Updated: May 27
What does Ave Maria mean? Where did it come from? Why is it so popular? How did it come to be associated with Catholic weddings?
In this article...
What makes a Catholic wedding unique
Meaning of Ave Maria (the prayer), and the wedding connection
The Rosary, or Lazo
Ave Maria (the song) and different musical settings
When to include an Ave Maria at a wedding
Giving flowers to Mary
Practical pointers and ideas for weddings
Footnotes for the historically minded reader
Kate Walters Photography // Jenni and Chris's wedding featured piano and violin in a setting made popular by Andrea Bocelli // 10.2.21 at Saint Ambrose on the Hill, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA
1. So, you're planning a Catholic wedding. Congratulations!
Catholic ceremonies are brimming with beautiful, time-honored prayers, sacred traditions, and elegant music.
The list of expectations for a Catholic wedding ceremony may at times feel overwhelming or restrictive. If you feel this way, it is good to take a deep breath, step back for a moment, and remember that all the rules flow from a single principle. When getting married in a Catholic church, you are dedicating your marriage to God, and asking him to become a part of your married life.
Now, everything set apart for God takes on a sacred (that is, holy) character, and this gets translated into all the different facets of your wedding ceremony. It's the reason the words of your vows are given to you by the Church rather than writing your own, why only certain kinds of music may be played, and why you may not include your pet in the ceremony. The rules exist to preserve your ceremony as a sacred action. So, lean into it, and allow them to transform your wedding into a holy and other-worldly experience.
No other song is included in Catholic weddings as much as the Ave Maria. (I estimate 80-90 per cent of the weddings in my career have incorporated some form of the Ave Maria.) There are lots of reasons why a couple may request it to be sung:
You have a devotion to Our Lady.
It's a cultural or family tradition.
It was grandma's favorite song.
You would like to honor your own mothers.
You heard it at another wedding and liked it.
Mom requested it, and she's paying for the ceremony.
You really like the soloist's voice.
picture by North Arrow Creative // Marian devotion at Theresa and Dom's wedding //10.17.20 at Ss. Peter and Paul, Soulard, Missouri, USA
2. Ave Maria means "Hail Mary" in Latin.
Mary was an unassuming Jewish woman who lived in Judea during the Roman occupation, and was wife to Joseph the Carpenter. Christians believe that Mary was created by God to be the mother of Jesus Christ. The name "Jesus" means " the Lord saves." Because of her "yes" to God, Jesus took on human flesh and began his mission of salvation. Through Mary, in Jesus her Son, evil has been conquered forever. Sometimes images of Mary depict this belief by illustrating her foot as crushing the head of a serpent.
"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus..."
If you like to watch football, you’ve heard the term “Hail Mary” before. A Hail Mary pass is one that is thrown with a prayer, because the odds against completion are big. Well, the Hail Mary is a lot more than that. It is a very popular Catholic prayer - and quite an ancient one, in fact. The first half of the Hail Mary comes directly from the Bible, when an angel came to Mary to reveal that she would become the Mother of the Savior. “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” (Lk 1:28, 31)
" ...Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
The second half of the Hail Mary / Ave Maria, appeared much later (around 1,000 years later!). It reveals Mary’s role as intercessor on our behalf to God. We first observe her looking after the cares and concerns of humanity at the wedding at Cana. The Bible relates that at this wedding, the wine ran out prematurely. She, recognizing the issue before the guests became aware, went to her son and begged him to help. Jesus honored her request, and that day performed his first public miracle, turning water into wine. You can you see why a devotion to Mary is so popular among newly married couples, can't you?
3. Ave Maria and the Rosary
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
Michelle Ross Creative // rosary from Kara and Alex's wedding // 9.19.20 at the Old Cathedral, Saint Louis, Missouri USA
The whole Ave Maria / Hail Mary prayer is prominently featured in a Catholic devotion called the rosary. The rosary consists of 5 separate sets of 10 beads each, threaded onto a single loop of rope. Many centuries ago, the rosary would be prayed three times in a single day: one Our Father per bead, one for each of the 150 Psalms. The Hail Mary has since replaced the Our Father on these beads, although an Our Father is still prayed between each group of 10 Hail Mary's. (For a neat bit of history, see Footnote #1 at the bottom of this article.)
Mexican, Filipino, and Spanish weddings include a lovely tradition: the looping of a giant lazo (or rosary) around the couple, in a figure eight. The lazo symbolizes their unity in God. The figure eight is associated with new beginnings in the Bible. The figure eight is also the mathematical symbol for infinity, and represents the couple's everlasting commitment to each other and to their faith.
Carly Sullens Photography // Jessica and Danny's bilingual ceremony incorporated the Hispanic customs of Arraz, Bible, and Rosary // 10.12.19 at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Florissant, Missouri, USA
4. The time-honored song
"Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen."
When talking about an Ave Maria for a wedding, we're usually not referring just to the words of the prayer, but a song - or rather, one of many songs called settings. There is a Schubert setting, a Bach/Gounod setting, an Arcadelt setting, etc. You see, devotion to Mary, and the praying of the Ave Maria, is so integral to the Catholic life of faith, that just about every composer has composed their own melody to which they set the words of the prayer.
Usually, when someone refers to the Ave Maria, they are thinking of the setting composed by Franz Schubert. (This is the setting featured in the video towards the beginning of this blog post.) It has been said that if Schubert received just one penny every time his Ave Maria has been performed, he would have been a millionaire! There are actually lots of different Ave Maria settings which can be sung at a wedding, though. Here are just a few...
