This site is where I let my faith wrestle with reason. If you have a question to submit, do it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although I try to be faithful to the teachings of the Church, these answers are the opinion of a Catholic youth Coordinator, and should not be construed as the views of the Catholic Church.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Why do Catholics make such a big deal out of Mary?
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Phil Vischer podcast.Phil Vischer is one of the founders of Veggie
Tales and of the very enlightening “What’s in the Bible” series, which I
recommend to anyone who wants a better understanding of Scripture.The podcast's 3 regular hosts, Phil Vischer,
Skye Jethani and Christian Taylor, and all three are very knowledgeable,
thoughtful, and funny in how they communicate faith principles.And they are very respectful of
Catholics.I almost never hear anything
I disagree with on their podcast.
with the recent election of Pope Francis,they were discussing him and his election, and Christian raised the fact
that she was uncomfortable with the honour that Pope Francis immediately gave
to Mary, which she likened to worship.In the following podcast, Phil mentioned that he had gotten a lot of
feedback from Catholic listeners about the fact that we do not worship Mary,
but we do honour her, and Phil kind of said something to the effect that while
he does not agree with the Catholic theology, he now understands better where
we come from and he respects our viewpoint.
and good.But why do Catholics give Mary
so much honour?And let’s be frank-if kneeling before a statue of Mary, placing
flowers before it, lighting candles, and singing words like “our life, our
sweetness and our hope” is not worship, then what is?
us Catholics will try to respond in an apologetic way, and stick with arguments
based in scripture.I think that there
are plenty of good arguments found in scripture-Like the fact that the angel greets Mary
saying “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:28) effectively replacing her name with
the title “Full of grace”, a greeting which troubled her.Or that Mary herself predicted that “All
generations will call me blessed”. (Luke 1:48)Or that Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding at Cana at Mary’s
prompting. (John 2)That Jesus gives her
to us as our mother with his dying breaths. (John 19:27).Or that John seems to imply that Mary is thenew ark of the covenant (Revelation 11:19-12:6).(A fascinating study on this typology, idea
where something in the Old Testament is fulfilled in the new Testament, can be
found in many of the Church fathers, such as Ephrem, Athanasius, Cyril,
Ambrose, Hippolytus, etc- which show that while the original ark contained the
manna, commandments, and rod of Aaron, so Mary contained within herself Christ,
who fulfilled these three things as the true bread from heaven, fulfillment of
the law, and the High Priest.)Other types of Mary can be found in Old
Testament queens like Esther or Bathsheba (as Solomon’s queen Mother) when they
intercede with the king.
tons can be said about that, and has been all over the place, which is part of
the reason that I am not that interested in getting into it here, beyond making
references to the passages and arguments, which once directed anyone can now
follow up on.
thing, though, about Catholics is that we are not limited to just scripture
based arguments, and I think that even if you accept all the arguments above it
still does not lead fully to what Catholics actually think.To a Catholic, the idea that all doctrine is
based on scripture is not only foreign, but it does not make sense.This is because the Church existed, and
taught, for 400 years before the Canon of the Bible was finalized, and it was
in fact the Church which gave us the Bible, and not the other way around.We cannot have read the Bible and then drawn
our doctrines from it.But instead all
of our doctrines and the Bible itself were given to us at the same time, in
what has been called the deposit of the faith.
me, the authority of scripture is dependent on the authority of the Church who
gave it to us.So I always wonder how
old a tradition within the Church is.If
it goes back to the Fathers, to before the finalizing of the Canon, this
indicates to me that the doctrine was in the deposit of faith, and not some
medieval development.So can it be shown
that honour of Mary goes all the way to the Early Church?
I already demonstrated that
the ideas of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant does.In fact, if you read the quotes I referred
to, you will find lines like these;
St. Athanasius (c. 296-373)
“Be mindful of us, most holy
virgin, who after childbirth didst remain virgin; and grant to us for these
small words great gifts from the riches of they graces, O thou full of grace.
Accept them as though they were true and adequate praises in they honor; and if
there is in them any virtue and any praise, we offer them as a hymn from
ourselves and from all creatures to thee, full of grace, Lady, Queen, Mistress,
Mother of God, and Ark of sanctification” (Orat. In Deip. Annuntiat, nn. 13,
14. Int. Opp. S. Athanasii) (Blessed Virgin, p. 80).
“O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than
any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of
God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You
are greater than them all O (Ark
of the) Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold!” Homily of the Papyrus
Hesychius (lived c. 300)
“Behold a Virgin. Who is she?
The most noble of women, the elect from among virgins, the splendid ornament of
our nature, the glory of our mold, who freed Eve from her shame and Adam from
the curse, who cut off the bold insolence of the dragon, she whom the smoke of
concupiscence touched not, nor the worm of pleasure harmed” (Is.vii. 14).
(Hesychius, Orat. De Virginis laudib. Biblioth. PP. Græco-Lat. Tom. ii. p. 423)
(Blessed Virgin, p. 89).
