The Assumption of the Virgin by Guido Reni
As early as the first centuries of the Church’s history, Christians have believed that Mary rose to Heaven with both Her body and Her soul, and this belief has been confirmed through the centuries by the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church. Yet, it is only on November 1, 1950, that this belief became dogma – a truth of the Faith that all Catholics must believe in – when Pius XII issued the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus (Most bountful God). Following are some excerpts :
“Actually God, who from all eternity regards Mary with a most favorable and unique affection, has, ‘when the fullness of time came’, (Gal 4 :4) put the plan of his providence into effect in such a way that all the privileges and prerogatives he had granted to her in his sovereign generosity were to shine forth in her in a kind of perfect harmony. And, although the Church has always recognized this supreme generosity and the perfect harmony of graces, and has daily studied them more and more throughout the course of the centuries, still it is in our own age that the privilege of the bodily Assumption into heaven of Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, has certainly shone forth more clearly.
“That privilege 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. These two privileges are most closely bound to one another. 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 dœs 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.
“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.”
After having quoted the opinions of the different Fathers and Doctors of the Church on the matter, the Holy Father concluded by giving the very definition of the dogma, which he read in Saint Peter’s Square, in the presence of 38 Cardinals, 600 Bishops and 600,000 faithful :
“For which reason, 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.”
After “having completed the course of Her terrestrial life”. There remains to be answered the question of whether the Blessed Virgin died before Her Assumption, or whether She was elevated before Her death. Both possibilities are allowed.
On May 1, 1950, a few months prior to the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption, a young boy from France, aged six, Gilles Bouhours (1944-1960), was received in private audience by Pope Pius XII, to whom he had to convey a secret that he had received from the Virgin Mary a few months earlier, a message that had to be released to the Pope in person. After the audience, freed from all constraint, the child revealed his secret to several people : “The Blessed Virgin Mary did not die. She ascended to Heaven with Her body and soul.”
According to well informed sources, Pius XII had asked God during the course of the 1950 Holy Year a sign to know whether he should proclaim the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin. People from his direct entourage, as well as many people outside the Vatican, were quick to link this sign to the child’s private revelation.
In 1997, Pope Saint John Paul II devoted some of the catechesis of the auditions held on Wednesdays at the Vatican to the theme of Mary’s Assumption. This is what he had to say on June 25, 1997 :
“It is true that, in Revelation, death is presented as a punishment for sin. However, the fact that the Church proclaims Mary free from original sin by a unique divine privilege dœs 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.
“As to the cause of Mary’s death, the opinions that wish to exclude her from death by natural causes seem groundless. It is more important to look for the Blessed Virgin’s spiritual attitude at the moment of her departure from this world. In this regard, St Francis de Sales maintains that Mary’s death was due to a transport of love. He speaks of a dying ‘in love, from love and through love’, going so far as to say that the Mother of God died of love for her Son Jesus (Treatise on the Love of God, bk. 7, ch. XIII-XIV).
“In some of the writings of the Church Fathers, we find Jesus himself described as coming to take his Mother at the time of her death to bring her into heavenly glory. In this way they present the death of Mary as an event of love which conducted her to her divine Son to share his immortal life. At the end of her earthly life, she must have experienced, like Paul and more strongly, the desire to be freed from her body in order to be with Christ for ever” (cf. Phil 1 :23).
The Assumption, Carmel of St. Denis, France
During the July 2 audition, the Pope added :
“Following the Bull Munificentissimus Deus of my venerable Predecessor Pius XII, the Second Vatican Council affirms that the Immaculate Virgin “was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over” (Lumen gentium, n. 59).
“The Council Fathers wished to stress that Mary, unlike Christians who die in God’s grace, was taken up into the glory of heaven with her body. This age-old belief is expressed in a long iconographical tradition which shows Mary ‘entering’ heaven with her body.
“The dogma of the Assumption affirms that Mary’s body was glorified after her death. In fact, while for other human beings the resurrection of the body will take place at the end of the world, for Mary the glorification of her body was anticipated by a special privilege.
“On November 1, 1950, in defining the dogma of the Assumption, Pius XII avoided using the term “resurrection”, and did not take a position on the question of the Blessed Virgin’s death as a truth of faith. The Bull Munificentissimus Deus limits itself to affirming the elevation of Mary’s body to heavenly glory, declaring this truth a ‘divinely revealed dogma’. (…)
“In May of 1946, with the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis Mariae, Pius XII called for a broad consultation, inquiring among the Bishops and, through them, among the clergy and the People of God as to the possibility and opportuneness of defining the bodily Assumption of Mary as a dogma of faith. The result was extremely positive : only six answers out of 1,181 showed any reservations about the revealed character of this truth.
