“The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed extraordinary attacks on the truth that underlies this dogma…”

Image: Ambrosius007 at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pope Pius XII declared in 1950, “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” (Munificentissimus Deus, 44). While this is a revealed truth (we could not know this without God’s revelation), it naturally follows from an understanding of the Immaculate Conception. “She, by an entirely unique privilege, completely overcame sin by her Immaculate Conception, and as a result she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body”(MD, 5).

If Pius XII declared this truth in 1950, does that mean we only began believing it in 1950? No; in fact, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is one of the oldest feasts of Mary, celebrated on August 15 in the entire Byzantine Empire beginning in the sixth century. The roots of the feast are even older; they can be traced back to Jerusalem in the first century, when Christians made pilgrimages to her empty tomb and celebrated this great mystery.

As Pope Pius XII mentioned in his apostolic constitution defining the dogma, the mystery of the Dormition (the falling asleep) or Assumption of Mary had been solemnized for centuries: celebrated liturgically, painted in paintings, and prayed in the fourth Glorious mystery of the Rosary. Churches have been dedicated to the mystery, icons written, and religious orders put under the protection of Mary with that title. The liturgy does not dictate belief, but rather is “the fruit that comes from the tree” (MD 20). The celebration of the feast, including the homilies of the saints and Fathers of the Church, show that there was a belief and understanding from time of the Apostolic Church. 

Why 1950?

In his letter, Pius XII referred to the multitude of requests the Vatican received regarding the dogma. The Council Fathers of the First Vatican Council asked for it, as well as bishops and the pious faithful. In 1946, Pius wrote an encyclical asking the bishops if he should formally define the dogma. He noted that he was offering “insistent prayers to God that He might clearly manifest the will of His ever-adorable goodness in this instance” (Deiparae Virginis Mariae, 3).

Generally speaking, much of Church teaching is formally defined when it is under attack. This was the case, for example, with the mystery of the Incarnation during the times of the Christological heresies. While there may not have been an attack on the dogma itself, the beginning of the twentieth century witnessed extraordinary attacks on the truth that underlies this dogma: that the created human body is good, has dignity, and is destined for eternal life in heaven.

This mystery of the Assumption is a reminder of our own destiny; what Mary enjoys now, at the side of her Son, we hope to enjoy at the end of the world. Our human body has dignity and is created for heaven. After the atrocities of the Second World War, Nazism and the concentration camps, Communism and the gulags, and at the rise of Mao Zedong and his massacre of millions, while heading into the Sexual Revolution and the glorification of abuse of one’s own body and others… we needed the dogma.

Did Pius get his heavenly sign?

Pope Pius XII was lovingly devoted to the Blessed Mother. He was made papal nuncio to Bavaria (and essentially, all of the German empire) and consecrated an archbishop by Pope Benedict XV on May 13, 1917, the exact day Our Lady began appearing at Fatima. He wrote, “At the same hour when the Lord placed the concern of the whole Church on our shoulders, at the mountain of Fatima appeared for the first time the White Queen of the Holy Rosary, as if the Mother of Mercy wanted to indicate, that in the stormy times of our pontificate, in the midst of the great crisis of human history, we will always have the motherly and vigilant assistance of the great conqueress, who would protect and guide us.”

Pope Pius made a similar allusion to this protection in his definition of the Assumption: “We, who have placed our pontificate under the special patronage of the most holy Virgin, to whom we have had recourse so often in times of grave trouble, we who have consecrated the entire human race to her Immaculate Heart in public ceremonies, and who have time and time again experienced her powerful protection…” (MD, 42).

Our Lady gave Pius the heavenly sign he requested from God. Several times, in fact. In 1947, a year after he had asked for a heavenly nudge towards the dogma, Our Lady appeared to Bruno Cornacchiola. Bruno was a Roman Communist who held a deep hatred for the Pope. He had even purchased a dagger in hopes to have the chance to assassinate Pius XII. He was reading the Bible while preparing an anti-Catholic, anti-Marian speech while his children were playing near Tre Fontane, the place of St. Paul’s martyrdom. There, Mary appeared to him and revealed herself as the Virgin of Revelation. In the course of their conversation, Mary told Bruno that her body did not decay, could not decay, and that she was assumed into heaven. She told him to give a message to Pope Pius XII.

In addition, in the days surrounding the definition of the dogma, Pope Pius witnessed the Miracle of the Sun. The Pope whose history was so connected to Our Lady of Fatima was given the blessing of seeing this miracle four times: October 30, October 31, November 1, and November 8. He believed this gift was a direct confirmation of his decision to define the dogma. During his usual walk in the Vatican Gardens, he witnessed a phenomena that he had never seen before.

“The sun, which was still quite high, looked like a pale, opaque sphere, entirely surrounded by a luminous circle,” he wrote. He could look at the sun “without the slightest bother.” (Days later, he would try to look at the sun again on his walk, to no avail.)  He wrote that the sun “moved outward slightly, either spinning, or moving from left to right and vice versa. But within the sphere, you could see marked movements with total clarity and without interruption.”

Consolation in Suffering

Pope Pius’ pontificate was marked with great trials and crosses. But Our Lady consoled her son, and gave him the unique joy of honoring her by this defining this dogma. He wrote of the mysterious plan of God, which gives joys in the midst of the sorrows:

“The most bountiful God, who is almighty, the plan of whose providence rests upon wisdom and love, tempers, in the secret purpose of his own mind, the sorrows of peoples and of individual men by means of joys that he interposes in their lives from time to time, in such a way that, under different conditions and in different ways, all things may work together unto good for those who love him. Now, just like the present age, our pontificate is weighed down by ever so many cares, anxieties, and troubles, by reason of very severe calamities that have taken place and by reason of the fact that many have strayed away from truth and virtue. Nevertheless, we are greatly consoled to see that, while the Catholic faith is being professed publicly and vigorously, piety toward the Virgin Mother of God is flourishing and daily growing more fervent…” (MD, 1-2).

Perhaps it is tempting to read that and grow dejected. What has come of this public and vigorous faith? Has piety to Our Lady really become more fervent? Rather than judging the seventy years following his words, let us see in these words a call. May we hear in them a mission to be the consolation of which he speaks. May we profess our faith more vigorously and may we press closer to Our Lady. Rather than get discouraged in the vale of tears, may we rejoice in the mysterious plan of God in which all works for good. Let us emulate the humility and devotion of Pope Pius XII, dedicating all to Jesus through Mary.

Mary, as you protected your son Pius XII, protect us, too. Remind us that joy can be found even in this suffering world, and that anxiety and calamities are ultimately passing. Suffering will not have the final word. Death, where is thy sting? Even the greatest evils we experience – suffering and death – will be silenced by the glorious resurrection of our earthly bodies. Let us live not for this world, but for the next.

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