Kairos: Volume 21, Issue 14
The Holy Year 1950 was celebrated in a world scarred by the greatest war in human history. A conflict marked by genocide, nuclear horror and the massive destruction of cities was followed by the displacement of peoples, mass emigration and the rise of communism in an expanded Soviet empire and China.
Therefore, Pope Pius XII was determined to call the faithful to Rome for the Holy Jubilee, not only to welcome the mercy of God but to raise the hopes of all peoples for peace, freedom and justice. During the year many celebrations were held in Rome. It was at this time that Thomas Francis Little, later to become the sixth Archbishop of Melbourne, was ordained a priest.
However, the Pope was planning an event that would be the culmination of the year, the definition of the dogma of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Petitions for the definition of the dogma had begun a century earlier. Pope Pius XII consulted all the bishops in the world in 1946. Had the time arrived to define infallibly and solemnly a truth believed by Catholics since the early Christian centuries? There was virtual unanimity in favour of a definition.
On 1 November 1950 in St Peter’s Square, the Pope solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the glorious Assumption in the Bull Munificentissimus Deus, teaching ex cathedra that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven.
The event is not recorded in the Scriptures. But the Second Vatican Council teaches that there are two sources of Divine Revelation: the Scriptures and Tradition. Sacred Tradition is our major source for the Church’s solemn teaching that Mary was taken body and soul into the glory of heaven. Biblical parallels of bodily assumptions and the resurrection of Christ make it ‘fitting’ that Mary, above all others, should be raised to this glory.
The Church is not merely teaching something ‘symbolic’ about Mary. The material body of Our Lady was taken directly into the glory of heaven together with her immortal soul. This means that Mary already enjoys the resurrection of the body. She follows her Son, who has imparted to her the first share in his own bodily resurrection. Her Assumption depends totally on him – and points to our resurrection at the end of time.
1950 was a pre-ecumenical era, so there were some negative rumblings when the dogma was defined. But I recall my late father, an Anglican vicar, strongly defending the Assumption, saying: “If Our Lady is not in heaven, where is she?” He then added: “The first person Jesus Christ would call to share in his resurrection would be his own mother.”
Considered in terms of a theology of the body, the definition of this dogma was timely, just after horrific events devoured the lives of millions of innocents. Questions of life and death were raised in a dramatic way. Millions of human bodies had been treated like trash. Those who liberated Nazi death camps and heard the evidence at the Nuremberg Trials found that their faith in God and people was being tested.
Could there be a God in a world of human bestiality? In that context, the poor Virgin of Nazareth raised to glory in her small human body became the ‘great sign’ of our future hope. She reveals the heavenly glory of the Church, the final coming of Christ when all the ‘little ones’ of our world will be gathered into his Kingdom of truth and justice.
Mary’s final glory rests on her Immaculate Conception and her dignity as Mother of God. The very mortal remains of the sinless One chosen to bear God would never “see corruption”. In his apostolic preaching at Pentecost St Peter used this reference from Psalm 15:10 to proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (cf Acts 2: 27).
Sixty years ago, Pope Pius XII used references from the Fathers in the document containing the definition, particularly St John Damascene. The celebration of the ‘Dormition’ or ‘Falling Asleep’ of the Virgin goes back to the early centuries in the Christian East. The expression ‘falling asleep’ points to a question that is left open by the teaching Church – did Mary really die?
In defining the dogma, Pope Pius XII only referred to “the completion of her earthly life”. One school of thought says that Mary did not die because death is caused by original sin, and she was sinless. But the prevailing view is that she did die, because she would be conformed to her sinless Son, who suffered death for all of us.
Where did the Assumption happen? Probably at Ephesus, where Mary lived in a small house under the care of St John. But there is a tradition that Mary left Ephesus and returned to Jerusalem for her last days. Legendary accounts of her Assumption favour Jerusalem, where a church marks the place of her ‘Dormition’. Mary would want to die in the city where her Son died and rose again.
Associated with the Assumption is an interesting fact. No one claims or has ever claimed to have relics of the body of the Blessed Virgin. This is remarkable if we go back to those early Christian centuries when there was such a quest for the bodies of apostles, saints and martyrs, when churches were built over them. In Ephesus a great church was built in honour of Mary, but it never contained her relics, likewise the Church of the Dormition in Jerusalem.
Devotion to Mary assumed into heaven enriches an essential dimension of Christian living; that is, our hope of eternal life based on the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The dogma of the Assumption focuses on the risen Christ. The Liturgy for 15 August gives us a beautiful description of this dogma. Addressing God the Father, the new translation of the preface of the Assumption, proclaims that Mary is “the beginning and pattern of your Church’s perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people”.
Bishop Peter Elliott is the Titular Bishop of Manaccenser and Auxiliary Bishop in the Southern Region of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.