The Hail Mary
by Father Reginald Martin, O.P.
Scriptural Basis of the Prayer
The Prayer we call the "Hail Mary" has evolved over
time. The first two sentences (beginning with the Angel's Greeting and closing with Elizabeth's Words, "blessed
is the Fruit of thy womb") are taken directly from the Scripture (Luke 1:28). The name of
Jesus, to identify Mary's Son, was added in the
13th Century, and the Closing Petitions, in which we acknowledge Mary
as the Mother of God, and beg her
Prayers, were added in the 16th Century.
A Part of Early Public Worship
The Opening Words of the Hail Mary were part of the Church's
Public Worship by the 7th Century, and Saint Gregory the Great included them as the Offertory
Verse for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. However, these words did not assume the form of a Separate
Prayer until several Centuries later, probably an outgrowth of Monastic Spirituality.
By the end of the 12th Century, however, the Bishop of Paris ordered his Clergy to make certain
the Faithful were as well acquainted with the "Salutation of the Blessed Virgin" as they were
with the Words of the Creed and the Lord's Prayer.
Evolution of the Prayer
Initially, the words "Hail Mary", etc. retained their character as a Greeting, so the
Words often accompanied a Genuflection or Bow to Honor the Blessed Virgin. As these exercises took
more formal shape, we can probably see a connection with the Form of the Rosary that we know today.
One 12th Century Saint repeated the words 150 times each day,
kneeling One Hundred times, and prostrating for Fifty. Saint
Louis of France (1226-1270) knelt, stood, and then knelt again as he said the
Prayer. His biographers state he repeated this action Fifty times each night, in
addition to his other Prayers.
A Prayer of Penance
Because such Activity can soon become tiring, the Hail Mary often assumed a
Penitential Character when Monastic Communities adopted the practice of attaching Physical Action to the
Prayer. Nevertheless, the Practice was apparently widespread, and those who embraced it felt it reflected, on earth, the
ceaseless Hymns of Praise the Saints and Angels offer in Heaven.
Development of the Present Prayer
The Hail Mary began to assume its present form in the 14th and 15th
Centuries, as individuals added some sort of Petition to the Angel's Words of Greeting. Initially, the Words of Petition
reflected the Personal Devotion of those who said the Prayer, but a
Prayer for Help at the Time of Death gradually became the Norm. The form of today's
Prayer can be found in Breviaries used in Religious Communities as early as
The Council of Trent
The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) embraced the
"Hail Mary" as we know it, applauding it as the Organic Effort of the
Church to complete what the Scripture initiated. Most Rightly has the 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.
After the Council, in 1568, the "Hail Mary"
in its present form appeared in the Roman Breviary. (This information is summarized from
The Catholic Encyclopedia.)
Angels and Men
Scripture records numerous instances of Angelic Visits, and the Honor paid to Angels by our Ancestors in the Faith. However,
the Angel's Greeting to Mary, "Hail, full of Grace",
is unique, the very First instance of an Angel showing Reverence to a Human Being. To understand the
Magnitude of the Angel's paying Homage to Mary, we must understand how far superior Angels are to us.
The Nature of Angels
Angels are Pure, Spiritual Beings. Because they have no Material Component, as we do, Angels are not subject to the
Corruption and Decay that will
Destroy our Mortal Frame. Furthermore, the Angel's Intellectual Powers surpass ours.
The Human Mind learns by Steps, proceeding from one Truth to
another, and often making Mistakes in the process. Angels, by contrast, understand
Truth Immediately and Completely.
The Angels' Closeness to God
Although equality with Angels is promised God's Saints
(Saint Thomas, Prima Pars 62.5), this Everlasting
Happiness is something we look forward to, yet our Progress in Grace is often impeded by
our Bodily Senses. An Angel's 'Immaterial Nature' is not subject to such
Distraction, so Angels are able to Love God without Hindrance.
Thus, Scripture speaks of Angels standing-before God and ministering-to
Him. Our Human Experience of Sin reveals how far we are from
God, at least occasionally.
Angels and Grace
Grace moves both Men and Angels to
Love God. However, because nothing
stands between Angels and their Vision of God, the
Angels share God's Love more
fully than we can hope to, in this life.
The Sole Exception
Because Angels surpass Mankind in Dignity, Grace and Nearness
to Our Creator, they are worthy of our Honor. We depend upon Angels to Assist us, but we do not
expect them to Pay us Tribute. In the Virgin Mary, however, the Angels discovered a Human Being whose
closeness to God was greater than theirs. Reasonably, then, the Angel honored
Mary by saying, "Hail, full of grace!" which expressed the Angel's Respect and
Awe when faced with Mary's Excellence.
Mary, Full of Grace
God's Gift of Grace enables us to do Good and avoid
Evil. By sparing Mary the Stain of
Original Sin, God gave her a Greater Measure of
Grace than any Saint other than Christ,
Himself. Saint Augustine turns to the Scripture to express this beautifully:
Except the Holy Virgin Mary, if all the Saints ... while living here below had been asked whether they were
without sin, all would have cried aloud with one voice: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the
Truth is not in us" (1John 1:8).
