May the month of Mary
For Catholics the world over, the month of May is dedicated to Our Blessed Lady. During this month Catholics offer up to Mary from their hearts a loving homage of prayer and veneration. In this month, too, the benefits of God’s mercy come down to us from her throne in greater abundance (Paul VI: Encyclical on theMonth of May, no. 1).
Why is May Mary’s month?
This Catholic custom of dedicating the month of May to the Blessed Virgin arose at the end of the 13th century.
For centuries, the Catholic Church has set aside the entire month of May to honour Mary, Mother of God.
In early Greece, May was dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of fecundity.
In Ancient Rome, May was dedicated to Flora, the goddess of blooms, or blossoms. They celebrated ludi florals, or floral games, at the end of April and asked the intercession of Flora for all that blooms.
In this way, the Church was able to Christianize the secular feasts which took place at that time.
It was in this era that May the Month of Mary with special devotions were organized on each day throughout the month. This custom became especially widespread during the nineteenth century and remains in practice until today.
The ways Mary is honoured in May is as varied as the people who honour her.
The Month of Mary and the Popes
The pious practice of honouring Mary during the month of May has been especially recommended by the Popes.
Pius XII made frequent reference to it and in his great Encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy (Mediator Dei) characterized it as one of “other exercises of piety which although not strictly belonging to the Sacred Liturgy, are nevertheless of special import and dignity, and may be considered in a certain way to be an addition to the liturgical cult: they have been approved and praised over and over again by the Apostolic See and by the Bishops” (no. 182).
Paul VI wrote a short encyclical in 1965 using the Month of Mary devotion as a means of obtaining prayers for peace. He urged the faithful to make use of this practice which is “gladdening and consoling” and by which the Blessed Virgin Mary is honoured and the Christian people are enriched with spiritual gifts (no. 2).
In May of 2002 Pope John Paul II said, “Today we begin the month dedicated to Our Lady a favourite of popular devotion. In accord with a long-standing tradition of devotion, parishes and families continue to make the month of May a ‘Marian’ month, celebrating it with many devout liturgical, catechetical and pastoral initiatives!”
Devotion to Mary
The Blessed Virgin Mary is the Mother of the Church and therefore the guide and inspiration, of everyone who, in and through the Church, seeks to be the servant of God and man.
Wherever there is faith there is the example of Mary, because she lived by faith as the Scriptures remind us….
If, then, piety is the virtue which binds us to the sources of all life, to God, to the Church, to Christ, certainly Christian piety binds us, in grateful love, to Mary — or our acceptance of Christ and of the mystery of our kinship with Him is imperfect, partial, and unfulfilled. — Cardinal John Wright
Mary and Our Spiritual Life
In our observance of the Marian month we should take into account the season of the Liturgical Year which largely corresponds with the fifty days of Easter. Our pious exercises could emphasize Our Lady’s participation in the Paschal mystery and in Pentecost with which the Church begins.
The pious exercises connected with the month of May can easily highlight the earthly role played by the glorified Queen of Heaven, here and now, in the celebration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist.
The following practices which are recommended by the Magisterium are offered as suggestions for honoring Our Lady during Her month.
The Regina Coeli
The ecclesial community addresses this antiphon to Mary for the Resurrection of her Son. It adverts to, and depends on, the invitation to joy addressed by Gabriel to the Lord’s humble servant who was called to become the Mother of the saving Messiah.
Also called the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Rosary is one of the most excellent prayers to the Mother of God. Thus, “the Roman Pontiffs have repeatedly exhorted the faithful to the frequent recitation of this biblically inspired prayer which is centered on contemplation of the salvific events of Christ’s life, and their close association with the Virgin Mother.”
Litanies of the Blessed Virgin Mary
These consist of a long series of invocations to Our Lady, which follow in a uniform rhythm, thereby creating a stream of prayer characterized by insistent praise and supplication.
Consecration and Entrustment to Mary
The Roman Pontiffs have frequently expressed appreciation for the pious practice of “consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary” and the formulas publicly used by them are well known.
Louis Grignon de Montfort is one of the great masters of the spirituality underlying the act of “consecration to Mary”. He “proposed to the faithful consecration to Jesus through Mary, as an effective way of living out their baptismal commitment.”
The Brown Scapular and other Scapulars
The scapular is an external sign of the filial relationship established between the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother and Queen of Mount Carmel, and the faithful who entrust themselves totally to her protection, who have recourse to her maternal intercession, who are mindful of the primacy of the spiritual life and the need for prayer.
These are witnesses of faith and a sign of veneration of the Holy Mother of God, as well as of trust in her maternal protection.
The Church blesses such objects of Marian devotion in the belief that “they help to remind the faithful of the love of God, and to increase trust in the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
The “Akathistos” Hymn
In the Byzantine tradition, one of the oldest and most revered expressions of Marian devotion is the hymn of the “Akathistos” — meaning the hymn sung while standing. It is a literary and theological masterpiece, encapsulating in the form of a prayer, the universally held Marian belief of the primitive Church. (Directory of Popular Piety and Liturgy).
