to the Blessed Virgin assumed into heaven;

c) This faith is shown in the Solemn Liturgies;

d) This faith is shown in the testimonies of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church;

e) This faith is shown in the writings of the theologians of Church.

I. The Assumptionistic Movement

Toward the beginning of the Munificentissimus Deus our Holy Father speaks of the Assumptionistic Movement within the Church in these words:

That privilege (the Assumption of Mary) has shone forth in new radiance since Our predecessor of immortal memory, Pius IX, solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the loving Mother of God’s Immaculate Conception. These two privileges are most closely bound to one another. (32) Christ overcame sin and death by His own death, and one who through Baptism has been born again in a supernatural way has conquered sin and death through the same Christ. Yet, according to the general rule, God does not will to grant to the just the full effect of the victory over death until the end of time has come. And so it is that the bodies of even the just are corrupted after death, and only on the last day will they be joined, each to its own glorious soul.

Now God has willed that the Blessed Virgin Mary should he exempted from this general rule. She, by an entirely unique privilege, completely overcame sin by her Immaculate Conception, and as a result she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body.

Thus, when it was solemnly proclaimed that Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, was from the very beginning free from the taint of original sin, the minds of the faithful were filled with a stronger hope that the day might soon come when the dogma of the Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven would also be defined by the Church’s supreme teaching authority.

Actually, it was seen that not only individual Catholics, but also those who could speak for nations or ecclesiastical provinces, and even a considerable number of the Fathers of the Vatican Council, urgently petitioned the Apostolic See to this effect. (33)

The petitions of which the Holy Father speaks above were collected and evaluated at his command (34) in two volumes edited by W Hentrich and R. de Moos and entitled: Petitiones de Assumptione corporea B. V. Mariae in coelum definienda ad Sanctam Sedem delata (35) From the year 1869 to the year 1941, resident bishops, ruling 820 sees or 73 per cent of all the Catholic sees of the world, submitted 1789 of these petitions. (36) To these petitions were added 656 titular bishops, 261 by vicars apostolic, 26 by abbots and prelates nullius, 61 by general superiors of clerical orders, 336 by minor prelates, 32,291 by priests and male religious, 50,975 by female religious, and 8,086,396 by the laity. (37)

The most significant petition was that submitted by nearly 200 bishops attending the Ecumenical Council of the Vatican in which stated:

Since, according to apostolic teaching (Rom. 5, 8; 1 Cor. 15, 24, 26, 54, 57; Hebr. 2, 14-15 and other places), that triumph which Christ wrought over Satan, the serpent of antiquity, was constituted by the three-fold victory over sin and the fruits of sin, which are concupiscence and death, its integral parts; and since according to Genesis (3,15) the Mother of God is shown as associated in a singular manner with her Son in this triumph; according to the unanimous vote of the Holy Fathers, we do not doubt that in the aforesaid oracle the same Blessed Virgin is shown as sharing in that threefold victory; and therefore in the same place it was foretold that she would be made victress over sin through her Immaculate Conception, over concupiscence through her virginal maternity, and also over death through her accelerated resurrection in the likeness of her Son. (38)

II. The Teaching of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium

“And, since we are dealing with a matter of such great moment and of such importance, we considered it opportune to ask all Our venerable brethren in the episcopate directly and authoritatively that each of them should make known to Us his mind in a formal statement.” (39)

Urged on by the petitions submitted to the Holy See requesting the definition of the Assumption, Pope Pius XII issued on May 1, 1946, a letter to the bishops of the world entitled Deiparae Virginis Mariae. Following the method of Pope Pius IX before the definition of the Immaculate Conception, (40) the Holy Father requested that the bishops answer the following questions: “Do you, Venerable Brethren, in your outstanding wisdom and prudence, judge that the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith? Do you, with your clergy and people, desire it?” (41) The following are the words of the Holy Father relative to the response of the bishops: (42)

