Today we celebrate the feast of the Assumption of Mary. The Assumption is a solemnity (the highest type of feast) and a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics in the United States and elsewhere. (A Holy Day of Obligation is a feast that is so important, that attending Mass is a “requirement.” These Holy Days of Obligation are outlined in the Code of Canon Law; however, local conferences of bishops can move or remove these feast days without seeking papal approval.) On the feast of the Assumption, we celebrate the transference of Mary, body and soul, into heaven at the end of her life. Her “assumption” into heaven. “Where is this in the Bible?” some will ask. Well, it isn’t.
According to the Catechism, “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ” (CCC, 487).
So what does the Church teach about Mary’s Assumption? We are called to believe that at the end of her life, Mary was taken bodily into heaven where she is joined with Christ, her Son. This shows, according to the Catechism, “a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians” (CCC, 966). In other words, although we will all (hopefully) be in heaven — body and soul — at some point, Mary and Jesus are the only two whose bodies have already arrived. There was no separation of soul from body in either case. So why do we believe this? Well, that’s where it gets a little more complicated.
In the 19th century, during the First Vatican Council, the dogma of papal infallibility was proclaimed. Papal infallibility is the concept that because the pope is the successor of Peter, to whom the Church was entrusted, he has the ability and authority to determine what beliefs are to be accepted. To be clear, the pope does not “invent” dogma (or rather, this is not the intention of the idea of papal infallibility). The pope is merely ‘the last word’ in clarifying what the Church believes. Have popes ever been wrong? Certainly. This is why the doctrine of papal infallibility must meet certain conditions.
In order for a doctrine to be considered “infallible” when it is proclaimed by the pope:
- He must actually be the pope; (This is almost always the case.)
- And he must be speaking specifically as the successor of Peter with the responsibility for teaching the Church; (In other words, he isn’t speaking “off the cuff.” This is referred to as speaking ex cathedra, meaning literally “from the Chair” of Saint Peter, or figuratively “with authority.”)
- And he is providing a definition; (In other words, he isn’t giving an opinion, reciting poetry, filling in a Sudoku, etc.)
- And the definition must have something to do with faith and morals;
- And it has to be regarding a belief that (at least thereafter) must be held to be true by the entire Church.
How often has the pope spoken infallibly? Not as often as you might think. (Unless you want to count canonizations, but that’s another story.) So the answer is: 2. Two times since the doctrine of papal infallibility was proclaimed.
What does this have to do with the Assumption? Both times that the pope has spoken infallibly, he was defining Marian dogma. The first use of papal infallibility came in 1854 when Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception (a feast for another day). The second time was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary.
So a pope, in 1950, suddenly decided that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven? No. In fact, as early as the 5th century, the Eastern Church was celebrating the Feast of Mary on August 15th. Later, it was called the dormitio (or “falling asleep”) of Mary. Then, in the 7th century, the Western Church (based out of Rome) adopted this feast and called it the Assumption. By the 16th century (even before the concept of papal infallibility), the feast of the Assumption was celebrated widely and became one of the most important feast days each year. As you can see, the idea, or the belief in the assumption of Mary, predated the official declaration of it. (This happens a lot in the Church. Rome isn’t exactly known to be “cutting edge.”)
So here we are, at the feast of the Assumption. Regardless of how the feast came to be, or the dogma came to be pronounced, the idea is a beautiful one if you think about it. While the souls of all the faithful departed may be in heaven, Mary is there, bodily, with her Son. Despite my intellectual difficulty with imagining how this happened, what it looked like, and how it all went down (or, I guess, up), the idea isn’t any more difficult to believe in than the Ascension of Christ Himself.
And when I think about all the images and iconography of Mary holding the baby Jesus, and I put that next to the image of the Pieta where Mary is cradling Jesus’ crucified body, in the end, it seems fitting and only right that Mary and Jesus are in heaven, bodily, free to embrace again.
[Postscript: Occasionally, throughout the year, my thoughts turn to the Assumption whenever I hear the Talking Heads’ song And She Was. Admittedly, not about the Assumption, but makes me happy all the same. And to my way of thinking, any opportunity to think about Mary is time well-spent.]