On August 15, we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary (also known as the Dormition among Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), a Holy Day of Obligation for all Catholics. On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII, exercising papal infallibility, declared that it is a dogma of the Church "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."
Because the declaration of the dogma is so recent, many people have the impression that the Assumption is an innovation, a new idea that Pius XII made up. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole point of papal infallibility is that the pope, when speaking on matters of faith and morals and intending to instruct the whole Church, is protected by the Holy Spirit and cannot speak in error.
In practice, that means that any infallible statement by a pope must uphold preexisting Catholic doctrine. And that's the case with the doctrine of the Assumption. Not only was the Feast of the Assumption celebrated universally by Christians, East and West, from the sixth century up until the Reformation, but the written record of Christian belief in the Assumption of Mary goes back to the fourth century.
The belief is clearly held even before that. As early as the second century, Christians had begun to venerate the bones of martyrs and saints. Yet at no time did any local Christian church claim to possess the earthly remains of the Blessed Virgin's body, nor has anyone ever claimed to have discovered her tomb.
These are arguments from silence, of course; but knowing the deep respect and devotion in which Christians held the remains of the martyrs and saints, it would be particularly odd for Christians of the first few centuries to have had no interest in relics of the Blessed Virgin. The lack of such interest must be explained another way, and the early, universal belief in the Assumption of Mary is the best explanation.
The Assumption reflects the honor that Christ accorded to His Mother, an honor so great that He did not allow her body to suffer decay after her death. But it also provides us with a foretaste of our own bodily resurrection at the end of time and, thus, confirms our faith and gives us hope. Mary wasn't assumed into Heaven because she was somehow more than human; her Assumption is actually a sign of what it means to be truly human--a condition that is possible only through the grace that comes through our faith in Christ.
(The Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, Central Russian icon, early 1800's. Photo © Slava Gallery, LLC; used with permission.)