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Concern: Why Do Catholics Pray to Mary?

Article and Image 2: Jonathan Bennett
Image 1: David Bennett

Rosary and Bible, photographed by David Bennett

Many Protestants ask Catholics: why do Catholics pray to Mary and other Saints? Why do Catholics give Mary honor? Do Catholics worship Mary? Why do Catholics love the Hail Mary prayer? Catholics are not alone in this either: Orthodox Christians and many Anglicans pray to Mary also. I'm going to approach this in two ways. First, I want to look at the general practice of praying to others and honoring them. Then, I want to address whether or not it's appropriate to pray to Mary, someone who is deceased.

Is it ok to pray to other people? Most Christians would probably answer in the negative. The response would be: we pray to God and that's it. However, Catholics and Orthodox operate under the more broad definition of "pray," which means to entreat or request. Although the term is largely used of God today, we still have remnants of this usage when it was used with others, e.g. "pray tell." So, by praying to Mary, we are simply entreating her or asking her for something. What are we asking? Two things, actually.

First, we are asking her to pray for us. We are asking Mary's intercession before God. Most Christians would have no problem with asking someone else to pray for them. We do it all the time when we pray for others or when someone says "keep me in your prayers." The Bible (and even our daily experience) is filled with examples of members of the Hebrew or Christian communities praying on behalf of others.

Second, we are asking Mary for some sort of request. In fact, many of these requests resemble what we ask of God, so many Protestants assume that Catholics think Mary is divine. However, that's not the case. Since we live in a material world, God works directly through people (and even objects) all the time. Let's say winter is coming and you need a new roof at minimal cost because of financial difficulties; so, you pray about it. Now let's say you also tell a friend who knows roofers and you ask him for help. He then sets you up with a guy who is willing to work quickly and cheaply. Did God answer your prayer? Sure. Did your friend also have a role? Sure. Were you wrong to ask your friend? Of course not! Catholics take the same position on Mary and the saints. Asking for, and getting, their help does not in any way diminish God's power. In fact, when Mary and the saints "help" us in some fashion, God's power is shown just as it is when he works through a human still on earth.

We often honor Mary through prayers and other forms of respect. Is this acceptable? As a culture, we honor all kinds of people, many who are barely deserving, or even undeserving. How many Christians would never dream of venerating an icon of Mary, but have no problem putting up a poster of Miley Cyrus or the latest sports figure on their walls? What about people who venerate political or military leaders or celebrities? Or family members for that matter? Catholics and most Protestants would agree that there are some people and institutions on this earth who deserve our honor and respect. Most Protestants, for example, would salute the flag or sing "Hail to the Chief." If an imperfect country or chief executive can command our honor and respect, how much more the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus!

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While most would agree that the above actions are usually acceptable for people on earth, they may disagree about applying such honor to Mary and the saints. In fact, I've heard a hundred times (literally) that "Mary is dead" or "she can't hear you." These objections center on ecclesiology or "what is the Church?" Catholics regard the Church as the Church militant (on earth), suffering (in purgatory), and triumphant (in heaven). And, this Church is one. Being on earth does not make one more of a member than someone in heaven. In fact, those in heaven are closer to God, and more perfectly the Church. So, when a Catholic compares asking Mary to pray for us with asking Joe down the street, it is really how we think. Both are a part of the Church and both are alive, Mary through the resurrection (and really even more alive) and Joe by virtue of a beating heart and functioning brain.

Fatima Mary Statue, photographed by Jonathan Bennett

Many will ask, however: "how can she hear us, especially since she's in heaven and gets millions of requests a day?" This objection centers on one's view of heaven. Is heaven spatial and thus "far away?" Most Christians today would deny that heaven is literally somewhere in the sky or universe. Heaven is not "up there" but outside of geography, time, and space. So, who's to say those in heaven aren't close to us? Thinking they're "far" is to mistake our earthly experience of time and space for heaven's reality. Also, how could Mary receive all those requests? That would be impossible! And even if she could hear, she'd just be getting around to all those medieval requests since the backlog would be amazing. That is, if heaven were located in time. But, we know that God is outside of time (time is his creation) and so is heaven. God and his saints are in the eternal present, so to speak, so there is nothing temporal that could limit Mary from hearing millions of requests and even acting on them. Additionally, even if Mary does not have the ability to physically hear our requests, we must remember that Catholics believe those in heaven, earth, and purgatory share a strong bond with one another, referred to as communion. Because of this communion, Mary and the saints are constantly interceding on our behalf, praying for the best for all of us. When we "pray to" Mary, or other saints, we are simply joining our prayers with their prayers. Whether Mary physically "hears" our prayers is really not the point.

But, why would she want to spend her time helping out the Church? Well, first, she is the Mother of the Church and what mother wouldn't want the best for her kids? Devout Christian mothers always pray for their kids. So, why would this impulse cease after leaving this earthly life. Second, since we believe the Church is one, Mary and the saints would not stop praying for the Church on earth anymore than we'd stop praying for Joe down the road when he asked us.

Thus, "praying" to Mary and the saints isn't all that foreign after all. In fact, it wouldn't be that big of a leap for Protestants (at least those who believe that souls go to heaven after death) to include prayers to the saints. As Chesterton said of tradition:

it is the democracy of the dead...[and] refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about." Catholicism and Orthodoxy refuse to limit the Church to those who merely happen to be walking about.

Last updated 10-13-2009

See Also:
The Communion of the Saints: the Whole Family of God
A Brief Catechism About Mary
All About All Saints Day
We Believe in the Virgin Birth
Ancient and Future Catholics

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