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. —Pope Pius XII, "Munificentissimus Deus", 44
Pope Pius XII promulgated his declaration on the assumption of Mary, “body and soul,” into heaven, on November 1, 1950. He chose to say nothing one way or the other about whether Mary first experienced natural death or not. Regardless, the first thing we need to understand about this doctrine is that it was not a recent development. Belief among Christians in the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary goes back to at least the third century, and while none of the New Testament documents mention this event explicitly—or even mention belief in this event—it is by no means inconsistent with Scripture, and is even consistent with deep scriptural themes.
The first known analysis of the assumption was written by Theoteknos, a sixth-century bishop of Jericho. His argument went like this: since the Hebrew Scriptures tell us that Elijah ascended (1 Maccabees 2:58), and that a place in heaven was prepared for the apostles, so much more likely is it that Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus, must have been assumed into heaven to a place prepared for her.
Belief in this doctrine developed, for the most part, through sermons and devotional literature, which suggested that in view of her mission as the theotokos, or mother of God, it made sense that Mary experienced death, but not that her body would return to the earth. She gave physical life to Christ, so it was appropriate that he would give eternal life to her body. From the thirteenth century onward, theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure declared that belief in the assumption of Mary was a valid belief. It is also noteworthy that the Orthodox and Eastern churches, too, have always recognized the assumption of Mary.
In other words, when Pius XII declared the assumption of Mary to be a dogma of the Catholic Church, he gave the official stamp of approval to a belief that had ancient origins and had been around for many, many centuries as a part of the church’s sacred Tradition. Just as Tradition gave birth to the New Testament, so Tradition gave birth to the doctrine of the assumption of Mary. This particular glorious mystery reminds us both of Mary’s assumption into heaven and of the important role of Tradition in the ongoing life of the church.
It is also worth noting that the great twentieth-century German psychologist Carl Jung, although not a Christian, was delighted when he learned of Pope Pius XII’s declaration. He stated publicly that the doctrine of the assumption reflected the Catholic Church’s acceptance and appreciation for the physical world.
In a very real sense, the doctrine of the assumption of Mary celebrates the destiny that all the faithful will experience—that is, an existence of risen glory. Mary shared in the destiny of the risen Christ, just as we all will. But, by virtue of her special role in the history of salvation, Mary experienced the fullness of the risen life immediately upon the conclusion of her earthly existence.
Read more about Mary and the mysteries of the Rosary in The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between by Mitch Finley (The Word Among Us Press, 2007). Available at wau.org/books