Catholic “Inventions”: Worshiping Mary
This topic is one of the most difficult stumbling blocks for people of faith regardless of church association. I made a very simply video which shows Scripturally where we get the Hail Mary prayer. Another good video to check out is one that covers some of the typography regarding Mary which I also encourage readers to view. It can be a bit superfluous in its beginning argument but hang in there and I believe it will challenge you to some insights that perhaps you had never considered before.
I Pray Thee
So where does the Church come up with this idea of giving so much prominence to Mary that she seems to hold the level of a goddess in the eyes of the Church? Certainly Catholics have, throughout the span of Christianity, overstepped appropriate bounds of honor and awarded her significant abilities and titles which elevate her to an incorrect or inappropriate place in her role among Christian belief. Even from other Catholics the Magisterium has had to devote time and effort to ensure that correct views of Mary are carried throughout the Church. Not to mention the countless amounts of time and effort spent by her apologists to refute the legions of anti-Marion’s across the board.
So let us start with the very source of the matter. Let us start with the Catholics themselves. What do Catholics say when asked, “Do you worship Mary?” Moreover, and the source that really matters, what does their official teaching authority (The Magisterium – Latin for ‘teaching office’) say about Mary and how she is to be viewed? As I mentioned before, the Church and her apologists have spilled countless gallons of ink clarifying, in minutiae, this subject matter. However, we’ll start off simple and work up to that by giving the straightforward and honest answer, “No. We do not now, nor have we ever, worshiped Mary. Nor do we consider her worthy of worship. Worship is for and to God alone.”
Passing along on this course we soon come to a diversionary bump in the road with what constitutes ‘worship’. More issues could be resolved so much more easily if terms and definitions were cleared up beforehand so as to avoid confusion in ideas. The major issue here is that Protestants and Catholics see worship in two entirely different ways. For Protestants prayer IS worship. Prayer should be directed to God alone with Christ as the sole mediator and because of that fact, prayer = worship. To direct prayer to anyone else is to direct worship to another individual.
Catholics have an entirely different approach to the term ‘worship’ and what that entails. Catholics wholeheartedly endorse the fact that God alone should be worshiped. That is an undisputed belief. However, what Catholics do not acquiesce to is the theological idea that prayer = worship. Herein lies a major difference of understanding. Prayer simply means to make a request of an individual. In fact, this idea has a long historical etymological root. This was commonly spoken in Shakespearean Old English, and one could see the use of the word ‘pray’ to enjoin an individual with a request, “I pray thee, Mercutio, let’s retire.” This language can even been seen in the Bible itself, “I pray thee, Job, hear my speech and harken (or listen) to my words.” (Job 33:1) That is how it is even written in most Protestant Bibles.
“I ask of you, Job. Here what I say. Here my words.”
The English term “worship” has narrowed in meaning to refer to God only very recently as has the word ‘pray’. Therefore, Catholics have continued to assert that to ‘pray’ is simply to ask for someone’s help with a request. It hasn’t now, nor ever referred to a worship of someone. Therefore, the Catholic Church maintains the meaning of the word as it has always been used in the English language (and is still applied – even in most Bible translations). This leads into the argument of Catholics ‘praying to’ saints or Mary, which means only that we’re requesting their help in obtaining a petition. (This is a fantastic blog entry about the mediatorship of Christ and this guy helped me to see it in context as it’s written in the Bible.)
The Pagan Connection
The ancient world was full of pagan faiths which held many similarities. Aphrodite and Zeus were known also by their Roman names of Venus and Jupiter. There have also been many near-eastern and indo-european religions that had similar goddesses to those made most famous by the Greco-Roman gods. There is often much made of the Egyptian goddess Isis (whom some identify with the Greek god Aphrodite/Roman Venus) and her child Horus. Several portraits or statues show her sitting on a throne nursing the young Pharaoh god Horus.
