Do Catholics worship Mary? This question is as old as the Protestant Reformation itself, and it rests, like other disputed doctrinal points, on a false premise that has been turned into a wedge: the veneration of Mary detracts from the worship of Christ.
This seeming opposition between Mary and Christ is symptomatic of the Protestant tendency, begun by Luther, to view the entirety of Christian life through a dialectical lens – a lens of conflict and division. With the Reformation the integrity of Christianity is broken and its formerly coherent elements are now set in opposition. The Gospel versus the Law. Faith versus Works. Scripture versus Tradition. Authority versus Individuality. Faith versus Reason. Christ versus Mary.
The Catholic tradition rightly sees the mutual complementarity of these elements of the faith, as they all contribute to our ultimate end – living with God now and in eternity. To choose any one of these is to choose them all.
By contrast, to assert that Catholics worship Mary along with or in place of Christ, or that praying to Mary somehow impedes Christ’s role as “the one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim 2:5) is to create a false dichotomy between the Word made flesh and the woman who gave the Word his flesh. No such opposition exists. The one Mediator entrusted his mediation to the will and womb of Mary. She does not impede his mediation – she helps to make it possible.
Within this context we see the ancillary role that the ancilla Domini plays in her divine Son’s mission. Mary’s is not a surrogate womb rented and then forgotten in God’s plan. She is physically connected to Christ and his life, and because of this she is even more deeply connected to him in the order of grace. She is, in fact, “full of grace,” as only one who is redeemed by Christ could be.
The feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception celebrates the very first act of salvation by Christ in the world. Redemption is made possible for all by his precious blood shed on the cross. Yet Mary’s role in the Savior’s life and mission is so critical and so unique that God saw it necessary to wash her in the blood of the Lamb in advance, at the first moment of her conception.
This reality could not be more Biblical: the angel greets Mary as “full of grace” (Luke 1:28), which is literally rendered as “already graced” (kecharitōmenē). Following Mary, the Church has “pondered what sort of greeting this might be” for centuries. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, ultimately defined in 1854, is nothing other than a rational expression of the angel’s greeting contained in Scripture: Mary is “already graced” with Christ’s redemption at the very moment of her creation.
Because God called Mary to the unique vocation of serving as the Mother of God, it is not just her soul that is graced, as is the case for us when we receive the sacraments. Mary’s entire being, body and soul, is full of grace so that she may be a worthy ark for the New Covenant. And just as the ark of the old covenant was adorned with gold to be a worthy house for God’s word, Mary is conceived without original sin to be the living and holy house for God’s Word.
Thus Mary is not only conceived immaculately, that is, without stain of sin. She also is the Immaculate Conception. Her entire being was specifically created by God with unique privilege so that she could fulfill her role in God’s plan of salvation. “Free from sin,” both original and personal, is the necessary consequence of being “full of grace.”
Protestants claim that veneration of Mary as it is practiced by Catholics is not biblical. St. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Paul is not holding himself up as the end goal, but as a means to Christ, the true end. And if a person is imitated, he is simultaneously venerated.
If we should imitate Paul, how much more should we imitate Mary, who fulfilled God’s will to the greatest degree a human being could. Throughout her life she humbled herself so that God could be exalted, and because of this, Christ has fulfilled his promise by exalting his lowly mother to the seat closest to him in God’s kingdom.
Mary is the model of humility, charity, and openness to the will of God. She allows a sword to pierce her heart for the sake of the world’s salvation. She shows us the greatness to which we are called: a life free from sin and filled with God’s grace that leads to union with God in Heaven. She is the model disciple, and therefore worthy of imitation and veneration, not as an end in herself, but as the means to the very purpose of her – and our – existence: Christ himself.
God’s lowly handmaiden would not want it any other way.