by Fr. Patrick Greenough, OFM
[Editor's Note: The Catholic view of Assumption of St. Mary differs significantly from the Syrian Orthodox view. Syrian Orthodox faith is that Mary was taken to heaven after her death whereas Catholics believe that Mary was taken up before dying and she hasn't experienced death.]
On November 1, 1950, in the presence of almost a 1 million people and surrounded by 700 bishops, Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary as a divinely revealed dogma. The second Vatican Council in its dogmatic constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, reaffirmed the dogma by stating, "the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of Lords and conqueror of sin and death."
Assumed into Heaven
It must be emphasized that the glorified body of the Virgin Mary is not situated in a place that can be located. Heaven and those who dwell there are no longer bound by time and space. Her resurrection/assumption was not like the resurrection of Lazarus whereby the body of Lazarus was reanimated, but was a supernatural transfiguration of her human body.
The glorification of the human body that will be granted to all of the faithful at the end of time was anticipated for Mary at the end of her earthly life. While Pope Benedict XII, in1336, decreed that the saints who are purified from the consequences of sin, can obtain the glory of the beatific vision of God without waiting for the end of time. The resurrection of their bodies in their glorious transfiguration, however, will only come about for all mankind at the end of the world. For Mary, however, the glorification of her body took effect at the end of her earthly life.
Did Mary Die?
Pope Pius XII did not address the question of whether or not Mary died. While theologians are still discussing it, the general opinion is that Mary died before she was transfigured into glory. It was fitting that she, who imitated Christ most perfectly and united with him in his suffering on Calvary, would also want to unite with him in his dying and going down among the dead. According to the ancient liturgies and the names for the feast of the Assumption, Transitus Virginis, Dormitio, Depositio, they seem to indicate the belief that Mary died. Sin makes death an act to be feared. Because of Mary's sinlessness, however, death was not something to be feared but a time of longing and fulfillment when she would be reunited with her Son, body and soul.
The encyclical of Pope Pius XII does not resort to any biblical text nor to any oral tradition referring explicitly to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church however, may not teach anything contrary to Scripture and the Scriptures say nothing contrary to the Assumption. They merely do not mention it explicitly. There are of course numerous scriptural texts that refer to the resurrection of the body and union with God for those who believe. This of course refers to the Virgin Mary, for who believed and who followed Christ more perfectly than her?
The Universal Faith of the Church
On May 1, 1946, Pope Pius XII asked the bishops of the world, "In your wisdom and prudence, do you think that the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin could be proposed and defined as a dogma of the faith and do you, your clergy and your faithful want this?" Ninety-eight of the replies were affirmative. As Catholics, we believe that Christ did not entrust his Word to a book, but to a Church to hand down his teaching and he promised the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
Catholics therefore, believe that the universal Church is preserved from all error in what it teaches and in what it believes, in such a way that the universal magisterium can only teach and the faithful can only believe as a truth revealed by God.
The Universal Witness of the Church's Tradition
Cities, dioceses and countries have entrusted their safety to the patronage of Mary assumed into heaven for centuries. Churches and basilicas have been named in honor of the Assumption of Mary. Religious institutes have been founded and taken their name after the Assumption and the rosary that has been prayed for centuries has included a mystery concerning the Assumption. The feast of the Assumption was celebrated in the Church liturgically as early as the 6th century. Clearly, the Assumption had been in the mind and heart of the Church and the faithful for centuries before it was officially declared a dogma.
Testimonies of the Saints
St. John Damascene wrote, "It was necessary that she who had preserved her virginity without stain in childbirth should preserve her body without corruption even after death."
In the first centuries of the Church, there was never any formal denial or rejection of the Assumption and there was never any veneration of Mary's relics as there was of all of the apostles. Every major doctor and theologian of the Church, from St. Bonaventure to Thomas Aquinas to St. Robert Bellarmine to St. Francis de Sales, taught and preached her Assumption.
The Assumption of the New Eve
If Mary, the New Eve as the early Church taught concerning her, was associated at the foot of the Cross with the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, the New Adam, it was fitting that at the moment of her death, she should be associated with the victory of Jesus over death.
Mary, Mother of the Risen Christ
All of Mary's privileges rest on her being the Mother of Jesus, the Son of God. Her Assumption relates to two articles of faith-the general resurrection at the end of time and her divine motherhood. Mary uniquely and singularly participated in the redemptive acts of Christ from the Incarnation to the Cross and Resurrection to Pentecost. Therefore, it follows that she should participate in an immediate way in the resurrection of Christ without any delay at the moment of her death.
Eventually, the entire Church will know the same resurrection on the last day. Mary is the first, and her privilege is that her resurrection was realized immediately after her earthly life.
The Glory of the Human Body
In celebrating and teaching the Assumption, the Church exalts the true dignity and holiness of the human body. During the Holocaust, the human body was viewed as so much garbage to literally be hauled away and burned in the concentration camps. Nowadays, the human body is being exalted by the media as the goal and purpose of human existence. The Assumption of Mary teaches us that at the end of time, the human body will become glorious not through exercise and diets, but by doing the Will of God.
The Assumption and the World by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
The Assumption challenges the nothingness of the Mortician philosophers in a new way. The greatest task of the spiritual leaders today is to save mankind from despair, into which Sex and Fear of Death have cast it. The world that used to say, "Why worry about the next world, when we live in this one?" has finally learned the hard way that, by not thinking about the next life, one cannot even enjoy this life.
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