Not content with consecrating one day of the week to Our Lady, Catholics dedicate a whole month to her honour.'' The thirty-one days of May are looked upon popularly as one long Marian feast. In the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere May is a month especially fit to be set aside in Our Lady's praise. The flowers of Maytime are reminders of the spiritual beauty of the Mother of God.
The first to associate Mary and May appears to have been King Alphonsus X of Spain (+ 1284). In one of his poems he sings of May, the month of Mary, describing how the people gather round her altar to sing her glories and pray for protection from all harm. This would point to some public celebration of May as Mary's month.
In the fourteenth century, Blessed Henry Suso, O.P., of Germany adopted the practice of honouring Mary in a special way during springtime. He would gather flowers, weave them into a crown, and then place it on the statue at Our Lady's altar. On one occasion he was privileged to hear angel choirs joining him in singing Mary’s praises, and another time he heard them singing the Magnificat.
In 1549 Wolfgang Seidl, O.S.B., published at Munich a small book, “The Spiritual May”, in order to counteract the profanations so common in that month. St. Philip Neri (1595), sometimes credited with founding May devotions in Italy, used to urge the youth of Rome to pay special homage to Mary in this month. Another instance was the devotion of a monastery of Dominican novices at Fiesole. In 1676, under the guidance of Father Angelo Giunigi, they formed an association to honor Mary during May. In 1692 the German Capuchin Lawrence von Schnueffis published a book of Marian hymns that may owe their origin to May devotions.
The stage of "codification" was reached when the first handbooks were published. In 1725, A. Dionisi, S.J., published at Verona a small book, The Month of Mary, or the Month of May. It was an immediate success, reaching eighteen editions in a hundred years. The tone of the book was moral; there were chapters on decorating Mary's altar or statue, the practice of the daily rosary or the singing of her litany, the suggestion of a special virtue to be practiced daily, and subjects of meditation on Our Blessed Mother for each day.
In 1758, F. Lalomia, S.J., published “The Month of Mary”, in which he narrated the life of Our Lady and explained her virtues and privileges. It was translated into French and German and quickly went through sixty printings, setting the standard for many other such manuals.
In the early eighteenth century the month of May began to pass from private celebrations in the family or religious houses to public churches. In 1739 it was celebrated in the parish church at Grezzana near Verona, in 1774 at St. Andrew's in Verona, and soon spread to almost every parish church in the area so that the Jansenists forced the bishop to interpose and put a stop to the movement. But it had caught on at nearby Ferrara and thence spread through all Italy. The great apostle of the period was Alphonsus Muzzarelli, S.J., a native of Ferrara, who published an extremely popular “The Month of May” in 1785. The 1787 reprinting was prefaced by an open letter to all the bishops of Italy, urging the adoption of May devotions. In the nineteenth century the book was reprinted over a hundred times in Italy, and there were editions in other languages as well. Muzzarelli was called to Rome by Pope Pius VI, and under Pius VII established the devotion at the Gesu and in many other Roman churches.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the month of May was celebrated all through Europe, the United States, and even the missions of China. Great leaders in the Church were strong advocates of it — Cardinal V. Deschamps, C.SS.R., of Belgium, Bishop Gasser of Austria, and Cardinal Reisach of Germany. St. Anthony Claret preached it in Spain and Cuba. The Irish-born American bishops, the brothers Kenrick, and many others spread it. Popes Pius VII and Pius IX indulgenced the May devotion. It spread through Ireland from Waterford where it was introduced about 1818. Father Aloysius Gentili, I.C., brought the custom to England about 1840. Cardinal Newman and G. M. Hopkins are among English Catholic literary figures who take up the May devotions in their writings.
Recent popes have favoured May devotions and spoken of this form of Marian piety with praise. During each year of World War II, 1939 through 1945, Pope Pius XII addressed a whole series of documents urging prayers for peace during Our Lady's month of May. Full of doctrinal content as well as of deep devotion to Mary, these appeals are directed particularly to children and Christian families. The encyclical, Auspicia quaedam, of May 1, 1948, urged consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And in one of the last Marian acts of his pontificate Pius XII instituted the new feast of the Queenship of Our Lady for May 31.
A discourse of Pope Pius XII to the international convention of rose growers delicately plays on the theme of dedicating the natural beauty of May to Mary's honour: "Gentlemen, We like to think that you find encouragement in your work from the mere thought that the month of roses is and will always be the month of Mary. Thus, while cultivating the flowers that are the adornment of the soil, so often unprofitable and difficult for men, you are naturally led to honour the Creator, to lift your hearts toward her who bears the beautiful title of Mystical Rose, the honour and the joy of the human family." The strongest of all papal references to the month of May is in Pius XII's encyclical on the Christian liturgy, Mediator Dei: "There are certain other pious practices which, though not belonging strictly to the liturgy, nevertheless enjoy a special importance and dignity, such that they are regarded as raised to liturgical rank, and have received repeated approval from this Apostolic See and the Episcopate. Among these are special devotions to the Virgin Mother of God during the month of May, and to the Sacred Heart of Jesus during the month of June. . . "
Fr. Francis Costa (Mariology, Volume III)