Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The Vatican Council on the Assumption of Our Lady

by Dom Jerome Gassner, O.S.B.


In this article Fr. Jerome Gassner describes the documents of Vatican Council I which provide the solemn definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady, he summarizes their contents and reviews the arguments presented along with their dogmatic value.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


1092 - 1098

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., September 1950

In a letter of January 8, 1870, Antoninus Monescillo, Bishop of Jaen in Spain, submitted to the Vatican Council the first petition for the solemn definition ("declaretur, vel potius acclametur") of the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady. On February 23, 1870, Joseph Benedict Dusmet, O.S.B., Archbishop (later Cardinal) of Catania, Sicily, and Bishop L. M. Ideo of the Lipari Islands, introduced the requests (postulate) of 195 members of the Council1 for an "explicit and solemn declaration and definition" of the dogma of the Assumption. These "Postulata" are of current interest, since it may be expected that the efforts made towards the same end at the present time will follow the doctrinal basis outlined in the documents of the Vatican Council (cfr. "Collectio Lacensis," Vol. VII, "Acta et Decreta SS. Concilii Vaticani," Freiburg im B., Appendix XXV: Varia Postulata Beverendissimorum Patrum Concilii; No. 11: Postulata pro dogmatica definitione Assumptionis Corporeae B. M. V. in caelum, col. 868-872). In the present article we describe these documents, summarize their contents, and review the arguments presented and their dogmatic value.

Enumeration and Contents of the Documents

1. The first document recorded is the letter of introduction of the "Postulata," addressed to the "Fathers of the First Vatican Council pro petitionibus" (Congregatio examinandis Patrum propositionibus), signed by Archbishop Dusmet and Bishop Ideo. The letter requests the solemn definition of the Assumption with these words: "Beatam Mariam anima immaculata et corpore virgineo ad dexteram Dei Filii, nostram praestantissimam mediatricem adstare."

2. The second document is a summary of the theological bases of the dogma, entitled: "Momenta pro dogmaticae definitionis Assumptionis Corporeae Beatae Mariae Virginis in coelum possibilitate."

The object of the dogma is explained as a "factum dogmaticum," not accessible to the senses, which cannot be testified by human authority. The document points out the difference between this and other facts like the Canonization of Saints, the presence of St. Peter in Rome — facts which are pronounced with "ecclesiastical" certitude, whereas the Assumption is to be understood as a "factum dogmaticum" revealed by God and an object of theological faith. It is further mentioned that the bodily Assumption (anticipated Resurrection) of the Blessed Virgin constitutes a privilege different from the beatific vision, enjoyed by the soul of the Blessed Virgin together with the rest of the Saints according to the ordinary laws of the order of grace.

The theological arguments are presented in four groups: a) the very old and constant belief of both the Occidental and Oriental Church, of the teaching as well as the learning Church; b) the very numerous testimonies of the Fathers of the Church from ancient times until the twelfth century who describe the Assumption as a revealed truth and are of the opinion that this truth is indicated in several passages of Holy Scripture; c) the teaching of the theologians from the twelfth century until our times; d) very impressive arguments "ex ratione theologica," drawn chiefly from the Divine Maternity, then from the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and finally from the dignity of Mary as Queen of the Angels.

3. The third document is entitled "Momenta pro invocatae definitionis opportunitate," and enumerates seven reasons. a) The rationalism of our times must be opposed by the propagation and extension of the empire of faith. b) The sacriligious denial of the Divinity of Christ must be opposed by the definition of the dogma of the Assumption, which has its basis in the Divine Maternity and implies a confession of the Divinity of Our Lord. c) The propagation of the glory of the Assumption will conquer the heresies according to the text: "Cunctas haereses sola interemisti in universo mundo." d) Materialism and indifferentism must be opposed by a confession of faith in "carnis resurrectionem," implied in the dogma of the Assumption. e) The crown of the glories of Mary requires a last gem still missing: the dogma of the Assumption. f) The devotion of the faithful deserves the definition, which will increase their merit of faith, and make true again the axiom: "Lex supplicantium sit lex credentium." g) The definition of the dogma of the Assumption would be a guarantee for an early and successful conclusion of the Council, which began under the auspices of the Immaculate Conception (a dogma proclaimed some years before by the same Pope Pius IX).

