There is a famous poem about two ships passing in the night. In the poem, the passing ships tell the reader about two people who see each other for the first time and only for a short duration and then part ways, disappearing into the vastness of the earth. The poet is telling readers that such people are like two ships, which pass by each other at night and only come face to face for a brief view. As they pass through the night, they only get an imperfect glimpse of each other, thus, they don’t fully understand each other.
Let’s apply this poem in the Christian perspective as the Protestant and Catholic ships are often like these two ships passing in the night. Both ships do not fully see the other ship and, as a result, both don’t comprehend each other. Also, if you can’t understand the other it is nearly impossible to communicate with the other in explaining your ship. So, in order for the Catholic ship to show the beauty of her ship to the Protestant ship, it is helpful for us Catholics to know how the Protestants view our ship from their vantage point. Sadly, their vision of the Catholic ship has been negatively skewed because their lens in which they view the Catholic ship is full of smudge marks of misconceptions. Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” In this article, we will take a look at one of those false misconceptions – the view of Mary.
There are many Catholic teachings that seem strange to non-Catholics. But, probably the most bizarre (outside the Eucharist) is the devotion to Mary. As Catholics we might think, why would someone be so hung up on Mary? She is humble, tenderly, motherly, and obviously was a central part of Jesus’ life? So, while Protestants scratch their head in puzzlement at Catholics for how they honor Mary, Catholics, in turn, scratch their head at Protestants wondering why they don’t give reverence to Mary.
As with other instances when someone has different lenses and doesn’t see what you see, all you have to do is simply say, “Try these glasses on and see what I see.” While they may view the Catholic lenses as old, clumsy, dingy glasses, little do they know that the Catholic glasses are more like Maui Jim sunglasses – with these glasses everything becomes polarized and enhanced.
Let’s look at Mary (as well as other aspects of the Church) and see how the Catholic and non-Catholic lenses work so we can see which lens provides the person with the best view of reality.
Catholicism views the design of God through a deep understanding of covenants in terms of family language whereas Protestants read the work of God primarily as a personal relationship that doesn’t require a covenantal bond. Catholics see the handiwork of God much like a father who gives his children family gifts throughout the child’s life so the children can participate in the father’s work – saving souls. And, because saving souls is incredibly difficult, God gives us his Sacraments. Therefore, Jesus gives us baptism so we can be adopted into the Trinity family (see John 3:5, Matthew 28:19). Then, he gives us other Sacraments so we can receive his grace and power to participate in the family business of saving souls. Additionally, Jesus gives us his bride, the Church (see Ephesians 5:21-33) and he gives us a spiritual father known as the pope (see Matthew 16: 17-19), as well as older brothers and sisters (the saints) that guide us throughout the way. Finally, and dramatically, while he was dying on the cross, Jesus gave us his mother to be our mother for guidance and protection when he said to the beloved disciple, “Behold your Mother” (John 19: 26-27).
In order to see the striking importance of what God is doing throughout the Bible, imagine a father gives his children important gifts throughout the father’s life so his children can know him better and can participate with him in his family’s business. We can imagine a father giving his children certain family heirlooms and family instructions that will keep them closer to him. Now, imagine the father dramatically bestows his children an important gift on his deathbed. The children would naturally honor and adore this gift. In no way would the children assume that this gift in some way took away from their relationship to their father. Catholicism views that all of these precious items that Jesus gives us as a gift from him that allows us to be closer to him and to participate in his family business – saving souls. It would become highly bizarre if instead of embracing these gifts the father provided them, the children declared that these gifts get in the way of their relationship with the father. By rejecting the father’s gifts and the father’s idea that his gifts will help the children carry out his work, the children, whether they know it or not, are rejecting their father.
Sadly, the Protestant lens views these gifts as what we do for God, instead of seeing that the gifts are what God does for us. And because they view the gifts as man’s construct, they reject them because they are taking away from their personal relationship with God. The difference boils down to the following distinction. Protestants operate on a zero-sum/either-or theology while Catholics operate on a participation/both-and theology when it comes to these “gifts.”
