Thursday, August 15, 2013

Assumption Day

A couple of years ago, when I was trying to get my Italian up to speed in preparation for the course I was being sent to take in Rome, I discovered a veritable treasury of old Italian newsreels on YouTube – everything from King Victor Emmanuel III opening the Italian parliament in the 1930s to Pope Pius XII’s visit to the famous Dominican church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in April 1940 as part of his (unsuccessful) strategy to keep Italy neutral in World War II. Among the many videos I watched were several from the 1950 Holy Year – including the events surrounding Pope Pius XII’s solemn definition of the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on November 1, 1950. One video shows how on the previous evening, for the first time in almost a century, the famous image of Maria Salus Populi Romani (Mary, Safety of the Roman People) was carried in solemn procession from downtown Rome to St. Peter’s, where it remained overnight at the papal altar over St. Peter’s Tomb. (That famous image is ordinarily in the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major. It was there that Isaac Hecker prayed before it after his expulsion from the Redemptorists in August 1857, and it was there that Pope Francis went to venerate that same image on the day after his election as pope last March).  The old newsreels also show Pope Pius XII being carried on the sedia gestatoria through the piazza on the morning of November 1, 1950, where, after the solemn petition by Cardinal Tisserant on behalf of the whole Church and after the invocation of the Holy Spirit through the singing of the hym Veni Creator Spiritus, the Pope himself read the words of the dogmatic definition: “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 (Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissmus Deus, 44).

Among the bishops in the piazza that day was the future Pope John XXIII. Years later, he wrote: “As Nuncio to France, I was one of the fortunate ones present at that ceremony in St. Peter’s Square. I felt no anxiety about this doctrine, having always believed it “(Journal of a Soul, August 15, 1961). 

And, in a meditation on the Assumption, which accompanied a 1961 Apostolic Letter on the Rosary, Pope John wrote:
“This is a source of consolation and faith, in days of grief or pain, for those privileged souls – such as we can all become, if only we respond to grace – whom God is silently preparing for the most beautiful victory of all, the attainment of holiness.

“The mystery of the Assumption brings home to us the thought of death, of our own death, and gives us a sense of serene confidence; it makes us understand and welcome the thought that the Lord will be, as we would wish him to be, near us in our last agony, to gather into his own hands our immortal soul.”

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