4. The rest of the documents consist of nine letters with the formal postulates of 18, 113, 31, 5, 13, 2, 5, 7, and 1 Fathers of the Council. According to their contents, they can be classified into four groups with a total of 61, 113, 20, and 1 signatures, respectively.

a) Five letters with a total of 61 signatures refer to the threefold victory of the Blessed Virgin: over sin by her Immaculate Conception, over concupiscence by her Virginal Maternity, over death by her Assumption, and declare this truth as the perpetual belief of both Churches and a venerable tradition.

b) A single letter, with a total of 113 signatures, enumerates a series of arguments from Scripture, tradition, and "ex ratione theologica." The arguments from Scripture about the threefold victory are drawn from Rom., v-viii, I Cor, xv. 24, 26, 54, 57, Heb., ii. 14, 15, in connection with Gen., iii. 15. Reference is made to the unanimous interpretation of these texts concerning the Assumption by the Fathers of the Church. The arguments from tradition are listed as: the unanimous consent of the Fathers of the Church; the constant, public, and solemn cult; the absence of relics of the Blessed Virgin; the empty tomb. It is further declared that this tradition is not based on apocryphal writings condemned by the so-called "Decretum Gelasianum." The arguments "ex ratione theologica" are based on: the dignity of the Mother of God, her perpetual virginity, her eminent sanctity, her intimate connection and consent with Christ, and the affection of the Divine Son for His Mother. Finally, reference is made to an argument from tradition of capital importance: the celebration of the feast of the Assumption with the homilies of St. John Damascene and St. Bernard.

As representatives of patristic tradition enumerated in a quotation from the "De Canonizatione Sanctorum," lib. I, cap. 42, n. 15, of Pope Benedict XIV, the following Fathers of the Church are listed: St. Gregory of Tours (d. 594), St. Andrew of Jerusalem (d. 720), St. Gregory I (d. 604), St. Ildephonsus of Toledo (d. 667), St. John Damascene (d. 787?), St. Bernard (d. 1153).

c) Two letters signed by a total of 20 Fathers of the Council describe the Assumption as an object of faith maintained by the universal Church, testified by the highest devotion of the faithful and based on the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

d) One single letter, signed by Bishop Monescillo of Jain, enumerates four reasons: the Immaculate Conception of Mary, her perpetual virginity, her eminent sanctity, and the celebration of the feast of the Assumption.

The Arguments From Sacred Scripture2

The argumentation from Scripture for the Assumption is analogous to the argumentation for the Immaculate Conception. In Gen., iii. 15 ("I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel"), the Blessed Virgin is associated with her Divine Son in His victory; according to Rom., v-viii, I Cor, xv. 24, 26, 54, 57, this victory is a threefold one: over sin and over the consequences of sin, concupiscence and death.

This argument is explicitly presented in the single postulate with 113 signatures; it is also alluded to in the "Momenta pro dogmaticae definitionis possibilitate," and implied in five letters with a total of 61 signatures referring summarily to the threefold victory.

In all these arguments the wording cautions against an exaggeration of the value of the testimonies from Scripture alone. In all postulates the argument from Scripture is coupled with the testimony from tradition. So, in the "Momenta" reference is first of all made to the "most numerous testimonies of the Fathers who see this truth indicated in some passages of Scripture" ("in nonullis Sanctarum Scripturarum oraculis etiam insinuari autumnant"). The postulate, which refers explicitly to Gen., iii. 15, and the related texts of the New Testament, adds that "accedente unanimi Sanctorum Patrum suffragio" one may not doubt that in these passages the threefold victory of the Blessed Mother is foretold.

As in the arguments for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the scriptural texts alone, without their interpretation by tradition, would not furnish the complete meaning of the dogma with all required certitude, so likewise for the dogma of the Assumption. Once the distinct and certain knowledge of the fact by tradition is conceded, it can be demonstrated that this truth is implicitly contained in Scripture (cfr. L. Lercher, S.J., "Institutiones Dogmaticae," Innsbruck, 1925, Vol. III, p. 338).

Arguments from Tradition

All arguments of the various postulates derive their demonstrative force from tradition. The "Momenta" declare emphatically: "Very ancient and constant is the belief — of both the Occidental and Oriental Church, of the teaching as well as the learning Church — in the bodily Assumption of the Mother of God . . . This most strong faith of the Church must have without doubt its origin in divine apostolic tradition." And again: "It is a truth to be defined as 'de fide,' because it is contained in the divine apostolic tradition."

Five postulates with a total of 61 signatures refer to the threefold victory of the Blessed Virgin with the words: "According to the perpetual belief of both Churches and according to the venerable tradition . . . "

The single postulate with 113 signatures refers to the "ancient tradition of both Churches evident from the unanimous consent of the Fathers and the constant, public and solemn cult," confirmed by the absence of relics of the Blessed Virgin and by the empty tomb. This tradition does not have its basis in the apocryphal books, but is a tradition of Apostolic origin.

Two letters signed by a total of 20 Fathers present the dogma as a truth "which the universal Church has maintained at all times, which the faithful have venerated with the highest devotion."

