Why Catholics honour Mary

by frankbeswick

The Catholic tradition in Christianity honours Mary, Jesus' mother, very greatly and asks for her intercession.

Honouring Mary is a practice not confined to Roman Catholics, for others, such as Old Catholics, Orthodox and some Anglicans also hold her in great honour, and even Muslims have a great respect for the mother of Jesus, who is spoken of in the Qoran. Members of the Catholic and Orthodox churches also pray to her to intercede with God for them.Members of these churches and some Anglicans [Church of England, Episcopalians] make pilgrimages to her shrines. So why does she exercise this spiritual influence on so many people?

Image above courtesy of Amber Avelona

The Communion of Saints.

At mass  Catholics recite the creed, which outlines certain key Christian teachings held by the church since the earliest centuries,one of which is the Communion of Saints. But far too many Christians do not properly understand this important Catholic doctrine. Indeed, the understanding of this doctrine marks one of the little known distinctions between the Catholic and Protestant traditions. 

The Reformation brought about a change in religious practice for those who accepted it, for Protestantism ceased prayers for the dead and in general drew a strong dividing line between the worlds of the living and the dead.Once you were gone you were gone, either to Heaven or Hell, and there was no more communication between you and people on Earth. So there was no point in praying to the saints, who cannot hear you anyway, or for the dead, whose fate is already decided for all eternity, for good or for ill. 

But Catholicism always rejected this idea, for it believes that all the baptized are members of the church and so there is a bond between them that transcends death, and that contact therefore is possible through their common bond with Christ. Furthermore, just as we ask our fellow Christians to pray for us, we can ask saints to pray for us also.Catholics believe that the saints spend time interceding for people on Earth, and the greatest of these saints is Mary. For this reason Catholics ask Mary to pray for them. But let us be clear, they do not pray to Mary as the final destination of prayer, which must always be God, but  as someone who will join them in prayer when asking  for what they need. This is so with all Catholic devotion to the saints.

Besides asking for help, people  can express love and devotion to a saint, which is part of the love that bonds people together within the Christian community.   The devotion exclusively given to God is known as latria; devotion to saints is dulia, a kind of devotion lower than latria; devotion to Mary is known as hyperdulia, higher than that given to other saints , but of a lower order than devotion given to God.

For Catholics Mary therefore not a distant figure in an inaccessible heaven, but is one who is concerned for humans and who influences their lives for the better, a spiritual influence who works for God. 

The Origins of the Cult of Mary

Devotion to Mary has profound roots in the popular consciousness and lies, I believe, in a deeply felt human need to honour the sacred feminine. Most people think of God [wrongly] as a male figure, a belief whose origins lie in the masculine gender of the term God and in the word Father, used by Jesus to express his relationship with God. Yet though God is as much Mother as Father, the male imagery for God has dominated discourse. But the need for the sacred feminine remains, and Mary, a woman of great holiness with a major role in salvation history was adopted to be the sacred feminine.She is a sacred figure, subordinate to God, and so became the focus of much love and devotion. 

It is no surprise that the cult of Mary began to take off at Ephesus, a city to which she was supposed to have fled from Jewish persecution before she returned to die at Jersualem. Some legends say that she died at Ephesus [in modern Turkey] but this is denied by the tradition of the Palestinian Church, which insists that her life ended in Jerusalem. The city of Ephesus was the centre of a very powerful cult of the goddess Artemis [Diana] who was the focus of deep devotion, and so when Christianity succeeded in converting the region to the faith, the need for a sacred feminine remained and so the cultus of Mary arose to meet this need.Yet the need for the sacred feminine is worldwide, for many cultures have honoured a great goddess, so the devotion to Mary spread widely, with Mary taking the place of the goddess in the popular mind. Take the case of  the Black Madonnas found in the South of France and at Czestochowa in Poland. The goddess was oft-depicted as dark, even black, so the worshippers simply renamed their old statue as Mary and carried on their devotions.

The Catholic Church was clever enough to ride with the tide, by baptizing ancient traditions as Christian rather than suppresssing them. Through this tactful acceptance that ancient cultic practices are better transformed than replaced the church absorbed and transformed popular culture, thus through devotion to Mary the sacred feminine was honoured and absorbed into the Christian cultus. Even one of Mary's titles used by devotees in the litany is Morning Star,a  title given by the ancient Mespotamians to the goddess Ishtar and re-applied to Mary. 

It was through devotion to Mary that the church successfully challenged the popular devotion to Isis, the great Egyptian mother goddess, whose cult was powerful in the Mediterranean world. Isis' devotees regarded her as a kindly,loving mother figure, certainly not one of the immoral Romano-Greek pantheon. Through devotion to Mary the gentle, kindly and loving mother of Jesus provided a powerful alternative with the advantage that she was linked to the Christian hope of salvation from this life. 

Mary's absorption into popular culture explains why there are so many plants that have Our Lady in their names. Plants that were sacred to the goddess were re-classified as sacred to Mary, and many were grown in Marian gardens, which were found in some monasteries.


The Black Madonna of Czestochowa

The Black Madonna of Czestokowa
The Black Madonna of Czestokowa

Mary in Scripture

Yet while  the origins of the cultus of Mary are rooted in popular devotion, it is supported by Scripture and Christian theology. 

There are many titles of honour given to Mary, but in the litany,a long list of titles sometimes used in Catholic ceremonies as an invocation, she is called "ark of the covenant." and this title is fully scriptural. In the Old Testament the ark was the bearer of God's presence in Israel, but for some unknown reason it disappeared in Israel's wars and was never seen again. But at the incarnation Mary became the bearer of God's presence, carrying him in her womb, so  symbolically she did the job of the ark and therefore the church rightly gives her this title.

This takes us to Mary's vital role in salvation history, the story of God's  dealings with humankind. They believe that at the Annunciation [recounted in Luke chapter 1]  she was visited by the archangel Gabriel to announce to her that she was to be the mother of the messiah, and her response was to willingly accept the tremendous and daunting challenge. Some Christians believe that without her willing acceptance of her role in God's plan the incarnation, God's becoming human in Jesus Christ, might not have happened. They believe that God was waiting on someone to say yes, and that someone was Mary. She is therefore a major player in salvation history, clearly subordinate to God, but an important human agent of God's will. 

The Orthodox Church, which in many teachings is similar to the Catholic Church, rates Mary very highly and offers her significant devotion, awarding her the title of Theotokos, the bearer of God. This title is not formally used in the Catholic Church, but it is known, valued and respected by Catholics, who sometimes use it.  

I was in Crete on August 15th one year, the feast of Mary's assumption into heaven and became aware of just how much the Orthodox celebrate the Theotokos. The traditions of the Palestinian church were that she was  so holy that God took her straight to heaven, body and soul, when she died. As she is recorded as having died, it seems that the belief is that she was accorded the privilege of sharing in Christ's resurrection ahead of his other followers. The Christian teaching is that we will all resurrectas he did, but she was privileged to be resurrrected earlier than others. 

The Reformation caused a decline in devotion to Mary, as the reformers smashed many of her shrines, including England's shrine at Walsingham in East Anglia,  and I do not think that this has been good for the church, for it cut off a popular and emotionally satisfying aspect of Christian devotional living. Marian gardens were lost and there are few left. A few have been revived in England and some remain in monasteries in Europe. But the cult of Mary still retains its power to inspire devotion and her shrines, such as Lourdes and Fatima, are still popular.

Updated: 01/04/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/02/2018

The original holy house was completely destroyed. Sir Francis took his surname from where his ancestor originated, just as my name derives from people who dwelt in Beswick, but most English people did not even by the mediaeval period dwell in their ancestral village, so no, he had no connection with Walsingham other than an ancestral one.

Mary is a fascinating character, and I do not believe that we have any true understanding of the mystery of her person.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/02/2018

FrankBeswick, Is there anything left of the original Holy House patterned on the Annunciation house in Nazareth? Is Walsingham linked with Sir Francis of Tudor times? I love the gardens, names and stories associated with Our Lady Mary, particularly Fatima, Knock and ladybugs.

Veronica on 01/05/2018

Spot on. You have summed up the situation perfectly. I am very keen on my Rosary and pray it frequently.

frankbeswick on 01/05/2018

Your analysis is correct. Loose language can lead to much confusion in religion.

blackspanielgallery on 01/04/2018

I believe one problem with Protestants accepting prayer involving saints is the way we choose our words. Technically, prayer is to Protestants reserved for God. We often say, as Catholics, that we pray to saints. What we mean is we pray to God through the saints, which is what happens when we ask a saint to intercede for up. Hence, prayer through a saint is not idolatry, which is what that simple word "to" implies to Protestants. It may be a semantic problem, and the precision of what is said is not what is meant.,

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