Q. In 1999, I traveled to the Holy Land, visited the Basilica of the Dormition, where we were told the Virgin Mary died. Years later, I visited Ephesus and a little home where, we were told, Mary had lived and died. In 1967, St. Paul VI visited that home, and in 1979 St. John Paul II celebrated Mass there. My question is this: On a matter of such historical importance, why hasn’t the church made a decision on the correct place where Mary died? (Georgia)
A. First, I should answer a question you didn’t ask: Did Mary die, as we know death? That question has prompted theological speculation for centuries, and the church has never answered it definitively.
When, in 1950, Pope Pius XII solemnly defined the dogma of the Assumption, he said “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.” That seems to leave open the question of whether Mary died first.
Some theologians feel that, since death is a consequence of sin, Mary would not have had to die. But others say that, since Jesus himself chose to die, wouldn’t it be fitting for his mother to have shared the same fate?
On the question of where Mary spent her final years on earth, there are two strong historical traditions. One is that, following the ascension of Jesus, Mary returned with the apostles to Jerusalem and lived there for the remainder of her earthly years.
But other evidence seems to show that under the protection of the apostle John, Mary went to a place near Ephesus (modern-day Turkey) and stayed there until she was assumed into heaven. This tradition is linked to the 19th century visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a bedridden Augustinian nun in Germany.
The church has never formally pronounced on the authenticity of either tradition.
And there are two different Jerusalem sites: a church near the Mount of Olives, venerated by the Orthodox Church, and the one you mentioned, the Church of the Dormition, maintained by Benedictine monks.
The answer to your question is lost to in history and unlikely ever to be settled. But this doesn’t stop us from honoring the Virgin Mary, the mother of God and our mother.
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