I had some rather interesting feedback from someone who apparently had a lot of time:
My emphases and comments:
Carissime Pater Zuhlsdorf,
I continue to be astonished by the ignorance of so many Catholics regarding the Assumption of the Mother of God.
In your "Patristic Rosary Project," you assert that "We do not know if Mary died and was assumed body and soul into heaven or if she was assumed without dying." Not to be outdone, you continue: "There are not elaborate writings by the Fathers on the Assumption, because it was not a main point of reflection." I must offer a response to these breathtakingly false claims.
1. The Church of the Byzantine sui iuris celebrates the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God on the same day as the Romans celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption. "Dormition", as you know, means "falling-asleep," a Christian euphemism for "death" still retained by the Eastern Christians when referring to the passing of this lie of one of the baptised. If we take the argument that legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, we must conclude that the falling-asleep of the Mother of God, commemorated at least since the fifth century, is to be found in the Deposit of Faith. Not only is it counted among the Twelve Great Feasts, it is also preceded by a Dormition Fast, thus highlighting its solemnity. Moreover, the fact that the Feast of the Dormition has never been suppressed by the Orthodox Christians in communion with the Successor of Peter speaks to the truth that the Mother of God fell asleep in the flesh. A cursory reading of the kontakia, troparia, and idiomelia of the Byzantine liturgy loudly attests the death of the Mother of God. And we have, also, the astonishing testimony of the ephiphatios of the Mother of God as well as the tradition of referring to this same celebration as her own Pascha, hence the custom in many Russian Catholic parishes to celebrate the Rite of the Burial of the Most Holy Theotokos analogous to the Burial Rite on Great and Holy Friday. And there has not been an ounce of concern from the Holy See to suppress such practises.
2. Most people pretend awareness of H. H. Pope +Pius XII’s apostolic constitution Munificentissiumus Deus by citing only the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption (no. 44). Granted, the clause "at the end of her earthly life" is hermeneutically neutral with respect to the question of Mary’s death, but the context of the entire constitution speaks rather frequently of the death of the Mother of God. To cite a few examples: nos. 14, 18, 22, 26, 38, and 40. Curiously, in the constitution (no. 39), Pius XII cites 1 Cor 15:21-26, in which verse 22 and 23 have been carried over to the current Office of Second Vespers for the Solemnity. The context of this Scripture, found in the celebration of the Assumption, implies that she did in fact fall asleep in the Lord.
3. Contrary to what you wrote, the Fathers do indeed have plenty to say about the Dormition of the Mother of God. Our Holy Father Among the Saints, John of Damascus, penned three homilies for the Feast. Pius XII cites not only him, but also Germanus of Constantinople. And of course we can add to their testimonies that of other Fathers, thanks to the research of Stephen J. Shoemaker, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption (Oxford University Press, 2003). As the "Last of the Fathers", the testimony of St John of Damascus is not to be lightly ignored since he is the heir of the Patristic Era, and we are heirs of the Church of the Fathers only insofar as we have ears for their teachings. (The more I study the Fathers–and I penned my M.A. thesis on the theology of the First Seven Ecumenical Councils and especially the Cappadocians–Roman Catholics are guilty of what they accuse Protestants of doing–selectively quoting the Fathers. I find your "Patristic Rosary Project" a sad example of this.) [Golly.]
4. As well, if we are to understand properly the theological enterprise, we must attend to the "monuments of tradition" (as Pere Yves Congar calls it), among which are the testimonies of Christian iconography. Even among the Latins, Fra Angelico’s Death and Assumption of the Virgin (1432) represents a very late continuation of the tradition. Even in Renaissance and Baroque paintings, images of the Assumption are not without the Mother of God being taken from her tomb; among the notable instances are Francesco Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin (d. 1498); Mateo Cerezo’s Assumption of Mary (d. 1666); Peter Paul Rubens’s The Assumption of the Virgin (1612-17), and numerous others. Of course, those in the authentic tradition of iconography represent the more compelling witnesses. Images of the Mother of God being assumed into heaven but lacking the burial-motif are of relatively recent origin and therefore farther removed from the authentic Tradition of the Church.
