Last week at my evangelical church's morning Sunday School, a man popped up with a comment about the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He said that confessing to priest was just wrong, and the priest forcing someone to babble a bunch of Hail Mary's was "evil." So I thought I'd do a little research into this prayer (and the sacrament) and see what's what.
The full text of the prayer is as follows:
Full of Grace
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners now
And at the hour of our death.
The first four lines of the prayer are from the twenty-eighth verse of the first chapter of St. Luke's gospel, and the next line is from the forty-second verse of the same chapter. So the first section is entirely of Scripture.
From what I read, the second stanza was added around 1560-1570, during the Counter-Reformation. This section entrusts Mary with the supplications and prayers of the children of God because she, too, was human and therefore understands the human condition. She cannot answer prayer; she can only pray FOR us, the same way we could ask a friend, a family member, or a pastor, to pray for us. But since she is Jesus' mom, she is a good person to ask to pray for us.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the "Hail Mary" prayer is "centered on the person of Christ manifested in his mysteries." So what are "mysteries" referring to? The BIG mystery is Christ coming down to earth in human form, fully God and fully human. So the Lord is magnified and praised for the "great things" He did for his lowly handmaiden, Mary, and through her for all human beings (2675). The Catechism also states, "we should piously and suppliantly have recourse to her that by her intercession she may reconcile God with us sinners." See, Mary can't answer prayers, but she prays for us, in such a way as to bring us closer ("reconcile" us) to God.
I also looked into the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church to see what it said about the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Section 1441 clearly states, "Only God forgives sin." See, the priest doesn't forgive sin -- only Jesus can do that!
The priest, as God's representative, hears a person's confession, and then assigns a penance, which "requires the sinner to endure all things willingly, be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction" (Section 1450). The priest needs to fulfill certain criteria before being able to hear confessions and assign penance -- they are to pray to God for help in guiding each individual, doing all this to help the penitent draw closer to God.
Section 1460 of the CCC states, "The penance the confessor [priest/bishop] imposes must take into account the penitent's personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifice, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must all bear." So penance is for the good of the sinner. Just as if our kid broke a neighbor's window, just apologizing isn't enough; he/she is required to pay back the cost of the broken window. Penance is the same idea -- "making things right" rather than just confessing is the best way to help the sinner NOT commit the same sin again.
Section 1465 further states, "When he celebrates the sacrament of penance, the priest is fulfilling the ministry of the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, of the Good Samaritan who binds up wounds, of the Father who awaits the prodigal son and welcomes him on his return, and of the just and impartial judge whose judgment is both just and merciful. The priest is the sign and the instrument of God's merciful love for the sinner." The priest is there to advise, encourage, and help the penitent return fully to God.
The Catechism continues, "The confessor is not the master of God's forgiveness, but its servant... and leads the penitent with patience toward healing and full maturity. The whole power of the sacrament of penance consists in restoring us to God's grace and joining us with him in intimate friendship" (Sections 1466, 1468).
That's clear enough -- the priest is but God's servant in restoring the penitent fully to God. God speaks through the priest to aid the sinner in loving and serving Jesus.
I now understand a little better why the Sacrament of Reconciliation/Penance is so important in liturgical churches. I'm not sure I'll ever pray the "Hail Mary," but I don't see anything wrong with doing so. Even Luther prayed this prayer; he was very into Mary and encouraged his Protestant flocks to not neglect to ask her to pray for them. In his sermon of March 11, 1523, he states, "Whoever possesses a good (firm) faith, says the Hail Mary without danger!"
So we can pray the "Hail Mary" if our hearts so desire. I'm not sure mine does, but it's an interesting issue to ponder and chew upon.