By Mary Morrell | Correspondent
For Catholics who have grown up within the traditions of the Church, there is one ritual that remains dear to the heart – May Crowning, a devotional practice that honors Mary as Mother of God and as Queen within the tradition of May as the month of Mary.
The celebration, with deep roots in the history of the Church, is commonly recalled as a procession of young children dressed in their First Holy Communion finery, placing flowers at the feet of a statue of the Blessed Mother, and one child, specially chosen, crowning the statue of Mary with a wreath of flowers.
Those gathered may sing, “O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,” as one of many favorite hymns which are an important part of this celebration of joy and hope and devotion to Mary, Queen of heaven and earth.
Crown of 12 Stars
Inspired by the Coronation of Mary in the Book of Revelation, “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (12:1), images of Mary wearing a crown are found in the earliest forms of religious iconography.
It became common practice to adorn images of Mary and Jesus with crowns. In the late 16th century, Pope Clement VIII added two crowns to the “Salus Populi Romani,” an image of Mary with Jesus on her lap, enshrined at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, Rome.
The crowns were eventually lost, but several hundred years later, Pope Gregory XVI added the crowns again in a special rite, on the Feast of the Assumption, which fostered the tradition of crowning Mary.
It was before this image of “Salus Populi Romani” (Protectress and health of the Roman people) that Pope Francis began his pontificate in prayer, and he continues the practice of praying before the icon of Mary and Jesus before any major trip, often leaving a bouquet of white roses.
In 1987, when Pope John Paul II announced the Church would celebrate a Marian Year, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, now known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, published “Celebrating the Marian Year: Devotional Celebrations in Honor of Mary, Mother of God” which included a devotional rite for crowning an image of the Blessed Virgin, meant to be used for parish celebrations.
The bishops explain the title of queen 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.”
The 1987 document also recalls the ancient practice of crowning Mary, noting, “Both in the East and the West the practice of depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary wearing a regal crown came into use in the era of the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431)…. It is especially from the end of the 16th Century that in the West the practice became widespread for the faithful, both religious and laity, to crown images of the Blessed Virgin.”
A Month for Mary
While some of the earliest mentions of Marian devotions in May can be found in a 13th century manuscript, Cantigas de Santa Maria, it was in the 18th century that Jesuit Father Latomia of the Roman College of the Society of Jesus vowed to dedicate the entire month of May to Mary in an effort to increase devotion to the Blessed Mother among students.
From there, May devotion spread, first throughout Jesuit colleges and, eventually, throughout the Church.
Church fathers including Popes Pius XII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, have supported and encouraged Marian devotions, not only in May but throughout the year, as a means for the faithful to express their ardent love of Mary and to deepen their relationship with her son, Jesus Christ.
In his 1965 encyclical Mense Maio (In the Month of May) Pope Paul VI writes, “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.”
In January, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the Basilica of St. Mary Major for the feast of the Salus Populi Romani icon, preaching on an ancient Marian antiphon and reminding the faithful of the importance of Marian devotion: “Even the ancient monks recommended, in trials, to take refuge under the mantle of the Holy Mother of God. This wisdom, which comes from afar, helps us: The Mother guards faith, protects relationships, saves us in the storms and preserves us from evil. When Mary is in the home, the devil does not enter.”