The feast of the Assumption, which is celebrated today, was brought into the Roman Rite by Pope St Sergius I (687-701) at the end of the 7th century from the Byzantine tradition. However, the Church’s belief that the Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven body and soul at the end of Her earthly life certainly predates the feast by some centuries. This teaching was long accepted and celebrated without being officially defined as part of the Faith, and had hardly ever been disputed within the Catholic Church.
(The Dormition of the Virgin; apsidal mosaic in the basilica of St Mary in Trastevere in Rome, by Pietro Cavallini, 1296-1300)
Nevertheless, in the wake of the numerous crises that beset the Church and civil society in the 19th and 20th centuries, many people, both ecclesiastics of all ranks and laymen, as well as various Catholic institutions, had petitioned the Holy See to formally define the Assumption. In 1950, Pope Pius XII determined that a favorable time had come to do so, as part of the celebrations of the Holy Year. (Due to the political disturbances of the previous century and a half, this was the first Jubilee which the Church had been able to celebrate with full public solemnity since 1825.) As he himself wrote, this declaration served first of all to glorify God and the Virgin Mary, but also to show in Her a “glorious example” by which society might be “more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father’s will and to bringing good to others”, in an age in which “the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows … threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin men’s lives…”
Here then is an excerpt from the final sections of the Pope’s beautifully composed Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, defining the dogma of the Assumption.
“Quoniam igitur universa Ecclesia, in qua viget Veritatis Spiritus, qui quidem eam ad revelatarum perficiendam veritatum cognitionem infallibiliter dirigit, multipliciter per saeculorum decursum suam fidem manifestavit, et quoniam universi terrarum orbis Episcopi prope unanima consensione petunt, ut tamquam divinae et catholicae fidei dogma definiatur veritas corporeae Assumptionis Beatissimae Virginis Mariae in Caelum, quae veritas Sacris Litteris innititur, christifidelium animis penitus est insita, ecclesiastico cultu inde ab antiquissimis temporibus comprobata, ceteris revelatis veritatibus summe consona, theologorum studio, scientia ac sapientia splendide explicata et declarata – momentum Providentis Dei consilio praestitutum iam advenisse putamus, quo insigne eiusmodi Mariae Virginis privilegium sollemniter renuntiemus. …
Quod autem hoc sollemne eventum in Sacrum, qui vertitur, Annum Providentis Dei consilio incidit, Nobis laetissimum est; ita enim Nobis licet, dum Iubilaeum Maximum celebratur, fulgenti hac gemma Deiparae Virginis frontem exornare, ac monumentum relinquere aere perennius incensissimae Nostrae in Dei Matrem pietatis.
Quapropter, postquam supplices etiam atque etiam ad Deum admovimus preces, ac Veritatis Spiritus lumen invocavimus: ad Omnipotentis Dei gloriam, qui peculiarem benevolentiam suam Mariae Virgini dilargitus est, ad sui Filii honorem, immortalis saeculorum Regis ac peccati mortisque victoris, ad ejusdem augustae Matris augendam gloriam et ad totius Ecclesiae gaudium exsultationemque, auctoritate Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, Beatorum Apostolorum Petri et Pauli ac Nostra pronuntiamus, declaramus et definimus divinitus revelatum dogma esse: Immaculatam Deiparam semper Virginem Mariam, expleto terrestris vitae cursu, fuisse corpore et anima ad caelestem gloriam assumptam.
(Pope Pius XII reads the formal definition of the Dogma of the Assumption from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica.)
Since the universal Church, within which thrives the Spirit of Truth who infallibly directs it toward an ever more perfect knowledge of revealed truths, has made its faith (in the Assumption) manifest in many ways over the course of the centuries, and since the bishops of the entire world ask with nearly unanimous consent that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the most blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a dogma of divine and Catholic faith, a truth which rests up on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the Christian faithful, which has been approved in the Church’s worship from the most ancient times, which is fully in harmony with the other revealed truths, and which has been beautifully explained and expounded in the work, the knowledge, and the wisdom of the theologians, we believe that the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived. …
It is a cause of the greatest rejoicing for us that this solemn event falls, according to the design of God’s providence, during this current Holy Year; for thus can we to adorn the brow of the Virgin Mother of God with this shining gem, while the great Jubilee is being observed, and leave a monument more enduring than bronze of our own most fervent love for the Mother of God.
For which reason, after we have brought prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth: for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, 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.”