It’s inevitable – every time I encounter a Catholic who has moved to another Christian denominational church, or when a Catholic ‘basher’ meets a Catholic in a theological ‘chin-wag’, the topic of Mary and Marian devotion always seems to pop up, and the Catholic is often labeled as a Marian worshipper and someone who dabbles in idolatry. At least that has been the situation in Singapore, and now that I am in America, perhaps that might change – wait and see.
I have come to use a very ‘disarming’ way to dealing with such acrimony when it ensues, and it is to start by agreeing with them. For instance, when the conversation turns to “Catholics have got it all wrong – worshipping Mary when you should be worshipping Christ. It’s not in the bible, and God is not pleased with what you Catholics are doing.” Perhaps you have had chance encounters with such ‘enthusiastic’ proponents of Christianity, and it looked something like this. What I usually do is to start by agreeing with them.
Open up with “Yes, I totally agree with you! It’s terrible how these Catholics have got it all wrong. Mary should never be worshipped, and Mary doesn’t want to be worshipped. In fact, if she is worshipped, not only is God displeased, but so is Mary. You are so correct in pointing this out, and I think we should do our best to educate them.” I am sure you will see the tone change, and the when the storm has calmed down somewhat, that would be the best time to insert what real Catholicism is vis-à-vis Mary, Mariology and devotion to saints.
Lets get this straight from the outset. Devotion to Mary is not absolutely necessary and crucial as a child of God. No one has been sent to hell for not ever praying a Hail Mary or for dissing Mary and her place in Salvation History. True, we are and should all be Christo-centric as Christians. Devotions to saints help us very much because they serve as having encountered the human difficulties and challenges that you and I go through each day of our lives. In a manner of speaking, they have gone through the fire, and their scars and healed wounds have been their letter of reference of their love for God. Our lives here on earth are always made better when we get the help of others who can do things better than we. This applies in the office, in home life, and even in our social lives. What more in the realm of the spiritual life?
But far more than a mere practical standpoint, Jesus literally has ‘given’ Mary to us from his most crucial and pivotal moment of his humanity – on the Cross on Calvary. At a point when he was at his lowest and most abandoned, when every shred of his dignity was stripped from him and he had very little left, even that he chose to ‘give away’, which was Mary being his mother. He told John to behold his Mother. When Jesus gave us himself at the Eucharist at the Last Supper, it was mind boggling. But perhaps it would be audacious of me to suggest that he didn’t quite give his everything at that point yet. He held back two things – his mother, and his own spirit. And he left that to the very last.
It was right at that point of the crux of salvation of all of humanity that Jesus gave everything, and it was at Calvary on the Cross. When we honour what has been bequeathed to us as a legacy by someone at his point of death, we hold that person in a position of highest esteem. Anyone receiving a great gift at a benefactor’s death-bed will always cherish that gift, especially when it is one of enormous value and will make that person very rich and blessed. Jesus did that for us. He gave us his Mother to behold, and after that he gave his life to God the Father.
When we appropriate correctly our worship to Christ as our Saviour and Lord, we will know that it cannot put aside and ignore someone he most cherished and valued in life. We do ourselves a great injustice when we act as if Mary was no feature in the life of Jesus. It doesn’t mean that we should worship her. That is something that needs to be reserved for God and God alone. Catholics who worship Mary have indeed given Catholicism a bad name, and those of us who can, should do our best to re-educate them.
But this is what I have gained from my 10 years of experience as a priest, ministering to many uneducated and elderly Catholics who really have not read any books on spirituality or have found it just too difficult. They may appear to worship Mary, but deep in their hearts, they only mean to worship God. Holding a rosary in their hands is often their way of holding on to the hands of Christ in dire times.
Today, the Church celebrates the Assumption of Mary to heaven, body and soul. It is a universal reminder to all of us that we have a mother given by God himself to love us, to pray for us, and to guide us on our way to Christ who herself is with God in her complete personhood. I’ve always loved the one line in the reading for the Mass of the Assumption from the Book of Revelation that says “the woman herself fled to the desert where she had a place of safety prepared by God”. Indeed, any desert would be that last place one would find safety, but Mary’s faith allowed her to even venture into a desert to discover there a safe haven from dangers. If we find ourselves in the deserts of life, and dare to trust God as much as Mary did, we can always dare to hope that deserts can lead to desserts.
Mary did, and so must we.