Now, this tradition could have its origin in "virtual" revelation in the following way: in the course of the growing cult of the Blessed Virgin the question arose what to think about the fate of the virginal body of Mary. The Apostles, or their disciples, saw the Assumption so closely connected with the rest of the prerogatives of the Blessed Mother that they did not hesitate to propose the Assumption to the faithful as a conclusion deduced from revealed premises. This way of development seems to be implied in the expression of one postulate: ". . . hoc privilegium, quod in systemate Mariano conspicua pars est, quodque tantopere cum aliis doctrinis revelatis cohaeret, Apostolos . . . latere non potuisse." The "Momenta," however, speaking with emphasis of a "traditio divino-apostolica," understand the basis of this apostolic tradition obviously as "formal" revelation. The firmness, constancy, and universality of this tradition is adequately explained only by formal revelation. Virtual revelation could hardly result in such a firm, constant, and universal tradition.

In both texts which declare the tradition as of apostolic origin, reference is made in particular to St. John the Apostle. The "Momenta" speak of the possibility of such a revelation to St. John, since he died after the dormition of the Blessed Virgin. The single postulate with 113 signatures says that "this privilege . . . could not remain unknown to the Apostles, and to John himself."

St. John, who was privileged with the great vision of the Apocalypse (Apoc., xii. 1 "and a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars"), is in the opinion of the Fathers of the Vatican Council most likely the one to whom the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady was revealed.

The Feast of the Assumption

Of capital importance in the argument from tradition is the testimony of the Liturgy. The postulate with 113 signatures refers to the feast of the Assumption in the following passage: "It is an ancient tradition of both Churches, clearly demonstrated in the unanimous consent of the Fathers, and the constant, public, and solemn cult." In the same paragraph, in connection with the words of St. Bernard (Ep. 174: "I received from the Church that this day is to be celebrated with highest veneration, because it gave to the heavens a most glorious feast of joy"), Benedict XIV is cited with the statement that it is of capital importance (caput est) that the Church with her authority and affirmation not only celebrates the Assumption, but has also ordained that the homilies of St. John Damascene and of St. Bernard, who are so explicit on the bodily Assumption of Our Lady, be read in the Divine Office.

The postulate of Bishop Monescillo calls the feast of the Assumption "quaedam professio . . . fidei populi christiani," so that the acclamation by the Council would not mean so much an increase of the devotion of the faithful, but rather a great and most tender consolation for the disturbed universe.

The feast of the Assumption is probably the most ancient of all feasts of Mary. It was celebrated before the Councils of Ephesus (431) and of Chalcedon (451), since it is a common feast of the Catholic Church with the Nestorians and Monophysites. It is a feast celebrated with high solemnity by the very ancient national Churches of the Armenians and Ethiopians. Its introduction in Rome was probably in connection with the dedication of the Basilica of Mary Major by Pope Liberius (352-366), and received a new impulse at the time of Pope Sixtus III (432440), who was the ardent admirer of the glory of the Theotokos, and reconstructed the basilica as a memorial of the Council of Ephesus. At the time of St. Gregory I (590-604), the day of the celebration was fixed on August 15 by Emperor Mauritius (582-602). Pope Sergius (687-701), himself a Syrian, ordained a solemn procession, and surrounded the feast with all Oriental splendor.

Solemn Liturgical Procession in Medieval Times

The order of the solemn procession, which in the course of time became one of the most characteristic liturgical events of medieval Rome, was this: Early in the morning, the faithful, carrying lighted candles, singing a litany, went in procession to the Church of St. Adrian, where they awaited the coming of the Pontiff. Arriving on horseback from the Lateran palace, the Pope and his seven deacons put on the vestments, and the procession set off. First walked seven crossbearers with their crosses. Then, at short intervals, eighteen deacons carrying as many icons of the Blessed Virgin. The people followed, praying aloud. Then came the clergy attached to the palace, with the Pope escorted by two acolytes, carrying lighted torches. A subdeacon came next swinging a thurible with incense, then two more crossbearers, one behind the other and each bearing a precious stational cross. The procession was concluded by the schola cantorum, who sang alternately with the clergy the antiphons and litany. The procession reached Mary Major at break of dawn. The Pope with his deacons withdrew to prepare for the celebration of Mass. Meanwhile the clergy together with the faithful lay prostrate in the basilica as on Holy Saturday for the singing of the Litany of the Saints, now sung the third time, and as a "litania ternaria" (i.e., each invocation was sung three times).

An important feature of the nocturnal procession with lighted candles and torches was an ancient image of the Saviour, rescued from the fury of the Iconoclasts at Constantinople. In a hymn of the early eleventh century is given a description of this colorful festival ("Incipit Carmen in Assumption Sanctae Mariae. In nocte, quando tabula portatur," Monte Cassino cod. 451, folio 318; cfr. I. Schuster, "The Sacramentary," London, 1930, Vol. V, pp. 32 sq.).

