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Solemnity of the Assumption—August 15

“Our Lady, Mary,” Pope Francis recently remarked, “is more important than the apostles, bishops, priests, or deacons.’’
The pope made the comment while he was talking with reporters during his flight from Brazil to Rome. The context was a discussion of the role of women in the Church.
The idea that Mary is more important than the apostles, to say nothing of us deacons, is not new; but Pope Francis often states a church teaching so succinctly—so bluntly, one might say—that it strikes us with more force, with greater clarity than ever before.
Of course, the pope wasn’t demeaning the apostles with that observation; rather, he was emphasizing that Mary was the first disciple of her son, Jesus. She was a disciple who without hesitation accepted God’s will in her life, accepted separation and worry because of Jesus’ public life, endured the pain of witnessing his death, and remained in the midst of his followers during the uncertain and dangerous days following his resurrection.
The woman who did all this shared our human nature, but, by God’s grace, she was unique in ways that the Church describes as the mysteries of the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, and the Assumption—the last of which we will celebrate on August 15.
The mystery of the Immaculate Conception refers to the fact that Mary was conceived in her mother’s womb without original sin. We human beings inherited the mark of the first sin against God, which the Book of Genesis expresses with the story of Adam and Eve and their encounter with the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
We are cleansed of that mark when we receive the sacrament of baptism.
But Mary, who was to be the mother of God, did not bear the mark of that sin when she was conceived in her own mother’s womb.
This doctrine, the Immaculate Conception, was proclaimed by Pope Alexander VII in 1661, although it had been celebrated much earlier, and it was defined as a dogmatic teaching of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
The second mystery, the Virgin Birth, refers to the fact that Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb by the action of the Holy Spirit, not by man.
The mystery of the Assumption, which we celebrate this month, refers to the fact that Mary was taken into the presence of God, body and soul, at the end of her life on earth.
Catholics had believed this since at least the third or fourth century. Finally, Pope Pius XII asked the advice of all the bishops in the world and, based on their responses, defined it as dogma in 1950.
In doing so, the pope left open a question that had been debated for centuries, namely whether Mary ever died a natural death or whether she was taken living into heaven.
Either way, the pope wrote that it seemed impossible to think of Mary, “the one who conceived Christ, brought him forth, nursed him with her milk, held him in her arms, and clasped him to her breast, as being apart from him in body, even though not in soul, after this earthly life. Since our Redeemer is the Son of Mary, he could not do otherwise, as the perfect observer of God’s law, than to honor, not only his eternal Father, but also his most beloved Mother. And, since it was within his power to grant her this great honor, to preserve her from the corruption of the tomb, we must believe that he really acted in this way’’ (Munficentissimus Deus, 38).
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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