The practice of a saying a "Hail Mary" is often referred to in colloquial speech, sometimes as a way to caricaturize Catholics. References to the practice instantly conjure up images of Catholicism, priests, and confessionals.

However, beyond these references with my Protestant background I don't actually know much about the practice. I don't even have the vocabulary to properly ask this question. What should a non-Catholic like myself understand about the practice? Where did it originate and what is the purpose? Do other traditions employ such a ritual? Is it fair to call them a ritual?

Edit: If it's simply a prayer, what is the purpose of repeating it more than once? At least the pop-culture references often involve saying "so-many" Hail Mary's in the sense of more being somehow better.

  • 3
    What a great example of a very spiritual thing being changed over time. Most individuals I would assume would automatically think of the football term 'Hail Mary' than the spiritual prayer. Commented Aug 31, 2011 at 16:06
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    The Orthodox tradition has a tradition of repeating the "Jesus Prayer" hundreds to thousands of times a days!
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 13:02

5 Answers 5


The Hail Mary is simply a prayer. It happens to be recited 53 times during the course of praying the rosary. It is said in place of the psalms for the illiterate. Since there are 150 or so psalms and traditionally the Rosary is split up into 15 decades to mediate on different events in the lives or Jesus and Mary, each decade consists of 10 Hail Mary prayers.

Because the purpose is contemplating the life of Jesus and the original purpose was about as far as illiterate medieval's could grasp. It was certainly a good prayer, shouldn't be construed with any biblical injunction on vain repetition - so long as there is no vanity involved.

Numbers of prayers are also often assigned by priests as penance during confession. As far as I know, this is a relatively modern practice (1900's and later). Easy (and private) penances might bring more people into confession while still conferring the same grace.

Personally, I pray the Rosary every day. Sometimes it's not done very well, most of the time it is done in a distracted way - but that's my problem, not a problem with the prayer.

Another thing I do is pray 3 Hail Mary's (This is also known as the "Little Office of Our Lady") before bed, asking for the grace of purity while remembering her as a model of purity.

As far as extra-biblical prayers are concerned, the Our Father is straight out the didache (teaching of the 12 apostles). So even though that's ancient and the Hail Mary is comparatively modern. Catholics continually pray new prayers and invoke the communion of Saints for intercession. We don't ask Mary to forgive our sins, but we do ask her for protection.

The Hail Mary is one in a collection of Marian Antiphons found in the liturgy of the Hours (Book of Christian Prayer).

It is also prayed as part of the Angelus (a prayer traditionally prayed at 6:00 AM, Noon, and 6:00 PM).

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    Small note on the word vanity; your use in context appears to be with the modern connotation of "conceited", which is a small part of the word's meaning. The word much more generally means "futile", which is the meaning in phrases like "vain repetition".
    – user32
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 19:03
  • That is correct
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 19:31
  • Aren't there 5 decades in the standard Rosary?
    – tomjedrz
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 15:17
  • @tom ....My Hail Mary, my Rosary of fifteen or of five decades, is the prayer and the infallible touchstone by which I can tell those who are led by the Spirit of God from those who are deceived by the devil. archive.org/stream/TheSecretOfTheRosarySelections/…
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 15:38
  • Our Father and first part of Hail Mary all biblical.
    – user13992
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 21:24

Actually, the Hail Mary comes from Luke 1:39-45 (NIV). This is when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth when both are pregnant. You will notice that half of the prayer comes from here (the first half). The second half adds on a supplication ("pray for us sinners") and is further development of the prayer as opposed to direct Biblical reference

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    Actually it starts in Luke 1:26 when the angel visits Mary, that's where the Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you" part is from, then the "blessed" part is from her later visit to Elizabeth.
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 1:59

Since demongolem, a_hardin, and Peter Turner did a good job explaining what a Hail Mary is, I won't try and answer that question. Instead, I can give you my understanding of the use of repetitive prayer. This answer is based on a blog post I found quite informative.

One reason for repetitive prayer is it is meditative. It can be used to clear the mind of worldly things and focus on the Divine. It is an aid towards arriving at a communion with God rather than just "talking at" Him.

A second reason for repetitive prayer is that it is all we can muster. In times of trial, a simple repetitive prayer is often the deepest cries of our heart. Take for instance when Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane. Three times he prayed the same thing.

Matthew 26:39-45 (Emphasis Added)
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.


The Hail Mary is simply a prayer.

The prayer as I learned it is:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen

It is common at our (Catholic) family gatherings for this to be said by everyone together as a part of the blessing over the meal.

