“The May devotion in its present form,” according to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, “originated at Rome where Father Latomia of the Roman College of the Society of Jesus, to counteract infidelity and immorality among the students, made a vow at the end of the eighteenth century to devote the month of May to Mary. From Rome the practice spread to the other Jesuit colleges and thence to nearly every Catholic church of the Latin rite.”
Alas, “its present form” is now mainly “past form” in the United States and Europe. But our present attempts to revive that devotion will include May crownings, the decoration of Church altars with “flowers of Mary,” family Rosaries each evening, and a “May pilgrimage” to a Marian site.
For instance, yesterday some friends of mine went on pilgrimage with visitors from out of town to the National Shrine – two large families, going chapel to chapel in the main church, stopping to say a different decade of the Rosary at each altar. We learn love from experiencing love: the ten or so children there, enfolded in the love of Mary, will not later in life need a book to teach them the beauty and significance of that devotion.
The Encyclopedia’s claim, repeated on countless Catholic websites, struck me as a little strange. What was this “infidelity” among students that was of concern to Father Latomia? (Immorality is clear enough.) Could the devotion really have spread to the entire Catholic world beginning from a handful of Jesuit colleges?
I wanted to verify that claim, which – if I may add a detail that would please Fr. Schall – rests solely on the authority of a certain Reinhold Albers and his 1890 “Flower Wreaths on the Feasts of God and his Saints” (Blüthenkränze auf d. Festtage Gottes und seiner Heiligen). The book is apparently not held by any U.S. library and is not yet digitized, so I was stumped.
And yet the devotion stands, whether or not the claim is true. It’s not as if today a parish will crown a statue of Mary because of Father Latomia and his vow. The May devotion has been compelling on its own, from the earliest days of the Church. Christian instincts sense that there is something right about it.
Already in the 5thcentury, if not earlier, Christians were devoting a day in the spring to a major feast of Our Lady, regarded as a bookend to a feast celebrating the Assumption in August.
And Father Latomia’s initiative could not have been so effective (if it was), unless Catholics already sensed it was right.
That is why Bl. Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical on The Month of May, could refer to the May devotion as if it were a perpetual feature of the Church:
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.
One could say that Catholics instinctively have wished to devote May to Mary, for the same reasons that nearly all nations celebrate a “Mother’s Day” in May – except that the movement has gone in the opposite direction for many Catholic nations: where people have wished to honor their own mothers in the month in which they had already chosen to honor their common spiritual mother.
To encourage and confirm the May devotion, the Church places a major feast on the last day of the month (now the Visitation, but formerly the Coronation), and the recently instituted feast of Mary Mother of the Church, for the Monday following Pentecost, will usually fall in May.
Love of Mary stands on its own. To love her fervently makes life happier, as any great love does. As experience shows, Mary safeguards virtue, especially purity. And yet it has also been the instinct of Christians to link devotion to Mary with some kind of “cause.” The reason is a mother looks to our needs. Our Lady of Victories, Mother of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Ransom: sucurre cadenti, surgere qui curat populo, “Hasten to aid thy fallen people who strive to rise once more.”
In that spirit, Paul VI urged the Church that year to pray to Mary in May especially for peace in the world. We still need to pray for peace. But the May devotion for us seems to answer to our particular needs, in two ways.
The first is that it is an act of “Christian rebellion,” as it were, to insist through the devotion that nature signifies, and that some times of the year and some aspects of nature are more fittingly taken to signify, femininity and motherhood than masculinity and fatherhood.
It has always been the intuition of saints that Christianity must be connected with nature to be victorious over paganism. For instance, in the Trinitarian “Lorica,” composed after his miraculous triumph over the druid leaders, St. Patrick binds himself to “the light of the sun, the brightness of the moon, the splendor of fire. . .the stability of earth, the compactness of rocks.”
The second is that the May devotion connects Mary’s virgin motherhood to the beauty of flowers, on the one hand, and spring’s promise of fruitfulness, on the other. Virginity and motherhood are inseparable in her, just as attractive beauty and fruitfulness are bound together in nature. So to link our devotion with nature in this way is to affirm the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of human love.
*Image: The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1491 [The Louvre, Paris]