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.

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    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. – James Mertz Aug 31 '11 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 Dec 10 '16 at 13:02

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 Aug 29 '11 at 19:03
  • That is correct – Peter Turner Aug 29 '11 at 19:31
  • Aren't there 5 decades in the standard Rosary? – tomjedrz Oct 4 '11 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 Oct 4 '11 at 15:38
  • Our Father and first part of Hail Mary all biblical. – user13992 Jan 12 '16 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 - SE stop being evil Dec 12 '19 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.

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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.

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  • Can you address the point in my edit? – Caleb Aug 29 '11 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 Aug 29 '11 at 17:40

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