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Hail Mary

The most familiar of all the prayers used by the Universal Church in honour of our Blessed Lady

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Hail Mary. — The Hail Mary (sometimes called the “Angelical salutation”, sometimes, from the first words of its Latin form, the “Ave Maria”) is the most familiar of all the prayers used by the Universal Church in honor of our Blessed Lady. It is commonly described as consisting of three parts. The first, “Hail (Mary) full of grace, the Lord Is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women”, embodies the words used by the Angel Gabriel in saluting the Blessed Virgin (Luke, i, 28). The second, “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb (Jesus)”, is borrowed from the Divinely inspired greeting of St. Elizabeth (Luke, i, 42), which attaches itself the more naturally to the first part, because the words “benedicta to in mulieribus” (i, 28) or “inter mulieres” (i, 42) are common to both salutations. Finally, the petition “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” is stated by the official “Catechism of the Council of Trent” to have been framed by the Church itself. “Most rightly”, says the Catechism, “has the Holy Church of God added to this thanksgiving, petition also and the invocation of the most holy Mother of God, thereby implying that 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 blessings we need both for this present life and for the life which has no end.”

ORIGIN.—It was antecedently probable that the striking words of the Angel‘s salutation would be adopted by the faithful as soon as personal devotion to the Mother of God manifested itself in the Church. The Vulgate rendering, Ave gratia plena, “Hail full of grace”, has often been criticized as too explicit a translation of the Greek chaire kecharitomene, but the words are in any case most striking, and the Anglican Revised Version now supplements the “Hail, thou that art highly favored” of the original Authorized Version by the marginal alternative, “Hail thou, endued with grace”. We are not surprised, then, to find these or analogous words employed in a Syriac ritual attributed to Severus, Patriarch of Antioch (c. 513), or by Andrew of Crete and St. John Damascene, or again in the “Liber Antiphonarius” of St. Gregory the Great as the offertory of the Mass for the fourth Sunday of Advent. But such examples hardly warrant the conclusion that the Hail Mary was at that early period used in the Church as a separate formula of Catholic devotion. Similarly a story attributing the introduction of the Hail Mary to St. Ildephonsus of Toledo must probably be regarded as apocryphal. The legend narrates how St. Ildephonsus going to the church by night found our Blessed Lady seated in the apse in his own episcopal chair with a choir of virgins around her who were singing her praises. Then St. Ildephonsus approached “making a series of genuflexions and repeating at each of them those words of the angel’s greeting: `Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’. Our Lady then showed her pleasure at this homage and rewarded the saint with the gift of a beautiful chasuble (Mabillon, Acta SS. O.S.B., se. V, pref., § 119). The story, however, in this explicit form cannot be traced further back than Hermann of Laon at the beginning of the twelfth century.

In point of fact there is little or no trace of the Hail Mary as an accepted devotional formula before about 1050. All the evidence suggests that it took its rise from certain versicles and responsories occurring in the Little Office or Cursus of the Blessed Virgin which just at that time was coming into favor among the monastic orders. Two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts at the British Museum, one of which may be as old as the year 1030, show that the words “Ave Maria” etc. and “benedicta to in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui” occurred in almost every part of the Cursus, and though we cannot be sure that these clauses were at first joined together so as to make one prayer, there is conclusive evidence that this had come to pass only a very little later. (See “The Month”, November, 1901, pp. 486-8.) The great collections of Mary-legends which began to be formed in the early years of the twelfth century (see Mussafia, “Marienlegenden”) show us that this salutation of our Lady was fast becoming widely prevalent as a form of private devotion, though it is not quite certain how far it was customary to include the clause “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”. But Abbot Baldwin, a Cistercian who was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1184, wrote before this date a sort of paraphrase of the Ave Maria in which he says: “To this salutation of the Angel, by which we daily greet the most Blessed Virgin, with such devotion as we may, we are accustomed to add the words, ‘and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,’ by which clause Elizabeth at a later time, on hearing the Virgin’s salutation to her, caught up and completed, as it were, the Angel‘s words, saying: ‘Blessed are thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.'” Not long after this (c. 1196) we meet a synodal decree of Eudes de Sully, Bishop of Paris, enjoining upon the clergy to see that the “Salutation of the Blessed Virgin” was familiarly known to their flocks as well as the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer; and after this date similar enactments become frequent in every part of the world, beginning in England with the Synod of Durham in 1217.