5. Any pilgrim to the Holy Land is aware of the "Tomb of Mary" found in the precents of Gethsemane. And of course there is the rival shrine in Ephesus in the possession of Catholics of anti-Byzantine sympathies. (The Ephesus "version" is highly unlikely because the Byzantine liturgy sings of the burail of the Mother of God at Gethsemane.)
6. I must also add that there is an "interpretation" to the Solemnity which must be weighed against the Memorial of the Queenship of Mary on 22 August. Why two different feasts, of different ranks, so close to each other? Why even two? I would suggest that the Solemnity of 15 August it not so much "about" the Mother of God as it is "about" the destiny of those who die in the state of sanctifying grace. The fate of the Mother of God, although it was her singular privilege on account of her Immaculate Conception and the timing of her experience of the eschaton, is a mirror of the fate of all Christians. The Memorial of 22 August is the Mother of God’s alone. Just as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord to commemorate not only the ascending of Jesus to the Father, but more precisely to the Father’s right hand, that is, his reception of full Lordship as a result of His Paschal Mystery. In the case of the Mother of God, on the other hand, her Assumption, following the Dormition, reflects on her privilege as the perfect Christian; her Queenship is an instance of Christ’ purely gratuitious love for His Mother and thus not extended to her fellow-believers. In other words, what the Mother of God inherited from Christ was split into two mysteries–her assumption, which all Christians will eventually share thanks to the Paschal Mystery of Christ, and her coronation, which is reserved only to Mother of God. And this splitting has been carried over into popular piety as well, in the fourth and fifth glorious mysteries of the Rosary.
According to Tradition, an unbeliever by the name of Anthonios had the audcity to touch the funeral bier of the Mother of God while she was being carried to Gethsemane. An angel is said to have severed his hand for having touched it; most commentators interpret this episode as a "theologizing" about those who trivialize the mystery of the death of the Mother of God.
I find it immensely disturbing that a layman [and an apparently obnoxious one at that] is needed to correct seriously erroneous teachings issued by a presbyter, [I prefer "priest"] who, according to Presbyterorum Ordinis 4 and the Code of Canon Law 528 is to have the ministry of preaching and teaching foremost among his tasks. I also worry about those who are preoccupied with the externals of worship (such as Latin as an ordinary liturgical language) to the detriment of the mystagogical import of various feasts. That having been said, it is my hope that you will make corrections to your blog. [Nope.] As a layman and on behalf of all of Christ’s lay faithful, I appeal to my canonical right to expect sound teaching from the Church’s pastors (cf. Code of Canon Law, 212, 213, 217).
Sincerely in Christ,
M. G. Hysell, M.A., M.Th. (Cand)
I respond saying:
That the Blessed Virgin Mary suffered death before she was bodily assumed into heaven is NOT an infallible, dogmatic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics are free to believe either that Mary died or that she did not die before her Assumption. That is the reason that Munificentissimus Deus uses the phrase "having completed the course of her earthly life".
It follows that the teaching that Mary died before she was bodily assumed into heaven is NOT part of the deposit of faith.
Not every word uttered by a Father of the Church forms part of the Catholic Church’s official teaching. For example, the Church does not accept certain aspect of St. Augustine’s teachings on predestination.
St. John Damascene is recognized as a Father of the Church both by the Roman Catholic and by Eastern Orthodox Churches. However he is Byzantine and late. Just as the Eastern Fathers and the Eastern Christian Churches did not accept all aspects of Western patristic teaching, so too the Western Fathers and the Western Christian Church have not accepted all aspects of Eastern patristic teaching.
Not every word or idea that forms part of the ancient or medieval Christian liturgies exercises a normative dogmatic effect on officially defined Christian belief.