Action Alert!

The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council

"Chapter 5 - I desire to be dissolved ..."


Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

What was the life of our Blessed Mother like from the time her Son left this earth until her own Assumption? Scripture gives us only two scant indications. At the foot of the Cross, the beloved disciple John heard:1 "Behold your Mother. And from that hour the disciple took here to his home." Vatican II, quoting from Acts of the Apostles, says that2 "before the day of Pentecost, we see the Apostles 'persevering with one heart in prayer with the women and with Mary the Mother of Jesus and His brothers,' and Mary too with her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who already at the Annunciation had overshadowed her." Of course, we may assume that she went with St. John to Ephesus some time after that first Pentecost. But beyond that, we know nothing, except that she was assumed into heaven.

We do not even know for certain that she died at all. We are much inclined to assume that she did, as a matter of likeness to her Divine Son. But we are not certain. St. John Damascene puts it well:3 "How could she, from whom flowed forth true Life, taste death? But she yielded to the law made by Him whom she begot, and ... underwent the ancient sentence, for even her Son, who is Life itself, did not refuse it." Actually, a few Fathers, St. Epiphanius and St. Ambrose,4 make vague statements which some have taken as implying a denial that she died. Interestingly, Pope Pius XII, in the Constitution in which he solemnly defined her Assumption, carefully refrained from stating at any point5 that she died. He used instead such expressions as "at the end of her earthly course." Vatican II closely imitates the language of Pius XII,6 wishing not to commit itself on this question.

We may be certain however that she felt within herself two conflicting drives: she would desire most intensely to see her Son, to be with Him again; she could say most ardently with St. Paul,7 "I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ," yet she would equally desire that His will and the will of the Father be done, and so, that her reunion should come precisely when He wanted, not when she wanted.

Should we say that she, being free from original sin, was also free of the disordered desires that are its effects? Certainly yes. But it would not be a disordered desire for her to wish to be with her Son, just as it was not a disorderly desire for Him to pray to His Father in Gethsemani:8 "Let this chalice pass from me." His human nature being fully human, would most naturally shrink from death and suffering. There is no disorder in such a revulsion. Yet He added:9 "But not as I will, but as you will." Similarly she must have desired intensely to see Him, yet she added: "Not as I will, but as you will."

St. Francis de Sales10 thinks that her desire to see Him eventually became so strong that it finally swept her soul away, causing her to die of love. St. John of the Cross, the mystics' mystic, would probably agree. For he explains how even souls of lesser perfection can literally die of love:11 ... if others die a death caused by infirmity or length of days, in the case of these persons, even though they die in infirmity, or in old age, it is not these things that snatch away their spirits but some attack and encounter of love that is loftier than the previous ones, and more strong and powerful, for it has been able to break the web and to carry off the jewel, the soul. And so, the death of such persons is more sweet and gentle than was their spiritual life their whole life long, for they die with more lofty attacks and more delectable encounters of love, being like the swan, which sings more sweetly when it is dying."

We should add, however, with St. Francis de Sales. that even though this death from love may come in violent assaults of love in other souls, yet in Mary it was but a gentle process. For, he explains, in her, love found no resistance, and so, no need to deliver forceful attacks.

Of course, we are not certain that her death was of this sort. The mere fact that some souls of lesser perfection than was hers, died in this manner does not suffice to prove the nature of her passing. Should we say that her Son found approaching death a source of distress and heaviness, as the Gospels tell us in their description of Gethsemani and so she too may have suffered? Neither would this prove a point. For His distress was brought on not merely at the thought of death, but mostly if not entirely by the thought of sin, sin which offends His Father, which He was to take on. Further, she had already had her agony, worse than death, with Him, at the cross.

Whatever be the mode of her passing, with or without death, and in whatever kind of death, we do know that at once she was taken up body and soul into heaven. Vatican II teaches the fact of her Assumption. But it does not expand on the theme. Part of the reason would be the fact that, as the Council announced early in Chapter 8, it did not intend to treat all parts of Marian doctrine. But also, the recent document of Pius XII defining the Assumption was so brilliant that anything further might seem an anticlimax.

