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Hail Mary, Full of Grace

Understanding What We Pray in the Hail Mary

By: Mitch Finley

Hail Mary, Full of Grace: Understanding What We Pray in the Hail Mary by Mitch Finley

The Hail Mary is recited more times in the Rosary than any other prayer, and it is the prayer that we most commonly associate with the Rosary. 

As we know it today, the Hail Mary consists of three sentences, two of which are scriptural greetings and the last of which is a petition. Like the Our Father, the familiar version of the Hail Mary uses the archaic words “thee,” “thy,” and “art thou” rather than the more contemporary if also more pedestrian terms “you,” “your,” and “are you.” The older version of the prayer may be more poetic and may suggest more of a sense of holiness and mystery, but you should feel free to use whichever version is more comfortable for you.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee (you) . . .” When we say the first part of the Hail Mary, we echo the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary in the Gospel of Luke’s infancy narrative. When the angel appeared to Mary, he said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. . . . [Y]ou have found favor with God” (1:28, 30). When we greet Mary in this way, we acknowledge the special grace that God bestowed upon her in asking her to be the mother of his Son.

Alert readers will notice what may seem like a contradiction between the wording of the Hail Mary and its source in Luke 1:28. The prayer begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” However, virtually all modern translations of Luke 1:28—including the official Catholic version, the New American Bible Revised Edition—translate the angel’s words without using the word “grace” at all. Thus, in the NABRE: “Hail, favored one!”

So what’s up here? After all, “full of grace” and “favored one” seem different theologically. Indeed, “full of grace” may strike the reader as attributing to Mary greater dignity than “favored one.” If Luke’s Gospel actually says “favored one,” what basis do we have for the Hail Mary to say “full of grace”?

Historically, the phrase “full of grace” originated with the late sixteenth- to mid-eighteenth-century Douay-Rheims Bible, an English version based on the Latin Vulgate Bible, which was translated from Hebrew and Greek manuscripts by St. Jerome (AD 342–420). The Douay-Rheims Bible, in other words, is an eighteenth-century English translation of a fifth-century Latin translation, not a translation from the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.

When St. Jerome translated the Greek text of Luke 1:28 into Latin, he rendered the word kecharitōmenē as gratia plena, “full of grace.” Then, thirteen centuries later, the Douay-Rheims translators merely followed suit and gave gratia plena the literal translation, “full of grace.” That’s where the Hail Mary in Latin gets gratia plena and in English gets “full of grace.”

Those who translated the Douay-Rheims Bible could have been more careful and paid closer attention to the Greek texts. Some think they were influenced more by their own Catholic theological preferences and piety than by meanings inherent in the Greek and Hebrew texts.

This is not the end of the discussion, however, for the Douay-Rheims translators’ preference for “full of grace” is not without support internal to the Greek text. As we have already seen, the Greek word in Luke 1:28 translated as either “full of grace” or “favored one” is kecharitōmenē. While scholarly consensus seems to be that Luke intends “favored one,” this is an instance where differences of opinion are important.

Notice that the word at the heart of kecharitōmenē is the Greek word for “grace,” namely, “charis,” meaning God’s self-gift to us. Also, the author of the commentary on the Gospel of Luke in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary—probably today’s most prestigious Catholic Bible commentary—translates kecharitōmenē as “Graced One.”

Note also how this Greek term is translated in the current edition of The Book of the Gospels—that is, the collection of Gospel readings proclaimed during the Mass’ Liturgy of the Word. The editors of The Book of the Gospels chose to render kecharitōmenē in, for example, the Gospel reading for the feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) as “full of grace.” The use in The Book of the Gospels of “full of grace” instead of “favored one” remains significant. Given the full meaning of kecharitōmenē, as well as the extensive history and tradition of translating this word as “full of grace,” we may certainly continue to pray, “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

“ . . . blessed art thou (are you) among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy (your) womb, Jesus.” Up until the name “Jesus,” these are the words that Mary’s relative Elizabeth speaks to her upon her arrival (see Luke 1:42). In using this greeting and adding Jesus’ name, we share Elizabeth’s excitement that God’s plan of salvation is unfolding through Mary, and we recognize—along with Elizabeth—that Mary is indeed the mother of our Lord.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” This last line is the actual prayer, or petition, of the Hail Mary, which didn’t officially become part of the prayer until sometime in the sixteenth century. Individuals occasionally added their own similar supplications, such as this one from the fourteenth century, which the Catholic Encyclopedia notes has been incorrectly attributed to Dante: “Oh Blessed Virgin, pray to God for us always, that he may pardon us and give us grace, so to live here below that he may reward us with paradise at our death.”

The form of the prayer that we use today was included in the Roman Breviary in 1568. The Catechism of the Council of Trent attributed the addition of that final line to the Church itself, writing,

Most rightly has the Holy Church of God added to this thanksgiving, petition also, and the invocation of the most holy Mother of God, thereby implying that we should piously and suppliantly have recourse to her in order that by her intercession she may reconcile God with us sinners and obtain for us the blessing we need both for this present life and for the life which has no end.
And that is what we do in this prayer, whatever the precise origins of the words themselves may be. Just as we instinctively turn to our earthly mothers for help when we make mistakes, we as sinners ask Mary, our heavenly mother, to intercede for us with God, our Father.

This is a selection from the Revised and Updated Edition of The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between by Mitch Finley (The Word Among Us Press, 2017). Available at wau.org/books

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