May – the Month of Mary

The Church dedicates May to Mary, the mother of Jesus, although this devotion has lost some of its impetus in recent years. However many of us will remember the traditional May processions and the crowning of the statue of Mary which used to be a prominent feature in parish life in England, – the dowry of Mary. At Ryde there was an outdoor procession in honour of Our Lady as early as 1869. The town commissioners stipulated that it had to be a silent procession, so the rosary was recited quietly by the congregation as they processed around the streets (we are not sure of the route) and concluded with the Salve Regina sung aloud as they re-entered St. Mary’s.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet who spent several family holidays here on the Island reminded us in the first line in one of the greatest poems of the English Language, that May is Mary’s month. He offers no idea how this arose and in many ways it does not matter. Since Saxon times people have used the fresh flowers to adorn the statues and grottoes of Our Lady. In England in May we notice the change from the winter months of cold, damp and darkness to the vitality and freshness of the various shades of green. In this month traditionally devoted to Our Lady, the Dowry of Mary inevitably takes on new life and vigour. Cardinal Newman, writing in England in the late 19th century reminds us that “May is the time when the earth bursts forth into fresh foliage and its green grass after the the hard frost and the winter snow. It is a time when blossoms are on the trees and the flowers are in the garden. For such gladness and joyousness of external nature is a fit attendant to our devotion to her who is the Mystical Rose and the House of Gold”. Many will remember with great affection the wonderful processions in Our Lady’s honour which were once a memorable part of our English Catholic heritage with girls dressed in white with blue veils and ribbons in their hair. Is this pure nostalgia? I hope not. Surely it is a recognition of the Queenship of Mary; as the litany reminds us, – the Queen of Heaven, the Queen of Peace, the Queen conceived without original sin, the Queen of us all, created by Almighty God. Devotion to Mary has long been the hallmark of Englaish Catholics. This was re-inforced in 1893 by the re-dedication of England as the dowry of Mary. This solemn re-dedication took place at the request of Pope Leo XIII and was carried out by the English Hierarchy in Brompton Oratory on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Six months later our own chapel and shrine to Our Lady in Ryde was solemnly blessed and dedicated by Bishop Vertue on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 1893.

Here on the Island there are outdoor statues / grottoes in honour of Our Lady at Newport, Shanklin, Totland, Ryde, Quarr and St. Cecilia’s. There was a traditional May procession at Ryde a few weeks ago. Luciane Smith was selected to crown the statue of Mary in the courtyard beside St. Mary’s while the people sang the Magnificat and recited the Litany of Our Lady.

In Medieval times May had a more secular significance. The people celebrated the end of the winter hardship. “Olde England” seemed to go mad in May. They would dance on the green around the May pole. There was archery, wrestling, vaulting and plenty of opportunity to drink and be “merrie”. In the evening bonfires were lit. Henry VIII went “maying” on many occasions. The Protestant reformers abolished May Day in the 1640s but it was restored again with the accession of Charles II. May Day is often associated with several natural events, – sunrise, the advent of Summer and the growth in nature. In modern times it has become Labour Day, which honours the dignity of workers. Hence the addition of the Feast of St. Joseph the worker to the Liturgical calendar in 1955 by Pope Pius XII.

However it is the association of May with Our Lady which is central to our Catholic devotion to the Mother of Almighty God. On the first Monday in May the congregation sang “This is the image of our Queen” at the May Devotions in St. Mary’s. As this beautiful hymn by Edward Caswall reminds us, we implore Mary on suppliant knee to remember us during this special month. In time-honoured tradition we turn to her in times of trouble and to intercede for us with her Son, Jesus. It was Fr. David Goddard of West Grinstead who reminded us that we find our consolation in Mary who is a source of strength and fortitude, when he spoke to our Society in November. It was Mary’s answer “yes” to the message from the angel, which allowed the Incarnation to take place and the Word to become Flesh.

Talk given to the IoW Catholic History Society by Peter Clarke. May 2006