His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” John 2:5 NAB

Many Protestants gloss over Mary’s role in the life of Jesus. An instant wariness often emerges at the very mention of Mary’s name, a watchfulness in case the speaker should cross over into Catholic territory. At the same time, many Catholics “don’t do the Mary thing,” perhaps because they simply don’t have a confident understanding of the place Mary can or should have in their lives. As a Catholic convert from an evangelical Protestant denomination, I can empathize with both groups. I want to share a few things which have helped me to better understand the Blessed Mother’s place in the Church and how I should regard her.

Prior to beginning my conversion process, my first major hurdle regarding not only Mary but conversion in general was prayer. I had no problems praying; even at my lowest points I still talked to God. But I had a well-intentioned aversion to praying to anyone but God, because I equated prayer with worship. This is likely the greatest reason for so many Protestants believing we Catholics “worship Mary.” We’ve got statues and pictures of her in God’s house and we pray to her. If prayer is worship, then praying to anyone but God is idolatry.

Resolution: prayer is communication. Prayer can be worship if you intend it as such, the key being what you say.

I have a distinct memory of saying, at some point many years before my conversion, that “Mary is just as dead as everyone else,” therefore she couldn’t possibly hear anyone praying to her anyway. (Forgive me, Blessed Mother.) I had been taught the concept of “soul sleeping.” And yet so many people speak fondly of how loved ones who’ve gone before them are looking down on them from heaven—right now! Already!

If that is so, do you suppose they can hear you if you talk to them? “Hey, Great-Grandma, I’m thinking of you today.” There’s absolutely nothing in Scripture to say they can’t. And there absolutely is a plethora of Scriptural evidence that they can hear us and that our instruction to pray for one another will be carried out in heaven as well, and is already being carried out in heaven. So “Hey, Great-Grandma, I’m thinking of you today; will you please pray for me?” can be just as effective as asking someone in person to pray for you.

We pray for one another. When we are in need of help ourselves, we pray to God for that help, and then we often ask others to pray for us, too. Why? We enlist as much help as we can because we know prayer works. The difference in the Church is that Catholics know they can ask saints in heaven to pray for them as well. The prayers of those no longer burdened by the concerns of our physical world are likely to be much more powerful because the saints in heaven are closer to God (literally, proximately) and because their prayers are constant.

We Catholics know God is the one in charge. Yet God has commanded us to pray for one another. Who better to have praying for you than God’s own mother?

God put Jesus on earth in the care of humans. Jesus loved with a perfect love, always. Therefore the love of Jesus for His earthly father and mother was—is!—perfect, stronger than any love any of us can possibly conceive of or experience for anyone here on earth. And Mary loved her Child. And since Mary loved her Child, she would want the best for Him, would want what He wants. Jesus wants us to know what love is and to join Him in heaven, and therefore Mary wants the same things and works for the same things. She wants whatever her Son wants.

Still, even many Catholics balk at the idea of praying to anyone but God or asking anyone but God for help, because there is only one Mediator and that is Jesus Christ. But this reasoning ignores our Biblical exhortation to pray for one another; it even goes so far as to pretend that we never ask others to pray for us or that others’ prayers are ineffective. God, for His own reasons—perhaps just because He enjoys seeing our love for each other in action—wants us to help each other in this way, through intercession, even though he doesn’t at all need our help. Why would that stop in heaven?

We all understand that all good things come from God, but God often chooses to allow those good things to come to us through the aid of others so that we can experience the love of Jesus Christ firsthand, in a very real and present way. It is, after all, only through the aid of Christ that we are able to join with God in heaven if we choose to follow Him. And it was through Mary’s consent to God’s will that Jesus was brought forth to us, and it is therefore through Mary’s help that we have salvation. Why did God involve Mary, a human, at all? God didn’t have to have it this way; God chose to have it this way. We had better pay attention to God’s choices.

Paragraph 970  of the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes from the Lumen Gentium:

“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men … flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it.” [LG 60] “No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but sharing in this one source.” [LG 62]

So you must see that the Church in no way ascribes any power to Mary which is not ultimately God’s. Mary’s influence “flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it.” We Catholics can ask her to pray for us when we need help, and her constant assistance magnifies her Son’s glory. It’s as if she’s constantly saying, “Look at what my Son can do—look at Him, really look!” …because she wants everyone to see Jesus. She wants everyone to come to her Son and join them in heaven.

What about Mary’s perfection, her supposed “Immaculate Conception” and sinlessness?

I had a big problem with all of that as well. I was raised to believe that Jesus was the only perfect human being ever to have walked the earth, and I completely misunderstood the term “Immaculate Conception.”