These examples from early history have lead many evangelical Protestant scholars to denounce the concept of Mary as one and the same as these ancient pagan goddesses, with merely a Christian label slapped on it. The most prominent of theories stems from a book written by a man called Rev. Alexander Hislop called, The Two Babylon’s. It contains a story told about a minor Biblical character of Nimrod in the ancient Babylonian culture. I’ve heard this story carved out in very general bits and recycled in countless Evangelical writings. The mythological-like story, as I understand it, states that Nimrod set himself up as a god. He also set his wife up as a goddess (according to some stories). He was slain and the woman conceived a child whom she said was given her through her deceased husband Nimrod, and was thus a divine son. Hence, mother/son worship was born and spread to all the other cultures. Eventually, making its way to Rome. The Roman emperor Constantine, upon legalizing Christianity in the 4th century incorporated this worship in the forms of the Roman gods Venus and Jupiter, Isis and Horus, etc. into Christianity and hence the worship of Mary along with Jesus.
The author Ralph Woodrow eventually authored a more streamline version of this book called Babylon Mystery Religion. In it, as in The Two Babylon’s, the author presents pagan parallels to rites and teachings of the Catholic Church thereby attempting to show that, due to its parallels the one is born from the other. Ralph Woodrow has since removed the book from publication and has even written an article for the Catholic Answers magazine This Rock refuting the error of this line of thinking by simply stating,
“My reason for pulling the original book out of print was quite basic: Citing similarities between Catholic practices and pagan practices proves nothing if there is no actual connection. One could take virtually anything – even McDonald’s golden arches – and do the same: The Encyclopedia Americana (article: “arch”) say the use of arches was known in Babylon as early as 2020 B.C. As Babylon was called “the golden city” (Is. 14:4 KJV), can there be any doubt about the origin of the golden arches? As silly as this is, this is the type of proof that has been offered again and again about the supposed pagan origins of the Catholic Church.”
He goes on to mention that many things stemming from the Bible are found in pagan practices as well and that going by that logic we would have to discount a lot of Biblical practices as well. I would also mention that to this day we have and celebrate many things with pagan customs. Wedding rings are pagan, for example, and that is used in every solemn Christian marriage ceremony out there. The sensationalism of Alexander Hislop’s “novel” was fact checked by Ralph Woodrow and in all his research Ralph couldn’t find a single connection between Nimrod and his supposed wife Semiramis. In fact, shallow fact checking will reveal that Constantine did much to suppress the pagan religions and eliminate them entirely. In fact, early Christian history will reveal that not only did the early Christians not tolerate pagan ideas, they denounced ideas that are common belief among Protestants today!
So What’s the Verdict?
Understanding the etymology of word usage and the historical relationship theories leaves us with the question: So what is the truth? Where did this idea of holding Mary in such high esteem come from? In order to answer that question we must turn to the source of the claim for veneration: The Church. The formula of understanding Church theology is to know that the Church bases its beliefs on a three-fold structure. Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. Therefore, we start with the first of those, the Bible.
There is very little written about Mary in the Bible, but what we do know, primarily from the Gospel of Luke, is that she was called “full of grace”, “blessed among women”, and “the mother of [our] Lord”. Right there, (esp if you watched my above video) is the majority of the Hail Mary prayer. She was present at the foot of the Cross when Jesus said to John, “Behold your mother. Mother behold your son.” She was also present at the beginning of the Church since she was in the Upper Room with the other disciples praying when the Holy Spirit descended upon them. She is the only person named along with the Apostles.
From this we move into Tradition and history. In the catacombs of Priscilla we find many examples of some of the traditions the Catholic Church uses today. We find an icon or image of Mary and her Son Jesus drawn about 150 AD. It is the first example found that depicts Mary and it was drawn about 200 years before Constantine made Christianity legal. One of the oldest extant prayers is one to Mary called Sub Tuum Praesidium.
“Beneath your compassion, We take refuge, O Mother of God: do not despise our petitions in time of trouble: but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.”
That was composed about 25o AD. A full 100 years before the legalization of Christianity.
Some of the most notable Fathers of the Church write about Mary in strikingly “Catholic” terms.