…those whom “the Holy Ghost has placed as bishops to rule the Church of God” (43) gave an almost unanimous affirmative response to both these questions. This “outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful” (44) affirming that the bodily Assumption of God’s Mother into heaven can be defined as a dogma of faith, since it shows us the concordant faith of the Christian people which the same doctrinal authority sustains and directs, thus by itself and in an entirely certain and infallible way, manifests this privilege as a truth revealed by God and contained in that divine deposit which Christ has delivered to His Spouse to be guarded faithfully and to be taught infallibly. (45) Certainly this teaching authority of the Church, not by any merely human effort but under the protection of the Spirit of Truth, (46) and therefore absolutely without error, carried out the Commission entrusted to it, that of preserving the revealed truths pure and entire throughout every age, in such a way that it presents them undefiled, adding nothing to them and taking nothing away from them. For, as the Vatican Council teaches, “the Holy Ghost was not promised to the successors of Peter in such a way that, by His revelation, they might manifest new doctrine, but so that, by His assistance, they might guard as sacred and might faithfully propose the revelation delivered through the Apostles, or the deposit of faith.” (47) Thus, 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, as far as the heavenly glorification of the virginal body of the loving Mother of God is concerned—is a truth that has been revealed by God and consequently something that must be firmly and faithfully believed by all the children of the Church. For, as the Vatican Council asserts, “all those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written word of God or in tradition, and which are proposed by the Church, either in solemn judgment or in its ordinary and universal teaching office, as divinely revealed truths which must be believed.” (48)

In the above statement of our Holy Father the following words are of the utmost importance: “This outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful . . . shows us the concordant teaching of the Church’s ordinary doctrinal authority and the concordant faith of the Christian people which the same doctrinal authority sustains and directs, thus by itself in an entirely certain and infallible way, manifests this privilege as a truth revealed by God….”

There are two norms of Faith: the one proximate and the other remote. The proximate norm of Faith is the Magisterium of the Church and the remote norm is Sacred Scripture and the documents of Tradition. Thus, by itself, as the Holy Father says, that is, without the need of any investigation whatever into the pages of Sacred Scripture or the documents of Tradition, the almost unanimous affirmative response of the Catholic bishops of the world is certain proof that the Assumption of the Blessed Mother of God is a truth revealed to us. The living Magisterium, i.e., the bishops of the world together with the Pope, is the authentic, divinely appointed interpreter of Sacred Scripture, and only in dependence upon the Magisterium do the Fathers of the Church have any authority as witnesses to the deposit of Faith. (49)

In the passage quoted above the Holy Father very significantly pointed out the fact that the bishops of the world in communion with the Holy See arrived at their conclusion as to the definability of the Assumption not as do theologians or Scripture scholars, through mere human industry, but “under the protection of the Spirit of Truth.” For the efficient cause of their infallibility, when they teach as a group a doctrine of faith or morals in union with the Pope, is the Holy Spirit of Truth dwelling within the Church. Consequently, even before Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption, it was, objectively speaking, a truth of Divine and Catholic Faith and one to be believed as such by all the faithful.

Finally, we should note in the above-quoted words of the Holy Father relative to the response of the bishops the parenthetical remark of the Holy Father 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, as far as the glorification of the virginal body of the Mother of God is concerned—is a truth that has been revealed by God….” Quite obviously, the taking up of the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary is per se an object of sense cognition and could be known, therefore, through natural powers. But the heavenly glorification of the Blessed Virgin, included within the notion of the Assumption, embraces the supernatural beatification of her soul with its secondary effects flowing into her body together with the preternatural transformation of her body. These gifts, being super and preternatural, are not the objects of our natural senses.

III. Indications of Our Present Belief Found in Remote Testimonies

A. The Faithful have Professed this Faith Under the Leadership of Their Pastors

Christ’s faithful, through the teaching and the leadership of their pastors, have learned from the sacred books that the Virgin Mary… led a life troubled by cares, hardships, and sorrows, and that … a terribly sharp sword had pierced her heart as she stood under the cross of her divine Son, our Redeemer. In the same way, it was not difficult for them to admit that the great Mother of God, like her only begotten Son, had actually passed from this life. But this in no way prevented them from believing and from professing openly that her sacred body had never been subject to the corruption of the tomb, and that the august tabernacle of the Divine Word had never been reduced to dust and ashes. Actually, enlightened by divine grace and moved by affection for her, God’s Mother and our own sweetest Mother, they have contemplated in an ever clearer light the wonderful harmony and order of those privileges which the most provident God has lavished upon this loving associate of our Redeemer, privileges which reach such an exalted plane that, except for her, nothing created by God other than the human nature of Jesus Christ has ever reached this level. (50)

