Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, by Father Bertrand L Conway

The Abbe Renaudin has written an excellent historico-dogmatic treatise to prove that the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a dogma that may and ought to be defined. We have thought it good to summarize this volume for our readers, at times correcting the author’s statements in accord with the more critical estimates of modern liturgical specialists, and adding a few details about the Feast of the Assumption which he himself has not mentioned.

In his preface, the Abbe modestly disclaims all over-dogmatism, declaring “that in the last resort the Church alone has a right to settle such a question. As she has not yet spoken, I will merely suggest different hypotheses, clearly indicating those which I prefer.” To quote Saint Augustine: “We are speaking tentatively rather than giving a hasty judgment.”

After a thorough discussion of the conditions required for dogmatic definitions, and the reasons that prompt their final utterance, the Abbe discusses in turn the doctrinal character of the Assumption, its proof in history and the Sacred Scriptures, its status as a dogma of divine apostolic tradition, and the movement in Italy, France, and Spain in favor of its definition.

The term Assumption in Catholic theology connotes three distinct things, viz., the death of the Blessed Virgin; her resurrection soon after death; and her entrance, body and soul, into heaven. In Christian antiquity, the terms used to signify the Feast of the Assumption – dormitio (sleeping), pausatio (pause), transitus (passing to eternity), depositio (placing in the grave) – emphasized particularly the fact of the Blessed Virgin’s death, although by metonymy they also designated her resurrection and assumption. The words in themselves prove nothing against the doctrine, for as late as the fifteenth century, when no one questioned the Assumption, ecclesiastical writers were still using the term dormitio. We must remember too that in primitive Christianity the word assumptio was frequently used to designate the death of the saints, especially of the martyrs, as we may read in the Hieronymian Martyrology. At the present time, the word assumptio is used exclusively to designate the Blessed Virgin’s entrance into heaven, body and soul. It is employed in direct contrast to the active term ascensio, which signifies our Lord’s bodily entrance into heaven of His own Divine Power. His Mother’s assumption was due solely to the power of Almighty God.

It is universally held to-day that the Blessed Virgin died before she was assumed into heaven. Saint Epiphanius (+403) is the only one of the early Fathers who is uncertain on this point, for he says: “I say not that she did not die, yet I am not certain that she did die.” A few theologians, moreover, in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, held that she did not die because of her Immaculate Conception, but they had little or no following.

When and where the Blessed Virgin died are matters of mere conjecture. The dates assigned for her death – A.D. 41-48 – rest on no sure historical foundation. Both Ephesus and Jerusalem claim to be her place of burial. The scholars, who declare for Ephesus, point to the fact that our Lord from the cross confided his mother to Saint John, and rely on a false rendering of a very obscure text of the Synodal letter of the Council of Ephesus in 431. In very recent times, Monsignor Timoni, Archbishop of Smyrna, and others quote confidently the rather doubtful discovery of the house of the Blessed Virgin unearthed at Panaghai Capouli, near Ephesus. The scholars, who declare for Jerusalem, rely upon a number of apocryphal writings which are valuable for their antiquity and their unanimity, the accounts of ancient pilgrimages such as the itinerary of Antoninus of Piacenza, and some other testimonies of the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries The Jerusalem tradition is twofold, some authorities favoring Gethsemani on the Mount of Olives, and others the house of the Cenacle in Jerusalem itself.

It is only in the second half of the sixth century, that we meet with the first authentic and unquestioned documents, treating of the doctrine of the Assumption. It is true that there are a great number of apocryphal writings of the first five centuries that mention both the doctrine and the feast, but scholars to-day are unanimous in declaring these references interpolations of a later date, or pseudo-writings of periods as late as the twelfth century, full of imaginary and legendary details. The chief of these apocrypha are as follows:

Prior to the Council of Ephesus: The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles; The Death of the Virgin, by Leucius, a pseudo-companion of the Apostles; and a Syriac work, The Obsequies of the Holy Virgin, fragments of which have been published by Dr. Wright in 1865.

