The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a solemn feast day and a holy day of obligation that we celebrate each year on August 15th, is the Church’s most ancient Marian feast. Christians living in Jerusalem celebrated the “dormition of Mary” (Mary’s going to sleep) from at least the third century—gathering in Palestine to remember the Mother of God, and to honor her as queen of heaven and earth.
Today, Catholics believe definitively that the Blessed Mother, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up into heaven entirely: her body and soul being brought from this world into eternity. In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared dogmatically that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven.”
It isn’t clear what all early Christians believed about the Blessed Virgin Mary. But from the very early stages of Christianity, many Churches believed that Mary had been assumed—bodily—into heaven; the first beneficiary of the redemption of Jesus Christ. Ancient frescoes on the walls of the catacombs in the city of Rome indicate that the early Roman Christians were devoted in prayer to the grace of Mary’s assumption into heaven. But this belief was especially important, and especially popular, among the Churches of the east—the Syriac Churches in Palestine, and across the entire Middle East.
The early bishops and preachers of the Eastern Church were the ones who preached the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary most fervently. At the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon, in Turkey, the Patriach of Jerusalem declared boldly that the apostles themselves first taught that Mary was taken body and soul into heaven. Early Eastern Fathers taught emphatically that no one had ever claimed to have discovered the remains of Mary in a tomb.
St. John Damascene, a Syriac deacon from Damascus and Doctor of the Church who preached at the beginning of the 8th century, wrote a sermon to the Blessed Mother, saying to her, “You, O Mother, were transferred to your heavenly home, O Lady, Queen and Mother of God in truth.”
From the beginning of Christian history, the Christians of the Middle East have been loyal sons and daughters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today, the heirs of that great tradition, the Christians of Iraq and Syria in particular, are facing unprecedented persecution. The Chaldean Catholic Church, the Church of Iraq, has been systematically brutalized by the terrorist group ISIL which has taken over much of northern Iraq. Christians, and other religious minorities, are singled out, tortured, beaten, forced to flee from their homes, and often executed.
In the city of Mosul, Iraq, where Christians have lived and worshipped for 1,600 years, nearly every Christian has been driven out or killed. Last year, there were 35,000 Christians living in Mosul—today, very few remain in the city. In fact, when families flee to other cities, they are pursued by ISIL gangs—captured, extorted, beaten, or killed.
Other religious groups face the same fate. Two weeks ago, Yezidi Iraqis demonstrated in the city of Lincoln, Nebraska. Two hundred Yezidi families live in Lincoln—the largest group in the United States. Because radical Muslim militants consider these people heretics, their friends and relatives are beaten, terrorized, and killed.
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry and bipartisan colleagues recently introduced a Congressional resolution to condemn religious persecution in northern Iraq, and to provide resources to protect Christians and other religious minorities from persecution. It passed the House on August 1st.
The federal government has begun to provide some military protection for persecuted minorities in Iraq and Syria. The Holy Father has called for international action, and the Chaldean Patriarch has called for armed support. But ISIL continues to spread—continues to overtake cities and towns, and continues to brutalize those it opposes.
The Christians and other persecuted minorities of Iraq desperately need our prayers, and our fasting. They also need our help. For news on their plight, or to help, you can visit In Defense of Christians, and you can support the funding campaign of the Knights of Columbus, which is generously contributing matching funds.
As we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, let us remember Mary’s loyal and ancient followers in Iraq and Syria. They are not strangers to us. They worship like us. They pray like us. They are brothers and sisters in Christ. Like us, they are loyal sons and daughters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven and earth. And they need our help.
In the fourth century, St. Ephraim the Syriac, who prayed to the Blessed Mother in Arabic, declared to her: “Thou indeed art our only hope!” Let us ask the Blessed Mother to intercede for persecuted Christians. May she be, for all of us, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
Most Reverend James D. Conley, STL, is the Catholic bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska.