The Continuity of the Catholic Church
For a final illustration of Catholic fidelity in preserving the Gospel of Christ I choose, from among many other subjects available, the devotion to the Mother of our Lord. That the devotion to Mary is important cannot be doubted. It is important not only because it is so highly appreciated by Catholics but also because it is so much depreciated by non-Catholics. With us Catholics it plays a constant part in our religious experiences; with many non-Catholics it seems to suggest idolatry.
Here let me observe in fairness to my neighbors in other churches, especially to those of the Protestant group with which I was formerly associated, that their indifference to the rightful claims of Mary is largely a matter of misunderstanding. I am well aware that they are as eager to conform to the spirit and letter of the Gospel as are we Catholics, and are as honest in their professions of faith. I am sure that they would join us in honoring Mary if they understood that it was correct for them to do so. It is my hope that at least a few of them will ponder seriously what I write.
The Catholic devotion to Mary flows logically from the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, wherein it is stated that she is the Virgin Mother of our Lord, who is the Son of God and the savior of the world. To be thus chosen and set apart from all other women was most extraordinary distinction, a mark of God's special favor to her. The facts are to be found in both the Old and New Testament. For the former, I quote: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
From the New Testament there is the narrative of the Angel's visit to Mary. "Hail, thou that art highly favoured," the angel said, "the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women...And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, 'Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God'" (Luke 1:28- 30).
Then came Mary's reply. It is the Magnificat, part of which I quote: "...for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty hath done to me great things" (Luke 1:48-49).
It is tempting, by way of supplementary evidence, to call in facts of history in order to point out the high esteem in which Mary and the devotion to her have been held by the Church and Catholic people during the past centuries. The facts are so voluminous, however, that selecting from among them for a brief comment is most difficult. Furthermore, if I can judge correctly, the non-Catholic reader is less likely to be interested in the testimony from history than in that from the Scriptures. This latter, I have already indicated, in part at least. I trust that it is sufficient.
When rightly understood, the devotion to Mary is seen to be most correct and attractive, reasonable and inevitable. It is natural for us as American citizens to show honor and reverence to the leaders and heroes of our country; to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and others. In much the same way we Catholics honor the Christian heroes. They are the saints, men and women, who during their lives were close friends of God. Just as the people who praise a painting for its beauty are in reality giving honor to the artist, any honor given to Mary is given ultimately to God, her Creator. In honoring the saints we honor God himself. By keeping their names alive we help preserve the principles for which they lived and died; we stimulate ourselves to imitate their example. We believe that all this is good for us and for the Church and for the world.
Among the saints Mary comes first. Whatever may be said about the devotion to the saints in general must be said about the devotion to Mary in a superlative degree. To honor we have set aside certain days of the year, among them two holydays. In her honor we have special devotions during the entire month of May. To her we dedicate shrines, churches, basilicas, schools, colleges, and cathedrals. Artists honor her in pictures, in statuary, architecture, and music; no one else has been such an inspiration to art. Writers dedicate literature to her. We name children for her; certainly no name is more common among Christian peoples than that of Mary. And in every place of worship there is an altar or at least a statue in her honor, beautiful with flowers and burning lights.
The Protestant objection to the devotion to Mary stems from the fear or opinion that the Catholic Church has allowed mere veneration to creep up to the level of worship. Let it be said very frankly that if the Church were guilty of such a fault, it the Church taught her people to "worship" the Mother of our Lord, the devotion thus fostered would deserve unquestioned disapproval. Certainly it would be a mistake to put Mary, a creature, in the place of God, the Creator.
In support of their complaint, Protestants point out that we Catholics pray to Mary. In so doing, they ask, do we not express worship? Let me explain that the word "pray" is used with more than one meaning. We worship God, certainly, when we pray to Him, but we do not worship our fellow men when we ask them to pray for us. The attorney in court does not worship the judge when he "prays" to him to grant a favorable decision. Similarly, if here and now I should ask you, my readers, to pray for me, I assure you that I do not worship you. And when Catholic laymen come to me, as they frequently do, to ask me to pray for them, I am not deceived into thinking that they regard me as God.
Many times in Protestant services years ago I heard persons ask for the prayers of others in the congregation. If such requests are reasonable, as they surely are, then our requests to Mary that she pray for us are equally reasonable. And such, let me add, is the fullest expression of the Catholic devotion to Mary. The fact that such requests are referred to as prayers does not change their character. They are an indication of humility on the part of the petitioner, plus the confident expectation that Mary's prayers to God, because of her superlative worthiness, have a superlative efficacy.
The prayer universally addressed to Mary by Catholics is the "Ave Maria," the "Hail Mary." It begins with the salutation of the angel to Mary, as quoted from St. Luke's Gospel, and concludes with the simple petition, "pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." This prayer is repeated many times in the Rosary, which is one of the principal devotions among Catholic people both in public and in private.
The prayer also used by Catholics, called the "Hail Holy Queen," concludes with the petition, "pray for us that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ." Similarly, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, recited by both laity and clergy, repeats the petition, "pray for us."
It is suggested, however, that undiscriminating Catholics misunderstand the intentions of the Church and abuse the devotion to Mary by confusing it with the worship of God. I do not presume to pass judgement about the justice of such a complaint. I say merely that the abuse of devotion does not condemn its correct use. The only correction called for is that we Catholics take care to represent truthfully to our neighbors and to ourselves this and all other features of our religion.
It is pertinent to inquire what alternative to the Catholic devotion can be proposed. If, as the critics of the Church insist, the Catholic devotion is an unwarranted expression of the Gospel, I ask them to point out the correct expression. In so far as I can observe, in most of the non-Catholic Churches with which I am familiar, there is no special honor or veneration shown to Mary. No hymns are sung to her; no pictures or statues recall her pre-eminence; no petitions are addressed to her. There is nothing to identify her as the exalted Mother of our Lord. Suppose now that the Catholic Church were to follow this pattern of neglect. Who, I inquire, would fulfil Mary's prediction about herself? Recall her words "Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed." The truth is that if the Catholic devotion to Mary were abandoned nothing would take its place. It appears to be easy for critics to complain about the Catholic devotion, but it is evidently difficult for them to propose anything which, even in their own opinion, is better. Christianity will have either the Catholic devotion to Mary or no devotion.
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