After the Council of Ephesus: A Coptic text, published by Zoego in his Catalogus Codicum Copticorum; the Gospels of the pseudo-Gamaliel and Saint Bartholomew; the De Transitu Maria Virginis of the fifth century, attributed to Saint Melito of Sardis (+194); the fifth century accounts attributed to Saint John (De Obitu Sanctce Domince), to Saint Joseph of Arimathea, and to Saint Dionysius the Areopagite (De Divinis Nominibns); the interpolation in the Chronicle of Eusebius, which is not found in the oldest manuscripts; the recently-discovered letter of Saint Dionysius to Bishop Titus, which Nirschl has rather arbitrarily dated 363 A. D.; a sermon of Saint Jerome, probably of the twelfth century, although Archbishop Hincmar defended its authenticity against a monk of Corbie; a sermon of Saint Augustine (De Assumptione) of the twelfth century, and a treatise on the Assumption, which is probably the work of Fulbert of Chartres (+1029).

The principal authority for the details of the Blessed Virgin’s death is Saint John Damascene (c.760), who tells us that he relies on the authority of a certain unknown writer, Euthymius. Pulcheria, the wife of the Emperor Marcion (450-457), had erected a Church of Our Lady in a suburb of Constantinople known as Blachernae. Wishing to bury the body of the Blessed Virgin there, she wrote Bishop Juvenal of Jerusalem to that effect, but he informed her that the body of the Mother of God was not to be found in his episcopal city. She had indeed been buried in the Garden of Gethsemani, in the presence of all the Apostles save Saint Thomas. He arrived three days after the burial, and wishing to venerate the body of the Blessed Virgin, had the tomb opened. The tomb was found empty, save for the linen grave clothes, which emitted a fragrant perfume. Whereupon the Apostles concluded that the Lord had taken up her body with Him into heaven. All scholars regard this account as purely legendary, especially as Bishop Juvenal was an adept at forgery. His literary dishonesty was most bitterly denounced by Pope Leo I. in a letter to Maximus of Antioch.

Rationalistic critics like Renan have often asserted that the Catholic belief in the Assumption depended entirely upon these apocryphal and legendary writings. This is not the fact. The Church has never drawn her teaching from such impure sources. On the contrary, she has utterly ignored and distrusted them, forbidding, in the so-called Decree of Gelasius, the faithful even to read the most important of them all, the De Transitu Marice of the pseudo-Melito. Moreover, although she inserted in the office of the fourth day within the Octave of the Assumption, the account of Saint John Damascene, which reproduced, as the text declared, ” an ancient and very trustworthy tradition,” she very carefully suppressed the words very trustworthy, so as not to vouch for the legendary details connected with the doctrine.

There are two views among Catholic scholars regarding the value and use of these apocryphal writings. Some maintain that they may be cited as an historical proof of the Church’s belief at the time of their composition, and that, though we may set aside the legendary details, we are to accept the fact of the Assumption as a doctrine handed down by the Church’s oral tradition. Others hold that it is better to ignore their testimony altogether, until we become more certain of their origin, and date of composition. At any rate, the Church is, in her belief, perfectly independent of these apocryphal documents, and could see them all disappear with the greatest equanimity. For as Dom Renaudin says: “It is not probable that the opinion of an author, more or less trustworthy, originating in the fifth century, could have suddenly spread throughout the East and West, in such a way as to be accepted by Churches widely separated from one another, and to have caused in so many different cities the immediate institution of a solemn feast. Such an agreement could not have been the result of chance. It must have come about through the universal persuasion among the Christian people that the doctrine of the Assumption was officially taught as the authentic teaching of an apostolic oral tradition.”8

Someone might object that it seems strange the Fathers of the first five centuries are silent about the doctrine of the Assumption. But as Saint Augustine said in his treatise on Baptism: “There are many things that the Universal Church maintains, and that we reasonably believe were preached by the Apostles, although they never have been put in writing.” In matters of tradition and belief, prescription in the Church has the force of law, and the providential rule of doctrinal development permits of a teaching that was implicitly held at one age, being explicitly set forth in the Church’s preaching, liturgy, and written testimony of a later age. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is another instance in point, for there are no explicit testimonies for it in the first few centuries. It became prominent about the same time as the doctrine of the Assumption, i. e., in the sixth century.