Camille Saint Saëns
Vladimir Vavilov (often attributed to Guilio Caccini)
Hail Mary: Gentle Woman by Carey Landry (in English)
Camille Saint Saëns
Handl-Gallus (often attributed to Tomas Luis de Victoria)
Sergei Rachmaninov (originally composed in Russian as Bogoroditse Devo)
Mode I chant
Gregory Norbet (in English and Latin)
"When we first heard her perform the Ave Maria, I would have sworn that it was pre-recorded due to how beautifully she sang it…she took a ton of stress off of our plates with how helpful she was during the process…She is so incredibly easy to work with and was very responsive to all of my communication." ~ A.J., groom
Read more reviews here.
5. How to include an Ave Maria at your wedding:
sung as a prelude before the ceremony begins
during the seating of the mothers
giving flowers to Mary (keep reading below...)
And a couple more ways, if your ceremony will include a full Mass (with communion):
at the offertory/preparation of the altar
as a meditation after communion
6. Ave Maria while giving flowers to Mary
There is a beautiful tradition of having an Ave Maria sung while a couple presents flowers to an image of Mary at their wedding. (See footnote #2.) This custom is especially popular among cultures and countries with a strong Catholic or Orthodox Christian influence, such as Mexico, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Poland, Greece, Russia, Ukraine, and Lebanon. The tradition is not officially a part of the Catholic wedding rite, so it's something you should discuss with your officiant if you wish to include it.
Mary is honored as the perfect woman, wife, and mother. While at the Mary altar, the couple spends a moment in prayer, emulating Mary and asking her to watch over them as they begin their new married life. (See footnote #3.)
Zoe Life Photography // Lauren and Mike presented flowers at the Mary altar during their wedding // 10.31.21 at Saint Peter Catholic Church in Saint Charles, Misssouri, USA
It's worth pointing out that certain Protestant denominations take issue with devotion to Mary. If you would like to offer flowers to Mary and will have practicing Protestants at your wedding, you might want to discuss the matter with your officiant. He may make a special announcement at the ceremony explaining the symbolism of what you are about to do, or suggest a description which you can print into your wedding programs.
“She was definitely one of the best vendors I worked with and made my planning process so easy. She’s organized, professional, and very knowledgeable. She went the extra mile to make sure my day was perfect. Not only is her voice impeccable, she also has connections with some of the best music professionals in the STL area…I’m not Catholic, so I didn’t even know where to start when planning the music for a Catholic ceremony. Angela made it so easy and worked with me the whole way.” ~ Mallory, bride
Visit Angela's website here.
7. Some practical pointers:
Your wedding day will fly by quickly. If you don't carve out moments for just the two of you, they simply won't happen. Spending a moment together in prayer at the Mary altar might be one of the most meaningful things you will do together on your wedding day.
Since musicians rarely attend a wedding rehearsal, ask them to tell you ahead of time the cues for which to listen when it is time to make your exit from the Mary altar. This will help keep you from feeling rushed or unsure of yourselves when the time comes. Some Ave Maria settings have an instrumental interlude between verses, or can be lengthened to include a second verse.
Make sure your photographer knows what to expect and at what parts of the ceremony, so they can optimally set up for the best shots.
The flower girl/s can be in charge of bringing Mary's flowers up the aisle in the processional. This works well in lieu of flower petals, which usually are not permitted to be strewn in the church.
Giving flowers to your mothers after presenting flowers to an image of Mary is a nice touch, and a great way to honor these important women in your lives.
A bouquet is excellent, but a single rose is also sufficient for giving flowers to Mary. If you would like to consider other flowers, you may check out the flower symbolism explained in this article.
Make sure your soloist is comfortable with the Ave Maria setting you have chosen, and has enough time to practice with your organist or pianist. Don't ever pressure a friend or family member to sing; ask how they would feel about it. There can be quite a bit of stress to get things exactly right at a wedding, with very little time to pull it all together. When in doubt, hire a professional.
You are not limited to the Ave Maria when choosing music for this part of the ceremony. Any sacred song which is dedicated to Mary can be planned (e.g. Immaculate Mary, Hail Holy Queen, and Salve Regina).
Footnote 1: A major victory is attributed to praying the rosary back in 1571. At the time, Turkish invaders were campaigning to take over the Venetian island of Cyprus. In response, the pope urged the faithful to pray the rosary day and night for the protection of the island and its people. On October 7, the Ottoman fleet was defeated at the Battle of Lepanto. The anniversary of this victory now holds a special place on the Church calendar as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. There are special promises surrounding the faithful praying of the rosary with its 50 Hail Mary’s.
Footnote 2: The relationship of flowers and weddings has roots reaching as far back as ancient Greece, when a couple would wear garlands of leaves and flowers at their wedding. The garlands symbolized new life, hope, and fertility, and were fashioned after the garlands Olympic athletes would wear. Included were certain herbs which were thought to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. The Romans adopted these customs, and eventually they spread through all of Europe. A related custom, giving flowers away as a sign of affection, can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and China.
Footnote 3: Today, we still find older churches with side altars dedicated to Mary and to Joseph, her spouse. The Mary altar is usually placed on the left side, as we are looking towards the front of the church. An Aleteia article explains that in reverse, from Jesus' perspective as he faces the people from the front of the church, this same position is the right side. The station of the Mary altar reflects the Jewish tradition of the queen mother who sits at the right hand of her son.
Was this article helpful? What other subjects regarding Catholic wedding music do you have questions about? Please let me know what you think in the comments!
Angela Marie Rocchio is a Saint Louis-based professional soprano, specializing in Catholic weddings and funerals. She is a Best of Weddings and Hall of Fame winner with The Knot. Her website is here. She is also a co-founder of the International Chant Academy, through which she teaches online courses for cantors and soloists who offer their talents within liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church.
Photos from AMR weddings, L to R: Emily Broadbent Photography 7.10.21 // Emily Broadbent Photography 10.22.22 //
Brittany Kastner Photography 10.16.21