This Lenten season, I have been focusing much of my attention on prayer. Among other things, I have committed myself to praying the rosary every day in Latin (as I mentioned here). This Latin rosary has gone surprisingly well. It has yielded a number of spiritual benefits. As the weeks of Lent progress I may write more on this topic. But for now I will point out that this Latin exercise has caused me to think more deeply about the words of each prayer, particularly the words of the Hail Mary which is repeated more than fifty times during the course of one rosary. While pondering each phrase of this prayer I have come to appreciate how deeply “Catholic” it truly is. And by that I do not only mean that it is a prayer focused on Mary (a figure so closely identified with Catholicism), but there is also something very “Catholic” in the Hail Mary’s structure.
The prayer opens with these words:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou, amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
These two lines refer to Scripture. The first is from the greeting given by the Angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation: “Hail, full of grace…” (Luke 1:28) And then the words of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, as she receives a visit from her cousin Mary: “Blessed are you among women…” (Luke 1:42)
These lines of the prayer emphasize the importance of Scripture for Catholics. We certainly make use of the Bible in our prayer lives. But I also find that these two quotes tell us something more profound about the Catholic understanding of Scripture. The first words are from an Angel, a messenger from Heaven, speaking on behalf of God. The Angel delivers God’s Word to Mary (verbally and incarnate). The second quote is from a human uttering a response when encountered by the presence of God’s Word in Mary’s womb. So we have a kind of snap-shot of the dynamic found in the pages of the Bible. On the one hand we have God’s Word coming down to us (represented by the Angel’s remark), and on the other hand we see humanity responding to the Word and reacting to it (represented by Elizabeth). Catholics see the Bible as a product of this give-and-take of the God-human relationship. Scripture is a lived-out experience. We pray it, we live it, and we respond to it, just as it was prayed, lived and responded to at the time of the actual events recorded there. God comes down to us and we then make our reply.
That human response to God’s Word leads us to the second half of the Hail Mary:
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
These words do not come directly from Scripture. But they are an authentic response to Scripture as lived out in a Catholic spirituality. And I think they too have something profound to teach us.
The first line here addresses Mary by the title “Mother of God.” This expression commonly refers to the Greek theotokos or God-bearer. This is an ancient title for Mary which was officially approved by the Church at the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in the year 431. It was used in previous centuries by many of the Church Fathers as a theologically sound defense of Christ’s humanity. This formal naming of Mary in our prayer certainly bears witness to the importance of Ecumenical Councils and the teaching authority of the Church which shapes our Catholic spirituality. We see here that our Catholic faith is molded by doctrine and theology.
In contrast, the last line is almost shocking in its simplicity: “Pray for us…” It is a simple request made countless times by each of us to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers. And so too we ask Mary the Theotokos, Mother of God, and full of grace, to pray for us. It is a very Catholic notion expressed here: Heaven and earth are so intimately united that we who trudge through life’s mediocrity can call upon the saints of Heaven to aide us in our plight. “Pray for us” is such a common and ordinary request and yet it draws us up to the heights of Heaven. So obviously it is not only theology and doctrine that shape our spiritual life (though these things are essential), but also the simple plight of every man and woman, clergy or laity, lived out every day in ordinary experiences. The simple “pray for us” points us to the Theotokos.
Altogether, we might say that this second half of the Hail Mary reflects Sacred Tradition. By this we mean the lived-out experience of God’s Word in the Church. When it comes to Sacred Tradition the hierarchy has a special role to play in formulating dogmas and officially defining Truths. But it is the whole Church, including the laity, who guards these Truths and lives out these dogmas no matter how simple or lowly our station in life. Sacred Tradition is expressed sometimes in theology and doctrine, but it is also found in the living Church.
To summarize what has been said here: The Hail Mary is structured with two distinct components. The first half of the prayer points us to Holy Scripture, where we see the relationship between God and humanity which produces God’s Word. The second half shows us Sacred Tradition, where we find a relationship between dogma and the lived experience of the faith working together to point us Heavenward. Together, these two halves form the basis of the Catholic faith. And so the Hail Mary shows itself to be a deeply Catholic prayer.