Guided by the Spirit of Truth dwelling within her, the Church—the faithful, under the teaching and leadership of their bishops—has always seen the Assumption of Our Blessed Mother into heaven as her crowning privilege implicitly contained within the complete notion of the Divine Maternity. “The Church sees it there, not as the result of a logical deduction, still less as a mere convenientia, but as one element of that miracle of miracles which God willed His Mother to be. The Church sees it with a supernatural insight imparted by the Divine Spirit Who dwells within her. The Bishops of the Austrian Empire call it a simple intuition.” (51) And it was this intuition which gave birth to such Mariological axioms as “potuit, decuit, fecit” of Scotus, (52) and the following of St. Alphonsus: “. . . when an opinion tends in any way to honor the most Blessed Virgin, when it has some foundation and is not repugnant to the faith, nor to the decrees of the Church, nor to truth, the refusal to hold it, or to oppose it because the reverse may be true, shows little devotion to the Mother of God.” (53)

The complete notion of the Divine Maternity contains within its connotation much more than the fact that Mary gave birth to the Son of God. For the Son of God is our Redeemer. She is, therefore, and has always been believed to be the Mother of God, the Redeemer, as Redeemer, making her His associate in the work of the Redemption and the Coredeemer of the human race. From these two offices, the Divine Maternity and the Coredemption, flow all the unspeakable prerogatives of soul and body with which God adorned His Mother and ours. She is the one foretold by God in the Protoevangelium who, together with her Son would crush the head of the serpent beneath her immaculate foot. (54) Immaculately pure from the first moment of her conception, she knew not the stings of concupiscence nor the slightest stain of personal moral imperfection. Virgin of Virgins, she was subject to no man nor to pain and the corruption of the flesh in conceiving and bringing forth Christ. Embellished with a degree of grace that far surpassed the combined holiness of all angels and saints together she was always believed to be the “Lily Among Thorns; Land Wholly Intact; Immaculate; Always Blessed; Free From All Contagion Of Sin; Unfading Tree; Fountain Ever Clear; The One And Only Daughter Not Of Death But Of Life; Offspring Not Of Wrath But Of Grace; Unimpaired And Ever Unimpaired; Holy And Stranger To All Stain Of Sin; More Comely Than Comeliness Itself; More Holy Than Sanctity; Alone Holy Who, Excepting God, Is Higher Than All; By Nature More Beautiful, More Graceful And More Holy Than The Cherubim And Seraphim Themselves And The Whole Hosts Of Angels.” (55)

It is little wonder, then, that the faithful under the leadership of their bishops have always believed that this “august tabernacle of the Divine Word had never been reduced to dust and ashes.” For, associated with Her Son in His complete victory over Satan, she shared with Him in His victory over the empire of Satan and, therefore, death. (56) Like Him, she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her sacred body as we do, (57) but through her anticipated resurrection in the likeness of her Son “she received the blessings of the Redemption first and in the fullest measure.” (58)

B. This Faith Is Shown in Temples, Images, Various Exercises of Piety to the Blessed Virgin Assumed into Heaven

The innumerable temples which have been dedicated to the Virgin Mary assumed into heaven clearly attest this faith. So do those sacred images, exposed therein for the veneration of the faithful, which bring this unique triumph of the Blessed Virgin before the eyes of all men. Moreover, cities, dioceses, and individual regions have been placed under the special patronage and guardianship of the Virgin Mother of God assumed into heaven. In the same way, religious institutes, with the approval of the Church, have been founded and have taken their name from this privilege. Nor can We pass over in silence the fact that in the Rosary of Mary, the recitation of which this Apostolic See so urgently recommends, there is one mystery proposed for pious meditation which, as all know, deals with the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption into heaven. (59)

C. This Faith Is Shown in the Solemn Liturgies

This belief of the sacred Pastors and of Christ’s faithful is universally manifested still more splendidly by the fact that, since ancient times, there have been both in the East and in the West solemn liturgical offices commemorating this privilege. The holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church have never failed to draw enlightenment from this fact since, as everyone knows, the sacred liturgy, “because it is the profession, subject to the supreme teaching authority within the Church, of heavenly truths, can supply proofs and testimonies of no small value for deciding a particular point of Christian doctrine.” (60)