Therefore, all these items we call gifts look weird to Protestants. When it comes to Mary they have a hard time embracing how we showcase her. To them they see yard statues of the Virgin Mary. They see rosaries. The see medals of her. They see a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe at their favorite Mexican restaurant. They see all of these “things” and it looks exotic and strange to them. They don’t know how to relate to it and they can’t ever see themselves coming into contact with Mary in that way.
Their zero-sum theology goes as follows. There is a pie, and this whole pie goes to Jesus. Jesus is God in human form. Everything begins with Jesus and ends with him. Therefore, Protestants give the entire pie – 100% to Jesus. Then, they look over at their Catholic neighbor and they see that Catholics are carving up (they think) pieces of that pie and giving it to things that aren’t Jesus. So, they see that Catholics are really into Mary – they’ve carved out about 25% to her. The Pope and the Church are also significant, and they carved out a 25% piece here. Their priest is also important as they call him father, and they go to him for confession – he’s got a 10% sliver. Furthermore, they are praying to saints like St. Anthony when they lose their car keys – so he has a 5% sliver. They are praying to St. Peregrine when they are sick – another 5%.
By the time the pie is divided up by all these “things” Jesus retains only 30% piece of the pie. For them, this idea is crazy because Jesus should get everything. They just assume Catholics need to wipe out all this other clutter that takes away from Jesus – Mary being a big one for them. The rub is what they see as clutter that gets in the way with a relationship with Jesus, we see as gifts that expand our relationship with Jesus. Because of their “Jesus only” idea they sadly throw out the very items (Sacraments, Mary, and Saints) that Jesus give us to be closer to him. The reason they do this is because they operate on a zero-sum logic.
The zero-sum philosophy forces a person to pick either Jesus or Mary. However, Catholics reject the zero-sum/either-or concept. In part, because Catholics view God’s work as a father in a family, and families don’t operate with an either-or presumption. No sane person would come up to a father of two children and ask him if either his first born or his second born received his love. Notice this question tries to break the bond within the family relationship by forcing the person to pick either first born or second born. The father would naturally reject this flawed either-or way of thinking and say, “Both my oldest and my youngest receive my love. This idea is fundamentally Catholic because Catholics operate from the both-and philosophy.
Furthermore, Catholics buy into the participation theology because this is the groundwork within the Bible. That is, human beings through God’s help can participate in God’s work much like a child through his father’s assistance can participate in the family business (see 1 Corinthians 3:9, 2 Peter 1:4, Romans 8:14-17, Galatians 4:4-7 1 John 3: 1-3).
In participation theology, you should expect to receive additional gifts to enhance the relationship. To demonstrate the participation theology an analogy is helpful. I am married and my wife and I have three children. Every time a baby was born it wasn’t as if the pie of love between my wife and I was getting carved up and shrunken. It wasn’t the case when my oldest son was born I told my wife, “Now I can’t love you 100%. With the baby here my love for you now goes to 50%.” Then, with the birth of baby #2, I didn’t tell my oldest son “Well, I’m sorry Jack, Joseph was just born. You just lost some of my love in the pie. You used to have 50% of my love, but much of that 50% has shifted to the new baby.” Then, when the next baby comes, my two oldest sons have lost more of that pie. And if you add new babies into the mix you are losing more and more love in the family because there is a tug of war going on to fight over who gets what. This is not how families work. In fact, when a man and woman are married and a baby comes the baby does not take away from the love that the man and woman have. The baby magnifies the love between the husband and wife.
Additionally, with more children, the love expands between the siblings and that family as a whole. Of course, in the ideal family setting, the siblings take care of each other, much to the joy of the parents. So, there is not a tug of war for love, but there is an expansion of love in the family when new children come into the mix. In this analogy, the babies that are added into the family are like the gifts Jesus gives us in Mary, the Sacraments, the Saints, the pope, etc. These items don’t take away from a relationship, they amplify it. Mary is like the new addition in our relationship with Jesus. What a better way to connect with Jesus than the very person who knew him the best – his mother.
