It was the day before we were due to fly back to Gatwick, so the group agreed on the need for a final treat. "What about that little place where we had the bouillabaisse last week? The one with all those Marseilles football posters?" "We'd never get in there today." "How d'you know? We haven't even tried." "It's the assumption." "It may be your assumption but that doesn't mean it's mine. Let's give them a ring." "It's not my assumption it's Our Lady's Assumption. It's the 15th of August. They're mad for it over here. Processions and bands and fireworks. You can't get in a decent restaurant unless you have a Papal dispensation." I really shouldn't have forgotten the Assumption. I had a far better reason for remembering it than most of the lapsed Catholics, fainthearted Proddies, and slack atheists who made up my holiday group. I had been the only person in my entire secondary school who'd unequivocally come out against it. So much against it that I was told by the headmaster, Father Lythe, that if I went on protesting he'd have to arrange for my immediate expulsion.

I can't do justice to my childhood heroism without a little background theology. The dogma of the Assumption maintains that Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, is now physically, corporeally, present in Heaven. But unlike Jesus, she didn't get up there by personal ascension. Not being God, she had to be given some divine assistance. So, instead of a self–propelled ascent, she was assumed into heaven by a special mechanism which can't have been too dissimilar to the operation of a Hoover.

Why did Our Lady need to be assumed? Why couldn't her body simply crumble to dust like everyone else's? To understand this you have to go back to the Immaculate Conception. This ensured that Mary was the only human being on Earth who was born without the stain of original sin. Her bodily integrity was then further protected by the virgin birth. Surely, the argument went, a body as pure as that couldn't be allowed to endure what one theologian called 'the lesion of the grave'.

This wasn't too much of an issue until after the Second World War. Before then there'd been a general agreement that Our Lady must have had a rather special ending: nobody had ever written about her death, seen her tomb, or venerated any of her relics. But it was only in the late 1940's, when some cynics would say that Pope Pius XII needed a way of distracting the unkind critics who were wondering what the Vatican had done for the Jews during the war, that there was any move towards making the idea of assumption into an article of faith, something that all Catholics must believe if they are to remain Catholics.

It was an unusually democratic process. Pius X11 sent a questionnaire to a large sample of top bishops and by 1946 had garnered a clear–cut majority in favour of Mary's assumption with 1185 bishops voting for, and only 16 against. So, on November 1st 1950, he proceeded to make his infallible declaration: "Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."

From my seat in the third row of the sixth form, this seemed thoroughly out of order. Why did the Pope have to go to the lengths of carrying out an opinion poll when he was supposed to have direct access to God's thoughts on the matter? And there was an even bigger objection. If every other human being who died was only represented in the afterlife until the day of judgement by their mere soul, then surely Mary must lead a very strange Elysian existence: the only piece of solid corporeal flesh in a multitude of flitting spirits. It was a ludicrous picture. Gulliver in the spirit world. "Hey, beat it fellows, here comes that big lump Mary. Don't want her sitting on us again."

I'd have gone on sticking to my guns and no doubt been expelled if it hadn't been for Graham Greene. He was a bit of a hero of mine at the time: someone who was formally a Catholic but whose novels and public pronouncements suggested you could object to a few of the dafter doctrines and still remain a true believer. But Greene positively welcomed the idea of the Assumption. It was, he said, "a stroke of genius", a "shocking, paradoxical, physical" dogma that was a marvellous blow against the "unacknowledged heresy of the time", the heresy promoted by the atomic age, that physical bodies were now completely expendable.

This now looks like a perverse piece of intellectual piffle but at the time it was quite good enough to persuade an intellectually pretentious sixth–former to fall into line. It did, of course, still leave the tricky Elysian housekeeping problem of having to make special arrangements for the only resident of the place who needed to eat, drink, sleep, and cut their toenails. But then that's the trouble with most theological prescriptions. There's always a little something that's impossible to swallow.