When I began to seriously investigate my faith, one of the things I was really struck by was Pope St. John Paul II’s devotion to Mary. It seemed like every homily he gave and every letter or book he wrote ended with some sort of recourse to the Mother of God. When I began to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, I realized how fitting this was – the Church’s official prayer ends each day with a prayer dedicated to Mary.
Arguably the most recognizable Catholic prayer is the Hail Mary:
Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death, amen.
The prayer itself is quite simple and has a history going back several centuries. The form by which we pray it today found its final form in the sixteenth century – concluding a journey that took centuries.
The first half of the Hail Mary contains two greetings from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. First, Mary is greeted by the archangel, Gabriel who addresses her: ‘Hail, full of grace’ (Luke 1:28), and later, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth says of Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). These two greetings would be joined together to make up a part of a middle age prayer called the “Little Office.” This prayer belonged initially to religious men and women (monks and nuns) living in community in the eleventh century – it grew beyond the monastery walls to ordinary men and women.
This greeting portion of the Hail Mary was tied to the second half (“pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death“) through the writings of a Dominican named Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola lived in the fifteenth century and was executed as a heretic (he was an outspoken critic of both political and Church leaders.) Among his writings – some of which were quite orthodox – was a version of the Hail Mary nearly identical to the one we use today. This was eventually published in the official prayer book of the Church, the Roman Brievary by Pope Pius V in 1568.
From the Rosary to the Angelus to various musical settings (and at times during the prayers of the faithful at Mass), the Hail Mary can be found in many places in Catholic life. It is even found in an expression on the football field, where a ‘Hail Mary’ describes a desperation play that has a low probability of succeeding. That you can find this prayer in so many places gives you a sense of why the Church – and St. John Paul II – place Mary in such a prominent position. She is not someone we worship but, like the rest of the saints, we regard her with great respect (we ‘venerate’ her.) This was first officially recognized by a Church at the council of Ephesus in 431, where she was officially recognized as Theotokos, the mother of God. This was served to affirm Jesus’ two natures: fully God and fully man. Amy Welborn explains that:
Christians valued Mary because she was one of them; her life held the promise and potential that any one of theirs could, but because she was the mother of God, she was in an especially worthy place. –The Words We Pray, page 32
When we think of Mary today, we often consider her not only as one of us – but she represents the ideal of what it means to be a Christian. An old youth ministry colleague pointed out that in much the same way as a proud mother is often unable to stop gushing about her children – so also devotion to Mary always points us to Jesus. God calls her, and by her ‘yes,’ Jesus comes into the world. Likewise, we are given the same invitation – the same challenge – as God calls into our own lives, we are also called to bring Jesus into the world. As we pray the Hail Mary in any context, may we too be filled with God’s grace, and find the courage to give Him our wholehearted yes.
(This is a part of a series of posts on traditional Catholic prayers.)