This month we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I want to focus on a couple of points that have particular relevance for us as priests and deacons. I recently re-read Pope Pius XII’s 1950 apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, which promulgated the dogma; the following reflection flows from that.
The first point has less to do with the Assumption itself but with the process Pope Pius XII used prior to promulgating it an infallible dogma of the Church. As is well known, the First Vatican Council in 1870 defined the parameters of a papal exercise of infallibility. Specifically, such an exercise may take place with the pope “speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians. . . ., he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” While certainly not the first exercise of papal infallibility, Pius XII’s promulgation of the dogma of the Assumption is the first practical application of the specific terms of Pastor Aeternus.
In his apostolic constitution, the pope details the long tradition associated with a devotion to the bodily Assumption of Mary. Still, in order to more completely know the mind of the entire Church, he sent a letter in 1946 to the bishops of the world, since “we were dealing with a matter of such great moment and of such importance, we considered it opportune to ask all our venerable brethren in the episcopate directly and authoritatively that each of them should make known to us his mind in a formal statement.” His letter asked, “Do you, venerable brethren, in your outstanding wisdom and prudence, judge that the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith? Do you, with your clergy and people, desire it?” (Deiparae Virginis Mariae).
It was only following this four-year process of confirming the universal will of the Church that the pope moved forward with his promulgation.
The second point for our consideration is the focus given to the bodily Assumption of Mary. Far too often we can forget the incarnational reality of God. How many people ignore the profound creedal statement of belief in the “resurrection of the body”? In re-reading Pope Pius’s proclamation, the emphasis on the bodily assumption of Mary is strikingly clear, not only as a unique gift bestowed upon Mary, but upon all of us as disciples. The pope wrote, “in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.”
How can these two points illumine our own ministries? Here we have the example of a pope who, although he had the authority to act on his own in this matter, wisely sought the counsel of the countless petitions received by the Holy See but also through a substantive and extensive consultation with the bishops of the world. How consultative are we in ministry? Even when we have the authority to act alone, do we also recognize the wisdom and collaboration and consultation? And as to the second point, how incarnational is our own preaching and teaching? Just as Pope Pius was writing while the world was still recovering from the very real tragedies of the Second World War, we too exist in a time of distress, inhumanity and violence, times in which Christ’s very real presence in our lives is sought in so many ways. In Mary, the first disciple, we find a model of discipleship for all of us and, as the pope states, in Mary we can find see a glimpse of our own destiny.
As we plan for a new school year, as our parish ministries ramp up again for the fall, perhaps this is an opportune time to reflection on these two aspects of ministry in light of the Assumption of Mary.
DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.