How to Define Dogma

Today we commemorate the day on which “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”

These words are taken from a decree of Pope Pius XII, solemnly defining as dogma—that is, as revealed by God—a privilege which the faith and piety of Christians had always ascribed to their Blessed Mother.

Though comparisons sometimes kill, death is part of life, and anyone whose interest in the nature and limits of papal authority may have been piqued by recent events, would do well to study Pius’s use of that divine commission.

The saintly man (I trust it will be made official, when the Church emerges from its present thralldom to worldly powers) cites the first Vatican Council, reminding us that “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter in such a way that, by his revelation, they might manifest new doctrine, but so that, by his assistance, they might guard as sacred and might faithfully propose the revelation delivered through the apostles, or the deposit of faith.”

Before finally determining the point in question, Pius is careful to review its provenance from the earliest records of Christian prayer and teaching, through the affirmations of Church Fathers and Doctors, to the thousands of petitions he has himself received “from every part of the world and from every class of people, from our beloved sons the Cardinals of the Sacred College, from our venerable brethren, archbishops and bishops, from dioceses and from parishes.”

As one example plucked from the immemorial tradition from which Pope Pius humbly drew, I would recommend this recording of a reconstructed Vespers service for today’s feast, drawn from the works of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Though it is composed of pieces written for different occasions, a few of them were originally dedicated to the mystery of Our Lady’s Assumption, and all of them embody the joy and awe we ought to feel on this occasion.

For Mary’s bodily glorification not only provides us with a loving Mother in heaven, but also foreshadows the fate awaiting each and every member of Christ’s body on the last day.

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