The first remote testimony to which Pope Pius XII turns in order to indicate the fact that our present belief in the Assumption of the Blessed Mother was likewise the belief of the Church from the earliest times is the Sacred Liturgy. Again, by this procedure, our Holy Father followed the example set by his predecessors and especially that of Pope Pius IX in his argumentation relative to the definition of the Immaculate Conception. (61) For the Church prays according to her beliefs. And in the Sacred Liturgy we profess in a public and solemn manner the great truths of Faith contained within the deposit of revelation. Pope Pius XII very succinctly expressed this relationship between the Faith and the Sacred Liturgy in the words: “Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi“— “Let the rule of belief determine the rule of prayer.” (62)

The value of the existence of a feast in early times as an argument from Tradition is, therefore, obvious. The organ of divine Tradition is the living Magisterium of the Church, or the Pope and the Catholic bishops of the world in union with him. The principal means whereby that Tradition is preserved and handed down from generation to generation are the writings of the Fathers, the creeds, the practices of the Church, the monuments of Christian antiquity, and the Sacred Liturgy. And it is well to bear in mind with reference to the Liturgy that the institution of a feast in honor of one or the other prerogatives of the Blessed Mother does not mean that the belief of the Church began with its institution. The institution of the feast means that the belief of the Church has come to maturity. For the feast is but the solemn liturgical expression of a belief which has been explicit for many years, and implicitly contained in some other explicitly believed truth for centuries before that.

The feast of the Assumption began in the East as did many of the older Marian feasts. According to Father Martin Jugie, A.A., Our Blessed Mother was implicitly honored in her Assumption by the feast known as “The Memory of Mary,” the celebration of which began in the East around the fourth century. Honor was given to Mary’s Assumption through this feast, according to Jugie, because the Church intended thereby to celebrate the “birthday” of Mary, or her entrance into heaven, as was her custom in celebrating the birthday, i.e., the day of a martyr’s death and entrance into heaven. However, due to the fact that neither Sacred Scripture nor early Tradition speaks explicitly of the last days of our Blessed Mother on earth and of her Assumption into heaven, the liturgy of this feast did not mention them either. Later, when the apocryphal Transitus Mariae—in which the death and Assumption of Mary are described in detail—became popular among the faithful, the facts of her death and Assumption were inserted into the feast and the Memoria S. Mariae liturgy was changed and became the feast of the Dormitio, or the “Falling to Sleep” of the Blessed Mother. (63) Father Faller, S.J., maintains that the feast of the Assumption—or the feast of August 15—was always the same feast as theMemoria B. Virginis and was celebrated in the East from the beginning of the fifth century. (64)

Whatever may be the merits of the opinions mentioned above, the dispute is relatively unimportant theologically. The feast of the Dormitio or Koimesis—the object of which was the death, resurrection, and Assumption of the Blessed Mother—was widely established in the East by the end of the fourth century. For Emperor Maurice (582-602) decreed that it be celebrated throughout the Byzantine Empire on August 15. (65) And it is important to note that the Emperor did not establish the feast but merely fixed the date. The feast was well established before the date was fixed.

Theodore Petrensis wrote a life of the Palestinian Abbot St. Theodosius (d. 529) a little after the death of the Saint. In this biography we read that St. Theodosius performed a miracle of multiplying bread to feed the multitude that had gathered from afar for the feast celebrated in honor of Mary in die memoriae Deiparae. Theodore was an eyewitness to the miracle. His most important contribution to the history of the feast of the Assumption, however, is the fact that he refers to the Memoria Deiparae as an annual feast in the liturgical calendar of Palestine. (66) And to this testimony should be added that of St. Gregory of Tours who states that the feast was celebrated in Jerusalem in the latter part of the sixth century. (67)

There is, moreover, testimony to prove that the feast existed at an even earlier date in Syria. James of Sarug (c. 490), inspired by the occasion of the feast of August 15, wrote a poem in which he expresses the fact of the Assumption of Mary into heaven and speaks of her sacred body going forth to paradise. (68)

The earliest testimony for the existence of the feast in the West is of a later date. The reason for this may be found in the following words of Father Wuenschel, C.Ss.R.:

In the West the doctrinal development of the Assumption was retarded by several factors. The infrequent and difficult contacts with the East and a general ignorance of Greek caused the writings of the Eastern Fathers to remain a closed book to the Latins till rather late in the scholastic age, when Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1230-1298) had access to the works of the Greek witnesses, especially the homilies of St. Germanus and St. John Damascene. (69) Besides isolation from the East and ignorance of its literature, there was also a strong animus against the apocrypha in scholarly circles.