For some people, ‘Hail Mary’ is the name of a rap song. Others know it as a long, against-all-odds football pass. Catholics, even if they don’t pray the Hail Mary, are familiar with it as the title and opening of a prayer also called the Angelic Salutation, one of the most familiar prayers of the Church.
Since this week we commemorate the Visitation, when St. Elizabeth spoke a greeting to the expectant Holy Mother which forms part of the Hail Mary, I thought it would be a good time to consider what exactly people are saying when they pray this prayer.
Many may be surprised to learn that words of the Hail Mary, including those of Elizabeth come mostly from scripture.
The prayer begins, “Hail (Mary) full of grace, the Lord is with you,” which are the words of the Angel Gabriel when he appeared to Mary to tell her she had been chosen to be Jesus’ mother (Luke 1:28). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that she is full of grace because God has just made his dwelling in her; she is the Ark of the Covenant from which Christ will be born.
In reality, this is God’s greeting, spoken to Mary through Gabriel, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, so when we greet her this way, we acknowledge the regard that God has for her and “exult in the joy he finds in her.” (CCC 2676).
The second part of the Hail Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb, Jesus” is also taken directly from the account of St. Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary who comes to visit her older, also-pregnant cousin. (Luke 1:42) The Bible records that Elizabeth was “filled wit the Holy Spirit” when she gave Mary this greeting and is the first of many generations to call her “blessed.” Mary is given this greeting because she believed in the fulfillment of God’s word. (CCC2676)
The next line of the prayer, “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” reflects Elizabeth’s wonder that “the mother of my Lord should come to me.” (Luke 1:43) “Because she gives us Jesus, her son, Mary is Mother of God and our mother.” (CCC2677)
The Hail Mary closes with the words, “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” With this final petition we should “piously and suppliantly have recourse to her in order that by her intercession she may reconcile God with us sinners and obtain for us the blessing we need both for this present life and for the life which has no end.”
Since Mary is not God, why do Catholics pray this prayer more often than any other prayer? The highpoint and focus of the entire Hail Mary prayer is Jesus. (CCC435) The Church teaches that all prayers to Mary go directly to God. And as St. Louis de Montfort said, Christ came to us through Mary so it makes sense that we should go to him through his Mother. But that’s another topic …
Some may wonder, if this is such an important prayer, why do people say it so often? A story about St. Francis of Assisi shows why each Hail Mary honors the Blessed Mother.
When the Lord asked Francis to give him something, the saint replied: “Dear Lord, I can give you nothing for I have already given you all, all my love.” Jesus replied, “Francis, give me it all again and again, it will give me the same pleasure.”