In hearing the confessions of small children, when it comes time to assign a penance, I often ask them, "Do you have a favorite prayer, one that you especially like to say?" Most of the time, by a wide margin, choose the Hail Mary.
Q. I have been wondering about the origin of the Hail Mary prayer. I realize that the first part is from the Scriptures, when Mary is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, but when was the complete prayer introduced in the church and who were its authors? (Northern New Jersey)
A. As to the first part of the prayer, you are half-right. The words in the very opening verse come from the angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary at the annunciation: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Lk 1:28, Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition).
Then, as you indicate, the next verse repeats the pregnant Elizabeth's enthusiastic greeting of her cousin following Mary's 90-mile journey from Nazareth: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb" (Lk 1:42).
The joining of those two verses first made its way into the texts of the Mass during the seventh century, as an offertory verse for the feast of the Annunciation, and became a widespread practice during the 11th century in the prayer of monastic communities.
The second half of the Hail Mary, the petition -- "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death" -- came later. That first appeared -- except for the word "our" -- in print in 1495 in the writings of Girolamo Savonarola and became part of the reformed breviary of Pope Pius V in 1568 following the Council of Trent.
The popularity of the prayer has continued to grow over the centuries. In hearing the confessions of small children, when it comes time to assign a penance, I often ask them, "Do you have a favorite prayer, one that you especially like to say?" Most of the time, by a wide margin, choose the Hail Mary.
And each night before I go to sleep, I follow a habit of some 50 years and recite three "Hail Marys," asking Mary to help me to be a good and faithful priest.
Q. My first husband of 28 years died three years ago. Both of us were practicing Catholics. I have since been blessed to meet another special man. He is Catholic and has never been married.
If I remarry, I will lose the financial benefits that will affect my retirement years. I know how short life is and don't want to wait 10 years until the restriction will not affect us financially. Is it possible to be married in the church without its being a civil union?
We have chosen to live together, which goes against everything I have been taught, and I feel like a hypocrite. Although in our minds we are totally committed as though we were married, we would still like to be married in the church. Can you offer any guidance? (Indianapolis)
A. In the United States, when a Catholic priest officiates at a wedding, he does so in two capacities: first, in his religious role as a representative of the church, but also in a civil role as an agent of the state. The priest is obligated legally to then register the marriage in the appropriate civil jurisdiction.
There is, in fact, a provision in the church's Code of Canon Law (No. 1130-33) that does authorize a bishop to permit a marriage "celebrated secretly" -- but that is commonly interpreted as applying to cases where the civil law is unjust (e.g., a law that prohibits interracial marriages).
A priest who performed a marriage ceremony in the U.S., as you desire, would violate the law and expose himself to civil penalties -- not to mention that you yourself could be subject to criminal penalties for fraudulently collecting the financial benefits.
I know that this is an inconvenient answer and presents you with a hard choice, but your soul is worth far more than your pension. It sounds as though your new friend is a real blessing in your life, so I pray that you will marry in the church and take the financial hit.
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Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr. Albany, New York 12203.
Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service