Mary and prayer in the third millennium

Scripture March 2014 Kieran Fenn fms There are three major types of prayer to Mary: invocation, praise, a remembrance. Prayers of invocation call on her as a prominent member of…

Mary and prayer in the third millennium Archdiocese of WellingtonScripture

March 2014

Kieran Fenn fms

There are three major types of prayer to Mary: invocation, praise, a remembrance.

Prayers of invocation call on her as a prominent member of the communion of saints for help. Those prayers that recall Mary’s memory or praise her plunge us into the mystery of the church and bring us to the source of all prayer, the praise of a deeply loving God who gives everything freely.

Ave Maria

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Being faithful to the people of today and to the tradition means acquiring a balance between the old and the new. In a recent article on Mary and ecumenism (Wel-Com December 2013), I quoted Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, ‘The Ave Maria is not a prayer, but a greeting and a praise’, the greeting of the archangel Gabriel at the annunciation and of Elizabeth at the visitation. He assumed that good Catholics are in the habit of praying the Hail Mary, though he knew only the scriptural first part of the prayer without its later addition.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia tells us that there is little or no trace of the Hail Mary as an accepted devotional formula before about 1050AD, though a later pious tale attributed to Ildephonsus of Toledo (7th century) the use of the first part as a prayer. To the greeting and praise of Mary a petition ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen’ was added later.

The petition first appeared in print in Girolamo Savonarola’s 1495 Esposizione sopra l’Ave Maria and was commonly added around the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563, with its influence felt in the subsequent release of the Tridentine Creed, the Roman Catechism, a revised Roman Breviary, and a revised Roman Missal, not to mention a revised Vulgate Bible in 1592).

The Dutch Jesuit St Peter Canisius is credited with adding the sentence ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners’ in his 1555 catechism and, 11 years later, the sentence was included in the catechism of the Council of Trent.

Salve Regina

Salve Regina (Hail holy queen) was composed by the German monk Hermann of Reichenau (1013-1054). Traditionally sung in Latin, but many translations are often used as spoken prayers.

Hermann was a scholar, composer, music theorist, mathematician, and astronomer.

His life was one of great pain – he was born with a cleft palate, cerebral palsy and was crippled by a paralytic disease in childhood. As a result, he had great difficulty moving and could barely speak, lending poignancy to the lines of the prayer:
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

At seven, Hermann’s parents placed him in a Benedictine monastery because they could no longer look after him. He was beatified in 1863.

Hermann also composed the Marian prayer Alma redemptoris mater:

Loving Mother of the Redeemer, gate of heaven, star of the sea, assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator, yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting, have pity on us poor sinners.

Several references in this prayer lead to the Angelus.

The Angelus

The Angelus focuses on the Incarnation of Jesus: ‘…the angel of the Lord declared unto Mary…’ Three biblical verses and responses describe the mystery and three Hail Marys honour Mary for her ‘Yes’.

The Angelus has traditionally been prayed in churches and monasteries at 6am, noon and 6pm. It is prayed in some Lutheran and Anglican churches giving it ecumenical significance. Often, it is accompanied by the ringing of bells as a call to prayer and expression of goodwill to all, in the spirit of the angelic message to the shepherds.

The angel in the first verse is Gabriel, who revealed to Mary that she would conceive a child to be born the son of God (Luke 1:26-38).

The prayer evolved from a recitation of three Hail Marys following an evening bell around the 12th century to its present form in the 16th century.

Sub Tuum Praesidium

We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.

Sub Tuum Praesidium is probably the oldest known prayer to Mary, from around 250AD. The earliest Greek text was found in a third century Coptic Orthodox Christmas liturgy. The English version of the prayer can also start ‘Under thy protection…’.

The prayer is a strong part of Marist spirituality from a Sulpician custom that all classes end with its recitation. The priests of the Society of Saint Sulpice at the seminary of St Iranaeus in Lyon provided the seminary formation of St Jean-Marie Vianney, the curé of Ars, and the founders of the Marist Fathers, Jean-Claude Colin, and the Marist Brothers, St Marcellin Champagnat.

This is the first time a prayer to Mary expresses belief in her powers of intercession, applying to her the word ‘deliver’ from the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:13). The text contains the word theotokos, addressing Mary as ‘holy Mother of God’, the title which was to provoke so much controversy at the Council of Ephesus in 431AD.


Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided.
Inspired with this confidence, I fly to you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To you I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.

Memorare is frequently misattributed to the 12th-century Cistercian monk St Bernard of Clairvaux, apparently due to confusion with its 17th-century French populariser, Father Claude Bernard (1588-1641), who said he learned it from his father.
Fr Claude was active in ministry to prisoners and criminals, especially those condemned to death. He distributed more than 200,000 leaflets of the Memorare, printed in various languages.

He claimed that he had himself been miraculously cured of illness through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a result of his reciting the prayer.


Mary’s ‘Yes’ and her involvement in the mystery of God’s plan, which includes her in the Church, means that invocation, praise and remembrance remain forever useful in our prayer life.

Doctrine and devotion, Bible and Church, Mary and Jesus – like prayer itself, an unending journey into God.

Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1913 edition,

Prevost, Jean-Pierre. (1988). Mother of Jesus. Novalis, Ottawa.