Catholics sometimes come across slightly defensive, almost embarrassed, about Mary. When asked by our protestant friends why Catholics worship Mary, we may quickly reply, "We don’t worship her; we honor her." When asked why we pray to Mary, we might respond, "We don’t pray to her; we ask her to pray for us."
Such "Apologetics 101" moves may express certain truths about Marian devotion and can be very helpful in initial conversations with our non-Catholic brethren. However, if we stop there, we may fail to communicate the full splendor of God’s revelation about our Blessed Mother and the beautiful role she plays in our lives.
That was precisely my experience with the Hail Mary.
For many years, whenever I was asked about why Catholics pray the Hail Mary, I explained that it was a prayer in which we ask the mother of Jesus to pray for us. Since Mary is so close to her Son in heaven, she serves as an ideal intercessor whose prayers bring us closer to Jesus. And we seek Mary’s intercession just like we ask each other here on earth for prayers, so it should be okay for a Christian to pray the Hail Mary, asking her to "pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."
While all this is true, it’s not the approach pope John Paul II took when explaining the Hail Mary in his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (RVM). For John Paul II, the Hail Mary is not just an intercessory prayer that is permissible for Christians to recite; it’s actually a Christ-centered prayer that gives Jesus great praise. If we truly love Jesus, we as Christians should want to pray this prayer!
In this short article, we will consider John Paul II’s reflections on the Hail Mary and how they can transform the way we pray this prayer and lead us to deeper intimacy with Jesus each time we recite it.
Put Yourself in Gabriel’s Shoes
First, John Paul II explains that although the Hail Mary is addressed to Our Lady, "it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed" (RVM, no. 26). When expounding on this prayer, he divides the Hail Mary into two halves. In an amazing statement, John Paul II notes how the words from the first half of the Hail Mary express "the wonder of heaven and earth" over the mystery of Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary (RVM, no. 33).
Let’s consider what he means about "the wonder of heaven and earth" in the Hail Mary. The first line-"Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee"-is drawn right from the angel Gabriel’s words to Our Lady in the Annunciation scene (Lk. 1:28). To more fully appreciate the meaning of this opening line in the Hail Mary, imagine what these words originally meant to the Archangel Gabriel. Gabriel is an angel who existed long before Mary did. Gabriel has been around a lot longer than the nation of Israel or the entire human family. In fact, Gabriel was there when God first created the world. From the beginning of his existence, Gabriel has been worshipping, adoring, and loving the infinite, almighty God, the Creator: the Blessed Trinity.
And now, this great angel is sent to a little planet in the universe called earth . . . to a small, insignificant village called Nazareth . . . to a tiny little creature, a woman named Mary-in order to announce to her that the all-holy, all-powerful God he has been worshipping from the beginning of his existence is about to become a little baby in her womb. In awe over that profound mystery of his eternal God becoming a little embryo in Mary’s womb, Gabriel greets Mary saying, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Lk. 1:28). Indeed, the Lord has not been with anyone like He is about to be with Mary. In joyful wonder, Gabriel recognizes this, and his words give praise to God for becoming man in her.
Joining Heaven and Earth
Similarly, Elizabeth greets Mary with great honor. The biblical account of the Visitation tells us that Elizabeth was "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Lk. 1:41), which indicates that she was given prophetic insight. Before Mary has a chance to say anything about her own pregnancy, Elizabeth already knows. And she knows Mary is pregnant not with any ordinary child, but with the Lord Himself. In wonder over this mystery of God becoming man in Mary, Elizabeth exclaims, "blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" like Gabriel, Elizabeth’s words give praise to God for the Incarnation.
Do you realize that every time you recite the Hail Mary, you are repeating these famous words of Gabriel and Elizabeth? And in doing so, you enter into the ecstatic joy of "heaven and earth" over the mystery of Christ: heaven, represented by Gabriel, and earth, represented by Elizabeth. Both come together to praise God for becoming man in Jesus Christ, the child conceived in Mary’s womb. And we join in that praise of God every time we pray the Hail Mary. Indeed, the Hail Mary is truly a Christ-centered prayer!
God’s Own Wonderment
Furthermore, since these words of Gabriel and Elizabeth are from the inspired Word of God in Scripture, they also represent God’s own response to the mystery of the Christ. Hence, whenever we repeat these words in the Hail Mary, we participate in God’s joy over the Incarnation. As John Paul II explains, "These words . . . could be said to give us a glimpse of God’s own wonderment as he contemplates his ‘masterpiece’-the Incarnation of the Son in the womb of the Virgin Mary. . . . The repetition of the Hail Mary . . . gives us a share in God’s own wonder and pleasure: In jubilant amazement we acknowledge the greatest miracle of history" (RVM, no. 33).
The second half of the Hail Mary also is focused on Jesus. Here, we entrust our lives to Mary’s intercession, asking her to "pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."
As a model disciple of Christ, who said "yes" to God’s will all throughout her life- from the time when Gabriel first appeared to her all the way to the Cross-Mary is the ideal person to be interceding for us through the many trials and struggles we face in our lives. We ask her to pray for us, so that we may follow God faithfully like she did. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "She prays for us as she prayed for herself: ‘let it be to me according to your word.’ by entrusting ourselves to her prayer, we abandon ourselves to the will of God together with her: ‘Thy will be done’" (no. 2677).
The Language of Love
Finally, we see just how Christ-centered the Hail Mary is when we come to what John Paul II calls "the hinge" of this prayer: the holy name of Jesus. Not only is the name of Jesus the hinge that binds the two halves together, but it is truly meant to be the "center of gravity" of the entire Hail Mary.
This should encourage us to examine how we pray the Hail Mary: Is Jesus’ name truly "the center of gravity" of our prayer? Do we treat the name of Jesus with extra care and speak His name with love when we recite the Hail Mary?
John Paul II notes how emphasis should be given to the name of Jesus in this prayer. However, if we pray the Hail Mary too quickly, we may not give the proper reverence and loving attention to Jesus’ name that we should. "Sometimes, in hurried recitation, this centre of gravity can be overlooked" (RVM, no. 33). A friend of mine says we should treat the name of Jesus in the Hail Mary like a speed bump-something for which we slow down and pay extra attention when we come to it.
Another analogy might be taken from the language of love. Lke a lover tenderly speaking the name of one’s beloved, we should speak the name of Jesus in this prayer. Indeed, with each Hail Mary, we should affectionately repeat the name of our bridegroom-"blessed is the fruit of thy womb . . . Jesus"-so that the holy name of Jesus, spoken with tender love, truly becomes the heartbeat of every Hail Mary we pray.