On April 29, 1965, the second year of his pontificate, Blessed Paul VI wrote his encyclical (meaning, a letter the Pope sends throughout the world) “MENSE MAIO” (the Month of May), on prayers during May for the preservation of world peace.
The Second Vatican Council was meeting in Rome with the aim, as the Holy Father explained:
“to adapt herself, in a suitable way, to the needs of our day. On the success of this endeavour will depend, for a long time to come, the future of Christ’s spouse and the fate of many souls. It is indeed a great moment which God has injected into the life of the Church and the history of the world” (n. 4).
The Pope wrote:
“The month of May is … 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 honour to the Blessed Virgin and brings such rich benefits to the Christian people” (nn. 1-2).
The Encyclical was written in the aftermath of two horrible world wars —with all their macabre, insane loss of life— in the wake of so much instability and poverty left behind in many regions. The nuclear age was fast threatening to end humanity as we know it. The ‘cold war’ was freezing international relations. Although a man was about to step on the Moon, ushering in the digital age, this was also a period when science was claiming to have finally killed the need for God. Religion was often derided in Marxian terms, as das Opium des Volkes (often translated as: “Religion is the opium of the masses”). After the recent centuries of scientific and ideological revolution, religion was being pushed more and more into the private sphere, something only for the superstitious and unenlightened. Now humankind had come of age! There was no longer any need to invent and rely on those silly myths of the type propagated in the Bible and unscientifically expounded by blind devotees. And so, the age of indifference and scepticism, gave way to our current age of relativism and individualism.
Perhaps, as in every challenge humanity faces, paradoxically, the need for the spiritual seems to have become stronger than before. The promise of the irrelevance and absence of ‘religion’ in a ‘new age’, has been eclipsed by an almost explosion of a whole industry of self-awareness, self-help, mindfulness and alternative therapies to the historic old hat, supposedly opiate, institutional, collective varieties. Religion, in an intensely individualistic new age, has become rather à-la-carte; a supermarket experience of choice. For a Catholic with a sense of 2,000 years of history, we’ve seen similar eclectic trends become all the rage but only for a while, many times before! But why keep bringing Mary into the picture?
The simple answer, is that is precisely what God did! At the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel brought God’s personal invitation to Mary, to become mother of the incarnate Messiah, God-made-flesh, Mary was brought into the scene of the Mystery of God’s redemptive plan: to save us all from perdition, from being lost for ever.
As St. Paul taught, due to the Fall, when Original Sin came into the world through Adam and Eve, our first parents (for more on this, including evolution, read Pius XII’s Encyclical Humani generis , we became ‘dead in sin’, no longer able to walk freely in our relationship with God (see: Romans 5, 12 -21). We utterly ‘were lost’” (see: Ephesians 2:1-10), but Christ Jesus came to our rescue, bringing us back into the Father’s loving embrace.
Why do we Catholic honour Mary?
Because God did! The Angel Gabriel was sent with this message for the world and for her: “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you!”. Mary knew that her whole life was about to change from that moment onwards, and readily said “Yes!” to God, becoming forever “the handmaid of the Lord”, consecrated to doing His will in all things. For this reasons, as Mary herself prophesied: “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). It is therefore not only Catholics who honour her in this way, calling her blessed, but every Christian who acknowledges the gift of God’s Word-made-flesh in His humble servant Mary.
So… in this Month of Mary, we are conscious of our need for Christ. “It is right and just, our duty and our salvation” (a phrase often heard at the prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayer at Holy Mass), to acknowledge Him as Lord and so, to open wide the doors of our hearts to Him. Mary continues to do as she did on that day of the Annunciation: she gives birth to Christ in our hearts. We pray, that during the month of May, our blessed Mother will gently bring us closer to her Son, Jesus, the Saviour. In not dissimilar circumstances to our current situation, on 19th July 1830, our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Labouré (at her convent in Rue du Bac, Paris, France). She desired to bring spiritual consolation to her children, warning that “times are evil in France and in the world”, and left us the gift of the so-called ‘Miraculous Medal’ so beloved to many by Catholics everywhere. On it we can read —and during this month of Mary make our own— those words of prayer and childlike confidence: Ô Marie, conçue sans péché, priez pour nous qui avons recours à vous,
“O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee”.