May Madness: Popular Piety vs. Doctrinal Feasts

Yesterday, on the Trinity Sunday, I presided a Liturgy of the Eucharist in a parish where I had not been for a number of years.

Unusually, there was music at the liturgy – only 1 of the 4 normal Sunday liturgies regularly had music at that parish before the COVID lockdowns. But a cantor presented themself in the sacristy volunteering to sing at the liturgy. Naturally I agreed.  The cantor proceeded to tell me that they were doing this as yesterday was the last Sunday in Mary’s Month. The traditional 4 hymns selection were all Marian hymns.

The prayers of the Roman Missal were those of Trinity Sunday and I endeavored to preach on how the Holy Trinity, as revealed in the selection of readings in the Lectionary, can help us.  Yet I would guess that if people were asked what the main thrust of the celebration was as they were leaving the church, most of them would have agreed with the cantor and said that it was May and Mary’s Month.

The 2001 CDW’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy does mention the devotional aspect of May:

  1. In relation to the western custom of observing a “Marian month” during the month of May (or in November in some parts of the Southern hemisphere), it would seem opportune to take into account the demands of the Liturgy, the expectations of the faithful, their maturity in the faith, in an eventual study of the problems deriving from the “Marian months” in the overall pastoral activity of the local Church, as might happen, for example, with any suggestion of abolishing the Marian observances during the month of May.

In many cases, the solution for such problems would seem to lay in harmonizing the content of the “Marian months” with the concomitant season of the Liturgical Year. For example, since the month of May largely corresponds with the fifty days of Easter, the pious exercises practised at this time could emphasize Our Lady’s participation in the Paschal mystery (cf. John 19, 25-27), and the Pentecost event (cf, Acts 1, 14) with which the Church begins: Our Lady journeys with the Church having shared in the novum of the Resurrection, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The fifty days are also a time for the celebration of the sacraments of Christian initiation and of the mystagogy. The pious exercises connected with the month of May could easily highlight the earthly role played by the glorified Queen of Heaven, here and now, in the celebration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist.

From a theological and rubrical point of view, Trinity Sunday will trump Marian hymns in any competition.  But from a pastoral point of view how do we manage to help the assembly appreciate the importance of the official feast? If the assembly is benefiting spiritually from the liturgy ought we even to be worried about this?


  1. I’d be curious to hear if this is unique to Ireland. Maybe I’m just in my self-selected American liturgical bubble.

    For all the woes of the state of the American Church, in the past 2 dozen years that I’ve been the Director of Liturgy, at 2 different churches, I don’t think anyone has approached me and complained about no Marian music in May. They ask more about Easter lilies and double alleluias. I get asked about Ascension and Pentecost traditions. Why we have the Apostles’ Creed during the Easter Season, and why we need to switch back to the (longer) Nicene Creed during Ordinary Time. When does the Paschal Candle go back by the font. Etc.

    The one place with Marian piety runs up against the liturgical year, for the past 2 decades, is Our Lady of Guadalupe vis-à-vis the closest Sunday in Advent. Pastorally, it’s a nonstop challenge for me.

    But the month of May? Nada.

  2. I worked at a parish in a farming community where a large percentage of the assembly was Hispanic. They insisted that it was the custom to have OLofG front and center for most of Advent. Once I pointed out that the image of Mary is that of a pregnant young woman, it was suggested that we make OLofG the symbol of our Advent liturgies.
    It was a huge success with both the Hispanic and the Anglo communities. And for the first time we had a large number of non Hispanic
    people showing up on December 12th.
    For Eastertide this year I ended all the Eucharistic Liturgies with the Regina Coeli.
    It worked really well because we didn’t have a procession out. And you could have heard a pin drop while I was singing it.

  3. Oh yes, we ought to worry about this.

    For two reasons. First, devotion to Mary is wholesome within an understanding of her role in the overall economy of salvation. If the cycle of the liturgical year (“the whole Christ”) is not respected it introduces a distortion. Calibrating this right matters. If it’s too late for this generation, it’s not too late for the next.

    Second, this particular manifestation (all Marian hymns at Mass) turns the liturgy into a “theme Mass,” which should be avoided. If you want to honor Mary in May, why does it have to take the form of replacing all the hymns at Mass? If you’re going to have a month-long focus on Mary, why can’t it be expressed by saying the rosary after Mass or crowning an image of the Blessed Mother or some other pious practice? Mass is something definite, and it comes with its own agenda. The uninformed may think that we can treat Mass as a blank screen onto which we project our themes, but this doesn’t correspond to reality.

