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Observing the 70th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Assumption

Sunday, November 1st, marked the 70th anniversary of the Proclamation of the Dogma of Mary’s Assumption. On November 1, 1950, in fact, Pius XII, during a memorable Jubilee Year — the first in the era of the mass media — performed this solemn act in St. Peter’s Square, promulgating the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus.

In it the Pope states:

[T]he revered Mother of God, from all eternity joined in a hidden way with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, immaculate in her conception, a most perfect virgin in her divine motherhood, the noble associate of the divine Redeemer who has won a complete triumph over sin and its consequences, finally obtained, as the supreme culmination of her privileges, that she should be preserved free from the corruption of the tomb and that, like her own Son, having overcome death, she might be taken up body and soul to the glory of heaven where, as Queen, she sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages (Munificentissimus Deus, 40).

A short newsreel by British Pathé, the film news program that informed the subjects of the United Kingdom between 1910 and 1970, shows us what happened that morning, especially the first part of the ceremony:

“The most important religious event since the Reformation” (C. G. Jung, Answer to Job, New York, Meridian, 1954) took place in two parts, the first in St. Peter’s Square, the second in the Vatican Basilica. At 8AM the square, almost packed with people, sings Immaculate Mary, the Lourdes Hymn, and other popular Marian hymns.

At 8:30AM the Pontifical Singers, conducted by Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956), sing the Litanies of Saints with which the papal procession emerges from the Bronze Door (under the right-hand colonnade in St Peter’s Square): three thousand people among the Procurators of the Apostolic Palaces, members of the great religious orders, members of the Roman clergy, dignitaries in service, Chaplains of His Holiness, members of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Penitentiary and the father confessors in white chasuble, and other prelates.

The forty or so Cardinals and over 600 among Patriarchs, Archbishops, Bishops in white copes and mitre that immediately precede the Holy Father, are particularly striking. Here is the Pastor angelicus in gestatorial chair, that, in Paul VI’s words, even if  it’s “uncomfortable and gives me the feeling of being in the middle of the sea among the waves, it allows me to be closer to everyone. One is above everyone else in order to be better seen by people, without inequalities or privileges” (J Guitton, Dialoghi con Paolo VI, Milano 1967, p. 37).

At 9:30AM the Holy Father is seated on the throne, which stands at the entrance of the Basilica, at the sides of which there are diplomats accredited to the Holy See and the special missions sent by many nations, including the Italian one represented by the Prime Minister, Alcide De Gasperi (1881-1954).

After having received the obedience of the College of Cardinal Fathers, the Pope listens to the formula of petition addressed to him by Card. Eugène Tisserant (1884-1972), who acts as Dean, and responds by inviting everyone to invoke the Holy Spirit. Kneeling at the faldstool, Pius XII intones the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, which continues with the alternating verses of the Gregorian chant of the people and the polyphony by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), performed by the Pontifical “Sistine” Choir. Composed in 1550 during his tenure in the Choir of the Cappella Giulia of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, this full score by the “prince of music” admirably elaborates and decorates the well-known Gregorian melody in each voice:

Once the Oremus is sung, the Vicar of Christ ascends the throne and pronounces the formula with which he declares and defines

it to be a divinely revealed dogma: 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. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith. (Munificentissimus Deus, 44-45).

For the second time in the entire history of the Church, after the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, the Roman Pontiff personally defines a dogma of faith outside an ecumenical council. An infinite joy fills everyone: the crowd shouting “Viva Maria!” (Long live Mary!), the bells of Rome joyfully ringing, two swarms of passenger pigeons, twenty-one cannon shots fired from the hill of Monte Mario. The singing of the Te Deum, the homily of the Holy Father, the recitation of the new prayer of the Assumption and the pontifical blessing conclude the first part of the solemn act.

The papal Mass in the Vatican Basilica, after the recitation of None or Mid-afternoon Prayer, immediately opens the second part of the ceremony. The Escolania de Montserrat, the famous children’s voices – about 50 boys from all over Catalonia – from the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat near Barcelona in Spain, is entrusted with chanting the Proprium missæ (the variable parts of the Mass: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory and Communion); while the Pontifical Singers are entrusted with singing the Ordinarium missæ (the invariable parts of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei).

Perosi chose Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria for six voices. Probably composed in old age, this full score, conceived for two soprano, one alto, two tenor and one bass voices, draws the melodic material from the homonymus motet by the same author, and is the most appreciated among the more than one hundred Masses by Palestrina, together with the very successful Missa Papæ Marcelli (in memory of Marcellus II, Pope for only three weeks in 1555). As in that mass, which became a musical symbol of the Catholic Reformation, in the Missa Assumpta est Maria, we find brilliant sonorities (obtained from the doubling of sopranos and tenors), the positive emphasis, the “major keys,” the alternation of homophonic episodes with contrapuntal passages.

Thus we remember that memorable 1st of November, 1950, which was entirely dedicated to the glorification of Mary in her Assumption.

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