The Greatest Marian Prayers: Their History, Meaning and Usage by Anthony M. Buono (St. Paul's/Alba House, 1999 148 pages, $9.95)

Marian devotion appears to be undergoing something of a restoration. Marian shrines are reporting increasing numbers of pilgrims, and at least anecdotal evidence from parishes indicates that Marian observances are drawing greater numbers. But, as with all restorations, the restorers often face the problem of figuring out exactly what is in danger of being lost. Anthony M. Buono's new book on Marian prayers is aimed at helping the restorers know what it is we should be saving — or bringing back — from extinction.

Buono's slim volume presents some of the historically most-popular Marian prayers, along with his commentary on their background, use and theology. His selection includes the Hail Mary, Magnificat, Sub Tuum, The Akathist Hymn, Alma Redemptoris Mater, Ave Regina Caelorum, Salve Regina (Hail, Holy Queen), Angelus, Regina Caeli, Stabat Mater, Memorarae and The Litany of Loreto.

Each prayer is presented in its own chapter with a short history and a fairly detailed analysis. Buono's theological commentary is primarily for nonspecialist readers, who may have recited these prayers for many years without stopping to consider their theological riches. His line-by-line commentary will lead to a deeper appreciation for the substance of the prayers; he reveals that the praise they express flows not from a naive adulation, but from a deep knowledge of Mary's role in the mystery of redemption.

Buono's historical details indicate how Marian devotion has grown, and is continuing to develop, in the Church. For example, he takes pains to demonstrate that high Mariology — calling Mary “Mother of God,” for example — has been present in the Church from the beginning and is not a post-Reformation Catholic invention. “We are all debtors to God, but he is a debtor to you,” wrote St.Methodius (d. 847) of Mary.

“Marian prayers spring up spontaneously like the various flowers at each season and bear witness to the devotion of all the subsequent Christian centuries,” writes Buono.

Buono illustrates how the Marian prayer of the Church continues to develop. He includes many quotations from one post-conciliar flowering of Marian devotion, the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a set of official votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin that honor her under her various titles, such as, for example, “Mother of Mercy” and “Seat of Wisdom.”

Another example of developing devotion is the Litany of Loreto, to which Pope Leo XIII added the invocations “Queen of the Most Holy Rosary” (1883) and “Mother of Good Counsel” (1903). During the first world war Benedict XV added “Queen of Peace” (1916); Pius XII added “Queen assumed into heaven” (1951) after the solemn definition of the dogma of the Assumption. John Paul II has added “Mother of the Church” (1980) and “Queen of Families” (1995).

Some developments, of course, have been duds. The Church introduced a new Marian liturgy in its ritual books in 1981, and Buono devotes a chapter to what he considers “a new rite that speaks the language of the people of today.” Perhaps so, but this devotee has never heard it anywhere. As for awkward invocations to our Lady such as “Finest fruit of the redemption” and “Champion of God's people,” one expects that, no matter how theologically rich, such will remain unknown and unused.

One complaint on the work: The lack of Latin translations for the Sub Tuum, Ave Regina Caelorum, Salve Regina, Alma Redemptoris Mater and Regina Caeli is odd, and reduces the usefulness of the book. After all, those prayers are often sung or recited in Latin. Indeed, the fact they are known by their Latin titles emphasizes that they remain in the Church's memory in Latin, much like the Pange Lingua or Adore Te Devote. Another peculiarity was the decision not to present the Akathist Hymn in its entirety alone, but only imbedded in commentary, so as to make it impossible to pray it continuously from this book. Plus there's a banal alternative closing prayer for the Angelus which I've never heard, and hope not to in the future.

Still, the book is a worthwhile addition to any serious Catholic's shelf; indeed, a case for its indispensability could be made solely on the strength of its appendix of 60 Marian prayers. This includes prayers from Church Fathers like St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine, to medieval saints like St. Catherine of Siena and St. Anselm, to modern prayers by St. Maximilian Kolbe and Pope John XXIII.

Included there is the most beautiful paean of praise ever written in honor of Mary. Dante Alighieri's magnificent “figlia del tuo Figlio” from the final canto of the Divine Comedy, a prayer he puts on the lips of St. Bernard of Clairvaux: O Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son … you are the one who ennobled human nature to such an extent that its Divine Maker did not disdain to become its workmanship.

Buono's book may help make those immortal words known by more Catholics — and perhaps come to their lips spontaneously in times of prayer.

Raymond de Souza, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, writes from Rome.