The Assumption of Our Lady


Dogma: By the Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, Pius XII on 1 November, 1950, defined the Assumption of Our Lady as a dogma of faith. (1) The essential passage was: “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 to heavenly glory.” (2) The dogma was part of a program planned by Pius XII, as he confided to Msgr. (later Cardinal) Tardini shortly after he had become Pope. It came as a climax to a movement of piety and theology centered on Our Lady, and prompted continuity and expansion of this movement. Literature on the subject had increased in the twentieth century; in the decade prior to the definition, two works—by Fr. M. Jugie, A.A. and Fr. C. Balic, O.F.M.—were conspicuous for exhaustive, scientific scholarship. Theological congresses, notably those organized by Fr. Balic in different countries and by the French Society for Marian Studies, stimulated research and reflection with a considerable corpus of writing as a result.


Due largely to Fr. Jugie’s expertise and influence, the question of Mary’s death was removed from the scope of the dogma. The idea of tracing a historical tradition from apostolic times was abandoned. It was thought better to concentrate on the whole of divine revelation so as to bring to an explicit stage what it contained implicitly. Again, though the Pope said that all the “proofs and considerations of the Holy Fathers and the theologians are based upon the Sacred Scriptures as their ultimate foundation,” (3) he appealed principally to the faith of the Church rather than any particular biblical text as the basis of the definition. A drafting committee, whose names are known, worked on Munificentissimus Deus. The proceedings were kept secret but the members were known publicly to differ as to what the biblical argument should be.


The faith of the Church had been manifest in different ways. Between 1849 and 1950, numerous petitions for the dogma arrived in Rome. They came from 113 Cardinals, 18 Patriarchs, 2,505 archbishops and bishops, 32,000 priests and men religious, 50,000 religious women, 8,000,000 lay people. On 1 May, 1946 the Pope had sent to the bishops of the world the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis, putting this question to them:


“More especially we wish to know if you, Venerable Brethren, with your learning and prudence consider that the bodily Assumption of the Immaculate Blessed Virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith and whether in addition to your own wishes this is desired by your clergy and people.” When the replies were collated, it was found that 22 residential bishops out of 1181 dissented, but only six doubted that the Assumption was revealed truth—the others questioned the opportuneness.


Figures for dissent among other categories were: Abbots and Prelates nullius, two out of fifty-nine; Vicars Apostolic, three out of 206; titular bishops, five out of 381.

The Pope interpreted the universal agreement of the “ordinary teaching authority” as a “certain and firm proof” that the Assumption is a truth that has been revealed by God. He goes on to outline “various testimonies, indications and signs of this common belief of the Church.” Sacred buildings are mentioned. The witness of the Liturgy is recalled with a reminder from the Pope that it does not “engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it.” When he passes in review the opinions of the Fathers and Doctors, he states that “they spoke of this doctrine as something already known and accepted by Christ’s faithful.”


The Pope is significantly silent on the Transitus stories. His list of prominent writers from early times does not include all who had supported the doctrine; it was rather a representative group to reflect the thought of successive ages. Suarez is the last in order of time, and he is said to be “supported by the common faith of the entire Church.”


Dealing with Scripture, the Apostolic Constitution for the reason given does not appeal directly to any one text as conclusive evidence of the truth. Fr. Jugie had in writing expressed the view that Revelation 12 on the great sign in heaven was the chief scriptural witness to the doctrine. The Pope speaks of the union between the Son and the Mother, especially during the infancy of Jesus. This union must have continued beyond the grave: “It seems impossible” to think of her bodily separated from him. Recalling the filial duty which bound the Redeemer “to honor not only his eternal Father, but also his beloved Mother,” Pius concludes, “And since it was within his power to grant her this great honor, to preserve her from the corruption of the tomb, we must believe, that he really acted in this way.”


St. Paul’s doctrine on the Savior’s victory over sin and death is, in the text, linked with the patristic teaching on the new Eve and with the “struggle with the infernal foe” foretold in the Protoevangelium, to lead to the conclusion that “the struggle which was common to the Blessed Virgin and her divine Son should be brought to a close by the glorification of her virginal body.” The Pope then shows how the Assumption is a fitting culmination of Mary’s other privileges, and returns to the central idea of the document that the Church “has expressed its belief many times over in the course of the centuries.” He adds later that the idea is “thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful.”


