The Hail Mary Prayer
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
Where does this prayer come from? It is mostly from Scripture , Luke 1:28-42, and can be traced back as early as the 7th century.
And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured (full of grace), the Lord is with thee.
1:42 And she(Elizabeth) spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
By "Hailing Mary" the angel Gabriel greets Mary in a reverential way . "Hailing" is a King James way of saying: "I respectfully greet you." Perhaps this "hailing" is why post-reformation Christians began to believe that Catholics "worship" Mary. Prayers addressed to Mary do not imply any divinity on her part , but recognize her role as an intercessor for us. This role was first seen at the wedding at Cana when Mary was approached and she said "Do whatever He tells you." Martin Luther, Zwingli and Calvin felt devotion to Mary was important and not to be discarded with the rest of the Catholic practices they eschewed, and to this day Marian prayers can be found in Anglican and some Lutheran traditions.
So when Catholics pray the Hail Mary prayer they are praying Scripture and fufilling Mary's statement from the Magnificat that "all generations will call me blessed." The second part of the prayer where we ask the Mother of God to intercede for us was added in the late 16th century. Since Mary is part of the body of Christ and members of the body of Christ pray for eachother, we can ask her to pray for us. Physical death does not separate the Body of Christ and Christians have asked for the intercession of those who have gone before them since the first century.
The church was referring to Mary as the Mother of God as early as 230 AD and later confirmed this at the Council of Ephesus in the 5th Century. Marian devotion (not idolatry) was present in the early church and not a later "medieval invention." I hope this little ramble can explain why we Catholics pray the "Hail Mary" and do not believe that she is divine or worthy of worship, but certainly honor.
"Beginning with Mary's unique cooperation with the working of the Holy Spirit, the Churches developed their prayer to the holy Mother of God, centering it on the Person of Christ manifested in His mysteries. In countless hymns and antiphons expressing this prayer, two movements usually alternate with one another: the first "magnifies" the Lord for the "great things" He did for His lowly servant and through her for all human beings. The second entrusts the supplications and praises of the children of God to the Mother of Jesus, because she now knows the humanity which, in her, the Son of God espoused." Catechism of the Catholic Church.
A much more eloquent discussion of this prayer in depth can be found at the Coming Home Network website in an article by Lynn Nordhagen, a former evangelical.