There is probably no one aspect of the Catholic faith more widely misunderstood than devotion to the Virgin Mary, which can appear to some Christians as a form of idolatry.
To properly understand this devotion, one must distinguish between honor and worship. Simply put, we honor Mary and the Saints, but worship God alone. According to the Bible, the essence of worship is not prayer, furthermore, but the offering of sacrifice (see Exodus 20:24; Malachi 1:11; and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 10:14-21, et al.). Catholics pray to the Saints, but offer sacrifice to God alone, namely the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!
As we explain elsewhere, praying to the Saints is merely a way to ask those who have gone before us to pray with us and for us–just as we ask fellow believers on earth to do.
Roman Catholic and Orthodox devotion to Mary involves more than prayer, though. What of the high status which Catholics and Orthodox assign to her? Is is right to so exalt a mere human being?
We believe that no one could possibly exalt Mary more than God did when He chose her to be the Mother of His Son. In the Gospel scene of the visitation, Saint Elizabeth says to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:41-43). In that same passage, Mary exclaims, “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (1:48).
Sometimes those who oppose so lofty a view of Mary will cite the episode in the Gospel of Luke in which a woman in the crowd calls out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!”; to which He responds, “Blesssed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (11:27-28). We need to be careful not to interpret a particular verse of the Bible out of the context. For, as we have just seen, Mary’s blessedness is affirmed elsewhere in Luke. In fact, in the first chaper of the book, Elizabeth says of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (1:45). These are essentially the same words Jesus used later to identify true blessedness: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” In Luke 11:28, then, the Lord was not denying Mary’s blessed status, but clarifying for us the true reason for it: her perfect faith and obedience to God’s word.
Christ is our one Mediator with God, and He calls His followers to share with Him in that singular mediation, to, as the Bible says, become “God’s fellow workers” as Saint Paul stated in his First Letter to the Corinthians 3:9.
Jesus said, “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12). So, in saying “Yes” to God at the Annunciation, Mary cooperated with Him in a far greater, more intimate way than any human being or angel ever has or ever will do.
As she stood at the foot of the Cross, Jesus said to her, “Woman, behold your son!”, referring to the Apostle John beside her. And to John, the Lord said, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26-27).
It is extraordinary that Jesus first asked Mary to look after John, given that John was an adult fully capable of caring for himself. It is only reasonable to interpret Jesus’ words to Mary and John in a spiritual way, seeing that Mary was entrusted to be the spiritual Mother of John, who as “the beloved disciple” represented all of Christ’s followers. Coincidentally, the Book of Revelation, written by John, affirms Mary as the Mother of all Christians, saying, “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (12:17).
Nevertheless, despite all the special privileges God has seen bestowed on Mary, she remains merely His creature and servant as she herself humbly professes in the Magnificat, her hymn of praise to the Almighty:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49)