The month of May has been dedicated to the Virgin Mary for centuries — so long, in fact, that the precise origin of this Catholic devotion is lost in the mists of time.
Still, it is a fitting devotion during what is arguably the most beautiful and colorful month of the year in most of the Northern Hemisphere.
Living as we do at the Catholic University of America, with the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at the corner of our campus, our students, faculty and staff have constant reminders of the Marian devotions I grew up with. But I sometimes wonder whether very many of today’s young Catholics learn them as we once did.
When I was a boy at St. Joseph School in my hometown, we had May crownings and prayed the rosary throughout the month. We recited the Angelus at lunchtime. We sang Marian hymns (“Hail Holy Queen,” “Immaculate Mary,” “O Sanctissima,” “Bring Flowers of the Rarest”) at daily and all-school Masses. Today many parochial schools (like my own) are closed. Those that are open have many fewer students.
That’s not the only cultural change we have seen. Faith is a less visible feature of public life. It is crowded into private spaces, churches and homes. And as we find profane ways of talking about our affairs, the sacred has become a less palpable presence.
We incline more and more to picture God as the kind of abstraction that appealed to Thomas Jefferson — a deity, a watchmaker, a prime mover who sits far above his creation, uninvolved if not disinterested.
I say “we,” but I am guilty of some cultural myopia in saying that. The Catholic Church in the United States is becoming increasingly Hispanic, and devotion to Mary is very real in the fastest-growing sector of American Catholics. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reports that two-thirds of Hispanic/Latino Catholics have a statue or picture of Mary at home.
Pope Francis, a native of Argentina, is typical. He began the Year of Mercy on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The bull announcing it said, “Let us address her in the words of the ‘Salve Regina.'” (In case you’ve forgotten, it begins “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy …”) The Holy Father kicked off the 2013 World Youth Day with Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida.
I have not been to Aparecida, but not long ago I visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I was struck by the frank devotion of the thousands of pilgrims. It reminded me of the youthful enthusiasm we had at St. Joseph School, but with this difference: Mary had been there, up on the hill above the church. You could feel her presence, and it made prayer much more of a conversation.
This faith is a great gift to the American church. It is much more Catholic than the ceremonial deism our culture (when it thinks of religion at all) is drifting toward. Our attachment to Mary reminds us that belief in the Incarnation is what makes us Christians. Jesus was a real person who was born to Mary, lived, died and rose again. Mary was a real mother whose love keeps showing up in the world, to remind us to imitate her love for her son.
Sometimes her appearance takes the form of great miracles, as at Guadalupe, Aparecida, Lourdes and Fatima. Sometimes she reaches us in the family rosary or in a bunch of lilacs gathered in her honor — especially in May.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.