Q: (The) Catholic Herald had an article about the May Crowning at St. William of York (Church) in Stafford. (When I was) growing up, my parish never had such events. I never experienced them until moving to the Diocese of Arlington. What is the background for this devotion? — A reader in Alexandria
A: The origins of the May Crowning are hard to pinpoint, although devotion to our Blessed Mother Mary originates in the earliest days of the church. Concerning the significance of the month of May, toward the end of the 18th century, Father Latomia of the Roman College of the Society of Jesus (in Rome) instituted the practice of dedicating this month to our Blessed Mother. His desire was to promote devotion to Mary among the students as a way to counteract infidelity and immorality. From Rome, the May devotion spread throughout the Jesuit colleges, and eventually throughout the whole church. Pope Pius VII in 1815 granted a partial indulgence for participating in either a public or private devotion honoring Mary during the month of May; Pope Pius IX made the indulgence plenary in 1859. (This particular indulgence is no longer listed in the present Enchiridion of Indulgences, although numerous devotions to our Blessed Mother are, such as the recitation of the rosary or the Litany of Mary.)
May probably seemed most appropriate because the liturgical calendars, former and present, mark several feast days honoring our Blessed Mother: Our Lady, Queen of Apostles (the Saturday following the Ascension); Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament (May 13); Our Lady of Fatima (May 13); Mary, Help of Christians (May 24); Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces (May 31); and the Visitation (May 31).
The May devotions also were energized by the four authenticated apparitions of our Blessed Mother. In 1830, Mary appeared to St. Catherine Laboure and instructed her to have the Miraculous Medal struck with the inscription, “Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” In 1846, she appeared to the children of La Salette, France, and tearfully lamented the lax practice of the faith. In 1858, she appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, identifying herself as the “Immaculate Conception.” Finally, she appeared to the three children at Fatima May 13, 1917, where she instructed the people to pray the rosary daily for peace.
Regarding the crowning, the image of Mary (as well as Jesus) wearing a gold crown is found in the earliest forms of iconography, especially in the Eastern Churches. In the West, the pious practice of publicly crowning an image of the Blessed Mother gained popularity in the 19th century. In Rome, the image known as Salus Populi Romani — of our Blessed Mother holding the Child Jesus — is enshrined at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Tradition holds that St. Luke painted the image. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) added two crowns to the icon, which were at some point later lost. Nevertheless, on Aug. 15, 1838, the Feast of the Assumption, Pope Gregory XVI with great solemnity, again added the crowns, and thereupon the practice of crowning the image of the Blessed Mother became popular, especially during the month of May.
In more recent times, Pope Paul VI, in his “Letter on the Occasion of the First of May” (promulgated April 30, 1965), noted not only the venerable tradition of May devotions to Mary, but also their importance: “It is precisely because the month of May is a powerful incentive to more fervent and trusting prayer, and because during it our petitions find their way more easily to the compassionate heart of Our Blessed Lady, that it has been a custom dear to Our Predecessors to choose this month, dedicated to Mary, for inviting the Christian people to offer up public prayers, whenever the needs of the Church demanded it, or whenever danger hovered menacingly over the world. This year, We too … feel the need of sending out a similar appeal to the whole Catholic world. When We look at the present needs of the Church or at the state of peace in the world, We have compelling reasons for believing that the present hour is especially grave; that it makes a call for united prayer from the whole Christian people more than ever a matter of urgency.” Considering the plight of so many Christians who face persecution throughout the world, all of us should use this month for fervent prayer for them.
Also, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, to help celebrate the Marian Year declared by Pope St. John Paul II in 1987 to prepare for the new millenium, issued a ritual, Order of Crowning an Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which captures the significance of this pious practice: “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. Mary is the Mother of Christ, the Word Incarnate … ‘He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High; the Lord will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there will be no end.’ Elizabeth greeted the Blessed Virgin, pregnant with Jesus, as ‘the mother of my Lord.’ Mary is the perfect follower of Christ. The maid of Nazareth consented to God’s plan; she journeyed on the pilgrimage of faith; she listened to God’s Word and kept it in her heart; she remained steadfastly in close union with her Son, all the way to the foot of the Cross; she persevered in prayer with the Church. Thus, 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.”
Although we are fast approaching the end of May, nevertheless, let us be sure to honor our Blessed Mother in our hearts and our homes. The recitation of the family rosary each day, images of our Blessed Mother, having a special shrine in our yard, and having our own family May Crowning are wonderful ways not only to foster devotion and faith, but also to draw us closer to the heart of Our Savior.