Catholic piety has traditionally extended special devotion to Mary during the month of May. In my Catholic school each classroom had a “May altar,” a miniature pedestal or support with a statue of the Virgin Mary, candles, and vases of flowers brought to school by the students. As a little boy, you knew you were progressing into manhood on the day you no longer wished to walk the streets to your school carrying a rich brilliant bouquet of Buffalo lilacs. Perhaps not surprisingly I can’t remember May altars past the third grade.
I wondered where the May Marian custom began, and I turned to the theology department of the University of Dayton, which is a noted center of Marian Study in the United States. Interestingly the devotion began as “May Devotion,” a time of prayer and petition for crops and livestock. A few weeks ago I mentioned the practice of a Litany of the Saints/Procession on the Feast of St. Mark (April 25) and the three days preceding Ascension Thursday (Rogation Days) which usually fall in May. May was an intense month of prayer, but not specifically focused upon Mary, the Mother of God.
Dayton’s website cannot pinpoint an exact time when May Devotion became Mary Devotion during the fifth month of the year. The eighteenth century seems to be the first historical observance of popular but private devotion to Mary in May. The only mention of Mary in the Tridentine Roman calendar of that era during May was a calendar feast on May 31, “Our Lady, Virgin and Queen. (This was changed to the Feast of the Visitation in 1970.) Curiously, prior to 1970 there were 17 calendar feasts of Mary alongside the major Marian holy days such as the Immaculate Conception, September, not May, had the most, with three.
Between 1800 and Vatican II (1962-65) the Vatican appears to have placed guidance over public services of May devotion in the hands of the local bishops, and many locations had public services of devotion to Mary in May. One very popular devotion—still in use today in many parishes and schools--is “the May Crowning,” in which young children in particular engage in this honorific ritual. A large collection of Marian prayer books, litanies and devotionals were promoted after 1800. The primary devotion to Mary, of course, was the rosary. (Given the large number of autos today with rosaries hung from the rear view mirror, perhaps we should invoke Mary’s help in the reduction of road rage.) The rosary dates to medieval times and in an age before printing was often referred to as “the poor man’s bible” with its reflection on (mostly) Scriptural events.
It is important to note the times in which May devotion to Mary most flourished. I believe that the Protestant Reformation had some influence: Protestant thinking, even to the present day, tends to downplay the Catholic emphasis on Mary, on the grounds that this distracts from attention to Jesus. Along these lines, Protestants also contend that Marian doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption have no basis in Scripture. It would not be surprising to see a Catholic counterstrike in a greater devotion to Mary, perceived as under attack by dissidents.
When Vatican II opened in 1962, there was strong belief among some participants that an entire document would be devoted to Mary and her role in salvation. There were petitions that another Marian doctrine be declared: “Mary: Mediatrix of all Graces.” (In fact, EWTN continues to petition for such a pronouncement to this day.) But the vast majority of Church fathers proceeded with caution and devoted Chapter VIII of the document The Church to Mary’s special status. Their decision resonates well with the Gospel accounts of Mary, particularly those of St. Luke and St. John in keeping Mary within the Church as its primary disciple and first believer.
Vatican II also stole some of the thunder (unintentionally) from May devotion by its insistence that the celebration of the Easter Season in the Church calendar take precedence over any other public devotions. A Catholic News Service story of September 7, 2012, provides excellent background on this and other difficulties. May runs concurrently with the Easter Season, which has preeminence in the Church calendar. Pastorally speaking, the same Church guidelines apply to Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. On the other hand, Sacraments of Initiation into the life of the Risen Christ are strongly encouraged during the Easter Season.
Catechesis and Faith Formation regarding the Virgin Mary are best presented in the fashion we teach all critical matters of belief—biblically. I am pleased to see the development of study programs such as “Mary in the Bible.” Private devotions such as the Rosary are very worthy of handing on at any age. The only caveat is a caution against any cult or devotional group claiming to get new messages from Mary. These crop up from time to time. It is a formal doctrine of the Church that Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. Were Mary walking among us today, I have no doubt that her best advice for all of us would be her famous quote from the Wedding at Cana, “Do Whatever He Tells You.”
And if I may add a personal note: when my father died in 2002 I was not able to get home till the night of his first viewing. When I looked upon him, in his best Sunday suit, I could not help but notice that he held a much-worn, beaten, plastic rosary on string. My initial reaction was surprise and regret—if I could have gotten home sooner, I would have purchased the best rosary money could buy. Thank God I kept my thoughts to myself. The worn rosary was the one my father had carried with him for four years of hell in the North African and European theaters of World War II. He prayed the rosary many times a day and this devotion carried him through the hell of martial combat. Where devotion to Mary was concerned, my father was truly “a man for all seasons.”