Do people who are not Catholic have the wrong impression about Catholics and their devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus? Or, are we, as Catholics, in denial about being overzealous regarding Mary?
Let’s be honest. Catholics get a lot of criticism for the honor bestowed on Mary, Jesus’ mother. We’ve all heard the same denigration for years. You know the one: “Those Catholics treat the (Blessed) Mother of Jesus as if she were as divine as her son, Jesus.” I would like to set the record straight on this topic and shed some light as to why she’s honored by Catholics. Let’s examine the facts about who Mary is and see if we can’t attempt to come to some understanding about the Catholic belief regarding Mary.
What do we know about Mary, the Mother of Jesus?
Here is some of what we know. She was approached by the Angel Gabriel asking her to carry the baby Jesus in her womb; remember, we’re talking about the Holy Redeemer of the world, Jesus; and we know she responded with a resounding yes. “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” (Luke 1: 26-28) Ok, let’s stop here. “The Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women.” Just to be clear, Catholics didn’t write this; Luke did.
Let’s get back to Luke. “And the angel said unto her, ‘Fear not Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then Mary said unto the angel, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?’ “And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God…” For with God nothing shall be impossible. And Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. (Luke 1: 30-38)
To better translate, Mary’s response was “Yes! I’ve got this.”
Ok, so let’s continue to examine what we know. We know that Mary was betrothed and later married to Joseph. We know that she visited her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth was overwhelmed at the sight of Mary saying to her, “Mary, full of grace. Blessed are you among women.” (It wasn’t written by Catholics – it was written in the Bible describing Elizabeth’s reaction to seeing Mary!) We know she accepted the role because it is recounted in the prayer or song known as the Magnificat. We know Mary traveled from Galilee to Bethlehem to give birth to her baby boy, and we know she named him Jesus. We know she and Joseph dedicated their son in the temple; we know they visited the temple when Jesus was twelve. She certainly recognized the holiness of her son because she asked Jesus to help with the wine while attending a wedding in Cana. We know she was at the crucifixion of Jesus. “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26-27)
So again, a reminder here; this wasn’t a comment invented by Catholics; this was John quoting Jesus. “The reality brought about by Jesus’ words, that is, Mary’s new motherhood in relation to the disciple, is a further sign of the great love that led Jesus to offer his life for all people. On Calvary this love is shown in the gift of a mother, his mother, who thus becomes our mother too.” (St. Pope John Paul II)
So, I want to clarify here that Catholics adore and worship God the Father, His Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit, period. As for Mary, “Mary’s chief glory is in her nothingness, in the fact of being the ‘Handmaid of the Lord,’ as one who in becoming the Mother of God acted simply in loving submission to His command, in the pure obedience of faith…. It is the faith and fidelity of this humble handmaid, ‘full of grace’ that enables her to be the perfect instrument of God, and nothing else but His instrument.” (Thomas Merton)
There are dozens of Old Testament expressions written in the Gospel meant to announce that God was bringing to Israel its Messiah. Mary’s mission was made clear and was foretold in the Old Testament and her acceptance of this glorious mission is what makes Catholics recognize she was truly worthy of recognition and honor.
Now back to the critics. “These folks (Catholics) are still more pagan than Christian. Only now, their favorite goddess is Mary, the mother of Jesus. They try to be politically correct and say things like, ‘We don’t pray to Mary, we just give her homage or ask her to run off and take our prayers to Jesus when He’s too busy to hear them.’ Well, what the heck’s the ding dang difference? Catholics are no better than pagans or Wiccans, praying to the stone statues and trees. Even if they aren’t in fact praying to Mary, which they are, Jesus is very clear in Luke 4:8 when he says “You shall do homage to the Lord your God; Him alone shall you adore.” (Pastor Deacon Fred)
To Pastor Deacon Fred I would like to point out a few things. The love and honor we show Jesus’ Mother is not an either/or situation. Also, if we love Jesus’ mother and ask her to take prayers to her son, Jesus, it doesn’t mean we don’t worship the Father and His son, Jesus any less. It also doesn’t mean we worship Mary instead of Jesus.
I have many close friends who are not Catholic and many of them have asked me to pray to Jesus on their behalf. I’m happy to do it. How is asking Mary or Saints in Heaven to pray for us with an intercessory prayer any different than asking a friend to pray to Jesus for you? “In the face of such charges Catholics reply, ‘How can you possibly make such a fundamental and basic mistake about what we believe? We don’t venerate Mary on her own, but because she has given us our Savior and because she constantly continues to lead us to him. If you took time to study our whole teaching and practice you will see how this is true.” (Dwight Longenecker)
Let’s talk about that Commandment Catholics are breaking: you know, the one about having no idols. I guess the best way for me to respond to this is with an analogy. When you visit Washington D.C. and you stop to look at the Lincoln Memorial, don’t you want to think about this man, Abraham Lincoln, and his contribution to our country? He fought an unpopular war to abolish slavery and almost divided the country to take this stand. To this day, he is our most-revered President. No one seems to mind that we like to have statues and buildings and streets named after him. We’re not worshiping him by doing this; we’re simply acknowledging him with the honor he deserves.
Mary is not just a “Catholic obsession.” She is universal because of her gift to mankind. She taught the role of motherhood by her example. She taught us how to say “Thy will be done.” or “I got this, Lord.” Mostly, she gave us her Son, Jesus and taught us about prayer to her Son, Jesus. She knew that being His mother was both humbling and an honor.
Finally, if it’s the prayer of the rosary which draws the criticism, to that I would have to say its purpose is to make an honest prayer request of Mary to intercede on behalf of anyone who has a need to present to God, the Father and her Son, Jesus. The words are directly from the Bible.
“Hail Mary, Full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are you among 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.”
In Mary’s words, “For the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name.” (Luke 1:49)
Copyright 2015 Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh.
Detail of Photo: “Pieta-073104-1-bw” by xandert (2004) via Morguefile.