The most ancient Roman liturgical documents are the Collects of the feast in the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries. The Secret of the Gelasian Sacramentary states clearly the object of the feast: "Receive, O Lord, the oblation which we offer to Thee on the second solemnity (the first was probably the feast of the Dormition celebrated on August 5) of the Blessed Mary, for it redounds to the praise of Thy glory that so noble a virgin should be assumed into heaven (quod talis assumpta est). Through Our Lord, etc." The Gregorian Sacramentary has this Oration: "Truly venerable to us, O Lord, is this solemnity in which the holy Mother of God endured temporal death, but remained free from its fetters, having given birth to the Incarnate Lord Thy Son, who with Thee, etc."

The Arguments "Ex Ratione Theologica"

Manifold are the arguments "ex ratione theologica," drawn from the relation and connection of the Assumption with the rest of the prerogatives of the Blessed Virgin: from the connection with the Divine Maternity; with the Immaculate Conception; with the perpetual virginity; with Mary's eminent sanctity; with the unity of flesh and the union of affection between the Blessed Mother and her Divine Son; with the affection of Christ towards His Mother; finally from the idea of Mary as Queen of the Angels.

The first place in these arguments is given to those from the Divine Maternity and from the Immaculate Conception, according to the documents of the Council. In the "Momenta" the arguments drawn from the Divine Maternity are called "gravissima theologica momenta, quaenempe a Divina potissimum Maternitate desumuntur." Since the Divine Maternity is the first motive for all privileges of the Blessed Virgin, it is consequently also the first basis for the prerogative of her bodily Assumption. In the same passage of the "Momenta" the Immaculate Conception is mentioned in the second place: "Immaculata Conceptio hue etiam potissimum spectat." Further, two postulates (one with 13 and a second with 7 signatures) refer likewise to the Immaculate Conception as a theological reason for the Assumption. Just as the Blessed Virgin in entering life was preserved from every corruption of sin, so in leaving this world she was preserved from every corruption of the body, because of reverence for her virginal flesh: "Sicut a Deo custodita fuit a corruptione peccati in ipso suo primo introitu ad vitam, sic et in felici suo exitu, ob reverentiam virgineae carnis, ex qua carnem sumpsit, a corruptione corporis servatam immunem." Bishop Monescillo in his postulate states simply: "Dogma fidei est Immaculata Conceptio B. M. V.; dogma fidei oportet esse eiusdem B. M. V. Assumptio." These statements indicate that the Immaculate Conception is to be considered as the proximate motive, the immediate reason, for the Assumption.

In conclusion, we may come back to the very charming argument from the dignity of the Queen of the Angels. It does not seem to be fitting that the Blessed Virgin should have to await the integral vision of God until after the last judgment, while the angels already enjoy perfectly the Divine Vision "in propria natura perfecta." The dignity of the Queen of Angels demands rather that the Blessed Virgin should likewise enjoy the Divine Vision integrally, perfectly, "in propria natura perfecta."

All postulates with the letter of introduction by the saintly Cardinal Dusmet express the hope and confidence that the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption would guarantee an early and happy conclusion of the Vatican Council, opened under the auspices of the Immaculate Conception. It did not happen so. The House of Savoy with the Piedmontese occupied Rome, and the Vatican Council had to be adjourned with the Apostolic letter of October 20, 1870: "The sacrilegious invasion of Rome by which the rights of sovereignty of the Apostolic See were violated with incredible perfidy and brutality . . . the hostile domination and power" forced Pope Pius IX to the proclamation: "Vaticanum Concilium . . . motu proprio eiusdem oecumenici Concilii celebrationem usque ad aliud opportunius et commodius tempus per hanc Sanctam Sedem declarandam, Apostolica auctoritate tenore praesen tium suspendimus . . . "


1. Denzinger, "Enchiridion Symbolorum" (ed. 21-23, 1937) remarks in a footnote to the Bulla "Ineffabilis Deus" (DB 1641), that the Council urged with the signatures of 204 members the dogmatic definition of the Assumption. The letter of introduction of the postulates, however, speaks merely of "fere his centum." The documents show actually 195 signatures. The entire assembly of the Vatican Council numbered at the fourth and last session over 500 members present.

2. St. John Damascene, Hom. II in dormitionem B. M. V., ii, 18 (PG, XCVI, 748): "Etsi quae in sanctae deiparae Mariae morte contigerunt, in sanctis ac divinitus inspiratis scripturis non referuntur, tamen ex antiqua et verissima traditione acceptimus." St. Thomas (Summa Theol., III, Q. xxvii, art. 1, c) says with reference to a sermon attributed to St. Augustine: "Augustinus rationabiliter argumentatur, quod cum corpore sit assumpta in coelum (quod lamen Scriptura non tradit)."

© 1950 Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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