By Bob Sullivan
As the Mother of God, Mary plays a very important and unique role in salvation history, the mystery of our redemption. The role was not an easy one. Mary endured a vast amount of anguish from the moment she accepted God’s invitation to serve as the Mother of Jesus. The Seven Sorrows of Mary remind us of some of the suffering she endured with heroic obedience, dignity and grace.
Because of this, Christians have honored Mary for 20 centuries, and the honor (hyperdulia) given to Mary is higher than the honor for any other created being. Since the earliest centuries of Christianity Mary has been called The New Eve, The Ark of the New Covenant, Theotokos, the “Woman” in Revelation 12. The Church has always regarded Mary to possess purity, sinlessness, an immaculate nature and other qualities that are consistent with her role as the Mother of God, and which are not present in the lives of the rest of huanity. Mary has always been considered the greatest of the saints because other than her Son, Mary is the greatest example of holiness the world has ever known. All other saints in the great cloud of witnesses, even the martyrs, are given a slightly lower level of honor (dulia).
There are Christians who claim we worship Mary. They say it is idolatry to have statues and images of Mary and other saints in our churches, shrines and homes. The fact that the official teachings of the Church say just the opposite is irrelevant to such critics. Some even go so far as to claim that a crucifix is a graven image, prohibited by Scripture.
Keep in mind that your goal is not to convince critics to start praying the Hail Mary. You are merely trying to help them see that the proper veneration of Mary is biblical, reasonable and/or historical.
In Geneva, Switzerland, one will find “Reformation Wall,” built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. Calvin is regarded as the father of the “Reformed” Church. The wall includes 10 towering statues of men revered by many non-Catholic Christians such as John Calvin, John Knox and Oliver Cromwell. I also find it interesting that most non-Catholic Christians display crosses and images of Jesus in and around their homes, churches and on jewelry. Many non-Catholics suspend the “graven image” rules for a few weeks in December so they can display their nativity scene!
One has to wonder if it makes some non-Catholics feel a pang of self-conscious guilt when someone claims that Catholics worship Mary and other saints. It should ... and it shouldn’t.
It should because Catholics do not worship Mary, saints or statues. It should because the Church does not teach that we are to worship anyone but God. It should because Catholics and non-Catholics have images and statues of Jesus, biblical figures and people important to their faith.
Yet the veneration of Mary and the saints and the display of statues and images should not be scandalous because there is nothing wrong with recalling examples (both good and bad) from the past. The purpose of statues and images (and stories) is to remind us of the great things people have done, as well as the terrible crimes others have committed. History inspires us to greatness and provides resolve to avoid the atrocities and failures of those who have gone before us. Both of these examples collide on Calvary. If the old rugged cross is a graven image, why do all Christians own one?
The martyrs (more than a few were martyred under men whose statues appear along Geneva’s “Reformation Wall”) are remembered by all Christians. It is therefore reasonable to venerate the one woman who bore and raised the Savior, the Word Incarnate who would suffer and die for all? It is reasonable to venerate the one woman who demonstrated perfect heroic virtue in quietly enduring her Son’s Passion as her soul was pierced by a sword. It is reasonable to venerate the one woman to whom Christ spoke while he was on the cross: When Jesus saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” John 19:26-27
It is wise to venerate the one who is to be called blessed by all generations. Luke 1:48
If we are commanded to honor our own mother and father, how can someone suggest we are not to honor the Mother of God?
We all love our own mother, even with the imperfections, slight as they are. And because of this love, we want others to show her respect, courtesy and love in all they do. Isn’t it reasonable to believe that Jesus loves His mother even more than any human can love his or her own mother and desires that we show her honor and respect as well?
The critic may respond: “Well, I would not want anyone bowing or kneeling before my mother, worshipping her.”
To that we can all agree. Worship and adoration are for God alone. However, we should set aside our judgments of another’s heart and focus on what the Church actually teaches, not on actions we misinterpret, or something negative we have read or have been told.