“For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that 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” (Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus p.44).
It might seem like something of an odd question, “Did Mary die?” For those who aren’t Catholic, the answer would be Yes. For those non-Catholics who, like most Evangelicals, deny Mary’s immaculate conception and sinless life, their “yes” is followed up with the belief that Mary is still dead, until Jesus returns and all the dead are raised. The Orthodox largely believe that, yes, Mary died, and then was raised and assumed bodily into Heaven (though for whatever reason, they’re not too keen on Pope Pius XII dogmatically defining this to be true).
On the other hand, many Catholics answer the question with a resounding “No!” Citing the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the particular wording of the dogma of the Assumption, these Catholics are of the opinion that since death is the result of sin, and since Mary was free from every stain of sin, that she was free from the need to die, and so, at the end of her life, she was simply brought up to Heaven like Enoch and Elijah. It seems that Pope Pius XII was himself paying some measure of respect to this “immortalist” tradition in the way he worded the official declaration of the dogma, using the circumlocution, “having completed the course of her earthly life”, rather that simply saying, “having died”.
When I first converted to Catholicism, and came to believe in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, I favoured the “immortalist” position, believing such a stance to be a more fitting honour to bestow upon the Blessed Mother. Upon further prayer, reflection, and study, however, I have come to embrace the opposite viewpoint—that the Blessed Virgin Mary did indeed die before she was assumed body and soul into Heaven. Here are my reasons:
- The more ancient and prevalent tradition of the Church holds that Mary died. The teaching of saints, fathers, and doctors of the Church, such as St. John Damascene, is that Mary, while free from sin and therefore not needing to die, chose to in order to be more fully conformed to her Son, Jesus.
- While the actual statement of the declaration of the dogma of the Assumption is coy about whether or not Mary died, the actual papal document in which the definition is promulgated, Munificentissimus Deus, refers to Mary dying, including quoting the saints, fathers, and doctors of the Church to that effect.
- Not only does Mary actually dying more fully conform her to Christ in His Passion and Resurrection, she more completely is our model of obedient love and sacrifice to Jesus. Her example teaches us to conform ourselves more completely to Christ, even “at the hour of our death.”
Yes, Mary’s immaculate life meant she did not need to die as the consequence of sin, but Jesus Himself did not need to die, either. And just as His body did not see corruption, neither did Mary’s, since she was miraculously taken to Heaven. And just as Jesus chose to die to save us from our sins, Mary too chose to die willingly, just as she willingly chose to bear Jesus into the world decades before. And as her becoming the Theotokos, the Mother of God, began her ministry of mediating Christ to us, so her choice to die merited her the ministry of mediating us to her Son, especially at the hour of our death, as we pray in the Hail Mary.
It’s a fascinating thought, really, that so many people in their suffering and dying moments, call out for their mothers—even grown, hardened men; even those whose mothers had died many years ago. Are we so sure that they are calling out for their earthly mothers? Or is there rather an instinct in our hearts to cry out to her who chose to walk through the valley of the shadow of death in order that she might lead her other children through it to her Firstborn Son?
Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of they womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Now, and at the hour of our death.
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