“Why do you worship Mary?”
It’s a common enough question leveled at Catholics. And while it may be tempting within Catholic circles to roll our eyes and dismiss this question as betraying a fundamental ignorance of basic Catholic - indeed, Christian - theology, I’d like to explore this question a bit more… Not least because “basic Catholic theology” is meant to be engaged with and delved into, not used as a conversation-ender.
As a cradle Catholic, this whole “do we worship Mary” thing was never explained very well to me. I knew, of course, that we didn’t worship Mary. We ask her to pray for us. Case closed, right? Except that I am naturally prone to anxiety. If there is a possibility for doubt, I will find it. So for a while I wasn’t really sure what to think about Catholic devotion to Mary. It’s all well and good to ask her to pray for us, but what about the prayers that ask Mary to actually do things for us? What about when we call Mary:
Mother of Mercy,
Gate of Heaven,
Health of the Sick,
Help of the Afflicted,
Refuge of Sinners,
Cause of our Salvation,
Mediatrix of All Graces, and
Surely that’s going a bit too far, if not a downright blasphemy. And surely, some Protestants (and Catholics) will say, it’s unnecessary at the very least. We have everything we need in Jesus. Why “bother” with Mary?
We have everything we need in Jesus. Why “bother” with Mary?
At the same time, the beautiful Catholic interpretation of John 19:25-27 (“Behold your mother”) was too much ingrained in my heart to entirely reject Mary’s place in my devotional life. It was clear to me that Jesus wanted me to take His mother as my own… but why? And how? This post is an answer - or the start of an answer - to those questions. It is the fruit of a long while of wondering, thinking, and praying, and I hope it can be helpful to others (Catholic or non-Catholic) who aren’t quite sure of the place of Mary in our own lives.
To start, it may be helpful to employ a little reverse Christology. As Catholics we believe (and I think most, if not all, of our Protestant brethren would agree), that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly Man. Christ received his humanity from his mother, Mary. Mary is human. So right off the bat, we acknowledge and profess that Mary is not God. Since we ought to worship only God, no one should worship Mary… just to be clear.
However, it’s no secret that Catholics are, on the whole, very comfortable honoring Mary. Perhaps you’ve heard a Catholic theology teacher trot out the terms latria, hyperdulia, and dulia - dulia being the proper honor given to the saints, hyperdulia being the proper honor or veneration given to Mary, and latria being something entirely different: the adoration and worship which is due only to God. (If this is getting too technical for you, I apologize for the theology lesson, but I wanted to clarify some definitions from the start. That’s as technical as I’m going to get.)
One last point: prayer is not the same as worship. Prayer can be worship, especially when directed to God, but essentially prayer is simply asking something of someone else.
Prayer is not the same as worship. Prayer can be worship, especially when directed to God, but essentially prayer is simply asking something of someone else.
So we’ve laid some groundwork, but that’s all it is, really - groundwork. Even knowing all of this, I still wondered what/why/how exactly I should be praying to Mary.
Relationships can only happen between persons - not idols.
You can find a lot of books and writings of the saints that talk about Mary in profound and sincere ways. And these books are good, necessary, and serve a purpose… but sometimes that purpose is more of an academic or theological introduction than a personal introduction. It can easily seem as though Mary has been swallowed up in flowery language and theological symbolism. And it’s hard to have a devotion to an abstract principle.
But Mary is first and foremost a person. The greatest of the saints, sure. Queen of Heaven, sure. Immaculately conceived, yep. She is still a person. Scripture doesn’t tell us what Mary liked to do in her free time, whether she particularly liked to sing or tell stories. Whether she hated grapefruit (did they have grapefruit in 1st century Palestine?), or if she was a morning person. What were her pet peeves? What was her sense of humor like? Was she an introvert or an extrovert? (I think we tend to imagine her as an introvert, what with the whole “meek and mild” picture, but really who knows?) What inside jokes did she share with Joseph and Jesus? What was her opinion on pockets?
But Mary is first and foremost a person.
