On November 1, 1951, Pope Pius XII declared Mary’s assumption into heaven at the end of her life as a doctrine of faith—a dogma for all Catholics. The question of Mary’s assumption into heaven had been discussed for many centuries prior to 1951. True, some notable theologians in the past opposed the doctrine, but many outstanding ones also supported it. Many wished for such a teaching, but did not believe there was enough scriptural evidence to make it a doctrine of faith.
Blessed John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan theologian of the 13th century, came up with a simple and persuasive argument in favor of the Assumption of Mary. He said, first of all, that God could assume Mary into heaven. Secondly, there was no question of Mary’s holiness, her sinlessness, her unique and perfect discipleship of Jesus, or her conformity to God’s will. Everyone agreed on those two points. Scotus then made this conclusion: God, in fact, caused Mary’s assumption into heaven.
Even though there is no word assumption in the Scriptures, there are many key verses that would support such a doctrine. First, the angel Gabriel declared Mary to be “full of grace” (Lk 1:25ff). She was sinless throughout her life. Another way of saying that is to say that Mary’s union with God (grace) was humanly perfect. Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:28). Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary when she arrived to visit Elizabeth was to call Mary “the mother my Lord” (Lk 1:42). Given the role of Mary as mother of the Messiah, this also lent great weight to making such an event as the Assumption a doctrine of faith.
Did Mary Really Die?
There are two questions that arise regarding this feast of Mary’s assumption. One is the question of whether she actually died. We define physical death as there no longer being human brain activity. Philosophically, we say that when the soul—the source of human life—departs from the body, death occurs. In the case of Jesus, he physically died. His soul left his body, his heart ceased to beat, there was no human brain activity. Our Catholic tradition in the creed says that Jesus’ soul went to the place where all the souls of those who had died previously were in order to announce the saving death of Jesus. Redemption had been accomplished.
In the case of Mary, however, the situation was different. The Church has never said whether Mary died or not. What we can say, however, is that there was a moment when Mary’s body and spirit were transformed into what we can only call a “risen, glorified, and heavenly life.” In a way, there was no reason for Mary to die. Jesus’ human death is different because Jesus died for all humanity. Thus he also died for Mary, his mother. Mary was redeemed as we all are. She was conceived without sin only because of the foreseen merits of Jesus’ own death.
Though Mary may not have died, she surely suffered greatly during her life. Who could measure the pain and sacrifice she experienced standing beneath the cross of Jesus? That was more painful than if she herself had died.
Dear Friar Jack: I am very happy about the support that you, the friars in the United States, have openly manifested for the women religious in our country while at the same time expressing solidarity with the Church and her mission to serve the people of God. I am a Franciscan Sister in a rural village in the Southern Philippines. Many are one with you in prayers for unity in diversity in our Church. Sister Dorothy, SFIC
Dear Friar Jack: I am shocked at your comments in contradiction to the Vatican. I certainly appreciate all the good work that the Catholic sisters have done and are still doing, but when they go against Vatican law, they should be corrected! Shame on you for agreeing with that! Mary
Dear Friar Jack: Thank you for your words. In a time when women prefer not to become nuns or dedicate their lives to Jesus and God, this is a horrible situation. Throughout the ages, the Catholic Church has placed women religious on the back burner. This recent behavior is showing that the Church is not growing, but regressing. I am sure that the sisters will be thankful for the support that your Franciscan society is showing. Thanks again for sharing this. Kathryn
Dear Friar Jack: Thanks to you and other friars for your support of the sisters. I see this as the Vatican and the bishops trying to direct attention from their failure to deal properly with the pedophile crisis. Jane
Dear Friar Jack: I don’t, can’t, and won’t support the leadership of the LCWR, due to the woefully ambiguous, cowardly, useless, and possibly misleading remarks made by the Franciscan provinces of the United States. I can no longer support either you or your order. It’s certainly a shame how a few bad apples can spoil the lot. Paul
A: Dear Sister Dorothy, Mary, Kathryn, Jane, and Paul: Thanks for sharing your frank thoughts. May the Spirit bless and guide all of us on our paths. Friar Jack