Q: The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary reminded me of this question: Did the Blessed Virgin experience death prior to her Assumption? What does the Church say?
A: In defining the dogma of our blessed Lady’s Assumption, which the Church discovers in Sacred Scripture, Pope Pius XII declined to affirm or deny Mary’s death. Indeed, the formal definition of the Assumption, promulgated by Pope Pius XII on 1 Nov., 1950, and entitled Munifecentissimus, passes over this issue simply by stating that “when the course of her (Mary’s) earthly life was finished…”
How and where Mary’s life on earth ended reflect two ancient traditions. Two disparate sites have laid claim to Mary’s burial; hence, death. One tomb is located in Jerusalem; the other, in Ephesus. On the other hand, there is an ancient tradition that describes Mary’s death as merely a “dormition,” a tradition liturgically expressed in various Ritual Churches suí juris, cradled in the East.
Arguments insisting that Mary did experience real death include emphasis on the bodily corruption that occurs from real death (a premiss difficult to accept in the case of Mary, who gave the Eternal Word flesh and blood). On the contrary, however, arguments supporting the thesis that Mary did not die follow logically from the doctrine that she was sinless from the moment of conception; hence, totally free from Original Sin. (Somehow, there has to be a Biblical explanation to the effect that Mary was conceived without original sin, which ensures death. Otherwise, how could she, first of all human beings, invoke her divine Son as Savior? The answer, we now know, through the help of the Church, is that Mary was redeemed by virtue of the foreseen merits of her Son, Jesus, from the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother.)
That our Lady was immaculately conceived complicates the doctrine of the Assumption, however. Conceived without sin and sinless throughout her days, Mary had no need to die, since death results from sin.
Nonetheless, Mary probably did experience death, as Jesus, who was sinless, opted to die in obedience to his Father’s Redemptive Will. As Marian theologian René Laurentin puts it in his A Short Treatise on the Virgin Mary (N.J.: AMI Press, 1991): “That Mary died may be the plausible opinion, and its plausibility has been rendered respectable by the flood of authors that have accepted this opinion.” Still, he adds, everyone “has the right” to continue “thinking that the end of Mary remains a mystery, hidden in God…” Again, Pope Pius XII declined to indicate his own thoughts on this when he defined the Assumption. It is noteworthy to mention here that St. John Paul II was of the opinion that Mary did die, and “the experience of death personally enriched” her. “By undergoing mankind’s common destiny,” he said, Mary “can more effectively exercise her spiritual motherhood toward those approaching the last moments of their life.” (General Audience, 25 June, 2003)
Indeed, John Paul summed up his argument this way: “Since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother.” (Ibid.) Whatever the cause, he also said, Mary’s death – for which the word “dormition” is fittingly applicable – was “an event of love.” (Ibid.) This was incomparably expressed by the poet Francis Thompson (d. 1907) who wrote that if Mary had not been assumed into heaven, then heaven would have been assumed to her. (Assumpta Maria)