Saturday, February 28, 2009

“Why do you Catholics worship Mary?”

I have great sympathy for those who ask this question.

I realize that for many of our non-Catholic brethren, the public processions honoring Mary, the many Marian statues in our churches and homes, our ever present rosary beads, and the great reverence we Catholics give to her, can certainly give the appearance of worship or even idolatry.

A story is told about an elderly Italian woman who was praying in a dark church in front of her favorite Madonna. And as many elderly Italian women are wont to do she was praying rather audibly begging the Madonna for assistance on some family matter. The Lord, Himself, looked down on her and decided to grant her request. So He called to her from heaven, “Maria”, he said. Startled, the woman paused briefly, looked around and went back to her loud supplications to the Madonna. Again Jesus called to her: “Maria, Maria” The elderly lady again paused, looked about, sighed, and went back to imploring the Blessed Mother. Finally Jesus called out in a voice loud enough to shake the church, “Maria, it is I, Jesus. I will grant your request.” Maria, stops praying, looks up to heaven and says with a tone of exasperation, “Hush-a your mouth, I’m a talking to your mother.”

The story is funny because, like all funny stories, there is a streak of truth about it. To the outsider, the sight of someone kneeling before a statue and even talking to it could certainly appear to be idolatry or at least superstitious.

Let's use the story to answer 3 questions:
• Does kneeling denote worship?
• Is praying to the saints the same as worshiping them?
• Do we, Catholics, in fact worship Mary?

Kneeling or bowing does not always denote worship. Here on Guam it is common to bow down to an elder as a sign of respect. We are not worshiping our grandmother when we do so. A man may get down on his knees before a woman and propose marriage, but it is only a posture of supplication, not worship. So no, kneeling and bowing are not always peculiar to worship.

By way of comparison, a Catholic may see a non-Catholic brother or sister kneeling while reading the Bible, but we would not immediately assume that he or she is worshiping the book.

“Praying to”
Next, let us examine what it means to "pray". "Prayer" can certainly be equated with worship when the prayer is directed toward God. But "prayer" is one of those words that has several meanings depending on the context. You've heard the expression "he doesn't have a prayer". In this context, "prayer" means hope, and does not imply worship.

Essentially, "pray" means to ask or implore. In older forms of English conversation it was employed in such phrases as "Pray thee, come hither" (Please, come here). So to "pray" does not mean "to worship".

But even if the woman in our story is only imploring Mary and not worshiping her, why doesn't she just go straight to God? That's a topic called the Intercession of the Saints and we'll address that in another post.

Do Catholics Worship Mary?
For now let us answer the question we began with: Why do Catholics worship Mary? If you are going to be intellectually honest, the question one must first ask is "Does the Catholic Church teach the worship of Mary?"

Paragraph 971 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in part:

The Church rightly honors "the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. This very special devotion . . . differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit...

The Church here makes a distinction between adoration, which is due only to God, and veneration, or the act of showing honor. So, in short, the Church does not teach us to worship Mary. What it does teach us to do is venerate her in a most special way. And why is that?

Essentially, the special claim that Mary makes on our attention is rooted in the words of Luke, Chapter 1, verse 48:

“All generations will call me blessed”

This is not an ordinary claim to blessedness. My wife and I have 11 children. I am often told that I am blest. I thank them and agree. But what would you think of me if I said, "yes, and all generations will call me blessed"? You'd think I had a mental problem.

Yet there it is in scripture. Mary makes this claim for herself, and we, being a member of those generations to whom she refers, are obligated to address her as "blessed" lest we deny the authority of the Word of God and flaunt the clear directive.

Yes, you may say, I may have to refer to her as "blessed", but I don't have to show her special honor as you Catholics do.

Titles are not just adjectives. The title "Doctor" in front of someone's name is not just an honorific. A particular authority is implied. Thus we go to the doctor not because he is called doctor but because he is one. We respond to him (or her) differently than someone who is not a doctor.

Thus, inherent in the title "Blessed" is the instruction to in fact treat her as such. And so it is in obedience to Luke Chapter 1 verse 48 that the Catholic Church instructs the faithful to venerate Mary in both word and deed. And so we do.
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