May is the month of Mary, a month of special devotion to Our Lady, associated in years gone by with May altars, processions and devotions.
During this month of Mary, the Church celebrates three feasts specially dedicated to Our Lady. The 13th May, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, marks the date of the first Apparition on 13th May 2017 when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to the three young shepherd children near Fatima in Portugal, now one of the great Marian Shrines of the world. Mary appeared to Lucia dos Santos and her two cousins, Francisco, and his sister, Jacinta Marto. The Apparitions of Our Lady continued each month on the 13th day up to October 1917. It was during the 6th Apparition that Mary revealed her identity to the young children saying, “I am the Lady of the Rosary.”
The core message of Fatima is a message of prayer, prayer for peace in the world and it was at Fatima that Mary called for the daily recitation of the Rosary, which is now strongly recommended to us as we pray for peace in Ukraine and in other countries throughout the world.
Pope Saint John Paul II had a strong and intense devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, and he attributed to her his survival from gunshot wounds in an attempt on his life in Saint Peter’s Square in 1981 on the date of her Feast Day, 13th May.
On Monday 29th May we will celebrate the relatively new Feast of Mary the Mother of the Church, introduced by Pope Francis 5 years ago. This new feast is always held on the day after the Solemn Feast of Pentecost Sunday.
At the first Pentecost, the Apostles were waiting and praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem after Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension into heaven. We know from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles that Mary herself was also present, accompanying them in prayer. The first Pentecost is now known as the ‘Birthday of the Church’, and Mary’s presence at the birth of the infant Church in Jerusalem is now recognized in this Feast of Mary, Mother of the Church. Lastly, this month of Mary traditionally comes to a close with the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, celebrated on 31st May each year.
The Visitation of Our Lady to Elizabeth is also recalled in the second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. Both women were with child and Elizabeth was to become the mother of John the Baptist who would later prepare the way for Jesus to begin his public ministry and who would make him known to the people along the banks of the Jordan as, “the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.” And it was during the Visitation that Mary exclaimed the great prayer of praise to God now that she was to become the mother of Christ Our Lord, the prayer we now call the Magnificat.
The Church encourages us to show our devotion to Our Lady during this month with the recitation of the Rosary. The rosary is essentially a Gospel prayer in which we reflect and meditate on the most important events or ‘Mysteries’ as they’re called surrounding the birth of Christ, his boyhood, his public ministry and his passion, death, and Resurrection.
The first part of the Hail Mary which is repeated in each Decade of the Rosary, is taken from the Gospel of Luke and of course the Our Father repeated in the Rosary was given to us by Jesus himself, so the Rosary deserves the name, Gospel Prayer, and is by no means a mindless repetition of Hail Mary’s one after the other, as some would claim.
Pope Saint John Paul II, who introduced the Luminous Mysteries or Mysteries of Light, once called the Rosary, ‘my favourite prayer.’ We are called to recite the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday each week.
In the Glorious Mysteries, usually recited on Wednesday and on Sunday, we reflect prayerfully on the Resurrection of the Lord which we continue to celebrate in this Easter Season. In the Glorious Mysteries we also reflect on the Ascension of the Lord and on the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. This is the Mystery of the Gospel event of Pentecost, celebrated this year on the last Sunday of this Month of Mary.
In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus promising that the Holy Spirit will come after his Ascension into heaven to the right hand of the Father. This promise was fulfilled at the first Pentecost when the Apostles and all the members of the early Church were filled with God’s Spirit to go out and preach and witness to the Gospel of Christ and to his Resurrection. And we too are assured in the Gospel today that the Holy Spirit will be with us and with the Church forever.
We receive the Holy Spirit at our Baptism and in our Confirmation. In the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel, “the Spirit is with us and in us.” As we prepare to celebrate the Solemn Feast of Pentecost, we pray for a new Pentecost on the Church with a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit to renew in us our Easter faith and to give us the courage to stand up for our faith and witness to Christ as his faithful disciples.
And like the Apostles at the first Pentecost, we are invited to pray together with Mary, Mother of the Church, for the Holy Spirit to come in a new and powerful way on the whole Church and like a new Pentecost in 2023, on our Diocese and our parish communities as the Month of Mary and the Season of Easter draws to a close.
Fr Colm Clerkin is a priest of the Diocese of Derry.