Why Catholics Honor Mary
All relationships, of course, are a two-way street. They require something from us — phone calls and visits, acts of thoughtfulness, time spent together. They demand that that we give something of ourselves to the other. In our relationship with Mary, she helps give new life to our souls, prays for us, and provides us with what we need to grow in grace. In return, she deserves our honor and love, just as our earthly mothers do. She deserves our devotion.
To make sure we’re all on the same page, I want to spend a little time explaining what I mean by devotion. The word can have more than one meaning, and the Church uses Latin terms to help us distinguish between the kind of devotion we give to Mary and the kind of devotion we give only to God. These words are dulia and latria.
Latria basically means adoration. Traditionally, it refers to the worship and homage that we give to God and God alone. When we adore God, we acknowledge him as an excellent, perfect, uncreated, divine person. We give him what he alone, as God, is due.
Dulia is very different. Essentially, dulia means love and honor; that is, praising the excellence of a created person. We see this particular kind of honoring every day, when, for example, people are recognized for their achievements in sports, academics, and the arts. But we never think that honoring a baseball player goes against or takes away from the adoration we give to God.
Now, Catholics believe that we should not only honor those who excel in the things of this world, but that we should also honor those who excel in the things of the spiritual world (for example, in their devotion to God, their obedience to his will, and their charity to others). That’s why we honor the saints — men and women who, during their earthly life, excelled in their pursuit of holiness. Honoring the saints does not detract from God any more than honoring athletes does. In fact, when we honor saints, we are honoring God, too, for it is by his gifts, and for his glory, that saints are able to excel in holiness in the first place. When we praise those who spent their life pursuing an intimate union with God, we ultimately praise God, who is both the giver and the object of that love.
Now, if it’s fitting to venerate those who have achieved spiritual excellence, isn’t it even more fitting to venerate the woman who achieved it to the highest degree: the woman whom Jesus chose to become his mother in the order of nature and our mother in the order of grace? Of course it is. And in recognition of Mary’s pre-eminent holiness, the special recognition we give to Mary is called hyperdulia: the greatest amount of honor we can give to any created person.
Again, this special veneration of Mary is completely different from, and inferior to, the adoration we give to God. We adore God and only God, and since Mary is not God, we don’t adore her. It’s as simple as that. Don’t get confused if you happen to see the expression “worship of Mary” in an old Catholic book. The English language is flexible, and the word worship in many of those old books can mean either hyperdulia or latria. In reference to Mary, though, it never means the kind of adoration due to God alone.
The Catholic Church, in fact, strictly and expressly prohibits the adoration of Mary as divine. Still, because of who Mary is, what she did during her earthly life, and what she continues to do in eternal life, she is more deserving of veneration than any other created creature — man or angel — that ever will exist. That’s why the term hyperdulia is used to describe only the type of honor we give to Mary.
Higher than the Angels
Let’s go into a little more detail on why Mary merits her own unique level of veneration.
As the Catholic Church understands it, there are three fundamental reasons Mary deserves a higher level of devotion than all other holy men, women, and angels.
The first reason is that God chose to give Mary a fullness of grace. From the first moment of her conception, Mary possessed the fullness of grace — the fullness of life — that God originally intended all men and women to possess. Free from Original Sin, she passed on her own immaculate human nature to her son, Jesus. This can’t be said of any other created person. All of the other saints the Church honors, and all of the men and women whose holiness only God knows, received a great deal of grace in their lifetimes, certainly, but they never received the fullness of grace. They were all born with fallen natures, and only a nature free from all stain of sin can possess that fullness. Mary alone was given that privilege. Her possession of such a singular gift makes her deserving of a singular type of devotion.
Second, and more significant, Mary alone had the privilege of being the mother of God, of Jesus Christ. She was the one who gave flesh to the “Word made Flesh.” She was the one who carried him in her womb and watched him day by day as he grew “in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” Because she was ever in his presence, Mary’s relationship with Jesus was entirely different from the relationship that any other person has ever had with him. Only Mary had an interior and essential role in Jesus’ taking on flesh and becoming our redeemer. Only Mary had a physically and spiritually intrinsic role in the Incarnation. All other men and women, even St. Joseph, no matter how closely associated with the Incarnation, had only an external relationship with God becoming man for the sake of our salvation. This uniqueness cannot be underestimated. To underestimate the role of Mary in God’s becoming man is, in fact, to underestimate the significance of God’s becoming man.
The third reason Catholics believe Mary deserves a greater degree of veneration than all other creatures is her obedience. The words Mary uttered at the Annunciation, she also uttered with her heart every day of her life. “Let it be to me according to your word” was not just a one-time deal with Mary. She lived all of her years on earth in perfect obedience to the Father. His will was her will. Sustained by his grace, Mary perfectly modeled a life of virtue. She still models that for all believers. She shows us what it means to surrender ourselves and receive everything as a gift from God. She shows us the path to true freedom, true happiness, true life. And for that, too, she deserves a devotion like no other.
Because God gave Mary such an important role in the story of our salvation, devotion to Mary should not be an arbitrary or extraordinary thing. It should just be a normal part of the faith life of all believers.
Art for this post on devotion to Mary: Cover of Meet Mary used with permission; partially restored Virgen del Rosario del Convento de la Concepción de Quito (Virgin of the Rosary of the Convent of the Conception of Quito [Equador]), anonymous, photographed by Jojagal, 27 November 2013, CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.
LEARN MORE about the Mother of our Lord.