The Hail Mary today
The more we use a prayer formula, the less we attend to the words used: what counts is the thought or intention or just the feeling that happens to go with the formula. However, from time to time it pays to reflect ("meditate" St Teresa would say) on the actual words being used. And the "Hail Mary" can serve as an example. One can try to reformulate the familiar words in terms that echo the way we speak today. Different people will search for different expressions. But here is one person's choice.
Hail, Mary The problem with the word "Hail" is that we rarely use it in today's colloquial speech; it also has an unfortunate auditory association with Heil, with its Germanic overtones. So what formula would we use today? My suggestions would be: "How lovely to speak to you, Mary!"
Full of grace For most of us the word "grace" is problematic, especially when joined to the word "full"; it conjures up something like "force" (the electric current in a wire). When we say that something is "full", that which fills it takes on a physical bulk of its own. Whereas basically what we want to say here is simply that Mary is "loved": she is the one beloved of God.
The Lord is with thee - though many today say "with you": this slight modernisation could be taken much further: so beloved of God is Mary that He asks her permission to dwell within her.
Blessed art thou [are you] among women That "blessed" sounds very churchy, and for most of us very ambiguous: perhaps "privileged" is clearer today. Mary has been privileged above all other women.
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Just as Mary is privileged, so also her son is the most "privileged" of all that exists. But "fruit of the womb" sounds better in Latin (beatus fructus ventris tui) than the literal English translation which is at best quaint, at worst foreign.
Holy Mary, Mother of God The logical link becomes clearer if a verb comes first, "We implore you…because you are who you are." Moreover, the notion of "holiness" can be initially confusing: most people are not sure what a "holy" person is, let alone what "holiness" can be. Probably best omitted. The great title, "Mother of God", has to be left in all its paradoxical mystery: "mother" we understand; "God" we can never understand.
Pray for us sinners The notion of sin has become much more problematic in recent centuries. With the contribution of depth psychology and the global tragedies of the 20th century behind us, we feel our inadequacy, our weakness, our selfishness - but words like "weaklings", "egoists", "wretches", say more to us than "sinners".
Now and at the hour of our death There may be a special reason for our wanting help at this moment, but probably we mean "always". Still, we do need special help when the time comes for us to die.
So a "today" version of the Hail Mary might be the following, though my hope is that readers who have reached this point will be able to find better alternatives.
How lovely to speak to you, Mary, you whom God loved so much He came to dwell within you. You are the most privileged of all women, just as your child, Jesus, is the most privileged of all that exists. We implore you, as mother of our God, to help us always, wretches that we are, and most especially when the time comes for us to die.
Joseph A. Munitiz SJ