Question Box: Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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By Thom Hennen
Question Box

What is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary?

Fr. Hennen

When I taught senior theology at Assumption High School in Davenport, one of the questions on the final exam of the second semester was always, “What is the Assump­tion of the Blessed Virgin Mary?” There was no way I was going to let those seniors graduate from Assumption High School not knowing for what their school was named. It was meant to be a “freebie,” but occasionally a student would still miss it. In the same way, I think some Catholics remain confused about this. With this solemnity approaching Aug. 15, an explanation may be timely.

In 1950 Pope Pius XII declared in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus (which means “Most Bountiful God”) that the Blessed Virgin Mary “when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory.” He goes on to say, “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.”

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It is important to note that in officially declaring this, Pope Pius XII was not saying anything new. The Church didn’t just start believing this in 1950 but had in fact believed it from the earliest times. Pius XII notes, “In their homilies and sermons on this feast the holy fathers and great doctors spoke of the assumption of the Mother of God as something already familiar and accepted by the faithful.” He then goes on to quote some of these early Church fathers.

It is fitting that second only to her Son, Mary would share in the Resurrection, given her pivotal role in our redemption. It was, after all, through her that the Word became flesh. Everything that made Jesus truly and fully human he received from her, including a body, which he would lay down for us on the altar of the cross and give to us in the Eucharist.

There have been differing opinions about whether or not Mary actually died. Some might argue that because she was preserved from the stain of original sin since her conception (the Immaculate Conception), she would not have undergone physical death, as that was seen as the “wages of sin” (cf. Romans 6:23). In the Eastern churches, they refer to Mary’s “dormition” or “sleeping,” perhaps to soften this some.

Even so, I think one could argue that Mary’s participation in the passion of her Son was so complete that, while indeed free from original sin, she nonetheless (eventually) shared in his death. There is certainly precedent for the belief that she physically died and while Pius XII was careful to say “when the course of her earthly life was finished,” he nonetheless references the idea of Mary’s death in quoting from the Church fathers. Therefore, it is by no means heterodox to believe that Mary truly died and then was assumed, body and soul, into heaven.

It is worth noting a subtlety in the language here. While we say that Jesus ascended, we say that Mary was assumed, using the passive voice. This makes it clear that God is the agent of these wonderful mysteries. Jesus, who is God, ascends, as it were, under his own power. Whereas Mary, God’s creature (albeit without sin), is taken up by God.

At Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, where I serve as pastor, the Vietnamese community has a deep devotion to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the Sunday closest to the actual solemnity, when most of the community can gather, they have a special procession, Mass and celebration. If you have an opportunity, come check it out!

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and vicar general for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)


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