Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why do Catholics make such a big deal out of Mary?

Recently 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. 

But 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.

Well 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?

Typically 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.

Anyway, 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.

The 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.

To 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 of Turin.

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 truth!

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 follows.


Beneath your compassion,

We take refuge, O Mother of God:

do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:

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 the cross. 

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 power. 

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.

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