A Dogma Turns 60 Today

Botticini's rendering of Mary's Assumption places it in the context of the entire Church triumphant, celebrated today on All Saints' Day.
Botticini's rendering of Mary's Assumption places it in the context of the entire Church triumphant, celebrated today on All Saints' Day. (photo: Public Domain)

“By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, 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

On November 1, 1950, crowds from the world over thronged St. Peter’s Square in Rome to hear Pope Pius XII give the Church its most recently proclaimed dogma: the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This Italian video gives a glimpse into that event, sixty years ago today, which was one of the largest-ever gatherings of human beings up to that time. An English translation of the narration follows.

Another huge effort to bring people out was the 1950 Holy Year. L’Osservatore Romano wrote, “It was the biggest conversation that any Pope has ever had with the world.” More than a million and a half pilgrims come to Rome. It was the first mass event in Christianity’s history. The Pope calls all the faithful to reawaken, to shake off lethargy, to live Catholicism in a militant way.

The Holy Year concludes with another huge event: the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption. Today, it is still the most recent dogma proclaimed by the Church.

There is something slightly troubling in this Marian devotion. Mediatrix of a God who is very far off, the Madonna seems like our last refuge before what is inevitable explodes, before some tragic secret assails humanity.

The narration’s last paragraph is only correct, of course, in the sense of Revelation 12, in which the “great sign” which appears in the sky, “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” suffers the wrath of the dragon’s persecution … and eventually is victorious when the huge dragon is thrown down to earth thanks to the intervention of God and Saint Michael.

Such were the times. The effervescent anthropological optimism of Gaudium et Spes was more than a decade into the future. The world of 1950 was still shell-shocked from the horrors of the Second World War: Europe had barely begun its struggle towards economic stability, and Italian Catholics were fighting a battle to the death with Communism in the polls.

Graham Greene gives us a sense of what those times were like and what the dogma meant to those who welcomed it, writing in Life magazine in 1950:

It is legitimate, of course, to speculate why this precise moment in history has been chosen. I can write only as an uninstructed Catholic. Because the doctrines of Christ’s nature as God and Man are walled about by the doctrine of the Annunciation and the Virgin Birth, so that it is not too much to say that the whole of Christianity to this day lies in Our Lady’s womb, it is to her that recourse has always been had in times of crisis. So it was through all the terrible storms of the 16th century when the Turks seemed on the point of conquering Europe: Appropriately Pius V instituted the feast day of the Most Holy Rosary in thanksgiving for the great victory of Lepanto. And now, when a yet heavier threat lies upon our borders, perhaps the proclamation of the new dogma will help the devotion of millions. Devotion means simply an expression of love and if we love enough, even in human terms, we gain courage.

This would be no argument, of course, for proclaiming a novel belief, but a dogma is only a definition of an old belief. It restricts the area of truth at the expense of legend or heresy, and the greatest definitions of the Church, accepted alike by Protestants and Catholics — the nature of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity — were definitions drawn up to exclude heresies within the Church itself.

In our day there are no obvious signs of heretical beliefs within the Church concerning the Assumption of Our Lady and therefore it was believed by some Catholics that to proclaim the dogma was unnecessary. But Catholics today cannot remain quite untouched by the general heresy of our time, the unimportance of the individual. Today the human body is regarded as expendable material, something to be eliminated wholesale by the atom bomb, a kind of anonymous carrion. After the First World War crosses marked the places where the dead lay, Allied and enemy: Light burned continually in the capitals of Europe over the graves of the unknown warriors. But no crosses today mark the common graves into which the dead of London and Berlin were shoveled, and Hiroshima’s memorial is the outline of a body photographed by the heat flash on asphalt. The definition of the Assumption proclaims again the doctrine of our Resurrection, the eternal destiny of each human body, and again it is the history of Mary which maintains the doctrine in its clarity. The Resurrection of Christ can be regarded as the Resurrection of a God, but the Resurrection of Mary foreshadows the Resurrection of each one of us.

Such were the times, indeed. And so the Church’s enduring faith in the Assumption of Mary — catalogued in painstaking historical detail by Pius XII in Munificentissimus Deus — raises our eyes too beyond the still-deepening “general heresy of our time,” the devaluation of human life, to our Mother in heaven who intercedes for us at God’s right hand, Queen of the Church triumphant.