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Part 1: We Don't Worship Mary. So What Do We Do?

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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.

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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

Jeffery S. - May 24, 2017

I say how about Praying to Jesus because we can pray to Him for anything on Gods Green Earth so, Pray to Jesus and ask for guidence in The false worship and He will tell You not to disrespect the Fruit of thy Womb. GOD Touched Mary And Made Her MOTHER OF GOD JESUS HER WOMB IS BLESSED AND DIVINE ON ITS OWN. VIRGIN MARY has been seen in Grotto's all over the world. THE True story of Anneliese Michel who was Killed by the Devil and Mary Went to Her.She had Stigmata Touched by God. SO MARY IS WITH GOD AND SHE IS TO BE Honored and Loved Her On Earth. Like I Said Pray to GOD And See If HE SAYS IT'S oK to Treat the Mother Of Jesus Christ Like some ordinary person.

Concerned - May 5, 2017

You may not realize that you are causing confusion here. The prayer to anyone other than God is leading others astray. Some people cannot grasp the treatment you describe toward saints and statues. They literally pray to the saint and the statue in the same way that idol worship was and still is carried out. Avoid it altogether and pray to God, to ensure you are not falling into actual idol worship, or leading others to feel that it is okay because they don't understand the difference you are trying to describe here. It's a little absurd to try and justify this practice.

Aberry - Mar 4, 2017

God is a Spirit. We worship Him in spirit and in truth.
Faith is the substance of things not seen. We don't need to see Him nor a picture, a statue or anything else to worship God in truth.

Flora - Apr 10, 2016

You said "Mary is the Temple of God, not the God
of the Temple." will you be patient enough to meditate on the verse 1 Corinthians 6:19 where it clearly says that OUR BODY( I.e. believer's body) IS THE TEMPLE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. the sentence "Mary is the Temple of God, not the God of the Temple." is a complete lie.

Robert Stackpole - Sep 1, 2015

Dear Alex,

I admire your conviction--but ask for your patience. I invite you to read all 22 installments of this series as they appear(11 hve appeared onlinme to date), in the course of which I believe every point you made in your comment (above) will be addressed.

Alex - Aug 29, 2015

You can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig. Mary was not sinless or she wouldn't have known she needed God as a Savior. She was not sinless or in Revelations she would have been able to open the Scrolls. She was the mother of Jesus NOT God. Praying and kissing statues of Jesus, Mary or the saints is idol worship. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath.... Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them”. THAT breaks the Second Commandment. Revelation 19:10: “And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God.” The Angel tells John that falling to his feet is an act of WORSHIP! Most denominational churches including the Catholic church are following the traditions and doctrines of men and not the Lord.

D.Mak - Aug 18, 2015

I want to thank you for this lesson. I have tried to explain to non-Catholics the meaning of the Rosary and the importance of Mary...NOT that we prat to her like a goddess, but in intercessor of our prayers.

Florence chs - Aug 1, 2015

Wonderfully written. Great incite into defending the faith. Can't wait to read more!

advocate for prayer settings - May 21, 2015

Other landmarks in our country have statues which are viewed in memory of people, and a statue of Jesus, Mary, and the saints also serves the same purpose. It just so happens that what we do with the memory of the communion of saints is different: we take the time to pray, while we're remembering them, and our love of God is stirred. But we're not praying TO the statue or image. We don't say in our heads or out loud, "dear statue, please hear me." No, we pray to God, or we ask the intercession of Mary or the saints. We never pray TO it as an idol, how other religions might (but i'm not quite sure how that works cuz I'm not trying to practice idolatry). I just know that we as Catholics do not do idolatry, if someone is, they're confused, but they can straighten that out with learning proper prayer methods, I'm sure. Although it's possible to pray anywhere anytime when we need/want to, if we're going to truly set aside time specifically for praying on purpose, it helps to have a prayer setting. This is the purpose of having churches -- houses of God, of prayer (and sacraments, for us). For example, a setting with an image of the Merciful Jesus and Sr. Faustina (or statues) would be more conducive to praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy because they put us in the mood to pray-- than let's say -- at Disneyland amongst the Disney characters (who aren't exactly examples of saints pointing us directly to Jesus). So we go to prayerful surroundings to partake of the fountain of mercy for all our prayer needs... and then we go out like missionaries to the less prayerful places, to assist in making His Merciful Love known. Our world is visual...books are illustrated often especially childrens books including childrens bibles... visual learning is very helpful... so the crucifix in church reminds us that Jesus is our Savior! It reminds us to feel sorry for our sins, when we're not always looking into the Bible to remind ourselves that He died for us. We remember in the breaking of the bread, and in the images of faith.

"Places favorable for prayer

CCC 2691 The church, the house of God, is the proper place for the liturgical prayer of the parish community. It is also the privileged place for adoration of the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The choice of a favorable place is not a matter of indifference for true prayer.

- For personal prayer, this can be a "prayer corner" with the Sacred Scriptures and icons, in order to be there, in secret, before our Father.48 In a Christian family, this kind of little oratory fosters prayer in common.

- In regions where monasteries exist, the vocation of these communities is to further the participation of the faithful in the Liturgy of the Hours and to provide necessary solitude for more intense personal prayer.49

- Pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer. For pilgrims seeking living water, shrines are special places for living the forms of Christian prayer "in Church." "

“Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush is the greatness of this image, but in My grace.”

Patrick Mburia - May 21, 2015

That was great God bless u

Doug - May 20, 2015

Thanks for getting this series started: I look forward to reading more in the weeks to come, and learning more about the reasons for Catholic belief in the Marian doctrines, so I can better discuss and share them with friends