Before that papal Constitution appeared, there was great eagerness and speculation among theologians. There was no question that the Assumption had been a fact: the entire Church had believed that, without question, ever since the Patristic age. And, as Vatican II tells us. such an universal belief, even if held for a much shorter period, would be infallible of itself, equivalent to a solemn definition:12 "The entire body of the faithful, being anointed by the Holy One, cannot be deceived in its belief."

But theologians were concerned to discover how this teaching could be found in the sources of revelation. If we look to the explicit teaching of Scripture, there is obviously no mention of the Assumption. Patristic documents do speak much of it. But they begin to do so rather late, and the statements of the Fathers then seem more likely to be repeating Apocryphal stories than to be serving as witnesses to a revelation coming down from the age of the Apostles.

This difficulty of finding the Assumption in the sources was so great that one noted Patrologist had the rashness to publish an article, about six months before the definition, trying to prove a definition could not be given.

It is fascinating, for this reason, to study the precise way in which Pope Pius XII managed to find the Assumption in revelation.

The Pope opened by noting the relation of the Assumption to the Immaculate Conception:13 "For these two privileges are most closely related to each other. Christ overcame sin and death by His own death; and one who is reborn in a heavenly way through baptism has, through Christ Himself, conquered sin and death. However, in accord with His general rule, God does not wish to grant the full effect of victory over death to the just until the end of time... Yet God wished that the Blessed Virgin Mary be exempt from this general law. For she, by a completely singular privilege, conquered sin in her Immaculate Conception, and thus was not liable to that law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, nor did she have to wait for the end of time for the redemption of her body."

The thought is intriguing: the Pope seems, at first sight to say that since Mary was free of original sin. she must be free of a certain effect of original sin, namely, that of having to wait until the end of time for the resurrection of the body. But further reflection shows us a problem: the argument would prove more than Pius XII wants to prove. For we could reason similarly: being free of original sin, she had to be free of death too, for that is an effect of original sin. But we know he went to great lengths to avoid saying anywhere, in his own words, that she died. Hence he cannot mean it this way.

How is it possible not to mean it thus? For this reason: Liability to death, and delayed resurrection are indeed effects of original sin, but in a special way. By that sin we lost two different kinds of privileges: the supernatural gift of grace, and the preternatural gifts of immortality of the body and freedom from suffering and varied other evils. Now it is obvious: Exemption from original sin certainly implies deliverance from the supernatural damage of privation of the gift of grace. But it would not have to mean deliverance from the other privations. Really, her Divine Son did not, because of His freedom from original sin, spare Himself from suffering and death, which are effects of original sin. So it is not only not proved, but not even likely that she would be exempt from those trials either.

The Pope then goes on to tell of his own practice of collegiality long before Vatican II spoke of such a thing: Before making the definition, he consulted every Bishop in the world, and found them virtually unanimous in teaching this doctrine. Such a universal teaching and belief is, of course, a proof in itself that the Assumption is revealed. But it does not yet show us precisely where in the sources of revelation the Assumption could be found. Hence there was need of further search.

Pius XII then went on to survey the teachings of the Fathers, and of the Medieval theologians on her Assumption, and then, moving on to still later times, he found the words of St. Francis de Sales deserving special attention:14 "St. Francis de Sales, after stating that it would be wrong to doubt that Jesus Christ kept in the most perfect way the divine command that children honour their parents, puts this question: 'What son, if he could, would not bring 'his mother back to life, and take her, after death, into paradise?' "

Did the Pope take this reasoning as a conclusive proof of the Assumption, or merely as a fitting reason? It seems far more likely that he considered it as the latter.

It is not likely that Pius XII intended any of these reasons just mentioned as the chief basis for his definition. But there is still one most ingenious passage to examine:15 "We must remember especially that, since the second century, the Virgin Mary has been presented by the Holy Fathers as the New Eve, who, although subject to the New Adam, was most clearly associated with Him in that struggle against the infernal enemy which, as foretold in the proto-evangelium, was to result in that most complete victory over sin and death, which are always associated with each other in the writings of the Apostle of the Gentiles."

