THE MONTH of May summons many images. Mother’s Day. Cinco de Mayo. Graduation.
But anyone who grew up Catholic will tell you the real significance of the month is that May is the Virgin Mary’s month.
During May, Catholics gather – at church or at people’s homes – to recite the Rosary in honor of Mary. It is an especially big deal among Latinos, where Mary is revered almost as much as God himself.
When I was growing up in Crystal City, my sisters and I would go to church every weekday evening for the Rosary. It was supposed to be voluntary, and I guess it was, in the sense that paying taxes is a voluntary. If we didn’t go, we had to answer to the nuns and to our parents.
When she was alive, my grandmother Manuela insisted we attend the Rosary, but after she died, I don’t think my mother ever forced us to do so. We were all so in awe with the many mysterious rituals of the church that we would have gone without any pressure.
It was a beautiful ritual, involving many sounds, smells and sights. The burning candles and the fresh flowers provided the smells. The sounds came from the chant-like recitation of the prayers that make up the Rosary, and the hymns sung in-between each misterio, (a set of 10 Hail Marys)
Dios te salve María…, the priest would begin the first part of the Hail Mary. “Santa María, madre de Dios…,” we responded with the second part.
After 10 of those, we would do the Gloria al padre …, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. We’d then begin another set of 10 Hail Marys, except this time, people said the first part and the priest responded. The praying itself could get terribly monotonous, and much of the time most of us paid little attention to what we were mumbling. Often what emerged from our mouths was mere gibberish. This was particularly true at the end of the Hail Mary, when “now and at the hour (of our death),” which is translated into ahora y en la hora, often came out sounding like a never-ending rumble: oraienlaoraienlaoraienlaora.
Because the building was not air conditioned, its doors had to be left open and bats would often fly in. They fluttered back and forth from one end of the church to the other and we would watch them, much to the priest’s consternation, our head swaying in unison as we followed their path through the air.
As we recited our Hail Marys, we were supposed to keep track on the rosary beads we’d all received when we made our first communion, but I was never able to concentrate. No matter how hard I tried, I was always one or two off.
WHILE THE praying itself was monotonous, what came in between the misterios made everything worthwhile. That was when we kids marched up the aisle with a handful of flowers and deposited them at the foot of the statue of the Virgin Mary. As we did this, the congregation sang one of the various songs dedicated to Mary.
Ofreciéndole flores a la Virgen, we called it – offering flowers to the Virgin. Each of us was responsible for bringing flowers from home. We carried those precious flowers proudly as we walked toward the church and we beamed when the neighborhood ladies, sitting on their front porches, oohed and aahed over their beauty and marveled at are devotion to the Virgin.
At first we were allowed to carry those flowers to Mary. Later, however, some do-gooder nun got the bright idea of pooling all the flowers into a big pile from which we were each handed handfuls as we began our procession of the aisle.
The scheme was intended to ensure that all children, even those whose mothers didn’t have gardeners, would have flowers, but my sisters and I thought it was grossly unfair that the beautiful roses my mother had carefully cut from her precious bushes ended up in some other kids’ hands while we had to settle for oleanders or other ordinary flowers.
IT WASN’T fair, of course, but by then we had learned never to question the actions of the nuns, or anybody in authority. And we had learned to accept that fairness and religion often don’t coexist.
Besides, in our hearts, we were certain that the Virgin Mary knew who brought those beautiful roses. That was what really mattered.
When it was all over, as we shuffled out the building, the choir would stay behind and sing one of two hymns, Adios Reyna del Cielo, or Adios o Virgen de Guadalupe, both hauntingly beautiful songs that to this day still bring tear to my eyes.
[This is an adaptation of a column I wrote for The Houston Post May 13, 1993]