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The May Crowning ~ Time-honored, Beautiful, Eminently Fitting

O Mary! We crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May!

These lyrics are a familiar component of the annual May Crowning, the Marian devotion which takes place in many parishes around the time when we celebrate Mother’s Day. This rite is one traditional aspect of the dedication of the month of May to Mary, the Mother of God, and also our Mother.

According to Catholic author Marge Fenelon, while the custom of designating May as the month of Mary has its roots in the far ancient past, it “became especially widespread during the nineteenth century and remains in practice until today.”

The season of spring connotes the flowering of new life; this ties in perfectly with our liturgical Easter season for obvious reasons, both spiritual and practical. Concerning the crown for Our Lady’s image, Marge Fenelon writes, “Often, the crown is made of beautiful blossoms representing Mary’s beauty and virtue. It’s also a reminder to the faithful to strive to imitate our Blessed Mother’s virtue in our own lives.”

In addition to its popularity with the laity, the May Crowning devotion also enjoys the endorsement of clergy. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ publication, Order of Crowning an Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, states: “The queen symbol was attributed to Mary because she was a perfect follower of Christ, who is the absolute ‘crown’ of creation. She is the Mother of the Son of God, who is the messianic King ….. [through her consent to God’s plan and perseverance in prayer], in an eminent way, she won the ‘crown of righteousness,’ ‘the crown of life,’ ‘the crown of glory’ that is promised to those who follow Christ.”

For many Catholics of all ages, May Crowning remains a beloved devotional practice whose arrival is eagerly anticipated as the month of May approaches each year. The Order of Crowning document allows for the rite to be conducted either within Mass, within Evening Prayer, or within the celebration of the Word of God. Depending on local custom, there may be a procession through the streets, with the statue of Our Lady carried aloft, sometimes accompanied by singing of appropriate hymns. Often, the procession will include school children, First Communion recipients garbed in white, and members of Marian ministries such as Sodality or the Legion of Mary. Typically, a young girl designated as the May Queen carries the crown, which she will place on the statue of Our Lady during the rite.

Our Lady’s statue would be carried ceremoniously into the church while familiar Marian hymns are sung, such as “Immaculate Mary” or “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother.” The crowning rite may follow various formats but generally includes a reading from the Old or New Testament, a psalm with response, and a homily following the Gospel. The image and the crown may be blessed before the crown is set in place by the May Queen. An appropriate Marian litany often follows the crowning. Depending on local custom, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament may be celebrated before the rite concludes with a closing hymn.

While all these elements contribute to a rite whose beauty and devotional value are without question, there is a danger to attributing to them a focus on sentimentality and nostalgia. This year, it may behoove us to place another emphasis on our May Crowning experience besides as a demonstration of love for Our Lady, which goes without saying. Perhaps we can allow another influence on the experience for ourselves this year by reflecting on a portion of a Papal encyclical:

“For this [May] 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.”

However, the Holy Father’s letter continued later: “Once again we see men risking recourse to arms instead of negotiating to settle disputes between opposing viewpoints. Thus the inhabitants of entire nations are subjected to unspeakable sufferings occasioned by uprisings, secret and treacherous warfare, and outright battles. These activities grow more frequent and more bitter each day, and could at any time spark a new and terrible war.

May she [the Virgin Mother] graciously lend an ear to the devout pleas of those all over the world who beg her for peace. May she enlighten the minds of those who rule nations. And finally, may she prevail on God, who rules the winds and storms, to calm the tempests in men's warring hearts and grant us peace in our day.”

Although it would seem that these words poured forth from the current Holy Father’s pen just yesterday, in truth, they are excerpted from a 1965 encyclical of Pope Paul VI – (“Mense Maio”, or “Letter on the Occasion of the First of May” – Introduction; paragraphs 6 and 12). Their significance for us in our current tense and tenuous world atmosphere cannot be overlooked, nor can the Holy Father’s plea that we turn our hearts and minds to Our Lady in our longing for true, lasting peace.

As we honor Our Lady in a special way over the following weeks, let us remember in particular those Christians world-wide living in dangerous situations of subtle or outright persecution for the faith we share in common. Heeding the Holy Father’s words, with hearts overflowing with loving devotion, let us plead to Our Lady on their behalf during this beautiful month which we dedicate to her.

Hail, holy Queen enthroned above, O Maria! Hail, Mother of mercy and of love, O Maria! Triumph, all ye Cherubim! Sing with us, ye Seraphim! Heav’n and earth resound the hymn! Salve, salve, salve Regina!

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