We said those words for years in Latin, in English and even in Strine (Australian). Mantras like the “Ave Maria” (“Hail Mary”) do not, and are not intended to, make people think. On the contrary, they are meant to lull them into lethargy. Never mind what you’re saying : it’s a prayer, to Mary, the Virgin Mother, the Mediatrix of All Graces. She will listen, understand and intervene for us. It’s the intention, the fervor, not the words, that count.
As we fingered our Rosary beads – the Catholic equivalent of Mediterranean worry-beads – we were asking a Jewish lady who died two millennia ago, the iconic, tragic mother of the Man called Jesus, to pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Presumably she was listening, presumably – though dead – with her hearing intact. Not only that, she was apparently ready and willing to take our calls, e-mails, prayers and supplications and transmit them to her Son. We could have asked Him personally, but, according to Catholics (not Protestants) He has a soft spot for His Mum. He will listen to her. Improve your chances, chum !
But there is more : we identify ourselves as “peccatores”, sinners, violators of divine rules condemning murder and adultery, but also including Church obligations like going to Mass and not cutting the grass on Sunday, and even, for members of Religious Orders, interdictions concerning, for example, “Breaking the Silence”. God help us, sinners all.
“Sub tuum praesidium confugimus” (“We flee to be under your protection”) : we, especially boys educated by Marist (Mary’s) Brothers – a religious order at present facing extinction – learned early to invoke the “praesidium” of Mary, to ask for her protection. She, the Immaculate Mother of God, born without Original Sin and having lived with a totally clean slate (unlike the rest of us), “full of grace”, is ready to pity poor sinners like you and me (well, you anyhow . . . ).
Sinners ? What did we do to deserve that ignominious title ? OK, so as children of Adam and Eve, we contracted – a bit like Aids – Original Sin. But whatever about the dubious justice of such inherited culpability (sour grapes, teeth set on edge and all that), what’s this bit about personally being sinners ? Are we talking tax evasion, adultery, “impure thoughts”, robbing a bank, fraud on the Internet, premarital sex, shop-lifting, graft, reading “Playboy”, eating meat on Friday, corruption (dear to the Donald), arson, murder ? Anyhow, apparently none of us is innocent. Only Jesus and His Mother were. He will forgive us, perhaps, if we pray to His Mum hard enough.
I can’t believe that as a child I swallowed all this. I am embarrassed that I continued to do so even as an adult. And I am mortified to admit that as a priest I led congregations in reciting the Rosary and its no less than 50 to 150 soporific Hail Marys. I recited the first half, the congregation recited the second, all of us all the while supposedly thinking, not of the words we were saying, but of something entirely different, depending on the designated “Mysteries” : the birth, the suffering and death or the Resurrection of Jesus. It was a sort of collective, self-induced, trance.
Three Hail Marys were considered in Confession an adequate penance for most of our sins. But 150 of them, voluntarily self-imposed ? How stupid can you get ?