With these words, Pope Pius XII formally declared, in 1950, the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven to be a dogma of the Catholic Church.
Over fifty years later, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary remains Catholic dogma that cannot change. But in the intervening years, the attitude of many Catholics regarding Our Lady has changed. For them, the Assumption of Mary has become largely irrelevant-a doctrinal antique cluttering up the Church's theological attic. They may well nod affirmatively when asked whether they believe it, but their minds are not gripped by its meaning. They see no point to the doctrine.
Evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, think the dogma of Mary's Assumption anything but irrelevant. For them, it is all-too-relevant because it is utterly irreverent, and this for at least two reasons. First, because, in their view, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin unduly exalts Mary's role in salvation history, giving her an honor they say is due Christ alone. Second, because, resting on the claim of the Pope's authority to define dogmas, the Assumption is regarded as the most recent and perhaps most vivid demonstration of the Catholic Church's alleged penchant for "inventing" new dogmas without warrant in Scripture and then imposing them of the faithful as infallibly true.
But the Assumption of Mary is neither irrelevant as some Catholics think, nor irreverent as most Evangelicals believe. It is an immensely important truth, which neither diminishes the honor of Christ nor imposes on believers something contrary to Scripture.
But before anything else is said on the subject, some false assumptions about the Assumption must be cleared away. The first concerns the word assumption itself. Many Catholics assume people understand what the Church means by the word, when in fact they often don't. In this context, the word doesn't mean, as it usually does in contemporary English, a statement one holds without proof or demonstration. "Assumption" means here "to take up" and refers to Mary's being "taken up" body and soul to heaven by God.
This last point needs underscoring. We speak of Mary's Assumption, not her Ascension. Christ ascended, but the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven. In other words, unlike her Son Jesus, Mary didn't "go up on her own power" to heaven, so to speak, but was taken up by the power of God. The Assumption of Mary, then, is something God did for her, like her Immaculate Conception and Virginal Motherhood, not something she did herself. It is a result of Christ's redemptive power applied to the Blessed Mother.
Another erroneous assumption people sometimes make is to conclude that the Assumption means the Blessed Virgin never died. In reality, the doctrine says only that "having completed the course of her earthly life, [the Virgin Mary] was assumed body and soul into heaven," not that she in no way experienced death. Some theologians have argued (rightly or wrongly) that Mary didn't die, but the dogma itself doesn't say this.
The dogma of the Assumption means that the Virgin Mary now experiences in heaven that union of glorified body and soul which her son enjoys. She is no disembodied spirit, but a complete human person, body and soul, matter and spirit, reigning with Christ.
One final faulty assumption often made: that the doctrine of the Assumption is exclusively about Mary herself, without reference to Christ or the Church. But as Pope John Paul II reminds us, Catholic teaching about the Blessed Virgin Mary must be understood in light of the mystery of Christ and of the Church (Redemptoris mater, no. 4). These two basic Marian principles, as we might call them, help us understand the Blessed Virgin's Assumption too.
Consider the first principle-that Mary should be understood in light of the mystery of Christ. This principle explains why the Evangelical criticism about the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin misses the point. Mary's Assumption takes nothing from Christ himself, but rather demonstrates his power-the power of his Resurrection-at work in raising Mary, the first to believe in Christ, to the glorified life of heaven. It is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection" (no. 966), not a salvific event which stands on its own.
Undoubtedly we can ask why Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. The immediate and obvious answer is that this was a "favor" Jesus granted his mother. If we could to take our mothers body and soul to heaven, wouldn't we do it?