“You Catholics don’t worship God, you worship Mary.” “Why are there more pictures of Mary than there are of Jesus in that church?” “Must be cool being part of a religion with a goddess.”
It might surprise some, but these are all comments that I have heard first-hand. Why? Well, it can seem like whenever someone wants to attack Catholicism they attack the role of Mary. Even within Christianity Roman Catholicism often seems to have a different relationship with Mary than other branches. But all of the questions, snide remarks, and open warfare can generally be boiled down to one question: Do Catholics worship Mary?
This question has been in the forefront of my mind as I see the various Marian devotions present here in Guadalajara, Mexico, devotions that exist on a scale completely new to me. The celebrations for “La Natividad de Maria” were unlike anything I’d ever seen before and we get a day off from classes to take part in the annual pilgrimage to la Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Zapopan! It can truly be amazing to see the love for Mary that moves people to act for the Greater Glory of God, especially for those of us who come from flavors of Catholicism in which Mary is not as prominent. I have seen reconciliation between enemies and a renewed desire to welcome the outcast grow as the fruits of Marian celebrations here, which seems a strong sign that they are of the Good Spirit as “you will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:20). However, can you really blame the person who sees someone kneel for hours in front of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and then leaves with not even a glance towards the tabernacle for thinking that Mary is the core of their faith?
With all of this in mind, the short answer is no, Roman Catholics do not worship Mary. The Catechism teaches us that only God is to be adored and worshiped, but that doesn’t mean that Mary and the saints can’t be venerated (honored) because of their closeness to God (CC 971) . Even among the saints Mary holds a special place because she is the Mother of God, the woman who chose, by her own free will, to say the great yes that brought Jesus into our world. What other human has ever been as close to God as she?
There is also the fact that, as Jesus’s mother, Mary played a massive role in forming Him, teaching him what it meant to live a faith-filled life and to care for other people. She was with Him at both the beginning and end of His life and such closeness to Jesus is something that every Christian should strive for.
The fact that she played such an important, and unique, role in human salvation makes it only right that she receives more veneration than the saints. In addition to her physical motherhood of Jesus, when Jesus was dying on the Cross he handed her over to the care of the Apostle John. Within the patriarchal culture of their time a woman without a husband or son to care for her would be cast to the outskirts of society, so Jesus was caring for His mother as best he was able. By becoming the mother of John Mary became the mother of the Church and all her members. Throughout history this has been shown time and again by the ways in which Mary appears to us, her children, in different places and times, but always as a mother. Be it Nuestra Señora del Buen Suceso or Our Lady of Knock Mary appears in a relatable and loving manner, not as an unattainable and inhuman sky-goddess. One amazing revelation from living in Latin America was the realization that nearly every country in this region of the world has a devotion to Mary that is unique to their context, be it Nuestra Señora de Chiquinquirá in Colombia or Nuestra Señora de la Paz in El Salvador.
It is undeniable that many people feel a special affinity for Mary, in some cases finding it easier to talk to her than to God. This might be for any variety of reasons, but is not to be condemned. What is important to remember is that Mary is not being prayed to in the sense that the person praying expects her to change things through her own abilities. Instead, what we as Catholics believe is that Mary intercedes for us with her Son, Jesus.
As with many terms that Catholics often take for granted, it is worth defining what exactly “intercession” is. According to the dictionary it’s when one person or group goes before an authority to plead for another person or group. To use a contemporary example, think about the role that a lawyer for the defense plays in your crime drama of choice. Whether in Law & Order or NCIS they have the knowledge of the legal system necessary to present their client in the best light and make convincing arguments as to why that same client should be treated with mercy. Similarly, Our Lady takes our petitions before her Son and presents them in the best possible light while asking that we be treated with God’s mercy. We approach Our Lady because she is closer to God than we are and, as our Mother, is always willing to plead our case before God. This is not a sterile legal transaction, rather it is the loving care of a Mother for her children.
We do not approach Mary because God is distant, cold, or uncaring, oblivious to our problems. Rather, we approach Mary because part of her mission is to always lead us to God as our spiritual Mother. There is also the reality that we all live in a broken world, filled with human frailties. As a result of this some of us might feel more comfortable approaching a mother figure than a father figure. For many, Mary fills this role, carrying their prayers before God the Father while presenting the loving face of a Mother. Just look at the saints – from St. Ignatius of Loyola to Pope St. John Paul II many who experienced the loss of their earthly mother, especially early in life, turned with special devotion towards their heavenly Mother. Let their devotion guide us as we seek all the help we can get on this winding path of being a Christian!
Maria, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, ruega por nosotros!