Mosaic, c1900 of the Virgin in the Rosary Basilica, Lourdes, France. PHOTO: Fr Lawrence Lew OP
Dear father, I am a recent convert and a friend taught me to say the Memorare, which I find very beautiful. Can you tell me anything about the background of this prayer?
For those unfamiliar with the Memorare, these are the words: “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.”
As you say, it is a very beautiful prayer, a prayer of complete trust in Our Lady’s powerful intercession. The name Memorare, by the way, is the Latin rendering of the prayer’s first word, ‘Remember.’
The origin of the prayer is uncertain. It has often been attributed to St Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th Century Cistercian monk who had great devotion to Our Lady, but this is now regarded as unlikely.
The prayer first appeared as part of a longer 15th Century prayer, “Ad sanctitatis tuae pedes, dulcissima Virgo Maria”, or “At the feet of your sanctity, O most sweet Virgin Mary.”
There is a touching story of the power of the Memorare in the life of St Francis de Sales, the 17th Century bishop of Geneva and author of the popular Introduction to the Devout Life.
At the age of 18, while a student at the University of Paris, he was influenced by the Calvinist teaching on predestination to a point where he believed he was destined to be damned.
He was so convinced of his damnation that he lost his appetite, was unable to sleep and began to waste away. His tutor and director asked him why he was so dejected, but he was unable to answer. He was in that state for a month and lost all the divine love he had enjoyed before.
He then entered the church of Saint Etienne des Grès and knelt before a statue of Our Lady and said the Memorare, entrusting himself to Our Lady. As he later wrote in a letter, “the torment of despair came to a sudden end”. He credited Our Lady with saving him “from falling into despair or heresy.” After that, he recited the Memorare every day.
The Virgin Appears to Saint Bernard by CORREA DE VIVAR, JUAN. Image: Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado
A great figure in promoting the Memorare was the 17th Century French priest Fr Claude Bernard, who learned the prayer from his father.
Known as the “Poor Priest”, he had great devotion to Our Lady under the title Comforter of the Afflicted, and promoted recourse to her intercession among the poor and prisoners condemned to death.
He used the Memorare extensively in this work and many prisoners were reconciled to God through his efforts. He once had more than 200,000 leaflets with the Memorare printed in various languages.
Part of the reason he had such high regard for the Memorare was that he felt he had been miraculously cured through saying it. In a letter to Queen Anne of Austria, wife of King Louis XIII, he wrote that he had once been seriously ill and, fearing for his life, had prayed the Memorare and immediately began to recover.
Feeling himself unworthy of such a miracle he attributed the cure to some unknown natural cause.
Sometime later, a discalced Augustinian Brother visited Fr Bernard and told him that Our Lady had appeared to him in a vision and told him she had cured Fr Bernard of his illness and that he was to assure him of that fact. Fr Bernard went on to say in the letter that he was ashamed of his lack of gratitude and asked God to forgive him.
The Memorare played a part in the conversion of the French Jew Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne. Born in 1814, the eleventh of 13 children of a family of Jewish bankers, Alphonse had an older brother Theodor, who had converted to the Catholic faith and went on to be ordained a priest.
Upon the dare of a Catholic friend, Alphonse agreed to wear the Miraculous Medal and to recite the Memorare each day for a month.
On a trip to Rome in 1842 he entered the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, had a vision of the Virgin Mary and was converted. He added the name Marie to his name when he was baptised and he later became a Jesuit priest.
As we can see, the Memorare is both a beautiful and a powerful prayer.