    If you are just visiting this parish, obviously there is not much you can do. But if you are going to be there on a regular basis, it seems to me that attention to the liturgical cycle, preaching on it and engaging the people in reflecting on it, would be a start.

    That said, I’m with Chuck in judging this not to be a problem in the American church in general; maybe it is more of an issue in Ireland. The parish I’ve been attending has put a statue of Mary in a prominent place during May (in front of a bank of vigil lights), but the great feasts of the liturgical cycle are not interrupted.

  4. If you’re going to have a month-long focus on Mary, why can’t it be expressed by saying the rosary after Mass or crowning an image of the Blessed Mother or some other pious practice?

    There are many parishes where, almost before the last notes of the recessional song have died away, the rosary group has started to recite their devotion aloud, almost as if what just happened was all very well but now here is the real thing. No concept of the Church’s liturgy as source and summit evident there.

    If we are going to encourage pious practices, they need to be well separated from the normal liturgical life of the community. If not, the same confusion will keep arising. What’s worth more? Your Mass or my rosary? Topping up the Mass with devotions is really not the way to go, and that applies equally to hymns which have nothing whatsoever to do with the liturgy being celebrated.

    1. Paul makes a good point here, and I did not mean to suggest a competitive scenario but rather a separate event “after Mass” not added onto Mass, much less concurrant with it. There is something wrong if a group can’t wait for Mass to end, in order to begin “their” devotion.

      This shows a need for adult formation!

  5. You add an extra layer to all of the potential wonkiness when you work in a parish dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker, whose feast day is May 1st.

  6. Some years ago, I attended a Sunday Mass which featured the following:
    *It was Pentecost Sunday
    *It was Mother’s Day
    *It was a Mass on “Scouting Sunday” for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts
    *It was immediately followed by a crowning of the May

    Ritual overload . . .

  7. “Cognitively incapable” sounds like a posh way of saying “too stupid”. Either way, it is not a way I would wish to describe “most lay people”, even if they were doing something I didn’t like.

    In any case, with churches shut, or open under the most draconian and off-putting conditions, devotions, even sentimental and comforting ones, are all some people have had.

    1. This is a bit tendentious, Alex. There were changes in this 300 year period such as addition of Last Gospel, elevation of the Chalice in the institution narrative, making the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar part of the Order of Mass, elimination of hundreds of sequences formerly in use in the Roman rite outside Italy, eliminating secular vernacular songs, and so forth.

      But more importantly, before the Tridentine missal there was no standard Roman missal binding everywhere except where a liturgy more than 200 years old was preserved, as there was after 1570. You can’t just look at the externals of a missal from Innocent III and from 1570 and ignore the larger context.

      Faggioli is correct: with 1570, the church entered into an era and mindset which differed in important ways from the confusing mess of the late Middle Ages. Now there was a printing press. Now you could have a standardized missal for most everywhere. Now you had the totally new creation of a centralized Sacred Congregation of Rites – a rupture if there ever was one. Now the standardized Roman rite was a sign of identity over against Protestants – obviously the liturgy could not have been that before 1517.

      The liturgical regime of Trent was more standardized, more centralized, more legalistic, more triumphalistic and anti-ecumenical than the regime it replaced. The 1570 missal is an emblem of all this.


    2. The same text takes on different theologies in different eras. Meanings change. After the Council of Trent, missal texts from the 15th (and 13th and 8th and 3rd, etc.) century now had as their basis a 16th century theology.


    3. To some extent. We’d have to look at 1962 and assess what cultural contexts significantly influence it. It’s not that different from 1570 in its theology, but the changes that are in it show that it is clearly a product of the years immediately before Vatican II when change when in the air and the liturgy was starting to be reformed. There are simplifications, and the Holy Week rites are all new.

  8. On Pentecost Sunday, the parish I used to attend replaced the singing of the Gloria with the singing of Immaculate Mary, during which the second grade May queen crowned the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While I am certain some in the congregation would highly regard Father’s devotion to the Blessed Mother, is this not a liturgical abuse? Would it not confuse the people? Would not a better option have been to conclude Mass with the Final Blessing, then have the crowning, while singing a Marian hymn? Would it not have been better not to have the May Crowning on a major Solemnity?

  9. I don’t think you’re is likely to succeed in promoting active participation by “the people” if they think that most of them are too stupid to distinguish between liturgy and devotion. All you will do is put their backs up.

    As to what happens in the coming months, let’s see. The current pontificate is clearly entering the twilight zone, and nobody quite knows what will happen next.

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