The Autumn Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The entire ecclesiastical year is adorned with the feasts of Our Lady, and the autumn season brings with it several of particular note, commemorating the Blessed Mother’s Nativity, her Holy Name, her Seven Sorrows, and her stupendous victories.
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Liturgical scholars place the origin of the liturgical feast of Our Lady’s nativity in the fifth century, and it appears to have originated in the East. While Eastern sources are rather scant, in the mid-sixth century, an elaborate hymn was composed by St. Romanos the Melodist as a paean to the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which survives as an eloquent tribute to the devotion.
The nucleus of the devotion was the house of Sts. Joachim and Anne, situated at the northwest corner of the temple precincts in Jerusalem. St. Joachim was a priest and had his residence nearby the place of his service. Devout faithful through the centuries have maintained the site as the house of Our Lady’s nativity and have kept the devotion to this privileged site alive. The church built atop the house was in the past called St. Mary’s, but at the time of the Crusades it was renamed St. Anne’s, in honor of Our Lady’s mother, the name it still bears today.
Archeological evidence reveals an oratory built on the site of the house in the late second century or early third century, based on the structural and stylistic components. In the fifth century the Empress Eudoxia built the Basilica of St. Mary on the site. Despite devastation by the invading Persians in AD 614, a religious community continued to inhabit the shrine. At the time of Charlemagne (742-814), a commission was sent to evaluate the conditions in the Holy Land, and it found a community of five clerics and 25 religious there. By the 12th century, the community there was Benedictine and gained greater prominence with royal support and with the entrance into the community of Baudouin II’s daughter Princess Yvette in AD 1104.
The Crusaders rebuilt the current church in the early Gothic style. After the Muslim occupation of the Holy Land, pilgrims still made their way with difficulty, but bravely, to the shrine to venerate the site of Our Lady’s birth. From 1550 onward, the Franciscans were able to celebrate the Mass with ever greater publicity and solemnity each year on September 8. After the Crimean War, the shrine was given to the French government, who carried out an extensive restoration until 1877 and entrusted it to the missionary congregation of the White Fathers.
The Date of the Feast
The date of Our Lady’s nativity, passed on by Tradition, is the eighth of September. In Angers, France, a mystical confirmation of the date took place in the early fifth century. The bishop St. Maurille (336-426) had a particular vision on that very night. He heard the choirs of angels in heaven singing with joy at the anniversary of the Blessed Virgin’s nativity, and it is related that the feast was instituted there very early as a result of St. Maurille’s vision.
It is also providential that the date of the nativity occurs in September, which was in earlier centuries considered to be the beginning of the liturgical year. An example of this is found in a very ornate liturgical manuscript from Constantinople called the Menologion of Basil II, an eleventh-century compilation of hagiography and liturgical propers, which began its cycle with September. It is fitting that the nativity of Our Lady is placed in that month, since her nativity already signals the historical beginning of the whole work of our redemption, accomplished by her Divine Son on the Cross, and in which she as Co-Redemptrix cooperated so fully.
Expansion into the West
The nativity of St. John the Baptist, precursor to Our Lord Jesus Christ, was already celebrated in the West in the seventh century, when the nativity of Our Lady was then adopted. This completed the triad of Nativities celebrated in the calendar of the Roman Rite, i.e., those of Our Lord, Our Lady, and St. John the Baptist. The calendars and lectionaries from the time of Charlemagne testify to the celebration of the feast, and it is found even earlier in several 7th century sources. It not only appears in the Missale Gothicum, a Gallican Rite exemplar from the early seventh century, but is given a special Preface therein. It is found as well in a celebrated seventh-century calendar from Riems, and in a contemporary Evangeliarium from Ancona in which the following Sunday is even designated as the “First Sunday after the Nativity of St. Mary.” At Rome, the feast was very well established by the end of the seventh century.
Our Lady’s nativity was one of the three feasts given a special procession by Pope Sergius I (AD 687-701), as described in the papal chronology called the Liber Pontificalis, “He ordered that on the days of the Annunciation of the Lord, on the Dormition, on the Nativity of the Holy and Ever-Virgin Mary Mother of God, and on St. Simeon, which the Greeks call Hypapante, the procession shall leave from St. Adrian’s and the people shall process to St. Mary Major.” The feast was upgraded to a Holy Day of Obligation in some places, which lasted up until the time of St. Pius X.
The 1241 Conclave
The Feast was given an octave (now long suppressed) as a result of the Conclave of 1241, which began in September of that year. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II held the conclave hostage in a way, in that he surrounded the city of Rome, preventing certain cardinals contrary to his interests from taking part in the papal election, and causing the remaining cardinals to be long delayed in being able to go forth with the election. The cardinals made a vow that, if delivered from this oppressive siege, the new pope elected to replace the late Gregory IX would enrich Our Lady’s Nativity with an octave. The pontiff elected at the conclave was Celestine IV, but due to the poor lodging conditions of the prolonged conclave, he died only eighteen days after his election. The vow was thus fulfilled by the next pope elected, who was Innocent IV. Thus the devotion to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary which originated at the humble house of Sts. Joachim and Anne in Jerusalem reached its apogee of festal solemnity throughout the world.