It’s probably best that we don’t know any of this - it would make it too easy for us to put her in a box. She would become “this” or “that” kind of woman. It’s freeing, in a way, especially since we as women are often told to look to the Virgin Mary as the model of holy Catholic womanhood. We know very little about her, and so she is accessible and relatable to everyone - but only insofar as we remember she is a person, not an idea - and certainly not an impersonal automaton who robotically does the will of God because that’s how she’s been programmed.
If I seem to be hammering in the truth of Mary’s personhood, it’s only because it’s been so crucial in my own life to realize that Mary is someone with whom I am meant to have a loving relationship - and relationships can only happen between persons.
Why do we need her to pray for us?
So, finally, we get to the question of praying to Mary. Why do we need her to pray for us? To start with, and to be very clear – God doesn’t need help from any of us. God is all-powerful. That being said, in his superabundant love and wisdom, God has chosen to give us freedom - and with freedom, power. God desires our help. He desires that we use our freedom to be channels of his mercy in our relationships with others. Sometimes we do this by physically helping people, but we also do this by praying for people. If this is a bit hard to swallow, consider - why do we pray for people at all? We don’t pray for people because we have the power to make a difference – we pray for people because we know God has the power to make a difference, and we trust that our relationship with God can be fruitful in other people’s lives.
Ours would be a pretty cold and lonely religion if God did not want us to love each other. But of course he does tell us to love one another. This love requires sacrifice, compassion, and charity. In other words, we are called to help one another. Part of how we help each other is through prayer. Mary and the saints still do this in heaven. In fact, they can pray more perfectly now that they are united with God in heaven.
I don’t know how prayer works… I can’t explain it, and I don’t understand the theological intricacies. But if we ask other people to pray for us (and trust that somehow, God allows us to share His mercy with others in this way), why wouldn’t we ask the greatest of the saints to do the same? In the second chapter of John’s Gospel, we learn that Jesus performed His first public miracle at the wedding at Cana because Mary asked Him to. She asked for a miracle on behalf of the unnamed hosts, and Jesus - even despite seeming misgivings - grants her request. I’m not arguing that Mary is wiser than God, or that Mary can “change” God’s mind. However, there is a longstanding tradition, as old as the Church, that this scene from the Gospel indicates the kind of role and relationship Mary has with a Christian and with God.
If we ask other people to pray for us... why wouldn’t we ask the greatest of the saints to do the same?
I trust my own mother to pray for me, to give me advice, to help me figure out tax forms, and so much more, because I know she wants me to grow into all that God has created me to be. Knowing that my Mother in heaven shares in God’s life and grace so intimately, it makes sense to ask her to help me too. Again, it’s not that these gifts and graces come from Mary (or anyone else but God). And yet, God has allowed all of us, and Mary in a special way, to share and participate in his love with others.
Drawing closer to her only leads us to Him
I had the privilege recently to hear Father Michael Gaitley (author of 33 Days to Morning Glory, among other books) give a talk about Mary. One thing he said in particular struck me: if Mary is the one person most closely united to her Son, drawing closer to her can only draw us closer to him. And of course, Mary, being so perfectly united to Jesus, will never lead us away from him. Why would she? Even more than she loves us, she loves Jesus and desires to accomplish his will, which is our salvation. Prayer intentions aside, why would Jesus not want us to know and learn to love his mother? She is, after all, our mother too - and her greatest wish for us is that we become saints.
I will be honest, I’m still learning to know Mary as my mother. I’m still learning to reach out to her, and to rely on her in my journey to Jesus. One thing I have been learning is that she is a mother who wants to comfort me. There are times when I feel too afraid to approach Jesus, so convicted of my own sinfulness and unworthiness that I find it hard to trust God’s loving goodness. And it’s at those times, when I reach out to Mary, that I am comforted. I know that she cares for me as only a mother can, and that she is devoted to helping me know the love of God.
Frankly, sometimes it’s easier for me to receive love from Mary than from God. But God knows that. God knows that sin has damaged our relationship, tragically damaged the way I relate to Him. He has given me His mother to teach me how to love and trust Him. I used to be afraid of relying too much on Mary, especially if it felt like I was neglecting my relationship with God in doing so. But in relying on her love, I am learning to follow her as she gently leads me to a greater love in Jesus.