Many of our Evangelical friends often ask, “Why do Catholics pray to Mary?” From their perspective, it looks as though Catholics are placing Mary on a par with God with all the statues, processions and devotions we have in her honor.
This perspective is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholics’ relationship with Mary. In fact, sometimes even Catholics themselves don’t fully understand Mary’s central role in the church and why she is so honored.
Why is Mary honored?
Simply put, Mary is the only creature to have ever lived with perfect obedience to God and His divine will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“By her complete adherence to the Father’s will, to His Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity” (CCC #967).
This is possible because, through the merits of Jesus Christ, Mary was the only person ever to be preserved from the stain of original sin. God, in choosing her to be His mother, bestowed the grace of her Immaculate Conception, or birth without original sin.
This dogma has been recognized since the early Church and is revealed in scripture. When the angel visits Mary to announce that she will bear Jesus, he addresses her as “full of grace…Blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28). Mary responds, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
The angel wouldn’t have called Mary “full of grace” if he hadn’t meant it. Since there’s no way someone full of grace could have sin, this is how we know Mary was born without sin.
Her special grace allows her to say yes to God’s will without question. From that moment, she forms a truly unique and inseparable bond with Christ as His mother.
Mary continues saying “Yes” to God’s will throughout her earthly life. She stands by the cross, perfectly trusting the divine plan, even as her only Son suffers and dies for our salvation. After His Resurrection and Ascension, tradition holds that she “aid[s] the beginnings of the Church by her prayers” (CCC #965).
Finally, at the end of her earthly life, Mary is taken up body and soul into heaven in the Assumption and “crowned Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son” (CCC #966). She is exalted in this way, again, for being the only creature to have served as a perfect instrument for God’s plan and for her unique, unbreakable bond with Christ.
By her perfect charity, or love of God above all things, Mary serves as a model for everyone. We aspire to her perfect relationship with Christ and are called to say “Yes” to His plan for us like she did, even if it doesn’t make sense at first.
Think about it—much must not have made sense for Mary. After all, an angel visited her saying she would conceive the Son of God while remaining a virgin—how would you react? Still, she put aside her own thoughts and ideas, surrendering instead to God’s will. If we can put that same trust in God and love Him above all things, then one day we too will live, body and soul, in heaven.
How is Mary Honored?
When it comes to honoring Mary, “honoring” is the key word. Too often, non-Catholics confuse honoring, or veneration, for worship or direct prayer. But Catholics do not worship Mary because she isn’t, and never can be, God.
There are three levels of respect given by Catholics: Latria, Dulia and Hyperdulia.
- Latria is adoration of the Holy Trinity. This is the highest form of reverence, reserved only for God, and He is the only one we worship.
- Dulia refers to simple veneration. For example, Catholics venerate saints because they are “more closely united to Christ” by their model life on earth (CCC #956). We do not pray or worship saints. We simply ask them to “put in a good word for us” to God.
- Think of Hyperdulia as an enhanced form of Dulia, or veneration. It’s reserved only for Mary because she shares a more perfect bond with Christ than even the saints, since they were still born with original sin. It doesn’t mean we worship Mary. We absolutely don’t and shouldn’t. We do, however, honor her above all other forms of creation.
The Catechism is very clear on this point:
“From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of ‘Mother of God,’ to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs…This very special devotion…differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration” (CCC #971).
Therefore, Catholics do not pray to Mary. They pray through her to reach Christ. In actuality, by honoring the Mother of God through various prayers, such as the Rosary, we are honoring Christ because He acts through her more perfectly than He acts through any other medium.
How do we benefit from honoring Mary?
Since Mary intercedes for us to her Son and He is our path to the Father, we want her on our side, praying for us.
Someone might ask “Why pray to Mary instead of Jesus?” First, to reiterate, we’re not praying to Mary but through her. Second, we ask our family and friends to pray to God on our behalf all the time; think how much more effective asking the Mother of God to pray for us would be.
Definitely pray to Jesus. Worship and adore Him with your whole heart. At the same time, ask Mary to mediate. It certainly can’t hurt. On the contrary, it can magnify your prayer. Remember, she has the most perfect relationship with Christ, and she wants all of us to achieve a similar relationship one day. We must strive to imitate her humility and total obedience to God, as exemplified by her silent consent to His will in the Bible. She can help us get there, if we let her.
As theological as our devotion to Mary might get, sometimes it’s best to bring it down to a simple, human level. As children, we respect what our mother says. Don’t you think Jesus will do the same?
So honor Mary. Ask her for help. You can start with a simple Hail Mary and move on to the Holy Rosary. Do it today. Do it right now.