Mary: Mortal or Immortal?

Some years ago there was much theological discussion concerning this question. Can any of our readers answer for certain if this was, or was not, included in the 1950 definition of the Assumption?

The death of Mary was deliberately not mentioned in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 Munificentissimus Deus definition. The pope was well aware of the theological arguments on both sides of the question. It was Father Martin Jugie who believed that this action was deliberate. Many theologians thought that it was Jugie himself who influenced this pope’s action.

What did the pope actually define? Simply: Our Lady’s body could not be separated from her soul in heaven, after her earthly sojourn was completed. Although this was never defined, the prevailing opinion was, and still is, that she did die. The Virgin’s death, or non-death, was a matter of serious debate among the most serious of theologians. It was not really discussed by the faithful: they simply presumed, and believed, that Mary did die.

Since Pius XII had carefully avoided this dispute between the mortalists and non-mortalists in his definition, it was impossible then to say whether or not Mary did die. However, the apostolic bull did state that our Lady had been exempted from humankind’s general lot of bodily corruption in the grave.

Pius XI, predecessor of Pius XII, stated that the Virgin had been graced of original creation. The grace of Redemption did not bestow immortality immediately.

Death had been referred to as “sleep” from the earliest days of Christianity. St. Paul speaks of those who had died in the Lord as those who had “fallen asleep” through Jesus. “Going home in death” was looked upon as a birthday, “as an entry into a new life.”

The much more common opinion is that Mary’s glorification was total, but not immediate. The pope denied that Mary’s body and soul, assumed into heaven, were ever separated in glory. The celestial glorification of a body presupposes and derives from its union with the glorified Christ.

On the supposition that the Virgin died, it is only guesswork to speculate about the time that transpired between the moment of her death and her glorious resurrection and bodily assumption. However, the time had to have been insufficient to permit decay, since our Lady’s preservation from any corruption is Catholic doctrine.

Theologians can only surmise that the interval was in terms of an instant, minutes, hours at the maximum. The language of Nunificentissimus Deus, the defining document, suggests that the Assumption occurred fairly soon, if not immediately, after completing her earthly life. Consequently, the view of Anglican L.L. Mascall that the resurrection and bodily assumption of Mary may have taken place some centuries after her death must be rejected.

Some believe that the Resurrection was followed by a bodily Assumption into glory, escorting the Conqueror of Death in His triumphal entry into glory. “The tombstones opened, and many bodies of the saints, who had fallen asleep, arose; and many bodies came forth out of the tombs, after His resurrection, they came into the holy city, and appeared to many” (Mt 27:52-53).

Yet, even if that were true, Mary’s Assumption would still remain singular in nature since she was preserved from bodily corruption and since her privileges, particularly her divine maternity, were attributed to her unique place in salvation history. If the saints had been granted an immediate glorification, then it seems more logical that the finest of God’s creatures should receive that same reward.

According to Jesuit Karl Rahner, the significance of the Assumption for humankind is, that the faithful can proclaim for themselves, as well as for Mary, the resurrection of the flesh and life everlasting. This hope acknowledges Mary’s perfect beatitude.

And by affirming of her what we hope for ourselves, because it is impossible to announce anything more glorious, even about her, we in fact praise the boundless greatness of the supreme eternal glory which is to be ours, and in this praise, the greatness of each human being is fashioned by the merciful grace of God.

In this day, humankind is preoccupied with itself being the source of progress and, more specifically, bogged down by humanness. Some idolize the flesh; others detest it. The Church preaches not only abstract truths, but also, and more importantly, the generous mercy of God as manifested in the redemptive action of His Son. His mercy was realized not only in Jesus Christ, but those in need of salvation.

Through the Assumption, the Church announced that humankind, in body and soul, has already been saved, not only in Jesus Christ who came from above, but in Mary who came from below. Flesh, idolized and despised, has been considered worthy to be with God in eternity. The human condition neither separates humankind from God nor is it considered to be destroyed (although it must be transformed to enter into glory in intimate union with the triune Godhead). The human body has been created by the Father, redeemed by the Son, made holy by the Spirit and already saved forever.

Apocryphal authors placed the death of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem. They alleged varying miraculous events that surrounded her death. For example, her body was taken up en route to her burial place or she was assumed after three days in the tomb.

The date of the Assumption has been placed at several different times, from three to 50 years after the Ascension of her Son. St. Epiphanius of Salamis was the only author, prior to the Council of Ephesus in 431, who specifically treated this topic, but he opted for neither opinion. Great writers such as Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome simply assumed that she did die.

The eminent mariological theologian, Carmelite Eamon R. Carroll, summarized this question with his remark that what is definite is what the Church has taught and celebrated for 1,500 years: the mother of Jesus is with her Son, in body as well as in soul, in a state of glory, and this occurred after the time allotted to her by God upon earth had expired. The Mystery of the Assumption teaches that in Mary, the transfiguration of the cosmos, the principle of which lies in the Resurrection of Christ has already begun to produce its effect.

The Assumption is the dawn of the New Creation whose first rays filter through into the darkness of the world.

FATHER DUGGAN (1924-2007) was ordained a priest in June 1948 for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He was a graduate of the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, California.