Tuesday, May 02, 2006

May, the month of Mary (I)

The month of May has arrived, a time when the Virgin Mary is specially honoured by Catholics all over the world. From the Philippines to Italy, from Belgium to Mexico; everywhere her images are adorned with flowers and candles and carried around in processions. It is also a time for going on pilgrimage to one of her shrines or praying the rosary. These special May devotions celebrate the Virgin as giver of new life, as the Mother of the Saviour and a bringer of graces. It is very significant indeed that this month, in which Spring reaches its full bloom (at least in the northern hemisphere), was chosen as a time dedicated to Mary.

Naples was the first place in the world to specially honour the Virgin Mary in May. This was in the 18th century. From southern Italy the custom gradually spread through the rest of the Catholic world. It was greatly promoted by the Jesuits. The order saw it as a good alternative for the traditional May celebrations, which were often full of pre-Christian references. The crowning of May queens for instance, an ancient fertility celebration, was still a common practice throughout Europe in the 18th century. (The month itself actually takes its name from Maya, the Roman goddess of fertility.) In many Catholic countries this tradition was replaced by crowning images of the Blessed Virgin, thus Christianising the May custom. However, this does not mean that Catholic May devotions honouring the Virgin Mary are not a celebration of fertility and motherhood. After all, she gave birth to the Saviour and is the Mother of us All.


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