“Citing this fact, the Bull Munificentissimus Deus states : ‘From the universal agreement of the Church’s ordinary Magisterium, we have a certain and firm proof demonstrating that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven... is a truth revealed by God and therefore should be firmly and faithfully believed by all the children of the Church’. (…)
“The Bull Munificentissimus Deus cited above refers to the participation of the woman of the Proto-gospel in the struggle against the serpent, recognizing Mary as the New Eve, and presents the Assumption as a consequence of Mary’s union with Christ’s saving work. In this regard it says : ‘Consequently, just as the glorious Resurrection of Christ was an essential part and the final sign of this victory, so that 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 Assumption is therefore the culmination of the struggle which involved Mary’s generous love in the redemption of humanity, and is the fruit of her unique sharing in the victory of the Cross.”
Reverend Sister Mary of Agreda (1602-1665), a Spanish nun, is the author of “The Mystical City of God”, a book dictated by the Virgin Mary in which Our Lady’s life is explained in detail. Following are excerpts on the topic of the Assumption that show how, as St. Francis de Sales suggested and as St John Paul II reiterated above, Mary “died from Her love of Christ” :
“The day was approaching in which Mary was to be placed in the temple of the celestial Jerusalem… Three days before, the Apostles and disciples were gathered in Jerusalem and in the Cenacle. (…) After some time, She asked them to pray with Her and for Her in silence, which they did. During this quietness the incarnate Word descended from heaven on a throne of ineffable glory, accompanied by all the saints and innumerable angels, and the house of the Cenacle was filled with glory. The most blessed Mary adored the Lord and kissed His feet. Prostrate before Him, She made the last and most profound act of faith and humility in Her mortal life. On this occasion the most pure Creature, the Queen of the heavens, shrank within Herself and lowered Herself to the earth more profoundly than all men together ever have or ever will humiliate themselves for all their sins.
“Her divine Son gave Her his blessing, and in the presence of the courtiers of heaven spoke to Her these words : ‘My dearest Mother, whom I have chosen for my dwelling place, the hour is come in which thou art to pass from this world into the glory of my Father and mine, where thou shalt possess the throne prepared for thee at my right hand and enjoy it through all eternity. And since, by my power and as my Mother, I have caused thee to enter the world free and exempt from sin, therefore also death shall have no right or permission to touch thee at thy exit from this world. If thou wishest not to pass through it, come with Me now to partake of my glory, which thou hast merited.’
“The most prudent Mother prostrated Herself at the feet of Her Son, and with a joyous countenance answered : ‘My Son and my Lord, I beseech Thee let thy mother and thy servant enter into eternal life by the common portal of natural death, like the other children of Adam… Thou, who art my true God, hast suffered death without being obliged to do so ; it is proper that as I have followed Thee in life, so I follow Thee also in death.’ Christ the Savior approved of the decision and the sacrifice of his most blessed Mother, and consented to its fulfillment. Then all the angels began to sing in celestial harmony some of the verses of the Canticles of Solomon and other new ones. (…)
“And as the angels intoned those verses of the second chapter of the Canticles : ‘Surge, propera, arnica mea’, that is to say : ‘Arise, haste, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come, the winter has passed’, She pronounced those words of Her Son on the Cross : ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’ Then She closed her virginal eyes and expired. The sickness which took away her life was love, without any other weakness or accidental intervention of whatever kind. She died at the moment when the divine power suspended the assistance, which until then had counteracted the sensible ardors of her burning love of God. As soon as this miraculous assistance was withdrawn, the fire of her love consumed the life-humors of her heart and thus caused the cessation of her earthly existence.”
The natural consequence to Mary’s Assumption, is Her Crowning upon entering Heaven. This is what we meditate in the fourth and fifth glorious mysteries of the Rosary. The Crowning of Mary is also the object of a liturgical feast – Mary, Queen of the Universe – that was instituted by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter Ad Cœli Reginam (Towards the Queen of Heaven) dated October 11, 1954. The Crowning of Mary was to be celebrated on May 31. It is now celebrated in the octave of the Assumption, on August 22. In his catechesis of Wednesday, July 23, 1997, Pope Saint John Paul II made these comments concerning the feast of Mary, Queen of the Universe :
“My venerable Predecessor Pius XII, in his Encyclical Ad cœli Reginam to which the text of the Constitution Lumen gentium refers, indicates as the basis for Mary’s queenship in addition to her motherhood, her co-operation in the work of the Redemption. The Encyclical recalls the liturgical text : ‘There was St. Mary, Queen of heaven and Sovereign of the world, sorrowing near the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ‘. It then establishes an analogy between Mary and Christ which helps us understand the significance of the Blessed Virgin’s royal status. Christ is King not only because he is Son of God, but also because he is the Redeemer ; Mary is Queen not only because she is the Mother of God, but also because, associated as the new Eve with the new Adam, she co-operated in the work of the redemption of the human race. (…)
“Citing Pius IX’s Bull Ineffabilis Deus, the Supreme Pontiff highlights this maternal dimension of the Blessed Virgin’s queenship : ‘Having a motherly affection for us and being concerned for our salvation, she extends her care to the whole human race. Appointed by the Lord as Queen of heaven and earth, raised above all the choirs of angels and the whole celestial hierarchy of saints, sitting at the right hand of her only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, she obtains with great certainty what she asks with her motherly prayers ; she obtains what she seeks, and it cannot be denied her’.
