The Hail Mary has always been one of my favorite prayers and the one that I rely upon the most when I feel the need for assistance from the Mother of God. One of the first prayers I was taught, it reminds me of my grandmothers, May crownings and Marian songs.
I’m named after my grandmothers, Mary Huber and Johanna Niklas, both of whom were devoted to praying the rosary. When I was a child, my widowed Grandma Huber sometimes stayed at our house and shared my double bed with me. I remember her keeping me awake as she murmured her final rosary of the day. Grandma Niklas was also very devoted to praying the rosary, especially during her final years as a victim of a stroke. One of her sisters made rosaries, which were bestowed on grateful relatives (including this writer) and sent to missions.
My daughter, Jenny, and I both earned the Marian Award when we were Girl Scouts. I don’t remember what I wore for my ceremony, but I recall making Jenny a dress out of sky-blue fabric, the color used by many artists to depict Mary’s garb. But frankly, because of my birthday being close to the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I often envision the lovely lady dressed in turquoise blue.
During the 1950s when I attended St. James the Greater in rural Cincinnati, we celebrated May crowning every year by donning our finest clothes and carrying homegrown flowers as we processed into the old church to honor Mary with special hymns and prayers.
Praying the rosary and decorating home May altars with flowers were traditions I continued with my own offspring.
When my daughter was in the eighth grade, she was selected to crown the Blessed Virgin at our parish, St. Martin of Tours. There’s something about May crownings that still gives me goose bumps, especially when I hear those familiar Marian hymns from my childhood and the contemporary “Hail Mary, Gentle Woman” by Carey Landry.
And what is it about any version of “Ave Maria” sung at a wedding that causes such emotion? These hymns were inspired by the ancient prayer that honors Mary.
But the song this baby boomer hums as a prayer to Mary is Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be.” I’ve heard that McCartney had his earthly mother in mind when he wrote the song. But when this mother is in a crisis situation, I tend to ask my heavenly mother’s assistance by chanting the only words of the song that I remember: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”
On the separate instances when my two sons, Ritch and Tim, were near death, those lyrics and the Hail Mary were my frequent and desperate plea to heal the fruit of my womb. Like Mary, I know what it is like to keep vigil during the final hours of my firstborn son’s life.
The first lines of the Hail Mary are found in Luke’s Gospel, when the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of God. That is followed by Elizabeth’s greeting to her pregnant cousin. The second part is a plea for Mary’s protection now and at the time of our death.
According to The New Catholic Encyclopedia, the Hail Mary did not become a popular form of devotion until the 11th century. The prayer was gradually developed from the sixth century to the 16th, when it was adopted for general liturgical use. In time, the Hail Mary became almost an appendix to the Our Father.
There is some debate over how the rosary, which depends on the repetition of the Hail Mary, developed, but St. Dominic and his followers are credited with spreading it, beginning in the 13th century. Whether we recite the Hail Mary by itself or repeatedly in the rosary, it reminds us of the respect we show the woman chosen by God to give birth to his son.
Hail Mary, full of grace!
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among 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.
You may wonder why the Church celebrates so many feasts in honor of Mary throughout the year. You may also wonder what meaning they have for your own life. Fr. Peter John Cameron considers some of the major "mysteries" associated with the Mother of God not only to help you better understand these feasts, but also to help you see that Mary is always at hand, ready to help you become who you are meant to be. She stands in solidarity with you so that you might stand in solidarity with her Son, living your life to the fullest.
About the author: Father Peter John Cameron, OP, , is the founding editor-in-chief of the monthly worship aid MAGNIFICAT. He is also the artistic director of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre in New York City. His other books include The Classics of Catholic Spirituality, Why Preach: Encountering Christ in God's Word, and Jesus, Present Before Me: Meditations for Eucharistic Adoration.