I love reading the Church
fathers, because they were so poetic and unapologetic in their expression of
Marian devotion does go at
least as far back as the 2nd century, with Origen coining the term ‘theotokos’
(Mother of God) before he died in 254AD.
The oldest known
Marian Hymn, the Sub tuum praesidium, dates from about 270ad, and is as
Beneath your compassion,
We take refuge, O Mother of God:
do not despise our petitions in time
but rescue us from dangers,
only pure, only blessed one
I could go on in
like manner for a very long time, citing early references to Marian veneration,
but suffice it to say that Mary has been venerated by Christians since well
before the Canon was finalized, seemingly from the beginning, and is universally
venerated among the ancient Churches-Catholics, Orthodox, Coptic, etc.
That’s enough apologetics-meaning arguing for the legitimacy of the
practice. Here on in I am going to articulate the Church’s teachings without
bothering to defend them with scripture or history.The question still remains-why do it, and how is it not worship?
Catholics make a
distinction between the honour we give to Mary and the Saints, and that due
only to God.In Latin, the one for God
is ‘latria’ where the one for saints is ‘dulia’.For Mary it is ‘hyperdulia’.This distinction goes all the way back to the
second council of Nicea in 787.So the
quick answer, that Catholics do not worship Mary, is quite right, in that the
honour we give her is quite different from that which we give to God.You may find, however, the occasional older
document which refers to the worship of Mary.This has to do with the changing of the meaning of the word ‘worship’ in
English. It used to just mean “worth-ship”,
so giving one their due, but now it means that which is due only to God.(For this reason to this day Brit’s call
their judges ‘Your Worship’, where Americans call them ‘Your Honour’)
So if lighting candles, etc,
is not the worship due only to God, then what is?
Interestingly, every ancient
religion had the offering of sacrifices as their highest form of worship.Catholics do to, in that we offer the Mass,
which is the fulfillment in Christ of the Old Testament offerings.Catholics never offer the Mass to Mary.I can understand that to a protestant, where for
many their highest form of worship may be playing really moving music on the
guitar and singing, they would regard what we do to honour Mary as a form of
worship.You have to understand liturgy
(which also goes all the way back to the beginning) to understand worship from
a Catholic perspective.
So, why so much honour?The early Christians immediately honoured
their saints-if someone was martyred,
their blood was preserved, bones were gathered, altars were built over their
tombs.When St Paul dropped a hanky,
people kept it as a relic and brought it to the sick (Acts 19:11-12).How much more with Mary?
The idea with Mary is that she
was the first one to have gone through the sanctifying process which Jesus came
for.God’s plan for all of us is to
become saints- to be holy, purified, have our will in complete union to His.
Mary went through it first! In fact, she was saved before being conceived.So she is what we will all be when we are
completely purified. But she is not God,
she is one of us.One of us that has
been given the honour of being raised above the angels.Notice that all honor due to her is because of
what God has done in her-as is clear in
her own prayer, the Magnificat. (Luke 1:46-55).You cannot understand Mary except in relation to Jesus, and Mary always
points at Jesus. (Usually in art, she is even looking at Jesus.)By analogy, Mary is the moon, which is only
radiant because it reflects the light of the sun.
St Louis de Montfort explained
that just as God originally deemed to send grace into the world through Mary
the first time, so he continues to do so.So Mary has become for us the channel of grace, won for us by Christ on
This is confusing, because to
many it seems that we are making Mary a mediator between us and God.Indeed, she is even called the mediatrix. But
Jesus is the one mediator, in the sense that only He can restore our relationship
with God.Mary is a mediator in the same
sense that any other holy person could be.We can ask her to pray for us, and she can.And because of her special place, (the first
to be fully sanctified, the spouse of the Holy Spirit, the mother of Jesus, the
queen mother, the ark of the covenant, the new Eve… etc) her prayers have more
I think to many people it
feels like we should not have to ask Mary to pray for us, when we can pray
directly to God.Much like we should not
have the sacrament of confession, when we can ask God directly for his
forgiveness. We can go directly to God, and anyone who has ever listened
attentively to the prayers at a Catholic Mass would find that almost every word
is directed to God the Father. But God’s
salvation plan for some reason uses people other than himself.We are needed to evangelize and pray for
others. Priests to give the sacraments.God uses angels for his tasks, despite the fact that he is all
powerful.And so God has deemed to make
Mary a key piece in his plan for salvation, and she continues to hold that honored
role even now.
I have a suspicion, and that
is that the reason so many of us are uncomfortable with Marian devotion is
because we are imposing certain philosophical ideas on God and the way that he
works, rather than just watching to see what He is actually doing.I suspect that if we could drop some of our
own ideas, and just dive into the mystery of Christ and Mary’s role, we would
come away with the same enthusiasm and love for her that the Early Church and
all of the saints have had.Then, guided
by these more profound principles, we can return to scripture and discover a
richness there that we had never before seen.