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Photo: La Purisima Inmaculada Concepcion de Maria con Artista Ribera. Por la gloria de la Iglesia Santa Romana Catolica.
Part 13: Mary's Assumption into Heaven
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 14, 2015)
The following is the thirteenth part of our Mary 101 series.
On Aug. 15 each year, Catholics celebrate a feast day in honor of one of the greatest mysteries of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary: her bodily assumption into heaven. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven, where she already shares in the glory of her Son's Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of His Body. (974)
In his book Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, Fr. Peter Cameron, O.P. recounts how the great French Catholic preacher Bossuet beautifully summed up this mystery of our faith. Bossuet said that Mary's passing away from this life "was wrought simply by the gradual perfecting of her love, which ... at last reached such perfection that an earthly body could no longer contain it. ... Even as the lightest touch will make a ripe fruit drop from its stem, so was this perfect spirit gathered in one moment to its heavenly home, without effort or shock." (p. 87). And soon afterward her body, our Savior's first home on earth, was glorified and united with her soul forever in heaven.
Non-Catholics often ask: Is there really any evidence at all that Mary was taken to heaven body and soul at the end of her life (since the Bible seems to be silent about it, and even the early Fathers of the Church say nothing about it)? Some Evangelical Protestants claim that Catholic belief in the Assumption is just the product of popular "sentiment" and "myth." Is this a doctrine that Catholics have to accept with blind faith, just because the Church says so, trusting that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit?
Well, we can indeed trust that in discerning such things and defining doctrine, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, for St. Paul calls the Church in 1 Tim 3:15, "the pillar and bulwark of the truth." You can trust a "pillar and a bulwark"!
Still, it is perfectly legitimate to ask what the evidence was that the Church considered when she first sought to discern the truth about this matter. We can even explore whether that evidence, reconsidered today, supports the final definition of the doctrine by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Besides, it is good to explore the reasons behind the doctrine in case you are ever asked by one of your non-Catholic friends or acquaintances why the Church believes such a thing. Remember the exhortation of St. Peter: "always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3: 15).
A Deafening Silence
Although it is true that the earliest Fathers of the Church do not explicitly mention the Assumption of Mary, there is an ancient and curious silence about her bodily remains that cries out for an explanation. Sometimes, as we say, "silence" can be "deafening." Karl Keating of Catholic Answers writes:
We know that after the crucifixion Mary was cared for by the apostle John (Jn 19:26-27). Early Christian writings say John went to live at Ephesus and that Mary accompanied him. There is some dispute about where she ended her life, perhaps there, perhaps back at Jerusalem. Neither of these cities nor any other claimed her remains, although there are claims about possessing her (temporary) tomb. Why did no city claim the bones of Mary? Apparently because there were no bones to claim, and people knew it.
Remember, in the early Christian centuries, relics of saints were jealously guarded and highly prized. The bones of those martyred in the Colosseum, for instance, were quickly gathered up and preserved; there are many accounts of this in the biographies of those who gave up their lives for the Faith [for example, the bones of St. Peter and St. Paul were widely known to be preserved in Rome, and the sepulcher of David and the tomb of St. John the Baptist are both mentioned in Scripture]. Yet here was Mary, certainly the most privileged of all the saints ... but we have no record of her bodily remains being venerated anywhere.( Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988, p. 274)
Of course, it could be argued that her remains were not preserved and venerated by the early Christians because Mary herself was not held in special honor at that time. But we have already seen how the early Fathers of the Church exalted her as the New Eve and Mother of God, and we know from the many paintings of Mary on the walls of the catacombs in Rome, dating back to the beginning of the second century A.D., that Mary was held in veneration as far back as we can trace.
Besides, Mary herself prophesied in the New Testament: "for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed" (Lk 1:48). Unless she was a false prophet, she must have been held to be specially "blessed" by every generation of Christians, including her own.
Explicit mention of the Assumption of Mary begins to appear in highly embellished legendary accounts in the 4th century. We have a slightly more sober account of the event given by St. John Damascene in a copy of a letter he preserved from a 5th century Patriarch of Jerusalem named Juvenalius to the Byzantine Empress Pulcheria. The Empress had apparently asked for relics of the most Holy Virgin Mary. Patriarch Juvenalius replied that, in accordance with ancient tradition, the body of the Mother of God had been taken to heaven upon her death, and he expressed surprise that the Empress was unaware of this fact (implying that it must have been more or less common knowledge in the Church at the time).
Juvenalius joined to this letter an account of how the apostles had been assembled in miraculous fashion for the burial of the Mother of God, and how after the arrival of the apostle St. Thomas, her tomb had been opened, and her body was not there, and how it had been revealed to the apostles that she had been taken to heaven, body and soul.
Regarding these early, somewhat legendary accounts of the Assumption, the best scholarship tends to support the summary statement of the Anglican H.S. Box:
Of the early stories of the Assumption it may be said that all sought to supply the known fact with unknown details. The faithful believed that Mary is body and soul in glory. Writers set to work to guess the rest of the story. (cited in Staples, Behold Your Mother, p. 226)
Among the early Fathers of the Church, the great theologian St. Epiphanius in the 4th century clearly expressed belief in Mary's Assumption:
Like the bodies of the saints, [Mary] has been held in honor for her character and her understanding. And if I should say anything more in her praise, she is like Elijah, who was virgin from his mother's womb, always remained so, and was taken up, but has not seen death. (Panarion, 79,5,1)
In the same work he also states that no one knows whether Mary actually died before being taken to heaven—although "her holy body, by which light rose on the world" now rests "amid blessings." (Panarion 78,23,8)
Later, in the 6th century, belief in the Assumption was defended at length by St. Gregory of Tours, and it is important to note that no saint or Father of the Church ever disputed the doctrine.
Obviously, these bits of evidence (that is, the early and deafening silence about the bones of Mary, and widespread belief in the Assumption manifest among the early Christians of the 4th and 5th centuries, without any dispute over the doctrine among the saints and the Fathers), all by themselves, do not prove conclusively that the doctrine is true. But the Church believes that because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the People of God as a whole possess what St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas called an affectio or inclinatio fidei: in other words, an affective inclination, a movement of the heart that draws them to the truths of the Faith. Given that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (Jn 16:13), a consensus of the faithful on a matter of divine truth, and especially a consensus of the saints (who are full to overflowing with the Holy Spirit), certainly must be taken as signs of the work of the Holy Spirit, leading God's people to unfold and more clearly understand the mysteries of divine revelation.
Follow the entire Mary 101 series.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.