Moreover, we may readily conjecture some reasons for the silence of the early Fathers. Perhaps they feared that certain heretics might cite this doctrine in proof of their errors. The Valentinians, for instance, might have used it to confirm their heretical notions about the body of the Saviour, which they thought was formed of a celestial and impassable substance. Perhaps, again, they may have kept the cultus of the Blessed Virgin in the background, because of the people’s proneness to idolatry at that time. Besides in those days of bitter persecution and bitter controversy on the most essential dogmas of the faith, it is easy to see how a subsidiary doctrine like the Assumption might rarely have been mentioned. From what we shall see later on of the clear teaching of the sixth century onwards, we are right in concluding that the only satisfactory explanation of the origin of this doctrine, is the firm conviction of the Church of its being a doctrine handed down by oral tradition from the Apostles.

From the very first days of Christianity there was an instinctive feeling among Christians that prompted them to celebrate the days on which the martyrs suffered. Later on the custom spread with regard to other classes of saints, such as virgins, confessors, and the like. The Church naturally met this popular feeling by making these anniversaries public solemnities, or feasts. It would seem natural for the faithful to celebrate in some way the death of the Mother of God, especially after the Council of Ephesus. As most of the ancient feasts originated either at the tomb of a martyr, or at some of the holy places in Palestine, it may be conjectured that the feast of the Assumption arose near the tomb of the Blessed Virgin at Gethsemani.

One of the earliest feasts we know of “in memory of the Holy and Ever Virgin Mary, Mother of God,” was kept at Antioch about the year 380. It commemorates the death of the Blessed Virgin, but says nothing of her Assumption. In a life of Saint Theodosius (+529), a monk who lived near Jerusalem in the sixth century, there is mention of a solemn feast of the Blessed Virgin, which Baumer conjectures to have been a Feast of the Assumption. He places the date as 507, but gives no reasons for his hypothesis.

The Emperor Maurice (582-602), the friend and contemporary of Saint Gregory the Great, is said to have ordered the Feast of the Assumption to be solemnly kept throughout the Empire on the fifteenth of August. Although this fact comes to us on the authority of a Greek historian of the fourteenth century, Nicephorus Callisti (+1341), it is generally accepted as authentic by modern liturgists and historians. He certainly had access to many documents that are now lost.

Saint Modestus, Patriarch of Jerusalem (+634), is one of the oldest unquestioned testimonies that come to us from the East. He wrote a panegyric on the Assumption, which, while full of legendary details, bears clear witness to the existence of the feast as early as the seventh century.

According to Kellner, the feast in the East was certainly older than the sixth century, “for not only the heretical sects, which separated from the Church in the fifth century, such as the Monophysites and the Nestorians, preserved this festival at the time of their separation, but most ancient national Churches, such as the Armenians and the Ethiopians, have it in their calendars.”

In the West the most ancient writer to speak of the Assumption is Saint Gregory of Tours (+593). He writes: “The Lord had the most holy body (of the Virgin) taken into heaven, where, reunited to her soul, it now enjoys with the elect, happiness without end Mary, the glorious Mother of Christ, was taken up into heaven by the Lord, whilst the angelic choirs sang hymns of joy.” In another passage, he tells us that a feast of the Blessed Virgin was solemnly celebrated with a vigil about the middle of the eleventh month, i.e., January. Many believe the feast referred to is the Feast of the Assumption, but others think he alludes to the Feast of the Maternity. The first clear mention of the feast in the West is in the Canons of Bishop Sonnatius of Rheims, which were composed about the year 630.17 Le Blant has called attention to an inscription of the year 676, which clearly speaks of the feast celebrated on August 15th. Other seventh century witnesses of the feast are the Gothic Missal, the Gallican Missal, and the Bobbio Missal, which was used by Irish missionaries in Gaul.

