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May and Mary

Guest Blogger Stephanie A. Budwey is the Luce Dean’s Faculty Fellow Assistant Professor of the History and Practice of Christian Worship and the Arts and Director of the Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture Program at Vanderbilt Divinity School.





As we approach the month of May, for many of us this brings up memories of May processions, crowning statues of Mary, and singing songs such as “Bring flowers of the rarest.”[1] In one parish that I served in Boston, they kept a tradition of singing one Marian congregational each week during May (Mary’s month) and October (the month of the Rosary). We would sing songs such as “Mother dear, O pray for me,”[2] “On this day O beautiful mother,”[3] and “Tis the month of our mother”[4] as well as many other hymns to Mary that I found to be some of the most commonly sung in Roman Catholic Churches in the United States from the nineteenth century up to today.[5] How did this tradition of May being Mary’s month come about?


May Devotions

What became known as “May devotions,” decorating maypoles, crowning Mary with flowers, and singing hymns to her, were made popular by Philip Neri in the sixteenth century and Jesuit priest Annibale Dionisi in the eighteenth century. They seem to have been an attempt to transform popular pagan celebrations that also occurred during the month of May, including the May 1 festival of Flora in Rome which included processions with the statute, putting a wreath on her statue, and many floral decorations.[6] These festivals spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, including celebrations around a May pole, a tradition which continues in many parts of Europe today.

While these pre-Vatican II songs to Mary remain meaningful to the many people who continue to sing them, the celebration of May devotions with flowers and crowning of statues of Mary is not as common as it was before Vatican II. Perhaps this month of May might be a time to introduce some new Marian congregational songs to your community in addition to such classics as “Hail, holy Queen”[7] and “Immaculate Mary.”[8] Many of the older Marian songs reflect a “christotypical” (maximalist) Mariology that aligns Mary with Christ as she “stands alongside Christ . . . facing the church, so that it is quite natural to think of Mary as having a role in redemption.”[9] Following the placement of the discussion of Mary in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium rather than writing a separate document about her,[10] the Roman Catholic Church shifted to an “ecclesiotypical” (minimalist) Mariology which “understands Mary as standing with the church and facing Christ as one in need of redemption alongside the remainder of humanity.”[11]

In other words, before Vatican II, Mary was often put on a pedestal, almost at the level of Christ, making her a model for women that was difficult to obtain (no other woman could be sinless and both virgin and mother) and at times harmful and oppressive. After Vatican II, an attempt has been made to bring Mary down from this pedestal to make her a more approachable model, someone who had doubts and fears and suffered just like us.


4 Criteria

I encourage you to consider teaching your community some of these newer Marian congregational songs that lift up Mary in this post-Vatican II understanding by reflecting the four criteria that I believe are helpful as we work to ecumenically reclaim Mary for all Christians today.[12] The first of these four criteria is a strong biblical foundation. One example is Delores Dufner’s “Mary, first among believers”[13] which refers to Mary’s role in the biblical stories of the Annunciation, exile into Egypt, and crucifixion, among others. In addition, Dufner links these biblical stories to those currently in similar situations (e.g., refugees and those who have lost loved ones in acts of injustice).

Adam Tice’s “Come, join in Mary’s prophet-song”[14] exemplifies the second criteria, the ability to speak to the problems of today. He challenges assumptions around gender norms by describing Mary as “the maiden Mary, not so mild,” turning the usual description of Mary as meek and mild on its head. Tice also forces “Us” to see that we are not the only ones made in the image of God; those we consider to be “Other” or “Them” are made in God’s image too.

The third criteria, to find new and creative ways to understand Mary as opposed to previous ones that have been harmful, is found in Mary Frances Fleischaker’s text, “Mary, woman of the promise.”[15] She uses many beautiful titles to describe Mary such as “song of holy wisdom,” “morning star of justice,” “model of compassion,” and other positive images to help make Mary relatable to us.

The final criteria is an active (rather than passive and spiritual) understanding of the message of the Magnificat to work for social justice. There are many excellent paraphrases of the Magnificat, but I will highlight two that emphasize its call to turn the world right-side up, in the words of Bishop Michael Curry. The first is Fred Kaan’s “Sing we a song of high revolt (Magnificat now!)”[16] His passionate call to action is just as powerful today as it was when he wrote it in 1968, calling us to “revolt and fight / with him for what is just and right, / to sing and live Magnificat / in crowded street and council flat.” The second is Rory Cooney’s “Canticle of the Turning,”[17] which speaks of a world that is on the verge of turning right-side up: “My heart shall sing of the day you bring. / Let the fires of your justice burn. / Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, / And the world is about to turn!”

Inspired by the prophetic call of “the maiden Mary, not so mild,” let us go forth and turn the world right-side up!







[5] Stephanie A. Budwey, “Mary, Star of Hope: Marian Congregational Song as an Expression of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the United States from 1854 to 2010,” The Hymn 63, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 7–17.

[6] Stephanie A. Budwey, Sing of Mary: Giving Voice to Marian Theology and Devotion (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 149.



[9] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 13.

[10] For more information see Budwey, Sing of Mary, 195–210.

[11] Gaventa, Mary, 13.

[12] Budwey, Sing of Mary, 274–88.


[14] Adam M. L. Tice, Woven Into Harmony: 50 Hymn Texts (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2009), 28–29.

[15] The Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, “New Hymn and Tune,” The Hymn 41, no. 1 (January 1990): 36.