It is a dogma of faith that Mary the mother of God-Made-Man was herself conceived and born immaculate – that is, untainted in soul by the stain of original sin that has marked the souls of all other human beings since Adam’s fall. Some devout Catholics of yore thought it appropriate to theorize that Mary herself was not conceived in the normal way, but by a virginal conception like that of Jesus. Catholic devotion to SS. Anne and Joachim overrules this mistaken piety. In honoring them as the true grandparents of Jesus, it implies that Mary was begotten in the manner that God established for the human race.
The gospels tell us nothing about Mary’s parents. Not even their names. Practically everything that tradition says about them comes from a second century “imitation” gospel called the “Proto-gospel of James.” In the early Church, there was some difficulty about sorting out true books of the New Testament from counterfeits written in scriptural style for one purpose or another. The most respectable of these “pseudo-scriptures” is the Proto-gospel of James. If it is not accepted as a bible book, it quite likely does record some actual traditions about Our Lady.
According to the Proto-gospel, Mary’s parents had the names we give them today – Anne and Joachim. They are said to have been rich and pious citizens of Nazareth. But they were also childless, in a civilization in which childlessness was considered a stigma. Grieving over their sterility, Joachim withdrew to the desert to pray. Anne (i.e. Hannah, which means “grace”) remained at home; but she also prayed for a child, promising to give over any offspring to God for His own service. To each of them an angel now appeared. Their plea has been granted, he said: when they reunited, Anne would conceive a girl. The prediction was fulfilled. The parents called her Mary (i.e. Miriam).
Popular Christian devotion to these parents of so great a daughter developed naturally. They must have been wonderful people to have been so favored. Through them, Jesus became a member of an extended family – a concept that society venerated. Finally, they were saints whom average couples could more easily appreciate than the virginal parents of Jesus Himself.
Devotion to St. Anne in the Mideast dates from at least the fourth century. Her feast was set at July 25. The Greeks also had a feast of SS. Joachim and Anne, observed on September 9. In the West, there was devotion to St. Anne as early as the eighth century, but she was honored by a feast day, July 26, only after the 13th century. The cult of St. Joachim developed more slowly, achieving recognition in the 15th century. He was assigned a feast day, September 16, only in 1913. After Vatican II, the Church appropriately gave the couple a joint feast on July 25, the former feast date of St. Anne alone.
At Auray in Brittany, France, there was a very popular shrine to St. Anne in the early middle ages. In the New World, the chief shrine to Mary’s mother is at Beaupre in the Province of Quebec, Canada. Here, on March 13, 1658, French immigrants laid the foundation of the first chapel in her honor. St. Anne de Beaupre became a popular spot for pilgrimage from that day on. By 1905 the annual number of pilgrims had reached 168,000.
Although St. Anne remains more popular than her saintly husband, Catholic devotion to the pair has been essentially a devotion to the human family. Having produced a daughter whom God called upon to give to the world its redeemer, they had become the supreme witnesses of the greatness of the family as a divine creation. In them, every other couple can find a reassurance that in marriage, by bearing and raising children for the greater honor and glory of God, they are privileged to be, if not God’s grandparents, at least co-creators with Him of the human race.
–Father Robert F. MacNamara