“May is Mary’s Month,” began the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, in “The May Magnificat.”
For centuries, the Catholic Church has emphasized the month of May as a time of honor and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Parishes and families often celebrate with special pilgrimages, devotions, or placing a crown on a statue of Mary, traditionally called a “May Crowning.”
On April 29, 1965, Pope Blessed Paul VI promulgated his encyclical Mense Maio (“The Month of May”), which promoted May devotions to the Blessed Mother, knowing that, “the person who encounters Mary cannot help but encounter Christ likewise” (n. 2). Despite being a lesser-known encyclical, its timing and topic are revealing. Released on the eve of the last session of the Second Vatican Council and amid escalating violence and unrest of the Vietnam War and the 1960’s, the help of Mary was “a matter of top priority” considering “the present needs of the Church and the status of world peace” (n. 3). The words of Paul VI are just as relevant today. In our contentious social and political climate, focusing on Mary is not a pious distraction from real issues, but a vital source for grace, truth, and mercy.
A Short History and Practice
May devotions to Mary began in the 13th century, but there is little information to know how it was celebrated. In it’s present form, the practice of May devotions to Mary originated within the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in the 18th century under Father Latomia of their Roman College. Shortly afterwards, devotions were adopted at the Jesuit’s mother church in Rome, the Church of the Gesù, and then began to spread throughout other area churches to the entire globe. (Pope Francis, who is also a Jesuit, has a special devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots, a phrase first attributed to St. Irenaeus of Lyons who said, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosened by the obedience of Mary”).
The image of Mary wearing a gold crown appears in early Eastern and Western iconography, drawing inspiration from the Coronation of Mary as understood in Catholic biblical tradition based on the passage from Revelation 12:1. Some churches and families participate in a special May Crowning celebration. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) first placed two crowns on the Marian icon called “Salus Populi Romani” in the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major, but the crowns were later lost. On the Feast of the Assumption in 1838, Pope Gregory XVI once again added crowns in a special rite, officially starting the tradition as it is still performed today.
One reason the devotion has come to extend over the entire month is the abundance of Marian feast days in May: Mary, Queen of Apostles (Saturday before Pentecost – May 14th, this year), Our Lady of Fatima (May 13), Mary Help of Christians (May 24), and the Visitation (May 31).
Mary in May Today
Seeking Peace- Pope Paul VI’s encyclical was especially concerned with peace, invoking the “intercession and protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Peace” (n. 10). Amid ongoing persecutions and violence in many areas of the world, turning to Christ though Mary is an important way to pray that May becomes a month of peace.
Honoring the Family- Mary receives an important role in Pope Francis’ recent Exhortation Amoris Laetitia- The Joy of Love: On Love in the Family. He states, “Every family should look to the icon of the Holy Family of Nazareth” (n. 30). Pope Francis goes on to say, “The treasury of Mary’s heart also contains the experiences of every family, which she cherishes. For this reason, she can help us understand the meaning of these experiences and to hear the message God wishes to communicate through the life of our families” (n. 30). Pope Francis reminds us that by honoring Mary, we honor Jesus and our families.
Honoring the Body- Our culture and Church desperately needs the figure of Mary before our eyes as an exemplar of the dignity and uniqueness of women, especially in light of the real and present danger of pornography. The USCCB has also created a pastoral guide regarding pornography “to raise awareness of its pervasiveness and harms.” This month, ask Mary’s intercession for an end to this destructive force, and healing for those deeply affected.
Honoring Your Mother- For good measure, May also celebrates our biological Mother’s Day (May 8, don’t forget!). Let Mary’s month be a new reason to honor and celebrate your own mother.
There is no lack of reasons to stay close to Mary this month, and throughout our lives. Find ways to honor her with your words and actions by seeking new ways to bring about mercy and peace through our churches into our hurting world.