Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
Mary owns the calendar. And that’s no pious exaggeration. Every day of the year, somewhere in the world, a feast, or a commemoration, or an anniversary of the Blessed Mother is being celebrated. With one exception—there is no Leap Year Marian feast on February 29. The complete day-by-day list of Mary’s feasts tends to wander from site to site online, but for a number years now it has enjoyed a stable home on the Feasts of Our Lady page at catholictradition.org. Go take a look—the Feast Days page is an education in Catholic devotional life.
Now that May is here, and we are spending a bit more time with Mary during our daily prayers, there are five feast days I’d like to call to your attention.
May 8—Our Lady of Pompeii
Pompeii is best known for the ruins of the ancient Roman city that was destroyed by an eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano in 79 A.D. The town pilgrims visit today grew up centuries near the place where Roman Pompeii once stood.
The man who promoted, or you could even say invented, devotion to Our Lady of Pompeii was Bartolo Longo, an Italian lawyer who during his days at the University of Naples fell away from the Church and joined a Satanist sect. Longo expected that by liberating himself from Christianity, he would know complete happiness. Instead, he was afflicted by bouts of depression, paranoia, terrifying nightmares, and finally, a mental breakdown.
Two friends, an old professor and a Dominican priest, pulled Longo back from spiritual destruction. And while their own efforts were important, they credited Longo’s conversion to all the Rosaries they had prayed on their friend’s behalf. Once he had gone to confession and was reconciled to the Church, Longo became completely convinced that he had been saved through the intercession of Mary and the power of the Rosary.
While on a business trip to Pompeii he found the parish church dilapidated and the people of the town indifferent to religion. Longo raised funds to restore the church, and enshrined in it a battered old painting of the Virgin and Child presenting the Rosary to St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena (Longo paid to have the painting restored). Then he began promoting a religious revival in Pompeii, with particular emphasis on frequent recitation of the Rosary. What began as a local holy place popular with southern Italian Catholics has become an international devotion. And Bartolo Longo, the former devil-worshipper, is on the way to sainthood: in 1980 Pope St. John Paul II declared Bartolo Longo “Blessed.”
Even if your time is crammed with obligations, carve out a few minutes today to pray at least one decade of the Rosary in honor of Our Lady of Pompeii and Blessed Bartolo Longo.
May 13—Our Lady of Fatima
This year’s feast day in honor of the apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Fatima in Portugal will be truly extraordinary. This is the 100th anniversary of the apparitions, Pope Francis will lead the celebrations, and at the shrine he will canonize two of the children who saw Our Lady and received her messages: Francisco and Jacinta Marto. Ages ten (Francisco) and nine (Jacinta) at the time of their death, these brother-and-sister saints are the youngest non-martyrs ever canonized by the Catholic Church.
The messages Mary brought to the Marto children and their older cousin, Lucia Santos, foretold the coming of World War II, warned that Russia would spread the evil of Communism throughout the world—with an uncountable cost in human lives, and lamented the suffering the Church and the popes would experience throughout the 20th century and beyond. To combat these evils, Mary called for penance and renewed devotion to praying the Rosary.
Five prayers were taught to the children at Fatima, and over the last 100 years, many Catholics have prayed them at Mass and especially when praying the Rosary. The Fatima prayers are brief and beautiful, and it is especially fitting to pray them on the centennial of the apparitions.
May 21—The Vladimir Mother of God
Ukrainian and Russian Christians—Catholics and Orthodox—hold in special veneration a 1000-year-old portrait of the Virgin and Child known as the Vladimir Mother of God.
This icon was created in Constantinople by an unknown artist sometime between the 11th and 12th centuries. By 1131 it had been taken to Kiev, in what is now Ukraine. About 30 years later it was moved to Vladimir, at the time the greatest center of Christianity in Eastern Europe, a city filled with churches, monasteries, and convents.
When the Mongols attacked and burned Vladimir, the icon survived, but it was damaged by fire. By 1365 the religious heart of Russia had moved to Moscow and the icon was moved there. It was repaired and restored, in Moscow but was still known as the Vladimir Mother of God.
Devotion to Mary under this title was so intense that every year the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates three feast days in honor of the Vladimir Madonna.
Replicas of the icon can be found churches and homes around the world. The original is still in Moscow, although since 1919 it has been displayed in an art museum near the Kremlin, the Tretyakov Gallery (the Bolsheviks confiscated the icon and turned into a museum piece). To this day, in spite of better relations between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox patriarch, the icon has not been returned to the Church.
By the way, Mel Gibson chose as the logo for his film production company a detail from the icon of the Vladimir Mother of God, which explains why the company is named Icon Productions.
The Church in the East has a magnificent hymn in honor of the Vladimir Mother of God. If you are not familiar with it, this is the day to add it to your prayer life:
O Mistress, Empress and Lady! Defend all who are in danger and misfortune or weak from many sins, and who stand before your holy icon praying with tears, humility, repentance, and invincible hope. Free them from all evil, give them the grace they need. And save us all, O Virgin Mother of God, for you are the divine refuge of those who follow you.
May 24—Mary, Help of Christians
When you pray the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, you’ll come upon the invocation of Mary as “Help of Christians.” The title dates back to the 1570s, and was probably added to the litany to thank Our Lady for her intercession during the great naval battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a Christian fleet defeated a Turkish armada that had come to invade Western Europe.
Flash forward to 1814. Pope Pius VII, after three years as a prisoner of Napoleon and three more years of exile, finally re-entered Rome on May 24, 1814. Pope Pius, like the victors at Lepanto, attributed his deliverance to Mary’s prayers, and to commemorate his safe return he established on that day a new feast in honor of Mary, Help of Christians.
St. John Bosco, better known as Don Bosco, attributed every blessing he received, every prayer answered to the intercession of Our Lady, Help of Christians. Under that title, Mary became the patron of the Salesian priests and brothers, and the nuns who took up Don Bosco’s work called themselves the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians.
Today, read Mary’s Litany. If you haven’t noticed before, it is like a great, gorgeous sacred poem, with title after title offering you a lifetime of subjects for meditation.
May 31—The Visitation
The origin of this holy day lies in the first chapter of the gospel of St. Luke. You know the story: when the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had chosen her to be the Mother of the Savior, the angel also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was also expecting a son. Elizabeth and her husband Zachary had never had a child, and now that they were elderly they expected they never would. Yet God granted them this grace; their child was St. John the Baptist, the last of the Hebrew prophets and the precursor of Christ.
Mary, good cousin that she was, made the long trip from Nazareth to Elizabeth’s home in a hill town outside Jerusalem. The moment Mary greeted her cousin, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy—mystically the unborn John knew that he was in the presence of the unborn Jesus. And Elizabeth exclaimed something Catholics have prayed everyday for 2000 years—“Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!”
Mary’s reply is equally unforgettable—a great hymn of praise we know as the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and spirit rejoiceth in God, my Savior.”
Today of all days, pray the Hail Mary with special attention, and open your Bible to Luke 1:46-55 and in Mary’s own words, thank God for the gifts he has given and continues to give to you.