May Traditions and the Blessed Virgin Mary

The piety of the faithful has long dedicated the month of May to Mary, the Mother of God.

(photo: Simone Martini (1284-1344), ‘Siena Maestà’)

We could make the case that May is the most traditional month on our calendar. It is filled with events and rituals in religious and secular life: May Crownings, First Holy Communions, Confirmations, Ordinations to the Diaconate and Priesthood, Graduations, and Mother’s Day. These events even have musical traditions: Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March I” at graduations; Marian hymns during May Crowning processions and ceremonies; appropriate Eucharistic hymns at First Holy Communion Masses. During the Easter season, the Church continues to celebrate the Sacraments of Initiation for those who were baptized as infants—those who became Catholics at the Easter Vigil received all the Sacraments that night.

May is a richly maternal month: our mothers are at the center of all these events, preparing, celebrating, and enjoying their children’s achievements and transitions. We honor them in turn on Mother’s Day with different traditions: family gatherings, brunches, flowers, and gifts, thanking them for all their love and sacrifice.

May is also the month of Mary, the Mother of God. Jesus made her our Mother by giving her into the care of St. John at the foot of the Cross before He died. Our devotion to her, especially highlighted this year with the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Fatima on May 13 and the one hundred year anniversary of those apparitions, adds to the maternal and traditional significance of this month.


Tradition and the Feminine Genius

In his book "The Meaning of Tradition", Yves Marie-Joseph Cardinal Congar summarized the role Tradition plays in Catholic Church doctrine, worship, and discipline. He explored the historical and theological aspects of Tradition (the magisterial teaching Tradition of the Church) and tradition (certain customs) in a two volume study published in 1960 and 1963—"The Meaning of Tradition", which is published in English by Ignatius Press, appeared in 1964.

In chapter one, “Tradition and Traditions” Congar offers us an insight into why May is such a maternal and traditional month. There is an intrinsic connection between the feminine genius, to use Pope St. John Paul II’s term, and tradition. As Congar notes, “We may even discern a feminine and maternal touch in the vital aspect of tradition. A woman expresses instinctively and vitally what a man expresses logically… The woman is the recipient, the matrix and fashioner of life. She creates the surroundings in which life will retain its warmth; one thinks of the maternal breast, of tenderness, of the home. She is fidelity.”

Congar goes on to note how important the home is to security and stability: graduating from high school to perhaps go to college; graduating from college to go into the working world, building a career and our own lives; progressing in our spiritual growth as Catholics as we receive the Sacraments. All of these transitions are supported by security of the home: “A home or milieu possesses a wealth of strength and certainly found nowhere else. Both provide security and with it the possibility of expansion that security affords.”


Mary and the Month of May

Our special devotion to Mary the Mother of God during May has deep roots in Church tradition, but its most current form dates from the eighteenth century and the Jesuit church in Rome, the Gesu, many Catholic sources agree. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The May Magnificat” answers the question of why May was chosen as Mary’s month:

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.
When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

Many popes have highlighted devotion to Mary during the month of May, including Pope Pius XII and of course Pope St. John Paul II. Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote a brief encyclical, “Mense Maio”, in 1965 to Catholic bishops throughout the world as the Second Vatican Council was meeting:

The month of May is almost here, a month which the piety of the faithful has long dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God. Our heart rejoices at the thought of the moving tribute of faith and love which will soon be paid to the Queen of Heaven in every corner of the earth. For this is the month during which Christians, in their churches and their homes, offer the Virgin Mother more fervent and loving acts of homage and veneration; and it is the month in which a greater abundance of God's merciful gifts comes down to us from our Mother's throne.

We are delighted and consoled by this pious custom associated with the month of May, which pays honor to the Blessed Virgin and brings such rich benefits to the Christian people…

The escalation of U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War (with the possibility of using nuclear weapons), conflict between India and Pakistan, civil war in the Dominican Republic, and other conflicts led Pope Paul to urge prayers for peace:

So, Venerable Brothers, throughout this month of May, let us offer our pleas to the Mother of God with greater devotion and confidence, so that we may obtain her favor and her blessings. Even if the grave sins of men provoke God's justice and merit His just punishments, we must not forget the he is "the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort," (Cf. 2 Cor. 1.3) that He has appointed Mary most holy as the generous steward of His merciful gifts.

He concluded by asking the bishops “to make provisions for special prayers in every diocese and parish during the month of May” and “in particular, on the feast of the Queenship of Mary” (August 22) for peace in the world and the success of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Paul VI appealed to the same traditions and customs that sustain our Marian and May-time events today: the maternal care of Our Blessed Mother—and our human mothers.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.