“Mary, if you are there, pray for me. Jesus, if this is wrong, show me. And forgive me.”
I prayed that little prayer silently in my head, too scared to whisper it out loud. It was the first evening that what Mark and I had both been thinking had been broached out loud – should we be Catholic?
So began my sojourn into the Catholic Church. As a staunch, old-school Presbyterian, I was terrified at the Catholic thoughts racing around my head, but there was no forgetting the things that I had recently learned, or the doubts that had been raised. After some talking, and some crying, I went to bed feeling as though my whole world was being shaken.
Over the next few weeks, I devoured all the literature I could find on Catholic “hot button” topics, and Mary was at the top of the list. I had held the opinion for a long time that Catholic beliefs about Mary were idolatrous. But, like a number of other things, once I really dug into the Catholic perspective, my objections began to crumble. In my reading, I didn’t find the “superstitious medievalism” that I expected. Instead, I found some things that I had never heard of or considered. There are some wonderful and profound truths in the Marian doctrines.
But first things first. Because if praying to Mary is actually idolatrous, I was going to be off the train to Rome as abruptly as I got on.
Like pretty much every other problematic doctrine we came across in our conversion, the questions about Mary brought us back to that foundational doctrinal problem of Sola Scriptura – the Protestant idea that Scripture alone is the sole authority of the church, without the Tradition of the Church.
Sola Scriptura is the lynchpin of the question of Mary. If Protestants are right that the Bible alone is the only rule of faith and practice, then it’s pretty clear that the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about the relationship of the Church to the Mother of her Lord – not if you are lacking an infallible guide to help illumine the places that teach about her. Lacking any clear command to give her any particular honor or expect a relationship with her, Protestants insist that to do so is an extraneous invention, at best superfluous and at worst idolatrous, taking away from or even destroying our relationship with Jesus.
When Sola Scriptura fell apart for me, it was the beginning of a huge cascade of doctrinal questions and changes. I really don’t believe that many of the disputes between Protestants and Catholics can ever be resolved without resolving the relationship of Scripture and Tradition first. Until then, we’re just talking past each other.
For a quick refutation of Sola Scriptura, see here. For a longer one, try Sola Scriptura and Private Judgement by Jimmy Akin. The latter impacted me deeply when I first read it; we had been recently ejected from our Protestant church home of 14 years over a minor doctrinal dispute, and the wounds were very fresh. I’m thankful for those wounds now – they began my journey to the Catholic Church.
Don’t we only pray to God? Isn’t it the very definition of idolatry to pray to a creature?
In the many years since the Reformation, the development of a language barrier has deepened and hardened the divide between the Church and her separated Protestant brethren.
You see, when Protestants hear the term, “pray to,” it automatically says to them, “pray to a deity, for the kinds of things one prays to a deity for.”
Well, sure. Under that definition, praying to Mary would automatically be idolatrous, wouldn’t it?
But, I learned that that isn’t what Catholics mean. When a Catholic says that they are going to pray to Mary or another saint, they mean “pray” in the different, older sense that has fallen out of common usage in the modern Protestant world; as in, “I pray thee,” or, “pray proceed.” It meant (and means still) simply, “I ask you.” You could say it to literally anyone.
Catholics are simply asking Mary (and the saints) to pray for us, because “the prayer of a righteous man has great power” (James 5:16).
Even so, why would anyone think that Mary, or any other saint that has passed on, CAN or DOES pray for us?
Well, it turns out that the Church has believed this to be the case from the very earliest days. From Psalms to Revelation, from Clement of Alexandria to Augustine, we see this beautiful belief supported. This article from EWTN offers the grand tour of quotes on this subject from the Fathers.
Oh, the Rosary. How much my opinion has changed!
To my Protestant brain, the Rosary was the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the Catholic Church. Vain repetition? Check. Idolatrous prayer to Mary? Check. Participation in extra-Biblical traditions? Check. Belief in doctrines or events not directly stated in the Bible (like the Coronation of Mary)? Check. Some people even use images of Christ to aid their reflection – violation of the 2nd Commandment? Check!
Boom. The Rosary was one concentrated slug of Papist heresy, hung on a little string of beads.
If you had told me that in a few years, I would come to love praying the Rosary, and that I would carry one in my purse, I might have replied that I would be better off dead.
Ouch. Sorry. I changed my mind.
The Rosary is a beautiful and profound tour of the life of Christ. (It’s also not required, for the record. I used to think that to be Catholic you HAD to pray the Rosary. This is not the case.) Each decade of the Rosary leads you to reflect on a different event relating to Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection. You meditate on the spiritual implications and fruit of that event, and how it impacts you where you are right now.
You know. Awful stuff, that.
So is the Rosary “vain repetition” like Jesus warned against in Matthew 6:7?
Father Dwight Longenecker puts it this way: “Sure, when we pray the rosary there is a lot of repetition. The problem is not repetition but vain repetition. If repetition were the problem Jesus would…have an “Errrm whadabout..” moment with Psalm 136 in which every verse ends with “for his mercy endures forever.” No there’s not a problem with repetition was such, but with vain repetition.”
And from the same article, “The rosary is therefore a powerful symbol of the whole of Catholic theology. Our religion is not an escape from reality or an avoidance of the physical. Instead it is an immersion in reality and a full participation in the physical. Our religion is not an escape from this world, but an embrace of this world. It is not a mental opt out, but a fully human opting in. Christian prayer is not an ethereal experience of another world, but a super charged experience of the other world penetrating this one through the mystery of the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity into this world through the amazing action of taking flesh of the Blessed Virgin.
The rosary is powerful and transformative because it is a daily, simply, prayerful and powerful participation in this mystery of our redemption and the redemption of the whole world.”
I thought his statement that the rosary is a symbol of the whole of Catholic theology was really fascinating, given my previous belief that it encompassed everything that was wrong with the Church!
Not the car. I’m sorry, but growing up we had a yellow Fiat, and that’s what I always think of..convert problems, I guess!
No, Mary’s “fiat” refers to her perfect “yes,” her full submission to the will of God when she replied to the angel: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
This is not so much something that I learned about Mary from the Catholic Church; I knew this one already. But this is a profound spiritual truth that I am learning from her. When Mary said “yes,” she held nothing back, and her entire life changed in the blink of an eye. From the ridicule she must have endured as an unmarried mother, to the sword that pierced her heart at the violent death of her Son, and all the joy and heartache in between, she was never the same.
But she said, “Yes.” Just yes. I pray the Joyful Mysteries more than any other, because I want that “yes” in my heart, too.
Resources for Further Study
- Hail Holy Queen – Scott Hahn. This is a wonderful Protestant’s intro to Mary.
- Behold Your Mother – A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines – Tim Staples. More technical than Hail Holy Queen.
- Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought – Luigi S. M. Gambero
- Refuting the Attack on Mary: A Defense of Marian Doctrines – Fr. Mateo
- 20 Answers- Mary (20 Answers Series from Catholic Answers Book 13) – Catholic Answers Press
- The Key to Understanding Mary – Jimmy Akin
- Mary Mother of God – Catholic Answers
- Mary Full of Grace – Catholic Answers
For more Quick Takes, visit Kelly at This Ain’t The Lyceum.