We have no information whatever regarding the introduction of the Feast of the Assumption into Rome. We know that the oldest feast of our Lady celebrated there was on January 1st, the Octave of our Saviour’s birth. It was first kept at Santa Maria Maggiore, and later at Santa Maria ad Martyres. All other feasts of our Lady were probably of Byzantine origin. Under Sergius I (687-701), the Feast of the Assumption, was with the Feasts of the Nativity and the Annunciation, one of the chief Roman solemnities. The Liber Pontificalis speaks of it, without implying in any way that it was of recent institution, so that some scholars have inferred that it went back to the days of Pope Gregory the ‘Great (590-604). Duchesne denies this emphatically, saying: “It is certain that the Feasts of the Nativity and the Dormitio of the Blessed Virgin were not in existence in the time of Saint Gregory. Not only does he never make mention of them, but the same is true of all the documents bearing on the Roman usage prior to, or considered prior to, the sixth century, such as the Calendar of Carthage, the Leonian Sacramentary, etc. But what is still more conclusive, these festivals were still unknown to the Anglo-Saxon Church at the beginning of the eighth century.”

About 847, Leo IV ordered that the Feast of the Assumption should be celebrated with a vigil and octave in the basilica of Saint Lawrence without the walls. We do not hear of it again for a century. In 858, Pope Nicholas I, in his response to the Bulgarians, mentions the fast on the vigil of the Assumption as “an ancient custom.”

Duchesne believes that this feast is a Byzantine importation, which passed from Rome to Gaul, as soon as they adopted the Roman liturgy. Kellner questions this, saying: “In the Gothic-Gallican Missal of the seventh or eighth century, edited by Mabillon, the festival is placed on January 18th and not on August 15th, as is also the case in the Lectionary of Luxeuil of the seventh century. This circumstance points to the conclusion that, independently of Byzantine influence, it was observed already at an earlier date in other parts of the Church as well, and came into existence spontaneously, so to speak.”

There is a great deal of uncertainty about the date on which the Feast of the Assumption was celebrated. The primitive date in the West seems to have been January 18th, for that is the day mentioned in Gregory of Tours, the Lectionary of Luxeuil, the Bobbio Missal, and in many of the ancient calendars and martyrologies. Baumer says that the monks in Egypt and Arabia kept this date, and that the monks of Gaul adopted it with many other usages of Egypt. In the Greek Church, some observed the feast in January with the monks of Egypt, and some in August with the monks of Palestine. The Emperor Maurice most likely made the observance uniform in the seventh century. One martyrology of the West speaks of January 22d, and the Coptic Church placed the feast on January 16th (21 Tybi).

In the eighth and ninth centuries, we find the feast mentioned by the Council of Salsburg in 799, in the Council of Mayence in 813, in the rule of Saint Chrodegang, Bishop of Mayence, and in the laws of Herard, Archbishop of Tours. In the East, we have three homilies each of Saint Andrew, Archbishop of Crete (+720), Saint Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople (+733), and of Saint John Damascene (+760). It is also mentioned by Cosmas, Bishop of Majuma in Palestine (+781), Saint Theodore Studites (+826), and Saint Joseph the Hymnographer (+833). From this time the witnesses become more numerous. A complete list of the chief writers who speak either of the doctrine or Feast of the Assumption from the tenth century onwards will be found in Chapter III. of the Abbe Renaudin’s treatise.

It is true that at the end of the eighth and during part of the ninth century, there were some writers who either questioned the fact of the Assumption, or declared, in view of the apocryphal accounts of it, that ” piety and honesty both demanded a confession of ignorance ” on the part of the true Catholic scholar. For example, a pseudo-letter of Saint Jerome to Paula and Eustochium of the eighth century, written probably by Abbot Autbert of Saint Vincent, warns the faithful against the apocryphal De Transitu Virginis, and urges them “not to take its doubtful assertions for certain truth.” The writer then adds: “Many of us doubt whether she was assumed together with her body, or whether she departed this life, having separated from her body. How, when or by whom her most sacred body was taken away, where it was conveyed, or whether she rose again, we do not know.”

