Blessed Pope Pius XII in 1946 asked the Bishops of the Catholic Church to gather information for the potential dogmatic declaration of this doctrine. Two questions were asked of the Bishops: First, is the Assumption definable? Second, do you and your flocks desire a definition? The Bishops gave a unanimous affirmation to both questions proposed to them. Over a 95-year period, there were 8 million petitions sent to Rome requesting that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary be declared a dogma. It’s also an important fact to note that the Council Fathers of Vatican I also requested to make this a dogma.
On November 1, 1950, Pius XII in the Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissiumus Deus, through an ex cathedra (“from the chair” – infallible) statement said, “…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.”
The Assumption in the Sacred Scriptures is primarily seen in Genesis 3:15 and in the writings of the Apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul. In Genesis 3:15, Mary shares the same victory over sin and death as does Jesus due to their mutual enmity with Satan and sin. When the Bishops were asked about the Assumption being declared dogmatic many of them sent Genesis 3:15 to Pius XII as scriptural support for the dogma.
St. Paul tells us (Romans 5-8; Hebrews 2) the effects of the seed of Satan are sin and death (bodily corruption). Mary, who shares in her Son’s victory over sin and death, is victorious and saved from sin and death. She triumphs over sin through her Immaculate Conception (no bodily corruption) and triumphs over death in her Assumption.
Other scriptural references for the Assumption are: Luke 1:28 because Mary is “full of grace.” Being that she is “full of grace” – the effects of sin would not taint her, which would be bodily death; Psalm 132:8 prophecies, “Arise, O Lord, out of your resting place: you and the ark which you have sanctified.” – Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant; 1 Corinthians 15:23 and Matthew 27:52-53 both give support to a potential bodily assumption; Revelation 11:19 and 12:1, Mary is the Ark of the Heavenly Jerusalem and she is the woman crowned and the woman assumed.
In Sacred Tradition, the earliest mention of the Assumption of Mary comes in a homily preached by Bishop Theoteknos of Livias, in Palestine around the latter part of the 6th century. He said since Mary was the Mother of God she held an exalted position; she was greater than all the saints. He emphasized heavily that the Son cannot forsake the Mother and that the Mother could never be separated from her Son.
Furthermore, we see clear references to the Assumption/Dormition of Mary in the writings of St. Gregory of Tours, St. John Damascene, St. Modestus of Jerusalem, St. Germanus of Constantinople, and St. Andrew of Crete during the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. In Egypt and Syria, there were liturgies on our Lady by the 5th and 6th centuries. The earliest celebration of the feast in the West is dated in the mid 7th century. By the 13th century, the Assumption of Mary was accepted completely as a doctrinal teaching.
The Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Churches) celebrate the “Dormitio” or Dormition. When time had come for the Theotokos to pass from this life to the next, the Apostles including St. Paul traveled, gathered, and briefly spent time with her. Thomas arrived three days after Mary had fallen asleep (a term we use when someone passes into death) and wanted to see her. When they went to the tomb where she was placed, they found that it was was empty. An angel of the Lord appeared to them saying that the Theotokos was assumed into Heaven.
The official name of the Eastern Holy Day is The Dormition of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. Like most Marian feasts that have their roots in the East, this tradition has been celebrated since the 4th century. It commemorates the death, dormition, and assumption of Our Lady into Heaven. This position states that Mary experienced a temporary separation of soul and body but without bodily corruption. Her soul was taken directly into heaven and her body remained on earth for three days until it was assumed and reunited with her soul.
Contrary to this position is the minimal teaching that Mary with body and soul intact was just assumed into Heaven and did not die. Throughout the centuries, this position has been brought forward by a small number of theologians. Timothy of Jerusalem argues, “Wherefore the Virgin is immortal up to now, because he who dwelt in her, assumed her to the heavenly regions.”
Most theologians beginning with St. Augustine of Hippo to Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and to our recent Popes conclude that Mary did suffer death, but without bodily corruption.
There are two primary notions that favor the position that the Blessed Mother actually died. First, she was in conformity with Christ. As his Mother, she should not be better than her divine Son. If Jesus suffered death, then his Mother would have suffered death as well. The second point is that Mary voluntary with own will accepted death. She accepted death, like Jesus, so they could co-redeem (“co” – with not equal) the human race together, but with her still subordinate to Our Lord.
Blessed Pope John Paul II favored the position that Mary did die and said,
“The fact that the Church proclaims Mary free from original sin by a unique divine privilege does not lead to the conclusion that she also received physical immortality. The Mother is not superior to the Son who underwent death, giving it a new meaning and changing it into a means of salvation…since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother…Involved in Christ’s redemptive work and associated in his living sacrifice, Mary was able to share in his suffering and death for the sake of humanity’s redemption.”
Let us pray: Almighty Father, You raised the Immaculate Body and Soul of your Son’s Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary into heavenly glory. Keep us always focused on our heavenly reward so that we may share it with her for eternity. Amen.