Body and Soul Into Heavenly Glory
By: Bob Kolatorowicz
“I flew into space, but didn’t see God.”
These words are attributed to Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut and the first human to leave Earth’s atmosphere and orbit the planet in a spacecraft. The flight took place on April 12, 1961 and was accomplished in 108 minutes.
The flight and the quote had tremendous Cold War propaganda value. Soviet will and technology had once more surpassed that of the West. The first victory of the space race had already occurred four years earlier when the Soviets had launched the unmanned satellite Sputnik. Now, a Soviet cosmonaut had broken free of the earth, flown through the heavens and reported that God was nowhere to be found. Words like these would be used to give greater credence to the atheistic ideology promoted by the Soviet state.
However, fifty-five years later there is doubt as to whether these words, or words expressing a similar sentiment, had ever been spoken by Gagarin. Was the quote just a fabrication of the Soviet propaganda apparatus? After all, few would dispute that during the Cold War, space exploration was not only about advancing scientific knowledge, but also about advancing competing political, economic, and social ideologies. We may not know for certain what Gagarin said or did not say but what we might accept with some degree of confidence is that the story of a cosmonaut returning from space and reporting no sighting of God was certainly meant as a jab at religious belief.
Let’s hold that thought for a minute and turn back the calendar to the 1950s.
Though history marks the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957 as the beginning of The Space Age, significant advances in rocketry and aerospace engineering had been taking place since the end of World War II. There was much talk, speculation, hope and fear- both in popular culture and in scientific circles – about a new age of space exploration.
Meanwhile, at the Vatican, some other interesting “celestial conversations” were taking place. On November 1, 1950 Pope Pius XII issued a document entitled Munificentissimus Deus (The Most Bountiful God). In this solemn proclamation, Pope Pius XII recalls in detail a belief that the Church has always held about Mary, The Mother of God. Calling to mind many references from the history of our Church and noting the desire of the faithful, Pope Pius writes:
… for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define 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.
In short, what the document is saying is, we’ve always believed that “Mary was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory,” but now we are declaring this belief to be an unchangeable teaching of the church.
I’ve always been intrigued by the timing. For nearly 2000 years Catholic Christians affirmed a belief in the Assumption of Mary. But in 1950, as the dawn of the Space Age was approaching, we not only affirmed our belief in the Assumption of Mary, the Church declared it a “divinely revealed dogma.”
I have to admit that I’ve never come across anything linking the two events. And it sounds a bit like a really bad conspiracy theory to suggest that Pope Pius XII was anticipating remarks like those attributed to Yuri Gagarin and used the dogma of the Assumption as a “pre-emptive flag planting,” claiming the heavens for religion. However, I also have to say that I find it delightful that, as humanity was approaching a new age, the Space Age, Pope Pius XII choose to remind us all that whatever new knowledge, whatever new experiences come our way as we explore the heavens, something will never change. Mary, through the mystery of the Assumption, is forever the Queen of Heaven.