  • Can you address the point in my edit?
    – Caleb
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 17:16
  • @Caleb I think Peter Turner's answer is better than anything I can make up about repetition. I'll have to defer to him.
    – a_hardin
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 17:40

What exactly is a “Hail Mary”?

The Hail Mary or Ave Maria in Latin is a traditional Catholic prayer asking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic version of the prayer closes with an appeal for her intercession.

In Catholic Church, the prayer forms the basis of the Rosary and the Angelus prayers.

Holy Biblical source

The prayer incorporates two greetings to Mary in Saint Luke's Gospel: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee." and "Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." In mid-13th-century Western Europe the prayer consisted only of these words with the single addition of the name "Mary" after the word "Hail", as is evident from the commentary of Saint Thomas Aquinas on the prayer.

The first of the two passages from Saint Luke's Gospel is the greeting of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, originally written in Koine Greek. The opening word of greeting, χαῖρε, chaíre, here translated "Hail", literally has the meaning "rejoice" or "be glad". This was the normal greeting in the language in which Saint Luke's Gospel is written and continues to be used in the same sense in Modern Greek. Accordingly, both "Hail" and "Rejoice" are valid English translations of the word ("Hail" reflecting the Latin translation, and "Rejoice" reflecting the original Greek).

The word κεχαριτωμένη, (kecharitōménē), here translated as "full of grace", admits of various translations. Grammatically, the word is the feminine perfect passive participle of the verb χαριτόω, charitóō, which means "to show, or bestow with, grace" and here, in the passive voice, "to have grace shown, or bestowed upon, one".

The text also appears in the account of the annunciation contained in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 9.

The second passage is taken from Elizabeth's greeting to Mary in Luke 1:42, "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." Taken together, these two passages are the two times Mary is greeted in Chapter 1 of Luke.

In fact the last part of the Hail Mary was added to the original Hail Mary during the Black Plague. Is it any wonder that as Catholics we should earnestly repeat this prayer to Our Lady for the most important moment of our lives: the hour of our death.

The “Hail Mary” prayer that Christians have been praying for centuries is composed of two main parts. The first part of the prayer is derived from the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel greeted Mary by saying, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28) The next part of the prayer is taken from the Visitation, when Elizabeth greeted Mary with the words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42)

At first the prayer was known as the “Salutation of the Blessed Virgin,” and only consisted of the two verses joined together. However, during the Black Plague (also known as the “Black Death”) the prayer was further developed and a second part was added to it.

This second part (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death”) is believed by many to have been added during the plague to ask for the Blessed Mother’s protection from the fatal disease.

Venerable Fulton J. Sheen explains this origin in his book The World’s First Love.

Since it seizes upon the two decisive moments of life: “now” and “at the hour of our death,” it suggests the spontaneous outcry of people in a great calamity. The Black Death, which ravaged all Europe and wiped out one-third of its population, prompted the faithful to cry out to the Mother of Our Lord to protect them at a time when the present moment and death were almost one. - How the Black Plague changed the “Hail Mary” prayer

Fun Note:

Seeing that the there is a direct link to the Hail Mary and the the faithful imploring the intercession of the Virgin Mary during the Black Plague it is not to hard to see the modern pop culture meaning of the Hail Mary when it comes to a last ditch effort to win a football game!

A Hail Mary pass, also known as a shot play, is a very long forward pass in American football, typically made in desperation, with only a small chance of success.

The expression goes back at least to the 1930s, when it was used publicly by two former members of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen, Elmer Layden and Jim Crowley. Originally meaning any sort of desperation play, a "Hail Mary" gradually came to denote a long, low-probability pass, typically of the "alley-oop" variety, attempted at the end of a half when a team is too far from the end zone to execute a more conventional play, implying that it would take divine intervention for the play to succeed. For more than 40 years, use of the term was largely confined to Notre Dame and other Catholic universities.

The term became widespread after a December 28, 1975, NFL playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings, when Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach said about his game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson, "I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary."

In other fields

The term "Hail Mary" is sometimes used to refer to any last-ditch effort with little chance of success.

In military uses, General Norman Schwarzkopf described his strategy during the Persian Gulf War to bypass the bulk of Iraqi forces in Kuwait by attacking in a wide left sweep through their rear as a "Hail Mary" plan.

There are similar usages in other fields, such as a "Hail Mary shot" in photography where the photographer holds the view finder of an SLR camera far from his eye (so unable to compose the picture), usually high above his head, and takes a shot. This is often used in crowded situations.

In computer security, a "Hail Mary attack" will throw every exploit it has against a system to see whether any of them work.

When the times are desperate, Mary sometimes comes through!

The following may be of some interest:

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