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.
To help usher in her special month, here are some basic questions and answers about her:
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.” (#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 continued 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 of 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 “Holy 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 traced 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.
Amy Lindler, from Greenville, owns her own company, Glorious Beads, and spends hours making custom-made rosaries, each with their own color and theme. She said the rosary became a central part of her life after she converted 13 years ago.
“The rosary is important because praying it is a daily reminder of the life of Christ and of Mary,” she said. “You never lose sight of the sacrifices that He made, the miracles He performed and the miracle of Mary as the blessed virgin.”
Why are certain colors, flowers and other images associated with Mary?
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 Sorrows” 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, taking 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.
What’s in a name?
Morning Star. Queen of All Saints. Seat of Wisdom. Mystical Rose. House of God. Queen of the Holy Rosary.
These are just a few of the names in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Litany of Loreto, the Church’s oldest and most important Marian litany which was first approved by Pope Sixtus V in 1587.
They reflect the many facets of devotion Catholics have for Mary.
Other titles signify the location of apparitions, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe or Our Lady of La Vang.
In the Diocese of Charleston, 24 parishes and missions are named after Mary or one of her manifestations. Some, such as Our Lady Star of the Sea in North Myrtle Beach, Our Lady of the Valley in Gloverville and Our Lady of the Lake in Chapin, reflect the geography of the region. Here is a look at some of the other parishes and missions dedicated to the Blessed Mother:
Our Lady of Hope, Manning: When the parish was originally founded as a mission in 2002, members of the community formed a naming committee and suggested Our Lady of Hope as a possibility because it represented Mary’s importance during difficult times after Sept. 11, 2001. Bishop Robert J. Baker approved the name in early 2003.
Our Lady of Peace, North Augusta: Glynnis Doolittle, pastoral associate at the church, discovered the name was voted on by a group of families who helped found the parish. Many of them came to the area to work at what is now the Savannah River Site. They wanted a name that reflected their devotion to Mary and a desire for peace because they were living and working in a time of turmoil that included the threat of nuclear war.
Our Lady of Good Counsel, Folly Beach: This name comes from an image that was said to miraculously appear in a church in Genazzaro, Italy. According to tradition, in 1467, townspeople were celebrating a religious feast when they saw a cloud descend and leave behind a fresco of the Christ Child and Mary on an unfinished wall of the church. Devotion to the image, known as Our Lady of Good Counsel, grew until the name was added to the Litany of Loreto. Her feast day is April 26. Our Lady of Good Counsel is also the patroness of the South Carolina Council of Catholic Women.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Camden: The origin of this name is from a church in Rome, Italy. Our Lady of Perpetual Help, also called Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, is a title from a 15th century Byzantine icon that has been enshrined in the church since 1499. Her feast day is June 27. Our Lady of Perpetual Help is widely venerated in the Philippines, where she is also known as the Holy Virgin of Baclaran.
St. Mary Help of Christians, Aiken: It is based on an image of Mary that is associated with the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, when Catholic forces defeated Turks off the western coast of Greece. The pope asked people to pray the rosary and the victory was dedicated to Mary. The title, Help of Christians, was added to the Litany of Loreto in 1600.
St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Edgefield: The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was defined in 1854 by Pope Pius XI. St. Mary, founded in 1856, was one of the first churches in the nation to use the name. The doctrine is also honored in the name of Immaculate Conception Church in Goose Creek.
St. Mary Our Lady of Ransom, Georgetown: Here, the name was given to honor the Blessed Mother and the mother of William D. Morgan, one of the founding families of the parish. In his homily at the church dedication on Jan. 5, 1902, Bishop Henry P. Northrup referred to Mary as “Our Lady of Ransom.” The title refers to an apparition of Mary that appeared to St. Peter Nolasco in Spain on Aug. 1, 1218. The vision is said to have established the work toward redemption of Christian captives, particularly those taken by the Moors during that era. Our Lady of Ransom is the patron of the city of Barcelona. Her feast day at one time was observed on Sept. 24.