“Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Whenever I read stories about how a person converts to Catholicism from either another Christian denomination or a strictly monotheistic faith (like Judaism, Islam, or Baha’i), one of the first things I want to know is how they came to accept the practice of prayer to a person who is (physically) dead. Perhaps one of the biggest points of contention between the Catholic church and other Christian denominations lies in the Catholic devotion to Mary, which is perceived by some Christian groups as idolatry.
When I decided to learn to pray the Rosary, I worried that it might be difficult for me to take the Hail Mary seriously. While I have never been opposed to the idea of praying for the dead, I have never felt the need or desire to pray to the dead. Even after coming to an understanding of the Catholic viewpoint on prayer to saints, I never felt the need to do so. But I’m the type of person who likes to either go all the way in, or get all the way out. So, I decided to go all the way in on this one. I recited the Hail Mary, all fifty-three times. And what I experienced in the week that followed was somewhat interesting and unexpected.
The “Hail” in “Hail Mary,” within some non-Catholic circles, has always seemed to imply some form of Marian worship. But the dictionary definition of “Hail” is simply to cheer, salute, greet, or welcome. It can also mean to enthusiastically acclaim or approve of something. We can salute and approve of the sacrifice of Mary’s obedience to God just as we salute and approve of fallen soldiers who sacrifice their lives for their nation. I personally do not see any idolatry in that.
In fact, when the angel came to greet Mary, he greeted her with these words: “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: Blessed art thou among women (Luke 1:28, KJV).” In other words, the first four statements of the Hail Mary come almost directly from the Bible.
Maybe a Catholic reader can shed some light as to why the term “full of grace” is added to Mary’s name. But my initial conjecture would be that it takes a lot of grace for a person to submit to God in the way that she did. She agreed to become pregnant before marriage and risk the security of her engagement, her good name, her family’s reputation, and even risked the possibility of being stoned to death. Mary didn’t know the future. It must have been absolutely horrifying for her to respond to God with the words, “Let it be unto me as you have said (Luke 1:38).” And yet, despite the threat of ruin and death, she agreed to allow God to have his way with her life. Only someone full of grace from God would be able to respond in such a manner.
I think it is probably the second part of the Hail Mary that gives much of the non-Catholic Christian world a bit of pause.The basic idea, as I understand it, behind prayer to and for the dead is that those who die in Christ are actually still alive. We are all part of Christ’s church whether we are in the physical world or the spiritual world. No one who is in Christ truly ever dies. Therefore, those who are not physically present are not unreachable. Through Christ, we are still all connected to one another and have the responsibility to fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), and by rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). I am not here making any assertions as to whether or not the Catholic viewpoint on prayer to saints is correct, but I am only explaining it to the best of my understanding as a non-Catholic.
Admittedly, I prayed the second half of the Hail Mary without really believing that Mary was praying for me in return. But I had an experience later that week that helped to shed more light on the experience of praying to Mary.
You’ll have to read about that in my next post.
In the meantime, what has been your experience with conversion to the Catholic faith and acceptance of prayer to Mary and other saints? Or, if you’re not Catholic, but have converted to a faith that required you to drastically change your views on something – I’d love to hear about it!