When asked by our protestant friends why Catholics worship Mary, we may quickly reply, "We don't worship her; we honor her." When asked why we pray to Mary, we might respond, "We don't pray to her; we ask her to pray for us."
Such "Apologetics 101" moves may express certain truths about Marian devotion and can be very helpful in initial conversations with our non-Catholic brethren. However, if we stop there, we may fail to communicate the full splendor of God's revelation about our Blessed Mother and the beautiful role she plays in our lives.
That was precisely my experience with the Hail Mary.
For many years, whenever I was asked about why Catholics pray the Hail Mary, I explained that it was a prayer in which we ask the mother of Jesus to pray for us. Since Mary is so close to her Son in heaven, she serves as an ideal intercessor whose prayers bring us closer to Jesus. And we seek Mary's intercession just like we ask each other here on earth for prayers, so it should be okay for a Christian to pray the Hail Mary, asking her to "pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."
While all this is true, it's not the approach pope John Paul II took when explaining the Hail Mary in his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (RVM). For John Paul II, the Hail Mary is not just an intercessory prayer that is permissible for Christians to recite; it's actually a Christ-centered prayer that gives Jesus great praise. If we truly love Jesus, we as Christians should want to pray this prayer!