Over drinks this weekend, an old friend of mine asked me at point-blank a question I hear often but one for which I am seldom able to articulate a short, clear answer:
Why do Catholics pray to Mary?
It may have been the grace of the company I was with, or that it was late in the evening, but I think I managed to offer - for the first time - a fairly succinct answer to her question.
First off, let's start with the prayer.
Full of grace,
the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of death.
The first thing I pointed out is that the first section of the prayer is the combination of two greetings directed toward Mary in the first chapter of Luke's Gospel. The first line is taken from Luke's account of the angel Gabriel greeting Mary: "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). The next line of the prayer is also a greeting, this time taken from Elizabeth who cries, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb" (Luke 1:42).
This led to the following observation: the beginning of the prayer, at the very least, is wholly scriptural. As I sipped my martini, I had to chide my friend: since when did a Protestant get miffed over a Catholic trying to quote scripture? It is true, of course, that these two greetings are separated by a few verses. Nevertheless, they both do confess something about Mary: that, in the history of salvation, she stands as one who is "full of grace" and who is somehow exceptionally blessed.
Near as I can tell, so far so good. At this point we're still in the realm of scripture and we're simply repeating what has been enshrined in the Scriptures.
But what about the next line?
Our address to Mary in the second part of the prayer, "Holy Mary, Mother of God" is, ultimately, a test of Christian orthodoxy. We needn't go over the travails of the Council of Ephesus (Ephesus I, 431) where the battle between two bishops over the proper title of Mary was settled: Mary is the Theotokos or Mother of God. This does stand to reason: if Jesus is the Son of God and if Jesus is fully human and fully divine (Council of Chalcedon, 451), then it stands to reason that Mary is the Mother of God.
Note: I have never had a problem calling Mary the "Mother of God." I seem to recall my great-grandmother muttering "Holy Mary Mother of God" under her breath frequently, so it must be ingrained in my mind. That being said, I am fully aware of the debate between Christotokos and Theotokos but I choose not to drag you into those details. If this post occasions it, I can always post deeper theological underpinnings. But for now, I'll spare you.
If we grant that Mary is the Mother of God - and I am aware that some Christians take exception to this - then we are left with one line of the prayer: "Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death."
I have only ever interpreted this line, and prayed it, as a simple request. I take seriously the line from Hebrews 12 that reads,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.
I have always appreciated the Catholic saints who serve as exemplars of holiness and sanctity. Each saint shows us the very many ways that we can live our lives with our eyes fixed upon Jesus. As a Catholic, I believe that Mary has a special place within the communion of saints as one who stands in a special relationship with Jesus: as a mother stands to her son. It is this Mary who opened herself wholly to the invitation of God to be the mother of the savior, this Mary who risked much for her faith, this Mary who taught her son how to love and loved him into the man he became, this Mary who stayed with him until his tragic execution at the cross. As an exemplar, is there any better among this "cloud of witnesses" who may show us what a truly Christ-centered life is like?
As Christians, it is certainly not uncommon for us to ask one another for prayers. I ask others to pray for me and for my intentions frequently. I also receive very many prayer requests, which I do take most seriously. Why then, if we are surrounded by a "cloud of witnesses" would we not ask them, too, for them to pray on our behalf? If we pray seriously the opening of the Hail Mary, should our eyes and heart not be directed to Mary but through Mary to the true center of her life and our life: Jesus Christ?
As I have come to know and cherish it, the Hail Mary is a prayer that fuses the acclaim of heaven and earth. The words of an angel and the words of a human proclaim the singular grace that is Mary's vocation in history: to be the bearer of the Christ. By making this our prayer, we join our voices with Gabriel and all those who have looked to Mary as the prime model of a truly Christ-centered life. With her as our guide, we ask her to pray on our behalf, to join her words to ours as we continue to grow in our discipleship.
I am acutely aware of Marian excesses and I deplore them as superstition. On the other hand, I would not be so cavalier as to jettison the practice of saying the rosary...if for no other reason than I do it and derive great benefit from it. In praying the rosary, I find myself focusing more and more on the various aspects of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. The meditation of the rosary actually illuminates the person of Jesus and my relationship with Him.
When Catholics pray to Mary, or to the saints, it can often sound like they are praying to min-gods. This is sad. When I say, "I'll pray to Saint Gerard for your pregnancy" I mean only to say that as I commend the particular person to God's providential care, I will also ask that Saint Gerard do so as well. It might sound hokey, but in inviting a member of the communion of saints to pray with me, I am reminded that, as Christians, we are never alone. We are the Body of Christ - past, present, and future - and the prayers of one should be the prayer of all. Thus do I invoke the saints and Mary, deepening a spiritual friendship with those who are recognized as leading holy, Christ-centered lives and who give me a model for the type of life that I want to lead.
Okay, I kind of lied. The answer I gave my friend was A LOT SHORTER but, as I wrote, I realized that I should fill in some gaps. By no means do I think that this will change the mind of anyone convinced that Catholics pray to Mary, but perhaps it will help to launch further conversation.