August 15, 2008


Did Mary die?

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.”

Those are the words of Pope Pius XII who, on Nov. 1, 1950, solemnly defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, the feast we celebrate today—Aug. 15. It remains the only doctrine of the Church proclaimed after the First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility in 1870.

The definition is precisely worded, covering most of what the Catholic Church teaches about Mary. It says that she was immaculate, confirming the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that she was preserved from original sin from the moment of her conception.

It calls her the Mother of God, a doctrine defined by the Council of Ephesus in 431 when it gave Mary the Greek title Theotokos, or God-bearer. Although Christ was both divine and human, he was only one person and Mary was the mother of that person, thus the Mother of God.

The definition also calls Mary ever virgin, the doctrine that she remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ. Some Catholics don’t realize that the Church teaches that Jesus’ birth was miraculous with Mary remaining physically intact.

The definition also makes a careful distinction between Mary’s assumption and Christ’s ascension. Mary “was assumed” by the power of God, while Christ ascended through his own power.

But did Mary die? Many Catholics are firmly convinced that she did not, that it would be unthinkable that Jesus would allow his mother to die.

Pope Pius carefully side-stepped that controversy—as indeed it was back in 1950. He said simply that Mary “completed the course of her earthly life,” leaving open to further theological speculation whether or not she experienced death.

It’s true, though, that most of the evidence points to the fact that she did die.

In Jerusalem, there are two sites associated with the Assumption. The first is the Basilica of the Dormition at the Benedictine’s Dormition Abbey at the top of Mount Zion. Archaeological excavations at the site have found a street from the first century and stones from what is believed to be Mary’s house.

Although the basilica is called “Dormition,” or “falling asleep,” its crypt, venerated as the site where Mary died, includes a stone effigy of the Blessed Virgin asleep on her deathbed. Above her are mosaics of seven women from the Old Testament.

The other site is the Tomb of Mary. It is located near the Garden of Gethsemane. Pilgrims descend a long flight of stairs to reach the tomb. Of course, it is empty. The crypt is all that is left of a Byzantine basilica built in the fourth century.

There is also a tradition that Mary died in Ephesus rather than in Jerusalem. Pilgrims to Ephesus are shown Mary’s house where she supposedly lived with St. John. It seems more likely, though, that Mary continued to live in Jerusalem until she either died or “fell asleep.” There’s nothing to indicate that Mary and John lived in Ephesus while St. Paul lived there or while he wrote to the Ephesians.

Although the dogma of the Assumption was defined only in 1950, it was being celebrated as far back as the fifth century, first by the Eastern Church in the Byzantine Empire. It spread to the Western Church in the seventh century, under Pope St. Adrian I (772-795). It was preached by the great doctors of the Church of the 13th century—Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure.

Before Pope Pius defined the dogma of the Assumption, he carefully ascertained the sense of the faithful. In an encyclical, he asked whether the bishops, priests and laity wanted the doctrine to be defined, and the response was overwhelmingly favorable. Even before he wrote that encyclical, an amazing number of petitions for a solemn definition were sent to Rome, signed by 113 cardinals, 18 patriarchs, 2,505 archbishops and bishops, 32,000 priests, 50,000 women religious and 8 million laypersons.

The Assumption has always been a popular doctrine. As we celebrate it, let us pray for a greater devotion to Mary and the hope that her assumption into heaven will inspire us all to grow in wisdom and holiness. But you’re free to decide for yourself whether Mary died or just fell asleep.

— John F. Fink

Local site Links: