The following came into our question box from a reader:
I know the Virgin Mary was the mother of Jesus but why do Catholics pray and honor her? It sometimes seems she is equal to Jesus.
Thanks for this question. It is our first!
Catholics often hear questions like this. Sometimes we are even told, much to our surprise, that we “worship” Mary and “pray to statues.” The vivid devotion that many Catholics have for Mary should not be construed to mean that we consider her to be equal to Jesus. She is not God and it is the clear Catholic teaching that to ever think of her in this way would be seriously wrong. Our Catholic teaching and belief is clear: to worship Mary would be a serious sin, for worship belongs to God alone. We do ask Mary and all the Saints in heaven to pray for us, but this is no more wrong than if I were to ask you to pray for me. Nor would doing so be a denial of the fact that I can talk directly to God on my own behalf.
So what is the proper way to understand Catholic reverence and teaching regarding Mary and all the Saints? How can such practices be properly understood and appreciated? Let us consider two things: first, to honor Mary is a very Biblical thing to do, and second, to honor and love Mary is a very Christ-like thing to do.
Biblical Basis – In the first place the veneration of Mary is Biblical. The Scriptures themselves describe the honor that will be given Mary. 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. (Lk 1:48-49) Thus each time we call to mind the dignity and blessedness of Mary, we fulfill this biblical prophecy. And when we do this, we also glorify God for he alone is the source of all that is good and holy. The Blessed Mother is surely His masterwork and she herself acknowledges it. Note also that the most common prayer in which we honor Mary and seek her intercession is the Hail Mary. It is also a biblically-based prayer. The entire first half of this prayer is drawn from Scripture. The Angel Gabriel praised Mary: Hail full of grace the Lord is with you! (Lk 1:28-29) Elizabeth also praised her: Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. (Lk 1:48). Thus our Catholic traditions about Mary both echo Scripture and fulfill its prophecies. And while we pray this prayer, we meditate on biblical stories about Jesus.
An Imitation of Jesus – We also imitate Jesus himself when we give honor to Mother Mary. Think first about the way Jesus entrusted himself to Mary’s care. He could have chosen to enter the human scene in ways other than He actually did. Perhaps He could simply have appeared as a full grown man. Yet He did not. When God chose to enter human history He chose to do so through Mary. And not only did Jesus dwell nine months in her womb, He also entrusted himself to her ongoing care. She nursed him, sang to him, comforted him, and clothed him. In time she taught him to walk and to talk. He shared a family resemblance to her. They spoke with the same accent and probably shared many mannerisms. Mary was also present during Jesus’ public ministry and had an important influence in the working of his first miracle at Cana. She was at the foot of the cross as Jesus accomplished His greatest work—our redemption. In all of these ways, God instructs us that Mary’s role is far more than ceremonial. A truly biblical view does not downplay or minimize Mary’s role in God’s plan. Instead we seek to learn the rich meanings of what Jesus said and did in regard to Mary by His word as well as His example. Hence when Catholics are asked why they honor Mary a rightful answer may be, “I love Mary, I honor her and entrust myself to her care because Jesus did all these things and I want to be just like Jesus.”
I hope this answer helps to answer your questions. Please feel free to comment.