A rather long and heavy sentence. It is best to digest it before continuing. The Pope recalls for us the New Eve teaching of the Fathers. We begin to wonder: Will he say that since the old Eve, if she had been faithful, would not have had to wait for a delayed resurrection, then the New Eve, who was entirely faithful, should have had the favour that the old Eve would have gained? At first sight it might seem his thought was moving in that direction.

But then he begins to tell us that she, as foretold in Genesis 3:15 ("I will put enmity between you and the woman. between her Seed and your seed. He will strike your head") was closely bound with the New Adam, her Son, in the struggle against sin. That struggle was, of course, the great sacrifice of Calvary. It led to victory over sin and death. So we see that a different aspect of the New Eve theme is in the Pope's mind. It is her cooperation in the Redemption, as the New Eve with the New Adam. So he continues: "Wherefore, just as the glorious resurrection of Christ was an essential part and final sign of this victory. so also that struggle which was common to the Blessed Virgin and her Son had to be closed by the 'glorification' of her virginal body ..."

The thought is both brilliant and difficult, because it is so closely knit. Pius XII tells us that Christ's death and resurrection are really both part of the total victory. His death brought the glorification of resurrection to Him. But, and here is the key to the argument, His great sacrificial death, which the Pope again calls the "struggle" was a work that was common to the Blessed Virgin and her Son." A work in common should bring a result in common. To Him the struggle brought the glorification of the resurrection: hence to her, it strictly "had to" bring the glorification of the assumption.

Or, more simply: a common cause had to have a common effect. The cause was common to Jesus and Mary. It brought the common effect of glorification to both.

Here, then, is the way to find the assumption in the sources of revelation. It is found in the New Eve teaching of the Fathers. It is contained in the fact of her cooperation in redeeming us, a cooperation so close, and understood in so strict a sense, that the great sacrifice was a work that was "common" to both.

We see a double gain from this brilliant stroke of analysis: we have not only found the assumption in revelation. We also find something about the nature of her cooperation in the Redemption. Her cooperation must not be taken in just some vague loose sense. That would not allow us to conclude that her glorification had to follow. So her cooperation in the Redemption must be understood in a most strict sense: Else a solemn definition would lack support.

We can see that the analysis we made of her cooperation in chapter 3 was not at all excessive. Anything less would hardly satisfy the solemnly defined conclusion of the assumption constitution.

Finally, as Vatican II adds, after she was taken up, she16 "was exalted as Queen of the universe by the Lord, so that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of Lords, and victor over sin and death." Now, as Pius XII expressed it:17 "Jesus is King of the eternal ages by nature and by conquest; through Him, with Him, and subordinate to Him, Mary is Queen by grace, by divine kinship, by conquest, and by singular choice. And her domain is as vast as that of her Son and God, for nothing is exempt from her dominion."


1 Jn. 19,27.
2 On the Church § 59.
3 St. John Damascene, Oration 2,2: Patrologia Graeca 96,725.
4 Cf. Walter J. Burghardt, "The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death" in: Marian Studies 8 (1957) 58-99.
5 Pius XII never said in his own words that she died, though he did quote others who used such words.
6 On the Church § 59.
7 Phil. 1,23.
8 Mt. 26,39.
9 Ibid.
10 Treatise on the Devout Life 7,13-14.
11 Living Flame of Love 1,30.
12 On the Church § 12.
13 Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, Nov. 1, 1950: AAS 42, 754.
14 AAS 42, 766.
15 AAS 42, 768.
16 On the Church § 59.
17 Pius XII, Bendito Seia, May 13, 1946: AAS 38, 266. We notice that the some expression "by right of conquest" is used to refer to both Mary and Jesus, with only due subordination of her to him expressed. So, there should be no other reservation. Hence, the implication of cooperation in the full sense.

To Most Collection home page