How ‘True Devotion to Mary’ Changed My Life

How is Mary at the center of Christ’s path to the cross?

Heinrich Johann Sinkel, “The Annunciation,” 1862
Heinrich Johann Sinkel, “The Annunciation,” 1862 (photo: Public Domain)

When I was well into my 40s and en route to a medical meeting, Maddie, a cab driver who had driven me multiple times to the airport, blurted out, “Dr. Wes, what’s the deal with Catholics and Mary?” Having gone to Catholic school in the 1970s, I think my catechesis was a bit lacking. So my answer reflects a poor understanding of my own faith and the Church. “Maddie, it’s all overblown. I get confused by the devotion to Mary myself.” Then, a few years later, I read in Magnificat that Pope John Paul II was profoundly affected by St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary. I bought the book, read it twice straight through, and it changed my faith life forever. 

That brings me to this reflection on the Hail Mary itself.

How can anyone truly understand the piercing bolt of pain, sustained by divine love, running between the Sacred Heart of Jesus and that of his mother, Mary, as he hung dying on the cross? Yet he still thought of us first, as Jesus proclaimed, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple (John), “Behold your Mother!” (John 19:26-27)

With her heart, perfectly formed and shaped by and for her Son, she immediately embraced this relationship with all humankind. Despite her excruciating sorrow, she took all of us under her mantel as mother. 

How do I receive this relationship?

I have recently been taking a spiritual retreat ad Jesum per Mariam (“to Jesus through Mary”). The journey has brought me thoughts about our beloved Hail Mary prayer that I would like to share.

Biblical Origins of the Prayer

The Hail Mary evolved between the sixth and 16th centuries, becoming a widespread popular devotion around 1,000 years ago in the 11th century. Mary’s appearance to St. Dominic in 1214, presenting him with both rosary beads and the prayers to be prayed, accelerated this spiritual practice. Sources for the three sections of the Hail Mary are the angelic greeting in Luke 1:28, Elizabeth’s greeting in Luke 1:42, and the petition from James 5:16 and from St. Bernadine of Siena:

  • “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!” (stated by St. Gabriel in Luke 1:28 to Mary in a cave in a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to which she replied with her fiat in Luke 1:38).
  • “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus” was stated as a greeting by Elizabeth in Luke 1:42 in her house with Zechariah in the hill country of Judah.
  • “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen” was adapted from James 5:16 and from St. Bernadine of Siena. The petition in the Hail Mary was formally introduced after a sermon by St. Bernadine of Siena in 1427, when he spoke these words: “Ave Maria Jesus, Sancta Maria mater Dei, Ora pro Nobis” (The Catholic Encyclopedia).

Why would St. Gabriel offer such reverence to humble Mary? Mary is the stella maris (“Star of the Sea). What a title! Benedictine Father Stanley Jaki, in his mini-book entitled Hail Mary, Full of Grace: A Commentary (2008), writes the following regarding St. Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on Gabriel’s greeting to Mary:

St. Thomas Aquinas makes it clear that she was speaking to an angel and an angel spoke to her, and in a deferential tone, which is the point emphasized by the Angelic Doctor [Aquinas]. Further, Aquinas does this with no perplexity. Aquinas sees great significance where ordinary minds would see little or nothing. Prior to the angelic salutation by Gabriel to Mary, no angel showed special, indeed deferential, respect to a human being. If the angel Gabriel saluted Mary, it was because he perceived in her a being superior to angels themselves. A staggering measure that superiority had to be: [U]nlike human beings, mere bundles of dust and ashes, angels are pure spirits, with all the astonishing qualities of the spiritual over the physical. Unlike humans, distanced from God on account of our sins, angels stand in God’s proximity, precisely because of their being endowed with supernatural gifts. Mary had therefore to excel all the angels in those respects in order to be greeted by an angel, and one of the most eminent among them. Aquinas, with full confidence in the inferential power of the human reason, goes on to draw the momentous conclusion: the angel’s words, ‘full of grace,’ stand for the recognition on his part that Mary is more full of grace than any angel can be, which is to say enormously much.

We ask Mary to pray for us “now and at the hour of our death.”


Why do we ask Mary? While Mary is the Theotokos (“God-bearer”), it is true that, apart from the cross, there is no other ladder by which we may ascend to heaven (John 14:6 and St. Rose of Lima). And the words addressed by Mary to those gathered at Cana, her last five words quoted in the Bible, are the only thing we really need to know: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Thus, we ask her, ever close to her Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ, to pray for us sinners, much like we seek the help of our spiritual adviser or closest friend and loved ones. The difference is that Mary offers us the surest, truest, greatest source of motherly love and guidance (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 970).


“Only at two decisive moments in our lives can we grasp this human need. First is now, the hour in which we must fulfill God’s will, choose between good and evil, and so decide the course of our eternal destiny. Second is at the hour of our death, which terminates our life, giving to all deeds and past happenings the character that will count for them in eternity,” according to Servant of God Romano Guardini.

The power of intercessory prayer by Mary is further explained by Father Jaki in the same book. He points out that the power of intercession is proportional to the holiness of the intercessor, because holiness is a measure of one’s friendship with God (reference to an 1850s teaching of Cardinal St. John Henry Newman). Thus, with Mary there is no parallel: “She was while on Earth fully a saint, confirmed forever in her state of grace. Other saints (see letters of Sts. Peter, John, Paul) struggle to remain in grace and grow in it. Mary is the great power outlet, to which all electric connections on the spiritual level are secondary.”

How is Mary at the center of Christ’s path to the cross? 

Three moments in history stand out as relevant for us. First, the prophecy of Simeon and the sword of sorrow piercing Mary’s soul, so that the thoughts of many may be laid bare (Luke 2:25-35). Second, Jesus’ reference to his mother at the wedding feast at Cana that his hour “has not yet come” (John 2:4). Third, Mary at the foot of the cross (John 19:25). In these three instances, Mary’s fidelity is made clear through her total abandonment to God’s design. May we learn from our Mother and become a pane of glass through which others can see Christ.

A few final thoughts: 

  • The Annunciation heralds the beginning of our salvation. At Mary’s obedient fiat, humanity is wedded to divinity. 
  • The salvation our heart cries out for became flesh in Mary’s womb.
  • We are Christians because of what God announced to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “Since it cannot be bought, in order for this salvation to enter into us, we need a humble heart, a docile heart, an obedient heart like Mary’s” (Pope Francis, 2014).
  • When we repeat the words of the angel by praying the Hail Mary, the word of God germinates in our soul.


E. Wesley Ely, MD, MPH, is professor of medicine and critical care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Nashville VA and president of the Nashville Guild of the Catholic Medical Association. He is also author of Every Deep-Drawn Breath, from which 100% of net proceeds go to survivors of critical illness and “Long COVID.”