“Thus far from creating distance between her and us, Mary’s glorious state brings about a continuous and caring closeness. She knows everything that happens in our life, and supports us with maternal love in life’s trials. Taken up into heavenly glory, Mary dedicates herself totally to the work of salvation in order to communicate to every living person the happiness granted to her. She is a Queen who gives all that she possesses, participating above all in the life and love of Christ.”
Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico
In The Mystical City of God, Mary of Agreda describes the Crowning of Our Lady in these words :
“The Redeemer himself presented Her before the throne of the Divinity ; and speaking to the Eternal Father in the presence of all the blessed, who were ravished at this wonder, the most sacred humanity uttered these words : ‘Eternal Father, my most beloved Mother, thy beloved Daughter and the cherished Spouse of the Holy Ghost, now comes to take possession of the crown and glory which We have prepared as a reward for her merit. She is the one who was born as the rose among thorns, untouched, pure and beautiful, worthy of being embraced by Us and of being placed upon a throne to which none of our creatures can ever attain, and to which those conceived in sin cannot aspire. This is our chosen and our only One, distinguished above all else, to whom We communicated our grace and our perfections beyond the measure accorded to other creatures ; in whom We have deposited the treasure of our incomprehensible Divinity and its gifts ; who most faithfully preserved and made fruitful the talents which We gave Her ; who never swerved from our will, and who found grace and pleasure in our eyes.
“My Father, most equitous is the tribunal of our justice and mercy, and in it the services of our friends are repaid in the most superabundant manner. It is right that to my Mother be given the reward of a Mother ; and if during her whole life and in all her works She was as like to Me as is possible for a creature to be, let Her also be as like to Me in glory and on the throne of our Majesty, so that where holiness is in essence, there it may also be found in its highest participation.
“Having thus spoken, the three divine Persons placed upon the head of the most blessed Mary a crown of such new splendor and value that the like has been seen neither before nor after by any mere creature. At the same time, a voice sounded from the throne saying : ‘My Beloved, chosen among the creatures, our kingdom is Thine ; Thou shalt be the Lady and the Sovereign of the seraphim, of all the ministering spirits, the angels and of the entire universe of creatures. Attend, proceed and govern prosperously over them, for in our supreme consistory We give Thee power, majesty and sovereignty. Being filled with grace beyond all the rest, Thou hast humiliated Thyself in thy own estimation to the lowest place ; receive now the supreme dignity deserved by Thee and, as a participation in our Divinity, the dominion over all the creatures of our Omnipotence. From thy royal throne to the centre of the earth Thou shalt reign ; and by the power We now give Thee, Thou shalt subject hell with all its demons and inhabitants. Let all of them fear Thee as the supreme Empress and Mistress of those caverns and dwelling places of our enemies. In thy hands and at thy pleasure We place the influences and forces of the heavens, the moisture of the clouds, the growths of the earth ; and of all of them do Thou distribute according to thy will, and our own will shall be at thy disposal for the execution of thy wishes. Thou shalt be the Empress and Mistress of the militant Church, its Protectress, its Advocate, its Mother and Teacher. Thou shalt be the special Patroness of the Catholic countries ; and whenever they, or the faithful, or any of the children of Adam call upon Thee from their heart, serve or oblige Thee, Thou shalt relieve and help them in their labors and necessities. Thou shalt be the Friend, the Defender and the Chieftainess of all the just and of our friends ; all of them Thou shalt comfort, console and fill with blessings according to their devotion to Thee. In view of all this, We make Thee the Depositary of our riches, the Treasurer of our goods ; we place into thy hands the helps and blessings of our grace for distribution ; nothing do We wish to be given to the world which dœs not pass through thy hands ; and nothing do We deny which Thou wishest to concede to men. Grace shall be diffused in thy lips for obtaining all that Thou wishest and ordainest in heaven and on earth, and every where shall angels and men obey Thee ; because whatever is ours shall be thine, just as Thou hast always been ours ; and Thou shalt reign with Us forever.’”
How great are these mysteries of the Assumption and the Crowning of Mary, and how thankful must we be to God for having given us such a Mother who continues to watch over each of Her children. Let us not hesitate to have recourse to Her at all time, mainly through the recitation of the Rosary.