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May Crowning: Honoring Our Queen and Our Mother

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A long-standing tradition in the Church has been to adorn a statue or image of the Blessed Virgin Mary with flowers at the beginning of May, a month dedicated to her honor. I have vivid memories of the May Crowning at my grade school, when all of the students were invited to bring flowers from home that would then be put into vases and carried in procession to the front of the church, where a large statue of Our Lady was prominently placed. If you were lucky, you were the one chosen to carry the vase in the procession as your class representative. If you were super lucky, you were the one chosen to carry the circlet of flowers and crown Mary at the culmination of the service.

Here at Our Lady’s University, the McGrath Institute for Church Life brought back the tradition of the Marian Procession and May Crowning last year, an event that will take place once again this year on Sunday, May 7 at 1pm, beginning at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes on the Notre Dame campus. I had the honor of helping plan and facilitate this event last year and this year, and throughout the time of planning and preparation, and especially on the day of the event itself, dozens of people shared with me their memories of experiencing the May Crowning as children, and told me how happy they were that they were able to experience this beautiful devotion again, especially on a campus dedicated to the Mother of God. Students, faculty, and staff came together on a dreary May afternoon, along with members of the South Bend community, carrying carnations and singing litanies of love to her whose “soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” (Lk 1:46).

Register for May Crowning 2017

What is it about the May Crowning that moves people so deeply? What is it about the experience of carrying flowers and singing songs and reciting well-known prayers and moving together in procession that imprints itself so indelibly on people’s imaginations and hearts and souls?

I would venture to guess that part of the reason the May Crowning is so meaningful is that it is so human. When I was a little girl, nothing made me happier than picking a bouquet of flowers from our yard and bringing them to my mother. Granted, they were usually dandelions, but to a child, even weeds are flowers. My mom would receive them with joy and, after giving me a hug, she would immediately fill a jelly glass with water, put the tiny nosegay in its makeshift vase, and create a space for it in the sunny kitchen windowsill. Mary receives our prayers and flowers and songs with the joy of a mother’s love, as we in turn rejoice in God’s extraordinary plan, in which he not only desired to come to us through a Mother, but also gave us his Mother to call our own.

For as much as the May Crowning is saturated with the stuff of human existence, of the primal relationship between Mother and child, it is still shot through with the grace of divine love. In honoring Mary, we learn to love her anew as we see her in all of her radiant loveliness; moreover, we are reminded of all that we might still become if we but open ourselves up to the workings of God’s grace in our hearts as radically as she did. We see our Sister, a fellow disciple who accompanies us even now in every joy and every trial because she herself experienced the heights of joy and the depths of sorrow as she made her own pilgrim procession of faith alongside her Son. We see our Mother, who comforts us in our times of confusion and gently guides us back to her Son when we wander away from him. We see our Queen, who hears our prayers and intercedes for us, laying the deepest desires of our hearts at the feet of her beloved Son. Mary takes the imperfect prayers we offer—the prayers of lives filled with weeds and wheat and flowers—she receives them with joy, wraps us in the loving embrace of her maternal mantle, and presents these prayers—and us along with them—to her Son Jesus. And even as we honor her, she continues to point beyond herself, magnifying the greatness of her God and our God, all the while teaching us how to say along with her, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

Sing of Mary, pure and lowly,
Virgin Mother, undefiled.
Sing of God’s own Son, most holy,
Who became her little child.
Fairest child of fairest mother,
God the Lord who came to earth,
Word made flesh, our very brother
Takes our nature by his birth.

Sing of Jesus, Son of Mary,
In the home at Nazareth.
Toil and labor cannot weary
Love enduring unto death.
Constant was the love he gave her,
Though he went forth from her side,
Forth to preach, and heal, and suffer,
Till on Calvary he died.

Glory be to God the Father,
Glory be to God the Son,
Glory be to God the Spirit,
Glory to the Three-in-One.
From the heart of Blessed Mary,
From all saints the song ascends,
And the Church the strain re-echoes
Unto earth’s remotest ends.
(Text: Roland F. Palmer, 1938)

Featured photo courtesy of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.