When I was received into the Church in 1996, I was encouraged to choose a patron saint. I settled on St. Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist. I wasn’t baptized until I became Catholic, but I was raised in a Protestant environment. So I chose St. Elizabeth because I saw in her a model for veneration of the Virgin Mary, especially her response to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42–43).
Not long after my baptism, I learned that many Catholics have a personal feast day. Some celebrate it on the day of their baptism and others celebrate it on the feast day of their patron saint. Since this was a matter of personal choice, I decided to celebrate my feast day on my saint’s feast day. Then the problem immediately arose: Did St. Elizabeth have a feast day? At the time I couldn’t find one, so I decided to make the Feast of the Visitation my personal feast day. I later found out that St. Elizabeth’s feast day is November 5, but decided to keep the Visitation as my feast day since I chose her because of her interaction with the Blessed Mother.
So, what is the Feast of the Visitation, and what does it commemorate?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the Visitation:
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” John was “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” by Christ himself, whom the Virgin Mary had just conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth thus became a visit from God to his people (CCC 717).
When the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God, he reassured her that this miraculous event could occur because “Behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:36-37). Immediately after Gabriel left, the Blessed Virgin departed too—for the hill country in Judea to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1:39).
When Mary arrived, she greeted Elizabeth. Elizabeth said in response that her baby had “leaped in her womb.” St. Luke, who gives us this account of the Visitation, says that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). That indwelling of the Holy Spirit enabled Elizabeth, even before being told of the angel’s visit to Mary or of Mary’s pregnancy, to say of Mary that “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45).
So that’s the biblical background of the feast day, but commemorating the Visitation is not as ancient a practice as we might think, given that the event is featured in the New Testament. It was started in the Middle Ages by the Franciscans, promulgated by St. Bonaventure.
Originally the feast was observed on July 2, after the conclusion of the octave following the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist. When the Church reorganized the universal calendar in 1969, the Visitation was moved to May 31, placing it in the month of May (a month traditionally set aside to honor Mary) and before St. John’s feast day on June 24. In Germany, the bishops received permission from the Holy See to retain the original date of July 2 for the feast.
Today we are familiar with the Visitation mainly because it is the second joyful mystery of the rosary. In addition to praying the prayers of the rosary, Catholics meditate on the individual mysteries. What are some things that we can think about when we are praying the rosary and meditating on the Visitation?
The Visitation is one of the few episodes in the New Testament that features women at the forefront of the action. Mary’s first action after receiving the announcement from the angel about bearing God’s Son is to seek out an older female relative she has been told is pregnant. She stays with Elizabeth for three months (Luke 1:56). Since Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth was six months pregnant (Luke 1:36), that means Mary chose to stay with Elizabeth through the end of her pregnancy.
Mary may well have been present for John’s birth and for the restoration of Zechariah’s speech when Zechariah insisted to his family that the child must be named John (Luke 1:57-80). She probably heard Zechariah’s prophecy that John would prepare the way for her own Son (Luke 1:76). Afterward, she returned home to Nazareth, probably to face St. Joseph who might not have yet known Mary was pregnant.
Sometimes, it seems, we take Scripture stories like the Visitation for granted. We don’t think deeply about them because they have been familiar to us all our lives. It can be hard to think about these stories while still praying the rosary. For me, anyway, the rosary is a difficult prayer. Here’s one idea for incorporating more meditation into the rosary, using the Visitation as our example:
Most of the mysteries of the rosary are drawn from stories in the New Testament. (The two exceptions are the assumption of the Virgin Mary and her coronation as queen of heaven.) Perhaps you might read the story the mystery is based upon and pray a decade of the rosary as you go. With the Visitation, read Luke 1:39–80, perhaps backtracking into the story of the Annunciation if necessary. When something interesting about the story catches your eye, stop and say a Hail Mary.
Rather than try to keep track of how many Hail Marys you’ve said on a rosary chain, which can become clumsy when you are also reading Scripture, perhaps you could use loose beads, or buttons, or pebbles, or shells, and move them from one pile to another. When you have moved them all from one pile to another, you’ll know you’ve finished your decade. Granted, you probably won’t be able to pray all five decades of the rosary that way, but perhaps you could focus on one decade per day and pray a meditative rosary over the course of a week.
The Visitation, like all the mysteries of the rosary, invites us to do as Mary did and keep all these things in our heart (Luke 2:51). Let us pray.