THE HAIL MARY A SALUTATION.—To understand the early developments of this devotion it is important to grasp the fact that those who first used this formula fully recognized that the Ave Maria was merely a form of greeting. It was therefore long customary to accompany the words with some external gesture of homage, a genuflexion, or at least an inclination of the head. Of St. Aybert, in the twelfth century, it is recorded that he recited 150 Hail Marys daily, 100 with genuflexions and 50 with prostrations. So Thierry tells us of St. Louis of France that “without counting his other prayers the holy King knelt down each evening fifty times and each time he stood up-right then knelt again and repeated slowly an Ave Maria.” Kneeling at the Ave Maria was enjoined in several of the religious orders. So in the Ancren Riwle (q.v.), a treatise which an examination of the Corpus Christi MS. 402 shows to be of older date than the year 1200, the sisters are instructed that, at the recitation both of the Gloria Patri and the Ave Maria in the Office, they are either to genuflect or to incline profoundly according to the ecclesiastical season. In this way, owing to the fatigue of these repeated prostrations and genuflexions, the recitation of a number of Hail Marys was often regarded as a penitential exercise, and it is recorded of certain canonized saints, e.g. the Dominican nun St. Margaret (d. 1292), daughter of the King of Hungary, that on certain days she recited the Ave a thousand times with a thousand prostrations. This concept of the Hail Mary as a form of salutation explains in some measure the practice, which is certainly older than the epoch of St. Dominic, of repeating the greeting as many as 150 times in succession. The idea is akin to that of the “Holy, Holy, Holy”, which we are taught to think goes up continually before the throne of the Most High.

DEVELOPMENT OF THE HAIL MARY.—In the time of St. Louis the Ave Maria ended with the words of St. Elizabeth: “benedictus fructus ventris tui”; it has since been extended by the introduction both of the Holy Name and of a clause of petition. As regards the addition of the word “Jesus,” or, as it usually ran in the fifteenth century, “Jesus Christus, Amen“, it is commonly said that this was due to the initiative of Pope Urban IV (1261) and to the confirmation and indulgence of John XXII. The evidence does not seem sufficiently clear to warrant a positive statement on the point. Still, there can be no doubt that this was the widespread belief of the later Middle Ages. A popular German religious manual of the fifteenth century (“Der Seim Troist”, 1474) even divides the Hail Mary into four portions, and declares that the first part was composed by the Angel Gabriel, the second by St. Elizabeth, the third, consisting only of the Sacred Name, Jesus Christus, by the popes, and the last, i.e. the word Amen, by the Church.

THE HAIL MARY AS A PRAYER.—It was often made a subject of reproach against the Catholics by the Reformers that the Hail Mary which they so constantly repeated was not properly a prayer. It was a greeting which contained no petition (see, e.g. Latimer, Works, II, 229-30). This objection would seem to have long been felt, and as a consequence it was not uncommon during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for those who recited their Aves privately to add some clause at the end, after the words “ventris tui Jesus”. Traces of this practice meet us particularly in the verse paraphrases of the Ave which date from this period. The most famous of these is that attributed, though incorrectly, to Dante, and belonging in any case to the first half of the fourteenth century. In this paraphrase the Hail Mary ends with the following words:

O Vergin benedetta, sempre tu

Ora per noi a Dio, che ci perdoni,

E diaci grazia a viver si quaggiu

Che’l paradiso al nostro fin ci doni;

Oh blessed Virgin, pray to God for us always, that He may pardon us and give us grace, so to live here below that He may reward us with paradise at our death.

