Mary’s Assumption

Sixty years ago today, on November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul, into heaven

By Robert Moynihan

Pope Pius XII, last Pope to promulgate a dogma of the faith

Today is the anniversary of the day 60 years ago, November 1, 1950, that Pope Pius XII (Pope from 1939 to 1958) defined and promulgated the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

(The painting is by Italian painter Annibale Carracci in about 1600, called the Assumption of the Virgin and done for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome; see below)

Here is they key passage from the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus (“The Most Bountiful God”) in which Pius XII promulgated the dogma, with the actual words promulgating the dogma in bold:

“…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 the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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.

“Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith…

“It is forbidden to any man to change this, our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.

—Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, November 1, 1950

The connection between the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption

Pope Pius tells us that this teaching is closely related to the teaching on the Immaculate Conception of Mary, promulgated as a dogma of the faith by his predecessor, Pope Pius IX, in 1854.

“That privilege (i.e., the bodily Assumption into heaven 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,” Pius XII writes.

“These two privileges are most closely bound to one another,” he continues. “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.”

Pius XII concludes: “Now God has willed that the Blessed Virgin Mary should be 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.”

Death, or just a sleep?

One of the startling facts about Mary is that there are no relics of her body of any type whatsoever.

There are relics — bones, or hair, even pieces of skin — of all of the Apostles, and of nearly all of the early saints, but none whatsoever of Mary, anywhere. And there never have been.

Even from the perspective of a religious skeptic, this might be cause for a slightly raised eyebrow, or two. Why are there no relics of Mary? What can explain this, given that relics of Mary would have been the most treasured of any possible relics?

The Church answers: there are no relics because there was no body.

Mary’s death, Christians believe, was unlike other deaths of human beings. Instead of departing “from” her body, and leaving her body behind to decay, like all other human beings, Mary departed “with” her body — she was “assumed” at the moment of her departure from this life into a different realm, into eternity — “into heaven.”

This led some over the centuries to argue that Mary, alone among all human beings, had not actually died at all, but had simply fallen asleep. This was called her “dormition,” her “falling asleep.”

There was a moment, an intersection, as it were, when she, and her body, were about to be touched by death, and at that moment, both she and her body were swept out of Death’s grasp, into eternity — into God’s kingdom.

But this is not a matter of Catholic dogma. It is more a matter of pious belief.

Still, by the 1600s, many Catholics had come to believe that Mary had not died, but had been assumed alive, as shown in the great majority of contemporary paintings of the subject.

Most believed that she had felt no pain or disease, and that she was assumed in a healthy if aged body and soul prior to experiencing “death.”

Interestingly, a famous paint of Mary by Caravaggio (see below) is the last major Catholic work of art in which Mary is clearly dead.

Her feet are swollen, and no cloud of cherubs ferries her heavenward as depicted a few years before by Annibale Carracci in his Assumption of the Virgin for the Cerasi Chapel (shown at the beginning of this email).

Carracci actually painted Mary’s Assumption twice. the first painting was completed in 1590 and is now in the Prado Museum in Madrid. (left)

The second is from 1600-1601 and is in the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo of Rome. Somewhat awkwardly, the Virgin rises through a cramped crowd of apostles, levitated by half-a dozen cherubim, glowing with light.

Caravaggio (below) does not depict an assumption but her death, arm drooping to the earth.

Here Mary, as in nearly all Renaissance and Baroque Assumptions, looks much younger than a woman some 50 or more years old; by the conventional chronology, Mary was about 48 at Pentecost, her last appearance in scripture. She was generally thought to have lived on for some years after this, though there was no generally accepted tradition for how long.

In Orthodoxy and Catholicism, as in the language of scripture, death is often called a “sleeping” or “falling asleep.”

According to a tradition especially prevalent among the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics, Mary, having spent her life after Pentecost supporting and serving the nascent Church, was living in the house of the Apostle John, in Jerusalem, when the Archangel Gabriel revealed to her that her repose would occur three days later.

The apostles, scattered throughout the world, are said to have been miraculously transported to be at her side when she died. The sole exception was Thomas, who had been delayed. He is said to have arrived three days after her death, and asked to see her grave so that he could bid her goodbye.

Mary had been buried in Gethsemane, according to her request. When they arrived at the grave, her body was gone, leaving a sweet fragrance. An apparition is said to have confirmed that Christ had taken her body to heaven after three days to be reunited with her soul.

Orthodox theology teaches that the God-bearer (Mary) has already undergone the bodily resurrection which all will experience at the Second Coming, and stands in heaven in that glorified state which the other righteous ones will only enjoy after the Last Judgment.

The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary died a natural death, like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her repose, at which time she was taken up, bodily only, into heaven. Her tomb was found empty on the third day.

Roman Catholic teaching holds that Mary was “assumed” into heaven in bodily form.

Some Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after Mary’s death, while some hold that she did not experience death.

Pope Pius XII leaves open the question of whether or not Mary actually underwent death in connection with her departure, but alludes to the fact of her death at least five times.

The Wisdom of the Fathers

Pius tells us that many events and expressions in Scripture were interpreted by the Fathers as referring to Mary and her “privilege” of rising bodily into heaven:

“Often there are theologians and preachers who, following in the footsteps of the holy Fathers, have been rather free in their use of events and expressions taken from Sacred Scripture to explain their belief in the Assumption. Thus, to mention only a few of the texts rather frequently cited in this fashion, some have employed the words of the psalmist: ‘Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified’; and have looked upon the Ark of the Covenant, built of incorruptible wood and placed in the Lord’s temple, as a type of the most pure body of the Virgin Mary, preserved and exempt from all the corruption of the tomb and raised up to such glory in heaven. Treating of this subject, they also describe her as the Queen entering triumphantly into the royal halls of heaven and sitting at the right hand of the divine Redeemer. Likewise they mention the Spouse of the Canticles ‘that goes up by the desert, as a pillar of smoke of aromatical spices, of myrrh and frankincense’ to be crowned. These are proposed as depicting that heavenly Queen and heavenly Spouse who has been lifted up to the courts of heaven with the divine Bridegroom.”

Pius notes what St. Bonaventure said on this subject:

“He (Bonaventure) considered it entirely certain that, as God had preserved the most holy Virgin Mary from the violation of her virginal purity and integrity in conceiving and in childbirth, he would never have permitted her body to have been resolved into dust and ashes. Explaining these words of Sacred Scripture: ‘Who is this that comes up from the desert, flowing with delights, leaning upon her beloved?’ and applying them in a kind of accommodated sense to the Blessed Virgin, he reasons thus: ‘From this we can see that she is there bodily… her blessedness would not have been complete unless she were there as a person. The soul is not a person, but the soul, joined to the body, is a person. It is manifest that she is there in soul and in body. Otherwise she would not possess her complete beatitude.'”

And St. Robert Bellarmine, Pius notes, came to the same conclusion:

“Gathering together the testimonies of the Christians of earlier days, St. Robert Bellarmine exclaimed: ‘And who, I ask, could believe that the ark of holiness, the dwelling place of the Word of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, could be reduced to ruin? My soul is filled with horror at the thought that this virginal flesh which had begotten God, had brought him into the world, had nourished and carried him, could have been turned into ashes or given over to be food for worms.'”

The complete text

The text of this Apostolic Constituion is very beautiful, and, if you have time — about half an hour — it rewards a careful reading with a sense of the depth and breadth of this teaching about Mary.

If you have a devotion to Mary, reading this document will deepen that devotion.

Here is a link to the complete text of the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus:

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