The Catholic Hail Mary prayer is one of the most sacred prayers in the Catholic Church. It is second in importance only to the Our Father (the Lord’s prayer).
In this article we will explore some of the significance of this prayer in the Church.
The Words of the Prayer
For those who aren’t familiar with the Hail Mary, here it is.
Ave, María, grátia plena,
Benedicta tu in muliéribus,
et benedíctus fructus ventris
Sancta María, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Some Catholics pray the Hail Mary in Latin, because this is how the prayer has been transmitted down through the ages.
Latin is still the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. As a dead language, it helps to preserve accurately the very words of the prayer.
Many translations have been made of this prayer, but they require approval by Bishops in order for Catholics to use them. The English one above is one such authorised translation.
A Prayer to Mary
As can be seen, the Hail Mary is a prayer to Mary.
First of all, we need to address the very common question: Why do Catholics pray to Mary?
Catholics pray to Mary because we don’t believe it is sinful to do so. We don’t believe that we must only pray to God.
We do believe that we can only offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist (the body and blood of Jesus) to God. If we were to offer this to Mary, it would be terrible idolatry and sin.
But this does not mean we cannot pray to saints. Praying to saints is asking for their help, like we do with other Christians. There is nothing wrong with this.
As Queen of saints, and Mother of God, Mary in a special way has the ear of her Son and our Saviour. Many Catholics appeal to her, and often with the Hail Mary.
There are many ways to appeal to Mary. The Hail Mary is simply one of them, though it is the most popular and the most important.
Where Does It Come From?
The Hail Mary prayer was originally invented by the Archangel St Gabriel.
In Luke’s gospel, chapter 1, the Archangel visits Mary and says to her:
‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!’
Later in the chapter, St Elizabeth adds some extra words to Mary:
‘Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!’
Added together, these two phrases make up the first half of the Hail Mary prayer.
The rest of the prayer was added by the Church much later.
All in all, the prayer comes from a mixture of Scripture, Catholic tradition and the experience of the saints.
In fact, this is what Catholicism is: a mixture of Scripture, tradition and the experience of the saints. It is a living Religion, an organic Religion, and cannot be confined simply to a book or religious documents.
What Does the Hail Mary Mean?
The Hail Mary is essentially two things:
- A highly respectful greeting to Mary
- A plea for her help/prayers always
A Highly Respectful Greeting to Mary
The prayer begins with Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. These words address Mary with tremendous respect as being someone who is very, very close to God.
They also reveal her to be full of grace, that is, exceptionally filled with divine qualities.
Mary is most certainly a creature and she is just a creature. She is not God. And yet she is so united to God that she is full of grace.
Mary is full of love. Mary is full of truth. Mary is full of holiness. Mary is filled with purity. Mary is more full of wonderful qualities than any other creature in all of creation.
Mary was conceived without any stain or spot of sin at all in the womb of her mother, St Anne, the Grandmother of God. Catholics call this the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
To say Hail Mary to Mary is to revere her as the Queen she is. Whilst Catholics worship Jesus Christ Mary’s Son, they venerate, or hail, his holy Mother.
The prayer continues: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
These words mean that Mary is the most blessed and praiseworthy of all women, even of all people who have ever lived. No other creature even comes close to Mary.
Mary is the greatest thing God has ever created. She is greater even than the 7 Archangels of heaven. Some saints wouldn’t hesitate to say that Mary is of far greater worth than all the rest of creation combined.
Why is this? Because only one person has brought forth God himself as the fruit of her womb. And that person is Mary.
In fact, ALL of Mary’s significance and glory comes from her Son. It is only because the fruit of her womb is Jesus Christ, the infinite Son of God, that Mary has such tremendous value in the eyes of God.
Jesus Christ – the fruit of Mary’s immaculate womb – is the centrepiece of the Hail Mary prayer. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Without Jesus, the entire prayer dies and becomes nothing and less than nothing. Without Jesus, even Mary is nothing.
This is why we then say: Holy Mary, Mother of God. Mary is holy because of Jesus her Son. Mary is the Mother of God, because Jesus is God.
She is not Mother of the Trinity. She is not Mother of the Eternal Divine Essence from eternity.
She was not Mother of God before Jesus was conceived in her womb. But when Jesus was conceived in her womb, Mary became in time the permanent Mother of God.
For this reason, we call her – proudly – Holy Mary, Mother of God.
All of this opening is designed to give Mary her proper place in the Church and on our lips. We cannot approach such a holy and magnificent creature without this kind of honour.
A Plea for Help
The last part of the Hail Mary is an appeal to her for her constant help in our lives. It covers everything.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Pray for us – we are asking Mary to help us in the best way she can, which is to pray for us in heaven to God and to her Son. Whilst we get to God the Father through Jesus his Son, we get to Jesus Christ through his Mother Mary.
Pray for US – we ask not only for help for ourselves, but for all of us, for the entire Church, for every Christian and every sinner: for everyone.
Sinners – we acknowledge with humility that this is what we are: sinners. We mess up all the time. We are often hopeless. We lack faith. We struggle in this world. We are so needy. Mary, please help us!
Now – we beseech Mary right now for her prayers and help. This covers everything that is troubling us and the Church globally.
And at the hour of our death – this covers the rest of our lives, and especially the moment when we come to die, which we all must do. At such a terrifying time, Mary will be there for us, praying for us, opening her arms to us in love to take us to Jesus.
Amen – let it be so, please.
As can be seen, this is one exceptional prayer. We would all do well to pray it at least once daily, but preferrably on rising in the morning, and before sleep in the evening.
The Hail Mary can be said whenever, wherever, in any circumstance of life. Like the Lord’s prayer, the Hail Mary is a complete prayer for any and every occasion.
Many Catholics pray it at least once daily. Catholics don’t have to pray the Hail Mary.
‘We never give more honour to Jesus than when we honour his Mother, and we honour her simply and solely to honour him all the more perfectly. We go to her only as a way leading to the goal we seek – Jesus, her Son.’ – St Louis de Montfort
If you have any questions about the Hail Mary, please leave them below, or get in touch via email.