The Litany of Loretto
The Litany of the Blessed Virgin–also called the Litany of Loreto–is one of the many Marian litanies, or praises of Mary, composed during the Middle Ages. The place of honour it now holds, in the life of the Church, is due its faithful use at the shrine of the Holy House at Loreto, which, according to tradition, was the small cottage-like home where the Holy Family had lived and which was miraculously transported by angels, in 1291, from the Holy Land to its present location in Loreto.
It was definitely recommended by Pope Clement VII and approved by Sixtus V in 1587, and all other Marian litanies were suppressed, at least for public use.
Its forty-nine titles (fifty, or fifty-one, or even more, in some versions: with “Mother of the Church” and “Mother of Mercy” and being the ‘official’ ‘newcomers’ in recent times and which are included on the Vatican website version) and invocations set before us Mary’s exalted privileges, her holiness of life, her amiability and power, her motherly spirit and queenly majesty. Reflection on the titles of the litany, therefore, will unfold before us a magnificent picture of our heavenly Mother, even though we know little about her life.
Sixtus V, who had entertained a singular devotion for Loreto, by the Bull “Reddituri” of 11 July, 1587, gave formal approval to it, as to the litany of the Holy Name of Jesus, and recommended preachers everywhere to propagate its use among the faithful. (History of Litany of Loretto)
Another reason why May is the month of Mary
In the spring and summer of 1916, nine-year-old Lúcia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto were herding sheep at the Cova da Iria near their home village of Aljustrel in the parish of Fátima, Portugal. They later said they were visited three times by an apparition of an angel. They said the angel, who identified himself as the “Angel of Peace” and “Guardian Angel of Portugal”, taught them prayers, to make sacrifices, and to spend time in adoration of the Lord.
Beginning in the spring of 1917, the children reported apparitions of an Angel, and starting in May 1917, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, whom the children described as “the Lady more brilliant than the Sun”.
On 13 May 1917, the children reported seeing a woman “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.” The woman wore a white mantle edged with gold and held a rosary in her hand. She asked them to devote themselves to the Holy Trinity and to pray “the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war”. While the children had never told anyone about seeing the angel, Jacinta told her family about seeing the brightly lit woman. Lúcia had earlier said that the three should keep this experience private. Jacinta’s disbelieving mother told neighbors about it as a joke, and within a day the whole village knew of the children’s vision.
Lúcia dos Santos (left) with her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, 1917
The children said the woman told them to return to the Cova da Iria on 13 June 1917. Lúcia’s mother sought counsel from the parish priest, Father Ferreira, who suggested she allow them to go. He asked to have Lúcia brought to him afterward so that he could question her. The second appearance occurred on 13 June, the feast of Saint Anthony, patron of the local parish church. On this occasion the lady revealed that Francisco and Jacinta would be taken to Heaven soon, but Lúcia would live longer in order to spread her message and devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
During the June visit, the children said the lady told them to say the Holy Rosary daily in honor of Our Lady of the Rosary to obtain peace and the end of the Great War. (Three weeks earlier, on 21 April, the first contingent of Portuguese soldiers had embarked for the front lines of the war.) The lady also purportedly revealed to the children a vision of hell, and entrusted a secret to them, described as “good for some and bad for others”. Fr. Ferreira later stated that Lúcia recounted that the lady told her, “I want you to come back on the thirteenth and to learn to read in order to understand what I want of you. …I don’t want more.”
In the following months, thousands of people flocked to Fátima and nearby Aljustrel, drawn by reports of visions and miracles. On 13 August 1917, the provincial administrator Artur Santos (no relation to Lúcia dos Santos) intervened, as he believed that these events were politically disruptive in the conservative country. He took the children into custody, jailing them before they could reach the Cova da Iria. Santos interrogated and threatened the children to get them to divulge the contents of the secrets. Lúcia’s mother hoped the officials could persuade the children to end the affair and admit that they had lied. Lúcia told Santos everything short of the secrets, and offered to ask the woman for permission to tell the official the secrets.
That month, instead of the usual apparition in the Cova da Iria on 13 August, the children reported that they saw the Virgin Mary on 19 August, a Sunday, at nearby Valinhos. She asked them again to pray the rosary daily, spoke about the miracle coming in October, and asked them “to pray a lot, a lot for the sinners and sacrifice a lot, as many souls perish in hell because nobody is praying or making sacrifices for them.”
The three children claimed to have seen the Blessed Virgin Mary in a total of six apparitions between 13 May and 13 October 1917. Lúcia also reported a seventh Marian apparition at Cova da Iria. The children reported a prophecy that prayer would lead to an end to the Great War, and that on 13 October that year the Lady would reveal her identity and perform a miracle “so that all may believe.” Newspapers reported the prophecies, and many pilgrims began visiting the area. The children’s accounts were deeply controversial, drawing intense criticism from both local secular and religious authorities. A provincial administrator briefly took the children into custody, believing the prophecies were politically motivated in opposition to the officially secular First Portuguese Republic established in 1910. The events of 13 October became known as the Miracle of the Sun.