Mary is a vital part of Catholic life all year long, but she really comes to the forefront of worship, thought and prayer as the calendar turns to May. This is the month of special prayers devotions and festivals dedicated to the Mother of God worldwide. In many churches, traditional “May processions” are held that include her statues crowned with flowers and carried by the faithful. Traditional hymns such as “Immaculate Mary,” “Sing of Mary” and “Hail Holy Queen” are a central part of May liturgies.
Here are some basic questions and answers about Mary, Mother of God.
What is the true role of Mary in the Church?
Too many Catholics have to deal with people who make the mistake of thinking we “worship” Mary. Though it is an easy error to make considering all the prayers, hymns, devotions, icons and artwork devoted to the Blessed Mother, it’s an inaccurate description of her role in the faith. In truth, Mary is venerated, not worshipped. She is considered the prime intercessor between humanity and Christ.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “The Church rightly honors the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of ‘Mother of God’ to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs” (CCC#971). In the same paragraph the Catechism stresses that devotion to Mary “differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the Incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit.”
Why is May dedicated to Mary and when did the devotion start?
From the time of the ancient Greeks, May has been associated with new life, fertility and motherhood, because of the emergence of new life in springtime. This connection between motherhood and the month of May continue in western culture. With the spread of Christianity, a connection formed between springtime and devotion to Mary. This eventually led many Christians to adopt May as Mary’s month.
The practice of dedicating this month to the Blessed Mother dates back to the end of the 13th century, when some historians say the Church used devotion to Mary as a way to Christianizing popular secular feasts. For example, the Jesuits in Rome adopted the tradition of a public May devotion to Mary in the 18th century, and popes began promoting the May honor during the 19th century.
What are some ways to honor Mary through prayer?
Two of the most common and treasured devotions are the Hail Mary and the rosary.
What is the Hail Mary and where does it come from?
The Hail Mary is the Church’s central prayer for Mary’s intercession. It is based on the Angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:28). The prayer’s phrase “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus” is based on Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary later in the Gospel (Lk 1:42). The concluding petition “Hail Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death” was first included in the Catechism of the Council of Trent in 1566. Prayers similar to the Hail Mary first emerged in the Church after about 1050, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Why do we pray the rosary and where does it come from?
The rosary is one of the most important prayers associated with Mary and is central to the prayer lives of many. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, its origins can be trace to the use of beads and ropes which were used to count prayers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia from the earliest days of Christianity.
The structure of the rosary seems to have evolved between the 12th and 15th centuries, with the five decade structure we know now emerging around the 16th century. Some Catholic traditions state that St. Dominic came up with the rosary after he had a vision of Mary, although other historians dispute this.
There are four sets of mysteries prayed on the rosary, traditionally on different days of the week. They are Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and Luminous.
The Color Blue
Many works of art and statues of Mary depict her wearing blue garments, and Marian medals and rosaries also feature the color. Although we have no way of knowing what shade the Blessed Mother wore most often, her association with blue is said to have emerged from Byzantine tradition around the year 500 because it was the color of an empress. Other traditions connect blue with royalty, peace and nature, which fits with Mary’s title as Queen of Heaven and Earth.
Lilies are frequently associated with Mary as a symbol of virginity and purity, and roses symbolize her mystical participation in the Holy Trinity. Both flowers are used to crown statues of Mary during traditional May processions and are also laid at the feet. Another flower, the iris, has been used to symbolize the “Seven Sorrow” she experienced during her life — the circumcision of Jesus in the temple, the flight into Egypt, Jesus lost in Jerusalem, the encounter with Him on the way to Calvary, the crucifixion, talking His body down from the cross, and Jesus’ burial.
Treading on the Serpent
One of the most common portrayals of Mary is a statue often seen in churches and classrooms that features her treading on a snake. This portrayal is related to her role as the “New Eve” in the Church, who through her birth without original sin represents the defeat of evil (CCC#511).
(By Christina Lee Knauss, Catholic Miscellany)
The Assumption of Mary recalls being lifted into presence of God
On Aug. 15 Catholics and many other Christians will celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The significant feast day recalls the spiritual and physical departure of the mother of Jesus Christ from the earth, when both her soul and her body were taken into the presence of God.
Venerable Pope Pius XII confirmed this belief about the Virgin Mary as the perennial teaching of the Church when he defined it formally as a dogma of Catholic faith in 1950, invoking papal infallibility to proclaim, “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.”
His Apostolic Constitution “Munificentissimus Deus” (Most Bountiful God), which defined the dogma, contained the pontiff’s accounts of many longstanding traditions by which the Church has celebrated the Assumption throughout its history.
The constitution also cited testimonies from the early Church fathers on the subject, and described the history of theological reflection on many biblical passages, which are seen as indicating that Mary was assumed into heaven following her death.
Although the bodily assumption of Mary is not explicitly recorded in Scripture, Catholic tradition identifies her with the “woman clothed with the sun” who is described in the 12th chapter of the Book of Revelation.
The passage calls that woman’s appearance “a great sign” which “appeared in heaven,” indicating that she is the mother of the Jewish Messiah and has “the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Accordingly, Catholic iconography of the Western tradition often depicts the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven in this manner.
Eastern Christians have also traditionally held Mary’s assumption into Byzantine liturgical texts, as well as the eighth-century Arab Christian theologian St. John of Damascus, in his own authoritative definition of her assumption.
“It was fitting,” St. John of Damascus wrote in a sermon on the assumption, “that she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption even after death,” and “that she, who had carried the creator as a child at her breast, should dwell in the divine tabernacles.”
In Eastern Christian tradition, the same feast is celebrated on the same calendar date, although typically known as the Dormition (falling asleep) of Mary. Eastern Catholic celebration of the Dormition is preceded by a two-week period of fasting which is similar to Lent. Pius XII, in “Munificentissimus Deus,” mentioned this same fasting period as belonging to the traditional patrimony of Western Christians as well.
The feast of the Assumption is always a Holy Day of Obligation for both Roman and Eastern-rite Catholics, on which they are obliged to attend Mass or Divine Liturgy.
Text by Catholic News Agency