The Hail Mary prayer is one of the most famous prayers in the Catholic Church.

But where did the prayer come from?

The Hail Mary Prayer

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

The first half quotes the bible. First it begins with the Angel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.Luke 1:26-28

The word “Hail” means “Rejoice” in the original Greek (χαῖρε, chaíre). When we pray the Hail Mary, we dare to join in the angel’s same reverent greeting to Mary. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, humans were the ones who showed reverence to angels. This time, the angels honored a human girl.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)
The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)

The Catechism sheds light on the rest of the verse:

Mary is full of grace because the Lord is with her. The grace with which she is filled is the presence of him who is the source of all grace. “Rejoice . . . O Daughter of Jerusalem . . . the Lord your God is in your midst.” Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling, is the daughter of Zion in person, the ark of the covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells. She is “the dwelling of God . . . with men.” Full of grace, Mary is wholly given over to him who has come to dwell in her and whom she is about to give to the world.

God, the source of all graces, fills Mary with grace. Once Christ dwells within her, Mary becomes the new “ark of the covenant.” In each Hail Mary, we remember how much God privileged her.

“Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

Next, Elizabeth provides the rest of the first half:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.Luke 1:41-42

We quote Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, joining in her praise of Mary. We, too, are filled with the Holy Spirit as we reverence Mary with her proper respect. No other man or woman is as blessed as her.

The central part of the Hail Mary prayer is, of course, Jesus Himself. Mary receives her graces and glory in relation to her Son. There is no greater fruit to bear than Jesus.

St. Thomas Aquinas goes deeper by comparing Mary’s fruit with Eve’s fruit. Eve sought the fruit in the garden for three reasons:

  • To be like God, knowing good from evil
  • For pleasure, because it is good to eat
  • Because the fruit was beautiful in appearance

Of course, Eve didn’t receive any of these. Mary’s fruit, however, does fulfill these desires:

We cannot find the fulfillment of our desires in sin. We can only find it in Mary’s fruit, Jesus.

Historical Development

We don’t know of any official devotions related to the Hail Mary “before about 1050“. The first forms had the angel Gabriel’s greeting alone, as seen in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the late 1100s and early 1200s we begin seeing bishops promoting this greeting, including Elizabeth’s message.

In the 1200s, we begin seeing the earliest “forms” of the rosary and the Angelus which both feature the Hail Mary. These helped the illiterate participate in prayer throughout the day, like the monks with the Liturgy of the Hours. Around this time, the name of “Jesus” was added to conclude the prayer.

The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1857-1859)
The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1857-1859)

For the next few centuries, different areas added private petitions to the end of the prayer. This responded to Protestant criticisms that the Hail Mary was more of a greeting than a prayer. These usually involved asking for Mary’s intercession, especially at the hour of death.

The earliest Hail Mary (except for the word “our”) is found in Girolamo Savonarola’s writings. Following the Council of Trent, the final Hail Mary prayer was put into the brievary in 1568 by Pope St. Pius V.

Why Pray the Hail Mary?

The Catechism writes:

Mary is the perfect Orans (pray-er), a figure of the Church. When we pray to her, we are adhering with her to the plan of the Father, who sends his Son to save all men. Like the beloved disciple we welcome Jesus’ mother into our homes, for she has become the mother of all the living. We can pray with and to her. The prayer of the Church is sustained by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope.

Image of Our Lady Of Guadalupe
Image of Our Lady Of Guadalupe

Mary played an important role in our salvation when she chose to bear Christ into the world. Today she continues that role as our Mother and Intercessor. The Hail Mary prayer combines our biblical accounts of Mary as well as the Church’s prayer for her help.