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Part 1: We Don't Worship Mary. So What Do We Do?
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (May 14, 2015)
The following is the first part of our Mary 101 series.
Why is the Blessed Virgin Mary so important to the Catholic Faith? Protestant Christians ask this question of Catholics all the time. But do we Catholics really know how to answer it?
Many Catholics are stumped when they hear Evangelical Protestants say things like this:
Catholics make Mary too important. You even worship Mary, which the First Commandment clearly forbids, for we must not worship anyone other than God. According to the Bible, salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone.
And so we begin this online course! Through it, I hope to help Catholics answer such objections and to more deeply appreciate the special role God gave to Mary in his plan to bring salvation to the whole world through Jesus Christ. Then, in a second online course, readers will find guidance to help them welcome Mary into their lives as the model of Christian discipleship and their true Spiritual Mother in heaven.
As for "worshipping" Mary, of course, most Catholics do no such thing. To "worship" someone or something implies that one recognizes in the object of worship the source of all worth and goodness. But the Catholic Church teaches that Mary is certainly not the source of all worth and goodness in the universe; she is just a creature, a channel and vessel of God's grace. We call her "Holy Mary" in much the same way that all Christians speak of the "Holy Bible," because the Bible, too, is a vessel, a channel of God's grace to us. As St. Ambrose (340-397) once wrote: "Mary is the Temple of God, not the God of the Temple."
In technical, theological language, we say that we offer "worship" (in Latin, latria) to God alone, but what we offer to any created excellence fashioned by God is merely proper "veneration" or "honor" (in Latin, dulia). This is especially true of the greatest masterpieces of God's grace: his saints. Honoring the saints no more distracts us from the true worship of God than delighting in and praising an artist's best work distracts us from proper appreciation of the artist himself. Clearly, the honor given to the excellence of the artwork passes on and glorifies the artist and gives us all the more reason to appreciate and praise him. In a similar way, God is the artist of souls. As we shall see in this series, God has fashioned no greater masterpiece in all of creation than the mother of the Son of God, Mary of Nazareth.
This means that when Catholics gaze on Mary, we always see shining in her the light of her Son, the pure reflection of his merciful and compassionate Heart. Here, then, is the first reason why the Blessed Virgin Mary is so important to Catholics: because she is like a window into heaven, a true icon for us of the God who created and sanctified her. Archbishop Fulton Sheen summed it up best in his book The World's First Love:
God, who made the sun, also made the moon. The moon does not take away from the brilliance of the sun. The moon would only be a burnt-out cinder floating in the immensity of space were it not for the sun. All its light is reflected from the sun. The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son: without Him she is nothing. With Him she is the Mother of Men. On dark nights we are grateful for the moon; when we see it shining, we know there must be a sun. So in this dark night of the world, when men turn their backs on Him Who is the Light of the World, we look to Mary to guide their feet while we await the sunrise.
Catholic Devotion to Mary and the Worship of Idols
Nevertheless, some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters will object:
But you Catholics do worship Mary and the saints: You make images and statues of them and bow down and pray to them, and you carry these images and statues in religious processions. All of this violates the Ten Commandments, which strictly forbid the people of God from making images of things in heaven and the worship of idols.
Theologian Dr. Mark Miravalle, in his book Introduction to Mary, explains that these actions by Catholics do not necessarily imply that we worship her or even that we worship the statues and images of her that we use in religious devotion:
A painting or a statue of the Mother of Jesus serves the same purpose as a family photo on an office desk, or a statue of a public hero or statesman erected in a town square. The image serves as a reminder of the person the image represents, and thereby possesses a symbolic or representational value... .
As a father gazes upon the photograph of his family on his desk at work and feels the warming of his heart at the thought of his wife and children, so too, an image of Jesus' Mother can evoke similar feelings of filial love and devotion to her. Yet, as is true of the family photo and the public memorial statue, the Marian statue or image possesses no intrinsic power nor personhood; it only conveys an image of a Spiritual Mother most deserving of frequent remembrance and love. (2006 edition, pp. 214-215)
Besides, it is clear from Scripture that not all making and devout use of religious images amounts to "the worship of idols." For example, in the Old Testament, the Lord God commanded the making of two cherubim of gold to be set over the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:18-20). When God gave to Kings David and Solomon the divine plan for the building of the Great Temple in Jerusalem, it was to be adorned with carved wooden cherubim (I Kgs 6: 23-26; I Chr 28: 18-19). The prophet Ezekiel also describes carved cherubim in the ideal Temple that he was shown in a vision (Ez 4:17-18). Moses was actually commanded to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole so that any Israelite who looked upon it might be healed (Num 21:8-9). This shows that religious images can be used not only for decoration, but even as aids to devotion and faith. Of course, when the Israelites began to worship the bronze serpent itself as a snake-god, King Hezekiah rightly had it destroyed (II Kgs 18:4). But it is clear from the Bible that not all religious use of images and statues amounts to idolatry.
Even "bowing down" to them or kneeling to pray before them is not necessarily an act of worship. Bowing and kneeling can mean different things in different cultures. For example, in Japan, people bow to each other simply to show mutual respect and honor. Kneeling can simply be an act of humility, love, and supplication, as we ask for the prayers of the particular angel or saint depicted in the image or statue. The intention is simply that the veneration or supplication that we offer passes on to the person that the image represents. Catholics certainly do not intend to ask the paint on a canvas or the plaster or wood in a statue to hear their prayers!
Speaking of the Ten Commandments, we might well ask: Did Jesus keep them? All Christians surely believe that Jesus was without sin, the spotless Lamb of God, so he must have kept all of God's commandments perfectly. But that means that he also kept the commandment to "honor your father and your mother" perfectly. As Christians, we are to be disciples of Jesus Christ and follow his perfect example of love for God and for one another. It follows that if Jesus honored his mother and father, that is, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, then, as his followers, we should honor them, too. As St. Maximilian Kolbe once said, "Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did."
Follow along in our Mary 101 series..
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.