I am a true son of the Catholic Church. I love everything about being Catholic, and I happily do not dissent from any of Mother Church’s teaching because I see the clear logic in all of it, and I have faith that the Holy Spirit is guiding it as Christ promised. Why else would I write apologetics columns explaining our faith?
Sometimes I wonder if things in our faith might not be presented better, though — not the truths themselves, but the explanation of the truths. For example, we commonly refer to our “Sunday obligation” or a “holy day of obligation,” and there is nothing wrong with these terms. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation …. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (2181). But personally I would prefer to change the word “obligation” to “necessity.” It is necessary to go to Sunday Mass, or there are “holy days of necessity.” In our culture people balk at obligation (which is a big problem, too) but are more open to doing something because it is necessary.
This month, the church celebrates a very important “holy day of necessity”: the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Aug. 15. Though an ancient teaching of the Church, it was not promulgated as a dogma until 1950, when Pope Pius XII issued the papal bull Munificentissimus Deus. This dogma states that “the Immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.”
In the wording, we see that the pope did not make a definitive statement as to whether or not Mary actually experienced physical death. The church has never made an official pronouncement on that, although we see that the belief that she did die is ancient, with an ancient liturgical feast called “The Dormition” (death) of the Virgin Mary and with the fact that from very ancient times there has been a tomb in Jerusalem that is said to have been the original tomb she was buried in.
The Scriptures do not give an explicit account of Mary’s Assumption, but that is not unusual with other church teaching. There is the passage in Revelation 12 that describes the woman clothed with the sun — a strong indicator of the Assumption, albeit not as a word for word account. Historically speaking, the Assumption has been a part of the faith since very early on, although theological discussion of it did not come into play until the sixth century, and even more so by Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure in later centuries.
According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, “St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.”
So why is the Assumption a holy day of necessity? What’s the point? The Assumption is not just a statement about Mary. It’s about Christ’s redemptive work and our dignity having been created in his image. The meaning of the dogma is to illustrate that God and his grace wins, that despite the sin of our parents Adam and Eve, and despite our own sin and corruption, in the end God saves the whole person, not just the soul but the physical body as well.
As the book of Revelation says, God creates a new heavens and a new earth thanks to the resurrection of Jesus, and this comes into focus in the woman Mary, who embodies the final destiny of all the saved. The Assumption is not just about Mary, it’s about Jesus Christ and our relationship with him. Thus it is a necessary thing for us to go to Mass on August 15 to celebrate this mystery, this dogma of our Catholic faith.