The Model of All Virtue
When we read the Lives of the Saints, we discover that certain individuals were known for particular Good
Works; Mary excels in all Virtue. For example,
she shows her Humility when
she replies to the Angel, "I am the handmaid of the Lord",
and her Chastity when she
asserts she has had no Relations with a Man.
A Spiritual Vessel
Although many Saints are known for the Penances they imposed on their
Bodies, the Saints' true claim to Holiness lies in the
Holiness of their Souls. By contrast, Mary was so
filled with Grace that it filled her
Body, making her Flesh fit to bear
God's Son. One
Medieval Theologian wrote "The Holy Ghost so kindled in her heart the Fire of Divine Love that it worked
wonders in her flesh ... that she gave birth to God made Man".
A Gift to the World
Our Theology teaches no Gift is given simply to Enrich the one who receives it. Thus, we honor
the Saints because their Virtues are a Source of Inspiration for others.
Mary surpasses all the Saints in Virtue so the Grace
her Son gives through her
is Immense Enough to Save all Mankind.
The Lord is With Thee
Mary's participation in the Incarnation gives
her a unique place in relation to the Blessed Trinity.
God's Son is her Son,
something that can be said of no other individual, and the Union between Mary and
God the Father exceeds the intimacy of God with any other Creature.
In giving birth to Jesus, Mary gives
Flesh and Blood to God's Word.
Christ is Lord of Creation - even Lord of the Angels - but
He is Mary's Son, a
Relation no one else can know. Because the Incarnation is the Work of the
Holy Spirit, Mary enjoys a Union with the Trinity
unknown to any of the Saints or Angels.
Mother of the Lord, Our Lady
In the Old Testament, the most Significant Woman in a Kingdom was not the King's Wife, for Rulers could have many
Wives; the Highest Honor was paid the King's Mother. We pay Mary similar Honor in our Devotion.
When Elizabeth greets Mary, she asks, "why is this granted me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43). The words, "Mother of
my Lord", echo the Title given the Queen-Mother in Scripture. They are also the basis for one of the most common
Titles by which we address the Blessed Virgin. Because Mary is
Mother of our Lord, she is
Blessed among Women
Mary is often called a "New Eve" because
God spared her the Punishments
He pronounced on the Wife of Adam. Chief among these is the Mortality, which consigns our
Bodies to the dust from which they were created. Mary is
"blessed" in herself because
she was spared the Punishments God imposed on Mankind,
but she is also Blessed by the Actions of
her life - giving us Our Savoir, showing us the Supreme Example of
Christian Virtue, and, in her Assumption, giving us a
promise of the Glory that God's Love calls us to enjoy.
Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb
The notion of "Fruit" provides further reason for considering
Mary the New Eve. The First Eve ate Fruit which, she was promised, would make her
like God. Instead, through her Disobedience, she became unlike
God and was sent out of the Earthly Paradise. Eve's children have
Suffered the same fate for Millennia.
Mary reverses the Original Sin. By sharing her
Fruit - Jesus Christ - with the World,
she invites us to reclaim the Image and Identity we Lost in the Garden.
"When He shall appear, we shall be like Him", Saint John promises,
"for we shall see Him as He is" (1John 3:2). Our
Baptism Unites us with Christ and, through Him, to
the Father, restoring in us the Likeness of God
Sacrificed to Sin.
Delight and Beauty
The Book of Genesis tells us "the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a
delight to the eyes" (Genesis 3:6). Once they tasted it, however, our First Parents realized, in an Instant,
the Fruit of the Tree was neither Useful nor Pleasant. Instead, it brought them Shame and
Exile. The Fruit of Mary's Womb
is both the Summit of our Humanity and Food for our Salvation,
Useful and Beautiful.
Eve discovered no pleasure in the Fruit she ate, and ultimately we find as little pleasure in Sin.
In the Fruit Mary gives us, however, we find Blessing,
Hope, and Promise.
Pray for Us Sinners
The Hail Mary, as Saint Thomas Aquinas knew it, and as he preached upon it during
Lent in 1273, ends with acknowledgement of
Our Savior, the Blessed Fruit of Mary's Womb. Surely,
these words from the Scripture are Sufficient, and Perfect in their Simplicity. Why, we may ask, has the
Church added to the "Angelic Salutation" we find in the Gospel?
Academic Study will undoubtedly reveal manifold answers to this question, but Human Need can tell us as much. As children, we are taught
that Beauty-is as Beauty-does, and the Hail Mary is a Prayer that
God will enable us to live up to the Image in which we have been created.
One of the Church's Hymns honors Mary by saying,
"Mary, mother meek and mild, blessed was she in her Child". When we
Pray the Hail Mary we begin by acknowledging Mary's
Unique and Honored place in our Humanity. But as we continue the Prayer, we realize that
Mary is not simply Blessed in who
she is, but in what she has done. In the Hail Mary we
ask for the Grace to discover, as Mary did, all that our Human
Frame is capable of - if we are willing to place ourselves in God's Hands and surrender to