It was when I read Scott Hahn’s Hail, Holy Queen that I first came across the phrase “Ark of the New Covenant.” This is a truly ancient concept, but it took reading a library book written by a modern-day plain-speaking Catholic theologian for me to even be exposed to it. And it’s perfectly logical. Those were the lightbulb words for me. Ark of the New Covenant. Think about the Ark of the Old Covenant, the strict instructions God gave for it. Why would God pay any less attention to the construction and preparation of the Ark of the New Covenant? That Ark is Mary. Catholics believe God prepared Mary for her task from the moment she was conceived in the womb of her own mother—that being the Immaculate Conception. From the very first moment of her existence, she was free of the stain of original sin, and God also preserved her from sin for the rest of her earthly life. The vessel which first contained our Lord would be no less than perfect. And God can do all things. God is capable of effecting perfection.

In this same vein, I had another lightbulb moment recently when pondering Elizabeth’s words when Mary visited her:

During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:39-42 NAB)

The last line is the basis for part of the Hail Mary prayer—“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” When praying the Hail Mary I had often wondered how “blessed is the fruit of thy womb” fit into the picture. Why isn’t it “blessed art thou by the fruit of thy womb”? Isn’t that more accurate? But Elizabeth says Jesus is blessed, in the very same breath in which she says Mary is blessed, both within the context of Mary’s pregnancy.

I’m sure this exists in countless places in Catholic scholarly works, so don’t think I’m claiming to have made some great discovery, but this helped me so much: While thinking about why the words are “blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” I realized that Elizabeth was saying that Jesus is blessed by Mary. Mary is a blessing to Jesus. Mary’s faith in God was a blessing to Jesus, and therefore also to us. In the same way, Mary’s perfection and holiness were God’s gift to His Son, and therefore also to us.

What about being “devoted” to Mary? Isn’t that taking things too far?

As I began my conversion process, I often encountered the concept of “devotion” to Mary or to a particular saint. It made me uneasy. Devotion sounded a little too much like worship. Again, however, I simply needed a slight reorientation. I had a narrow mental concept of devotion. What it really means in this context is emotional attachment. I read that somewhere a long while back, but I have no idea where, so I’m sorry to say I can’t share. But reading “devotion” as emotional attachment helps immensely. And it’s not calling something by another name to make it sound better; it’s calling it by the right name, thinking of it the way the Church does instead of imposing our own preconceptions on our reasoning.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having an emotional attachment to the mother of God, or to your own mother, or to your children. In the case of Mary and the saints, devotion can also indicate a desire to emulate. Because they lived holy lives worthy of imitation, we turn them into role models, often choosing saints whose lives or situations were similar to our own. So we feel a kinship with them, and we converse with them and we ask them to help us by their prayers.

Mary is the ultimate role model. Mary did what God wanted, up to and including watching her Child die a painful and wrongful death for crimes He didn’t commit. Mary obeyed and obeyed and obeyed. That is worthy of imitation. And Jesus loved Mary; therefore Mary is worthy of our love as well.

Jesus is God, but Jesus is also human. Jesus has a Mommy. As we discussed earlier, Jesus loves with a perfect love, always. No matter how much you love your mother, Jesus loves His mother more. If she is perfect, then she wants only what is good; and if she wants something, would her loving Son deny her if it fits into that Big Picture which we ourselves are too small to see?

There is nothing threatening about Mary. We pray to Mary for help and she prays for us because she loves us, because we are her Son’s precious family. We do not worship Mary. Nor does Mary want anyone to worship her. She would be the first to tell you to focus on Jesus instead. But we can talk to her as we do our own mothers. We can ask her to pray for us, as we would ask our own mothers to do so. We can have pictures of her in our houses as we do of our own mothers. We can have pictures and statues of her in God’s house, too—because she’s God’s own mother and it is good to be reminded of her. She is special and holy, unique among God’s creatures as the Ark of the New Covenant. And just as she was a gift to Jesus, Jesus made her a gift to us all: “Behold, your mother.”

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Then Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah,
and the king stood up to meet her and paid her homage.
Then he sat down upon his throne,
and a throne was provided for the king’s mother, who sat at his right.
“There is one small favor I would ask of you,” she said. “Do not refuse me.”
“Ask it, my mother,” the king said to her, “for I will not refuse you.”
1 Kings 2:19-20 NAB

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Pertinent reading:

— Is Mary’s Queenship Biblical? — Excerpt: “One biblical theme sheds light on these questions and serves as a key for unlocking the mystery of Mary’s queenship: the Old Testament tradition of the “queen mother” in the Davidic kingdom. In the monarchy of King David, as well as in other ancient kingdoms of the Near East, the mother of the ruling king held an important office in the royal court and played a key part in the process of dynastic succession. In fact, the king’s mother ruled as queen, not his wife.”

— To the Disciple He Said, Behold Your Mother (Pope John Paul II)

— Why do Catholics pray to Mary?

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Hail, Mary, full of grace, the LORD is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God,
pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of our death. Amen.