The supposed authority of Saint Jerome misled a number of mediaeval theologians, who professed their utter ignorance of the fact of the Assumption. Among them we may mention the martyrologies of Ado and Usuard (858 and 860), the Capitularies of Charlemagne, the writings of the pseudo-Augustine and Idelphonsus. But, as the Abbe Renaudin asserts, “these are only rare discordant voices in the general concert of homage rendered to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin by the Popes, the liturgies of the East and West, the teaching of the Fathers, the preaching of the Bishops, and the firm conviction of the faithful everywhere.”

Since the ninth century, the doctrine has rarely been questioned. In August, 1497, tne Dominican, Jean Morcelle, while preaching in Saint Benedict’s Church of Paris, made a number of statements contrary to the accepted teaching on the Assumption. He was forced at once by the Sorbonne to retract. At the Cathedral of Paris, Usuard’s martyrology, which ignored the Assumption, was read until 1540, when a homily explicitly setting forth the doctrine was substituted. A century later (1668), Canon Claude Joly managed to have the old martyrology restored, and at once a bitter controversy arose, in which the orthodox doctrine was ably defended against him by two other doctors of the University, Jacques Gaudin and Nicolas Billiard. Some of the Jansenists denied the Assumption, for in one of their books on the Rosary we read: “We must keep silence about the Assumption, and not honor the Blessed Virgin by rashness and lying.” The French historian Tillemont said that he was opposed to the doctrine of the Assumption ” according to the principles of history, and not according to the principles of theology,” a false distinction condemned in the modernism of the twentieth century. Noel Alexander also questioned this doctrine, but when called to account for it by his superiors, he asserted that he had simply meant to teach “that the Assumption was not a dogma defined by the Church.”

The last controversy on the doctrine dates from the end of the eighteenth century. Dr. Marant, a professor of history at Louvain, denied, in the name of historical criticism, the fact of the Assumption, and when accused of rashness by some of the other professors, wrote a work against it, which was refuted by the Abbes Salmon, Van den Baviere, and Van den Driesch (1787, 1788). All these controversies in the long run were beneficial, as they resulted in theologians carefully distinguishing the solid from the faulty arguments frequently brought forward by over zealous but not over learned disputants. For example, it is generally admitted to-day that the two texts often cited in the past to prove the Assumption – Luke 1:28 and Genesis 3:15 – are by no means rigorous proofs, although once the doctrine is otherwise proved, they might give some intimation of the true teaching. The Abbe Renaudin devotes some thirty pages to the Scriptural proofs of the doctrine, but we were not impressed with this part of his work. It is true that he sets forth accurately the typical sense of the Sacred Scriptures, and its use and interpretation by our Lord; Saint Paul, and the other Apostles. But he fails to grasp that the use of such types as the Ark of Noah, the Ark of the Covenant, the Burning Bush, the Spouse of the Canticle of Canticles, etc., with reference to the Assumption of our Lady is merely oratorical coloring, and in no sense dogmatic proof.

In a most important chapter, entitled “The Divine-Apostolic Tradition,” the Abbe Renaudin shows conclusively that the Assumption is a doctrine that could only have originated by a special revelation of our Lord to the Apostles. “How did they know this doctrine?” he asks, and then he suggests five possible hypotheses:

1. They inferred the Assumption from the fact that they did not find the Blessed Virgin’s body in the tomb (Saint John Damascene);

2. They saw her body miraculously carried up to heaven by the ministry of angels;

3. They saw her going up to heaven as once they had seen the Lord;

4. They perceived her body in heaven, as Saint Stephen once saw the heavens opened; or

5. God revealed this prerogative of His Mother by a special revelation.

He concludes in favor of the last hypothesis, declaring that only on this supposition can we account for the wide and general acceptance of this doctrine by the faithful, and its clear presentation to us to-day by the Church’s ordinary magisterium.

He tells us in detail of the various supplications that have been forwarded to Rome in late years in favor of the definition of the doctrine of the Assumption as a dogma of faith, though he is very careful to state that at present ” the doctrine is only certain, and cannot be denied without the greatest rashness.” The ordinary magisterium has not as yet given any pronouncement regarding its origin, and has not as yet presented it to the faithful as a part of the deposit of the faith. He hopes with many a devout soul that some day it will be promulgated by the Church as a dogma of the faith, as in 1854 the Immaculate Conception was by Pope Pius IX.