Comparing the versions of the Ave existing in various languages, e.g. Italian, Spanish, German, Provencal, we find that there is a general tendency to conclude with an appeal for sinners and especially for help at the hour of death. Still a good deal of variety prevailed in these forms of petition. At the close of the fifteenth century there was not any officially approved conclusion, though a form closely resembling our present one was sometimes designated as “the prayer of Pope Alexander VI” (see “Der Katholik”, April, 1903, p. 234), and was engraved separately on bells (Beissel, “Verehrung Marias”, p. 460). But for liturgical purposes the Ave down to the year 1568 ended with “Jesus, Amen“, and an observation in the “Myroure of our Lady” written for the Bridgettine nuns of Syon, clearly indicates the general feeling. “Some saye at the begynnyng of this salutacyon Ave benigne Jesu and some saye after ‘Maria mater Dei’, with other addycyons at the ende also. And such thinges may be saide when folke saye their Aves of theyr own devocyon. But in the servyce of the chyrche, I trowe it to be moste sewer and moste medeful (i.e. meritorious) to obey the comon use of saying, as the chyrche hath set, without all such addicions.”

We meet the Ave as we know it now, printed in the breviary of the Camaldolese monks, and in that of the Order de Mercede c. 1514. Probably this, the current form of Ave, came from Italy, and Esser asserts that it is to be found, written exactly as we say it now in the handwriting of St. Antoninus of Florence who died in 1459. This, however, is doubtful. What is certain is that an Ave Maria identical with our own, except for the omission of the single word nostrae, stands printed at the head of a little work of Savonarola’s issued in 1495, of which there is a copy in the British Museum. Even earlier than this, in a French edition of the “Calendar of Shepherds” which appeared in 1493, a third part is added to the Hail Mary, which is repeated in Pynson’s English translation a few years later in the form: “Holy Mary moder of God praye for us synners. Amen“. In an illustration which appears in the same book, the pope and the whole Church are depicted kneeling before our Lady and greeting her with this third part of the Ave. The Official recognition of the Ave Maria in its complete form, though foreshadowed in the words of the Catechism of the Council of Trent, as quoted at the beginning of this article, was finally given in the Roman Breviary of 1568.

One or two other points connected with the Hail Mary can only be briefly touched upon. It would seem that in the Middle Ages the Ave often became so closely connected with the Pater poster, that it was treated as a sort of farsura, or insertion, before the words et ne nos inducas in tentationem when the Pater noster was said secreto (see several examples quoted in “The Month”, November, 1901, p. 490). The practice of preachers interrupting their sermons near the beginning to say the Ave Maria seems to have been introduced in the Middle Ages and to be of Franciscan origin (Beissel, p. 254). A curious illustration of its retention among English Catholics in the reign of James II may be found in the “Diary” of Mr. John Thoresby (I, 182). It may also be noticed that although modern Catholic usage is agreed in favoring the form “the Lord is with thee”, this is a comparatively recent development. The more general custom a century ago was to say “our Lord is with thee”, and Cardinal Wiseman in one of his essays strongly reprobates the change (Essays on Various Subjects, I, 76), characterizing it as “stiff, cantish and destructive of the unction which the prayer breathes”. Finally it may be noticed that in some places, and notably in Ireland, the feeling still survives that the Hail Mary is complete with the word Jesus. Indeed the writer is informed that within living memory it was not uncommon for Irish peasants, when bidden to say Hail Marys for a penance, to ask whether they were required to say the Holy Marys too. Upon the Ave Maria in the sense of Angelus, see Angelus. On account of its connection with the Angelus, the Ave Maria was often inscribed on bells. One such bell at Eskild in Denmark, dating from about the year 1200, bears the Ave Maria engraved upon it in runic characters. (See Uldall, “Danmarks Middelalderlige Kirkeklokker”, Copenhagen, 1906, p. 22.)


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