The Feast of the Holy Rosary
The seventh of October is the Feast of the Holy Rosary, and in consequence the first Sunday of October is known as Rosary Sunday. The external solemnity of the feast belongs ipso iure to that Sunday each year (Rubricae generales, 358b) as established by Pope Gregory XIII (†1585). The origins of the October feast are well known and trace their origins to the victory of Christendom over the Turks at Lepanto on October 7, 1571, but the feast also has connections with other victories over the Islamic horde and with the feast of the Holy Name of Mary celebrated in September.
In the second half of the 15th century, confraternities of the Holy Rosary began to be established in many places. The oldest of these was founded by the illustrious Dominican Father Alain de la Roche in Douai in 1470. The saintly Pope Pius V turned to these confraternities, and to all Christendom, urging recourse to the holy rosary in order for the Turkish fleet to be defeated and Europe to be saved from Islamic invasion. The victory was a splendid one, marked in many ways by the intervention of Heaven. In gratitude for such a signal grace, St. Pius V instituted the feast as that of Our Lady of Victory (B. V. M. de Victoria), later to be rechristened as the Feast of the Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This feast gained even greater prominence with another stupendous victory over Islam during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. On August 5, 1716, the feast of Our Lady of the Snow (dedication of St. Mary Major in Rome), the Habsburg Prince Eugene of Savoy defeated the Ottomans at the town of Peterwardein, in present-day Serbia. Prince Eugene soon after obtained the Ottoman’s surrender at Belgrade. Pope Clement XI (†1721), seeing the assistance of the Blessed Virgin Mary in this victory once again, extended the Feast of the Holy Rosary to the universal Church. The present Office texts of the feast were promulgated by Pope Leo XIII in 1888.
The Magnificat antiphon for Vespers heralds Our Lady as gloriosa Regina mundi, the glorious Queen of the world: “O Blessed Mother and inviolate Virgin, glorious Queen of the world, may all who celebrate thy solemnity of the most holy rosary feel thy assistance” (Beata Mater et intacta Virgo, gloriosa Regina mundi, sentiant omnes tuum juvamen, quicumque celebrant tuam sacratissimi Rosarii solemnitatem). The collect of the feast has been committed to memory by young and old, as it is the prayer customarily recited at the conclusion of the recitation of the holy rosary.
The Holy Name of Mary
Although this feast celebrated on September 12 was instituted for the Diocese of Cuenca, Spain by Pope Julius II in 1513, it also was the occasion of a signal victory over Islam in later years. As the Turks had invaded all the way up to the gates of Vienna, at the heart of Europe, the hand of Our Lady once again turned them back. On the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary in 1683, the Polish King Jan III Sobieski routed the sacrilegious invaders with a much smaller force than theirs. As a consequence, Sobieski was greatly and fittingly honored for his valor, and the recognition to the Mother’s hand was prompt. Innocent XI in the same year extended the feast of the Holy Name of Mary to the universal Church, fixing it to the Sunday following the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Later on, Pope Pius XII fixed it to the date of the Battle of Vienna, September 12.
The Feast of the Seven Sorrows
The last of the September-October feasts we consider here is that of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The provincial synod of Cologne introduced the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows there in 1423 and assigned it to the Friday of the third week after Easter, the foundations of it having been well prepared by the ascetical literature of the preceding centuries. It was later transferred to the Friday after Passion Sunday by Pope Benedict XIII in 1721, who at the same time finalized its name as that of the Seven Sorrows. The feast remains in Passion Week, but a second one, the September feast of the Addolorata, was introduced by the Servites, or the Order of the Servants of Mary. They were founded in Florence in the mid-13th century by the group known as the Seven Holy Founders, a group of Florentine men led by St. Amadeus degli Amidei, who retired in prayer and solitude to a hermitage on Mount Senario; their feast is February 12.
The Servites cultivated a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows and did much to widely extend it. They obtained a Feast of the Seven Sorrows for September, which Innocent XI (†1689) fixed to the third Sunday of September. The feast was later extended to the entire Church by Pope Pius VII in the early nineteenth century, and then in the early twentieth century, Pope St. Pius X assigned the feast permanently to September 15, the day following the great feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
It could be said that all of these autumn feasts fall under the mantle of Our Lady of Victory. Her Nativity is a victory in the order of grace, a triumph over Satan who strove to keep mankind bound in the chains of sin and death. The Holy Name of Mary makes the demons tremble and wins many a victory for those who invoke her. Her Seven Sorrows are a mystical comingling in the chalice of the Passion of the Divine Messias (“Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink?”), which is in fact His definitive and absolute victory. Her holy rosary, furthermore, is the preeminent weapon of spiritual combat, ensuring victory over all enemies spiritual and temporal. As Sister Lucia of Fatima said, “The Most Holy Virgin in these last times in which we live has given a new efficacy to the recitation of the rosary to such an extent that there is no problem, no matter how difficult it is, whether temporal or above all spiritual, in the personal life of each one of us, of our families…that cannot be solved by the rosary. There is no problem, I tell you, no matter how difficult it is, that we cannot resolve by the prayer of the holy rosary.”