One of the first and obvious criticisms often leveled against Catholics is their devotion to Mary. Catholics are accused of deifying Mary. Some think of Mary as a Catholic goddess given the titles accorded her, statues erected in her honor and the slavish attachment to the rosary.
The mantra of the Catholic Women’s Association (CWA) namely “Through Mary to Jesus” captures the essential meaning of devotion to Mary. This is amplified in the popular song: “We are honoring Mary, never worshipping; people say we worship her not at all, everybody join the chorus, honor her.”
One thing that immediately becomes clear is that one way of solving this dilemma is to state simply the distinction between “honor” and “worship.” Simply laying down the distinction between worship and honor would not cut it. It is not just a problem of semantics but at the heart of it is a basic mischaracterization.
That notwithstanding, it is important to state that worship alone is due and given to God. Rev. 7:10 “And they cried out in a loud voice, salvation and glory and power belong to our God.”
The difference between honor and worship is not just in degree but also in essence. That is, it is not just that we do the same thing for God and Mary but with God having more and Mary less. A classical instance of this difference is in the difference between celebrating the mass and praying the rosary for example. For Catholics, the mass is the source and summit of the Christian life. It is the prayer of all prayers. It is the supreme act of worship. This is why it does not make sense for Christians to be praying the rosary during mass.
In fact the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that: The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.”134 “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.”
Today, May 31 the Church closes its month long devotion to Mary with its celebration of the feast of the visitation. This incident which Luke describes in Lk. 1:39-56 captures the raison d’être of the Marian devotion.
At the visitation, we get a glimpse of the distinction between honor and worship. John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb worships Jesus in Mary’s womb while Elizabeth honors Mary by saying: Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
Mary’s response to Elizabeth is that beautiful hymn of the Magnificat:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
My spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
Behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Here Mary worships God by proclaiming the greatness of God who is almighty. We find an echo of the Lord’s prayer as she prays “Holy is his name.”
In this prayer, Mary lays down the true essence of devotion to her thus: Behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.
Worth noting here is Mary’s gratitude to God for the marvels, He has afforded her. In the face of adulation, Mary does not say bring it on, but rather praises and worships God without dismissing the honor accorded her. She in fact confirms that what Elizabeth has done, all generations will follow and honor Mary.
There is an interesting paradigm to draw here that while Elizabeth honors Mary, Mary worships God. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Mary brings Christ to visit us even today. As she brought Christ to Elizabeth, so too does she bring Christ to visit us. Prayer is an encounter with Christ through Mary. Elizabeth and her son John the Baptist met Christ through Mary and so too do Christians who pray to Mary.
Every year, the world celebrates Mother’s day and the overwhelming outpour of love for mothers is amply borne out. This is just a practical instantiation of why devotion to Mary is so pivotal.
As the first fruit of my mother’s womb, my siblings would all agree that my sweet mother has a sublime affection for me. One can narrate countless occasions of the extravagant character of motherhood. One that comes to mind for me is the night when my dad in total frustration at the scumbag I had turned out to be derided me so bitterly that he wept. I left the house in so much pain in the thick of the night to where God alone knows. My mum went out in search of me risking her life in that dangerous Ndamukong street neighborhood. By some magic, she finally found me and literally begged me to come home. Only mum could do that.
The legendary Nigerian musician, Prince Nico Mbaraga captured the sublimity of motherhood in his soul stirring song “Sweet Mother” and proclaimed loudly in pidgin “I no go forget you for this suffer whe you suffer for me” loosely translated as “I will not forget you for all the sufferings you bore for me.” The only way one can deny Mary’s role is by first denying her motherhood. If we believe Mary is the mother of God, then we all should be rushing to her for maternal intercession. There where Christ is, so too is his mum. One must hasten to add though that Mary’s role goes beyond this sentimentalism.
The concluding part of the magnificent prayer, the “Hail Mary” brings home the point: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us. Mary prays with and for us.
There are no records that Mary ever performed any miracle yet at her bidding, Christ performed the first miracle in John’s gospel at the wedding feast of Cana.
Those of us professional party freaks know that a good wedding is defined by the quantity of food and drinks. Christ could have seen the need of the couple and supplied without them even asking. Yet, it was Mary who sensed the embarrassment of the newly wedded couples and appealed on behalf of the couple to her son, Christ. John recounts that: When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” (And) Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn.2:1-12) Mary’s intercessory role did not end at Cana. Mary continues to intercede for us even today during those embarrassing moments of our lives.
Catholics pray through Mary because God showed us this example. God could have sent Christ directly to save the world. Yet God chose the woman Mary to be the conduit, the channel. Christ came through Mary to teach us that through Mary we can and in fact reach God. It was not a one-way street. Mary’s Yes to God opened man’s way to God so that through her man still meets God.
The bible is replete with instances of God speaking directly to man first with Abraham in Genesis then Moses in the burning bush and even when God hands Moses the Ten Commandments. Next was the institution of the prophets who served as go-between God and man and vice versa. With the incarnation, God took flesh in and through Mary. Only at our own peril do we fail to avail of this golden opportunity to come to God through Mary.
Devotion to Mary then is quite relevant. One form of devotion to Mary is praying the rosary. The rosary is more a prayer than the beads. It is a prayer of five Our Father’s, fifty Hail Mary’s and five Glory be to the Father…. It is a prayerful contemplation of the mysteries of Christ’s earthly pilgrimage.
The Church in her wisdom has recommended the rosary to be prayed as follows:
Joyful Mysteries on Mondays and Thursdays, Catholics contemplate the annunciation, the visitation, the nativity, presentation in the temple and the finding of Jesus in the temple.
Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesdays and Fridays, the prayer and agony in the Garden, scorching at the pillar, crowning with Thorns, Jesus Carries his cross, the crucifixion and death of Christ.
Glorious mysteries are prayed on Wednesdays and Sundays – Resurrection, Ascension, descent of the Holy Spirit, Assumption of Our Lady and the crowning our Lady.
Luminous mysteries on Thursdays we reflect on the Baptism of Our Lord, the marriage feast in Cana, the Proclamation of the Kingdom, the Transfiguration and the Institution of the Holy Eucharist.
Except the fourth and fifth Glorious mysteries, the rosary is eminently rooted in the bible. It is a compendium of the gospels. And like Blessed Pope John Paul II said, when we pray the rosary, we enter into Mary’s school of prayer and contemplate the face of Jesus with and through Mary. The rosary is undoubtedly a Christ-centered prayer.
To facilitate this prayer, we have beads either small ones with one for the Our Father, ten for Hail Mary’s and one for Glory be to the Father; or we can have a long one made up of all five decades of the rosary as described above. Through the prayers of the priest, these beads become a holy object but not a talisman. When Catholics talk of praying the rosary, we are referring to the recitation of the Hail Mary while meditating on the mysteries of our Lord’s life. Some of us use our fingers to count when we lose our beads and yet we are still said to have prayed the rosary.
Mary bore Christ in her womb, groomed Christ, walked with him through his passion and death, and laid him in the tomb. Mary was present in the Upper Room when Pentecost descended on the apostles. And as St Luke tells us: Mary treasured up all these things and kept them in her heart (Lk.2:19) Mary is the first Christian – follower of Christ. No one can teach us better than Mary what it means to follow Christ.
What better gift could Christ himself afford mankind at the time of his crucifixion that his beloved mother: Son, behold your mother. “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’. Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” (Jn 19:26-27).
Every good thing begets some excesses of some sort. There is no denying it that some Catholics have exaggerated their devotion to Mary and expressed it in such a way as to betray worship. Yet, I believe rather strongly that an abuse never takes away a use.