Devotion to Mary in May or more precisely, in spring, which is also known as “May time” and is first of all the name for the season–is found already in the Middle Ages, but has nothing in common with the usual form of Marian May devotion today.
1.Roots and Precursor
The roots of the May devotion reach back to a Marian custom determined by devotion to the Passion, to honoring the Cross, and to prayers for good weather. Sources from the time speak of beginning May with a “spiritual May,” that is, to practice a particular form of devotion to the Cross. One of the most influential representatives is the mystic, Henry Seuse († 1366). His “spiritual May” is connected to the liturgy: Finding of the True Cross (May 3) and to the Cross or Prayer Week before the Ascension of Christ.
In Germany above all, particularly in the dioceses of the Rhine and Frankish areas a petition devotion, the so-called “May Prayer,” developed in connection with the custom of giving a weather blessing in many places on the Finding of the True Cross. After poor harvests at the beginning of the eighteenth century, corresponding prayers were introduced around 1720 in the dioceses of Trier, Mainz, Worms, Speyer, as well as Würzburg and Bamberg. This “May Prayer,” often referred to as “May Devotion,” remained part of the devotion determined by the seasons along with the prayer days until well into the nineteenth century. A Marian aspect to this prayer was entirely foreign. The core of the May Prayer was the request for a good harvest: The blossoms should be protected from harm and be able to mature to fruit.
[Note: In some European areas on rogation days associated with the Ascension there are to this day processions to the fields and orchards for prayer and a blessing for the crops.]
With development of the new Marian May devotion, it suggested itself to connect the practice of this prayer and enliven it again by stressing Marian devotion. The motif of blossoms in the May devotion was also picked up, but soon was reduced to flower blossoms. With this the actual core, the request that from these blossoms rich fruit should ripen, was lost. The interpretation of fitting Bible passages–above all the Song of Songs 2,1: “a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys”–led to dedicating May to Our Lady as a month of blossoms and flowers.
2. Spread of May Devotions
The origin of the conventional May devotion is still relatively unknown. It is certain that this form of Marian devotion began in Italy. Here, in May 1784, at the church of Camillians in Ferrara for the first time May devotions were held publicly throughout the entire month. Until then it seems that May devotions were more likely a private exercise of piety, even when also partly in a public framework. Around 1739, for instance, witnesses speak of a particular form of Marian devotion in May in Grezzano near Verona. In 1747 the Archbishop of Genoa recommended the May devotion as a devotion for the home. In Rome by 1813, May devotions were held in as many as twenty churches.
From Italy, May devotions soon spread to France. One of the most prominent promoters was Jesuit Pierre Doré (1733-1816) from Longwy in Lothringen. Doré learned of this form of devotion in Italy. May devotions spread in connection with the strong restoration movement after the revolution. They were understood as “the ecclesial contrast to the frivolous spring celebrations of the revolutionaries.” Indeed, from 1830 on, May devotions were celebrated everywhere. …
In Belgium the May devotions–at least as a private devotion–were also known since already in 1803 and 1819 corresponding devotional books were published. … In the Netherlands, the Redemptorists fostered May devotions. … Also in Luxembourg sometime around 1840 May devotions were known. In Luxembourg May received an additional imprint through the annual Mary octave in honor of her as “Consolation of the Afflicted. In Switzerland in 1808, this devotion was celebrated for the first time in the Jesuit college at Brigg (Sitten) … and also publicly since 1849 at the [Benedictine] monastery in Einsiedeln. In the Canton of Glarus the Capuchin monastery Näfels was the transmitting center of the May devotion from 1852 on. Around 1860, the Sunday “May sermons” became customary and soon became a specific characteristic of this Mary month. [There was widespread popularity among the people in Austria; the earliest indicator coming from the Jesuit college in Innsbruck].
3. Connection to Streams of the Time
May devotions developed from the middle of the nineteenth century to the most significant form of Marian devotion. Petitions from the side of the faithful asked for them to be introduced. Many bishops gave a clear sign of their approval by actively participating in celebrations. May devotions received their strongest impetus through the dogmatization of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (1854). This dogma was officially announced in numerous dioceses in May of the following year –often in connection with a May devotion.