History: Research will continue on the origin and development of the belief in the Assumption. The Transitusfamily is being traced. We know something about the tomb of Mary and the part played by Jewish Christians in the traditions descending from the tomb, as well as the attitude of Gentile Christians towards them.


St. Epiphanius who, first among the Fathers, raised the question of Mary’s passing from this world, leaves us with an enigma. Epiphanius was dealing with heretics and may have felt inhibited. He speaks of the silence of the Scriptures, “because of the exceeding great marvel, so that the minds of men should not be perplexed,” and he keeps silence. Elsewhere he puts forward three possibilities: death and burial, death by martyrdom, “or she remained alive, since nothing is impossible with God”; and he concludes, “for her end no one knows.” Was he aware of the stories already current?


The Liturgy was to play a part in the development of doctrine. The origins of the feast are far from clear. The starting-point was Jerusalem. There was hesitancy and variation even in the name used for the feast as time passed: Dormition, Passing, Assumption. Certain facts are fixed, but evidence from the lectionaries and from homiletics has still to be sifted. The feast of the Dormition was decreed for Constantinople on 15 August by the emperor Maurice in 600; about fifty years later it was introduced in Rome and is mentioned in a papal decree of Sergius (687-701), who fixed a procession for the feast modeled on that already existing for the feast of 2 February. He did likewise for the Annunciation and the Nativity of Mary.


The homily of Theodosius, Monophysite patriarch of Alexandria (d. 566), reflects the influence of the dual Coptic celebration, the feast or memory of Mary’s death on 16 January, of her resurrection or Assumption on 9 August. He allows a delay of 206 days between the two events. (4) As to whether Our Lady’s body during this time was incorrupt or incorruptible, Theodosius is noncommittal. To justify the bodily resurrection, he argues from the divine maternity and he sees Mary’s constant intercession on behalf of all as a direct result of her final glory.


More explicit on the fact and more comprehensive in theology is the homily of Theoteknos of Livias, first published by Fr. Wenger in 1955. (5) Livias was a bishopric on the left bank of the Jordan, and Theoteknos ruled it between 550 and 650. He speaks of the feast as the Assumption (Analepsis), not Dormition (Koimesis). “If the God-bearing body of the saint has known death,” he says, “it has not, nevertheless, suffered corruption; it has been preserved from corruption and kept free from stain and it has been raised to heaven with her pure, spotless soul by the holy angels and powers.” “It was fitting,” he says later, “that the most-holy body of Mary, God-bearing body, receptacle of God, divinised, incorruptible, illuminated by divine grace and full of glory… should be entrusted to the earth for a little while and raised up to heaven in glory, with her soul pleasing to God.” (6)


The homily of Modestus of Jerusalem, even if genuine, can scarcely be prior to that of Theoteknos. Modestus is quoted by Pius XII as “a very ancient writer.” John of Thessalonica reproduces a Transitus, but he truncated his source in the epilogue and forfeited its essential value. By the eighth century, the Assumption was fully accepted in the East, taught by St. Germanus of Constantinople, Cosmas Vestitor and St. John of Damascus.


Doctrinal progress in the West was to be irregular. The feast, introduced from the East, commemorated the dies natalis, but tended towards belief in the bodily Assumption. The liturgical prayer, Veneranda, in the Sacramentary sent by Pope Adrian to Charlemagne, spoke of the Mother of God who “suffered temporal death, but nevertheless could not be held back by the bonds of death, she who brought forth your Son, Our Lord, incarnate from herself.” Some time before that, St. Gregory of Tours (d. 593), using the imagery of the Apocrypha, had spoken of Mary’s body “taken up and borne on a cloud into Paradise, where now, reunited with her soul and rejoicing with the elect, it enjoys the good things of eternity which shall never come to an end.” (7)


For a long time there was little progress from this hopeful beginning. Doubt was expressed by Adamnan, echoed by Bede. It was a pseudo-Augustinian sermon, written by Ambrose Autpert, and especially the forged letter Cogitis me of Pseudo-Jerome, which halted development. Autpert urged men not to fake a “lying disclosure of what God had willed to be secret.” “But,” he said, “the true opinion about her Assumption is this, that we believe her to be assumed above the heavens, not knowing, to use the apostle’s phrase, whether in the body or out of it.” (8)


The late Fr. O’Carroll wrote widely on theological and ecumenical topics and was an internationally known Mariologist. He was a member of the Pontifical Marian Academy, the French Society for Marian Studies, and an Associate of the Bollandistes. This article was excerpted from Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, The Liturgical Press, 1982.

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