The roots of this feast of Our Lady’s Assumption are varied and deep. On this date, the church in Jerusalem celebrated Mary’s motherhood. Later, also in Jerusalem, it became the feast commemorating her falling asleep in Christ. In many parts of Europe it was associated with thanksgiving for harvest and the fruitfulness of creation. Today, all over the world, the Church rejoices that Mary was the first to belong to the kingdom of God on earth, and the first to share its glory, body and soul, with her Son in heaven. So, this feast touches upon several aspects of the Church’s devotion to Mary — a devotion that is an especially precious part of our spiritual heritage, and of our everyday lives of faith.
When I was very young, my family and I were members of Visitation Parish: a large, Irish, Dominican parish on the South Side of Chicago. Our parish church was a great gray stone building with twin spires. It towered, cathedral-like, over the neighborhood — an eloquent tribute to the faith of the impoverished immigrants who had built it many decades before. I remember when I knelt during Mass I could barely see over the high oaken pew in front of me. I was a student at the parish school, which stood across the boulevard from the great church. For all of us school children, Mary was at the center of our faith.
The Hail Mary was the first prayer that we learned in kindergarten. That same year, we made our own rosaries of light blue beads and dark blue string, and the most important school day of the year, was the day in May when Mary was crowned. Our pastor, Monsignor Wolf, looked ancient to me. I suppose he was in his fifties. Monsignor Wolf was a very important man in our community. His name was engraved in large letters into the stone sidewalk in front of the rectory. We children were afraid of the Monsignor. I think our parents were too – but they revered him. I had only one personal encounter with him. I was in first grade. It was winter. My grandmother had taken me to Sunday Mass. We were walking up the main aisle, looking for an empty pew, when my hat, which I had forgotten to remove, suddenly disappeared off my head. I looked up, and was terrified to see my hat in the grasp of Monsignor Wolf. As he thrust the hat into my hands, he glanced at me with a stern expression that made me realize that I had committed a grave offense against God, and against my pastor.
When it was time for our May crowning, Monsignor Wolf would make a phone call, and the city would dispatch half a dozen patrol cars to close Garfield Boulevard, one of the city’s arteries, to all traffic for a couple of hours. (It’s daunting to think how much this must have cost the city.) With the traffic stopped, we children, and the sisters who taught us, were free to conduct our processions back and forth between the church and the school, to place a crown on the statue of Mary, and to pray the rosary in the green parkland that separated the lanes of the boulevard.
Mary as long been important in the lives of Catholic children. She is today. In fact, I think Mary seems even closer to all of us today than she did years ago. She’s not so much apart from us now, as she is ahead of us — anticipating what God offers to each of us in the future. Mary’s unique role required that she be the perfectly redeemed one. She needed to be filled with a personal holiness and faith that were special divine gifts. She is a sign of great hope, and a source of joy for all of us, because the redemption that she already experiences is the final destiny of all who have been redeemed by Christ. And so we honor her — with a kind of honor that leads to imitation.
The last I heard, the rectory of Visitation Parish was vacant. The last of the Dominican sisters left in 1984. But thousands of “Viz kids” like me have been loosed on the world endowed with a living faith, as well as with cherished memories. Devotion to Mary, who is the masterpiece of Christ’s new creation in the Spirit, must not be confined to old memories, or to the prayers of children. Devotion to Mary the Mother of God is for everyone, and for today.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”