Historical Background of the Saturdays in Honour of Mary
“One of the oldest customs traced to honouring Mary on Saturday in the Church of Rome took place on the Saturday before “Whitsunday” [White Sunday]. The newly-baptized members of the Church were led from St. John’s baptistry of the Lateran to Mary’s great shrine on the Esquilin, St. Mary Major [built under Pope Liberius 352-66]. St. John of Damascus’ († 754) writings testify to the celebration of Saturdays dedicated to Mary in the Church of the East. The liturgical books of the ninth and tenth centuries contain Masses in honour of Mary on Saturday.
The Dictionary of Mary states:
Hence, Saturday acquired its great Marian tone and the existing fast on that day became associated with Mary. Today, the strongest trace of Mary’s relationship with Saturday occurs in the Liturgy. Saturday is dedicated to Mary by a Mass or Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Through these liturgical acts, Christians exalt the person of Mary in the action that renews the sacrifice of Christ and in the action that prolongs his prayer.
This liturgical attribution of Saturday to Mary was largely the work of Alcuin (735-804), the Benedictine monk who was “Minister of Education” at the court of Charlemagne and who contributed in a decisive manner to the Carolingian liturgical reform. Alcuin composed six formularies for Votive (that is, devotional) Masses – one for each day of the week. And he assigned two formularies to Saturday in honour of Our Lady. The practice was quickly and joyously embraced by both clergy and laity. …
Cardinal Peter Damian († 1072) fostered the Marian Saturday celebration as well. The custom was specially furthered during the time of the crusades. Peter of Amiens preached the first crusade and started out with a vanguard for Constantinople on a Saturday, March 8, 1096. Pope Urban II admonished the faithful to pray the hours of the liturgy in honour of the most holy Virgin for the crusaders. At the Synod of Clermont the year before, he had prescribed priests to do so.
The custom of dedicating Saturday Masses to Mary was fostered specially in the cloister churches of the various orders, and quickly spread throughout the whole Church.
In addition to the liturgical celebrations on Saturdays, other customs kept step – especially works of neighbourly love. For example, King Louis of France († on the last crusade) fed over one hundred of the poor at his palace. He ate with them and sent them away richly-laden with gifts.
The great theologians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Sts. Bernard, Thomas, and Bonaventure explained the dedication of Saturdays to Mary by pointing to the time of Christ’s rest in the grave. Everyone else had abandoned Christ; only Mary continued to believe. This was her day!
A Dominican missal of the fifteenth century listed additional reasons in a hymn: Saturday is the day when creation was completed. Therefore, it is also celebrated as the day of the fulfillment of the plan of salvation, which found its realization through Mary. Sunday is the Lord’s Day, so it seemed appropriate to name the day preceeding as Mary’s day.
In the centuries to follow, the Marian Saturdays were expressed in several devotions. This was the day the faithful selected to go on pilgrimages. Sodalities held their meetings on Saturdays and called them Fraternity Saturdays or Sodality Saturdays. The seven sorrows of Mary were commemorated on seven consecutive Saturdays. The fifteen Saturdays before the liturgy in honour of Mary as Queen of the Rosary [October 7] recalled the fifteen decades of the rosary. In some areas this was the day that the crops and harvests were blessed and celebrated. A German manuscript from 1673 states:
The people of Hamingen have from ancient times vowed to hold a procession to this church every Saturday from the feast of St. Gregory to the feast of St. James [to ask] for protection for the fruits of the fields and against the storms and hail. Their descendants failed to do so to their great misfortune because the hail did great damage. After they renewed the practice, no one heard further of great damage.
The growing devotion in honour of the Immaculate Conception by the Franciscans contributed to furthering the Marian Saturdays. In 1633 the Order’s Chapter determined that a Holy Mass in honour of this mystery was to be celebrated.
Over time, it became customary for Catholics everywhere to consider Saturday Mary’s day just as Sunday is the Lord’s Day. Many of the faithful commemorated the day by attending Mass, receiving the Eucharist, and praying the rosary as a family or attending an evening devotion at the Church, as well as performing works of neighbourly love in many forms.
Vatican II with its liturgical reforms did not abolish the practice of Masses in honour of Our Lady. Additions were made to expand the number of the liturgies.