Frequently extraordinary political and ecclesial happenings were the reason that May devotions were propagated with emphasis, for example during the struggle between Church and State (1872-1887, Germany’s Kulturkampf) and during both world wars. After the outbreak of World War I, Pope Benedict XV ordered a prayer for peace written by him in 1915 to be prayed during his much-cherished May devotions.
During World War II May devotions were once again recommended. Already in 1939, Pope Pius XII called upon the faithful to special prayer and devotions in May for peace among the peoples. Children, above all, were to participate in this prayer–a wish that the pope regularly repeated between 1939 and 1944. In the encyclical Mediator Dei (1947) May devotions are recommended under exercises of piety (# 180).
4. Public and Private Prayers
From the beginning the May devotions and the specific piety connected to it were rooted in the prayer life of the parish in a twofold way: as a new branch built on the root of household family prayer and as a public church service. … Over the years, the May devotion became a daily celebration. … The opening and closing of the month of May was often in the hands of the local or auxiliary bishops. Evenings became the time of day for the devotions, especially in the twentieth century. In the beginning years devotions were held both morning and evening. The social structure of the individual parishes played a roll in determining the time, mornings often in connection with Mass. The devotion usually lasted from half an hour to an hour. In its structure, the May devotion corresponds to many elements of the Sunday devotion (or benediction): talk or sermon and/or meditation, singing – also occasionally the Psalms – litanies (mainly the Litany of Loreto) and prayers. Completing the devotion was the blessing – with the hand, with the ciborium, with the monstrance. Giving of the blessing would take place at the beginning or at the end of the celebration or both.
The elements of solemnity played a major role in May devotions. In addition to the specially decorated May altar there was above all the effort to have many “highpoints.” The chief point in this celebration of the May devotion is reached in the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament–very much in the sense of a still typical Baroque piety.
Next to the public May devotions, in the family circle were also continuous May devotions nurtured in private Marian devotions. The book, Mary’s Month (Vienna 1837) by P. Beckx SJ contains a detailed suggestion how to celebrate May devotions in a private circle. This connection with previous household prayer proved to be significant in spreading this new form of devotion. Along with the family, neighbors and friends were to gather in a home and hold the devotion together.
The elements of such a home devotion were prayer and songs, the Rosary and the Litany of Loreto along with mediations occasionally from a May devotion booklet. Specific to this form of piety was the family’s little May altar. Later, suggestions for private Marian devotions were directed mainly to the faithful who due to distance were unable to come to church for devotions. … Noteworthy also are the following authors of private May devotions: The eldest and most influential are the Jesuit writers Annibale Donese († 1754), Franceso Lalomia (1749-1813), and Louis Debussy (1788-1822). Prominent also are Vincent Pallotti (1795-1850) and John Bosco (1815-1888). John Henry Newman (1801-1890) also published a booklet that is still used today.]
5. The Future
May devotions flourished in the period described as the Marian century, namely between 1850 and 1950. Today, the May devotion hardly plays a special role. During the changes and renewal phases of the Second Vatican Council Marian devotions along with other forms of popular piety disappeared. Meanwhile renewed interest is surfacing for this type of devotion. Church leaders have recognized and fostered devotion to Mary according to the originality and requests of the faithful according to the situation, the time, and the place. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wished that customs and devotional practices continue and are protected. The many and various forms of Marian devotion contain–as does piety itself–that which fits to the times and that which is timeless.
Today, there is the problematic question of how the May devotion connects with the fifty-day Season of Easter, re-established after the Second Vatican Council, since the Easter weeks more or less extend into May every year. According to the wish of the council, the liturgical year shall be so ordered that “the original character of the time is preserved” (SC 107). … For a correct renewal of May devotion it is necessary to note that the Easter Season is foundational… When the Easter season more or less extends into May, the characteristic Marian devotion needs to be oriented to the theme of the Easter season. …