“Thou alone and thy Mother are in all things fair, there is no flaw in thee and no stain in thy Mother.” – Ephraem, Nisibene Hymns, 27:8 (A.D. 370)
“Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin.” – Ambrose, Sermon 22:30 (A.D. 388)
“We must except the Holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin.” – Augustine, Nature and Grace,4 2, (A.D.415)
“The friends of Christ do not tolerate hearing that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin” – Basil, Homily In Sanctum Christi generationem, 5 (A.D. 379)
“It was fitting …that the most holy-body of Mary, God-bearing body, receptacle of God, divinised, incorruptible, illuminated by divine grace and full glory …should be entrusted to the earth for a little while and raised up to heaven in glory, with her soul pleasing to God.” – Theoteknos of Livias, Homily on the Assumption (ante A.D. 650).
“You are she who, as it is written, appears in beauty, and your virginal body is all holy, all chaste, entirely the dwelling place of God, so that it is henceforth completely exempt from dissolution into dust. Though still human, it is changed into the heavenly life of incorruptibility, truly living and glorious, undamaged and sharing in perfect life.” – Germanus of Constantinople, Sermon I (PG 98,346), (ante A.D. 733).
Even the Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli all believed the tenants about Mary professed by the Catholic Church (even before things like her Immaculate Conception were pronounced as dogma – yet have always been believed).
We finally come to the teaching office, the Magisterium, regarding why and how those tenants were created. Taking together the verses of the Bible and the historical traditions of belief held in the Church from the beginning, the Church began to define what exactly it meant to regard Mary. From this we received the four dogmas of Catholic faith regarding Mary.
She is Mother of God
(seen firstly in Luke 1:43) since Jesus is God.
She was immaculately conceived.
That is, from the moment of her conception, God removed all stain of Original Sin from her and preserved her from sin. This is from the understanding of the term “full of grace” which, coupled with the understanding of the Greek term used here means ‘completely full permanently’ and all of the early writings speaking always of Mary as being immaculately conceived. By the way, most people call Jesus’ birth the immaculate conception. This is incorrect. Jesus’ birth is the Virgin Birth (of Jesus) and Mary’s is the Immaculate Conception.
She is an ever-virgin.
Countless writings of the early Christians always call her a permanent virgin. The Greek word used in the original manuscripts of the Bible is adelphos which means close kinsmen or ‘cousins’ and is used in the verses referring to “the brothers” or “sisters” of Christ. (cf. Gen. 14:14; Gen. 29:15; 1 Chr. 23:21–22; Deut. 23:7; Neh. 5:7; Jer. 34:92 & Kgs. 10:13–14 for further examples).
Mary was Assumed into Heaven.
Meaning that at the completion of her earthly life, she was raised into the glory of Heaven. Aside from the examples we have in the Bible of people being assumed into heaven (ie – Elijah, Enoch, and possibly others) we also have the practices of the early Church where, when a holy, revered person was martyred or died, the Christians would usually keep the spot of their burial as a holy site worthy of pilgrimage, honor, and ultimate protection. Ultimately when they were able to, the Christians built churches on the site of these holy deceased. We can track almost all of the early revered Christians. Only Mary’s remains are unaccounted for. Does it not make sense that she would at least be worthy of honor and reverent respect being the mother of Our Lord Jesus?
Even more than the honor and veneration (not worship) we give to the Saints (dulia) we regard her with the highest honor and veneration (hyperdulia) because of her example to us, but we do not give her what belongs to God alone (latria). Coupled with the ancient practice of praying to those in Heaven (as seen with the Sub Tuum Praesidium) we come to understand that Catholics are not worshiping Mary by praying to her, we’re asking for her help. We aren’t worshiping her because we call her “blessed amongst women” (Luke 1:28) we’re fulfilling her own statement that, “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).
Mary as Mother
A wise priest once said to me, “Mary doesn’t force anyone to come to her, but she patiently waits to help her children with all they ask.” Like any good disciple, Mary points the way to her Son. Most frequently the story one hears from converts to Catholicism regarding their first prayer to Mary goes something like, “God I hope this doesn’t make you mad” or “God forgive me if this is wrong or if this isn’t the right thing…” I myself said something similar the first time… and even many years later at the rawest moment of my life. However, I have come to see Mary as a beautifully soft motherly figure who delicately nurtures me even closer into the heart of Jesus. I don’t worship Mary and any Catholic worth their salt would tell you the same. A good writer once said, “People should start taking Catholics at their word when they say they don’t worship Mary. They deserve to be believed and they ought to know what they’re talking about.”