Furthermore, the participation aspect makes sense when we view God through the family lens. To illustrate this Theologian Scott Hahn has us imagine a father cutting the grass on his riding mower. Now, imagine the father’s son takes his toy lawn mower and tries to cut the lawn next to the father. The son who admires his dad wants to participate in doing his father’s work, but on his own, the son and his toy mower end up getting in the way. Any good father will lift the son up on his leg and into the riding mower and let the son take the steering wheel with him. In this sense the father lets the son play a role in the father’s work.
When the father does this, guess what – he and his son share a much closer bond. Well, on a much larger lever, the same analogy applies in that God lifts us up with certain gifts (Mary, Sacraments, Saints, Church, etc.) precisely so we can participate with him in the hard task of saving souls. This whole process allows us to be closer to God.
The reason this participation theology is the best Biblical approach is because it is based on the Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The fact that there are three persons in the Trinity doesn’t mean there is less God – they are all equally God. None of the persons of the Trinity are pitted in a tug-of-war in which one takes away from the other. Each person in the Trinity points to the other and expands each other. Given that the Holy Trinity itself operates on a participation theology, it is no wonder that Jesus founded his Church on this very concept.
There are a couple practical questions you can ask your Protestant friends to help them understand this idea. Ask them if they think Jesus would have given us great gifts during his life before he departed. Do you really think he would have essentially said, “Peace out, I’ll be with you in spirit, but I’m not going to leave you with anything physical or tangible in which you can connect with me.” No, he wouldn’t do this. In fact, he directly told them, “I will not leave you like orphans” (John 14:18). Then, you can explain to them that like any good father, Jesus would have left his children with concrete gifts that will allow them to unite with him and partake in his work.
Catholics believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary doesn’t take away from Jesus, rather she magnifies Jesus more clearly. In fact, Mary said this directly. “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). What Mary is saying is that a person can get a better glimpse of God through her magnifying lens. Mary, along with the Holy Trinity, operates on a participation theology. We are called to do the same thing and when we come to honor Mary we are not taking even one percent away from Jesus. Instead, we are enlarging the way that we experience Jesus. Everything Mary does points to Jesus and this is demonstrated when she told the servants at the wedding, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). With this statement, she is announcing that she will constantly draw a person to the will of Jesus. Moreover, because Mary is the instrument that magnifies the Lord, we naturally adore her for this. So, all of the Catholic devotion to Mary comes from this fact as she plainly stated: “All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Only in Catholicism is this verse fulfilled as Mary is indeed blessed by Catholics.
Now, at this point, you’ll have to further explain the difference between your Catholic lenses and the Protestant lenses so people can be able to better focus on Mary. One of the reasons is Protestants tend to read the Bible in a literalistic, fundamental manner. Meaning, if a message isn’t stated in an obvious straightforward manner in the Bible, then they assume it must not be that important. They tend to have a surface level reading of the Bible and don’t dig underneath to uncover the deep meaning in the practice of typology. Catholics practice the method of typology in which the Old Testament reveals the New Testament and the New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament. Whereas Protestants tend to see the Old and New Testament loosely connected, Catholics see both books as tightly interconnected.
Therefore, when it comes to Mary they don’t see the layers of typology that reveal she is the Ark of the New Covenant. She is the New Eve. She is the Queen Mother. They don’t see the significance of the woman in Revelation 12. Or, the significance of Mary’s involvement in Jesus’s first miracle, or Mary at the foot of the cross, or understand the significance of the annunciation. Rather, when viewing Mary it is what they don’t see. Therefore, because they don’t see a line in the Bible that says, “The apostles prayed a novena to Mary” or “Mary was assumed into heaven next to Jesus” they assume that Catholics are pulling these Marian doctrines out of thin air.
At this point, the Catholic needs to encourage the Protestant to go beyond the surface level reading of the Bible and enter into deep contemplation of the Biblical story through typology.
Finally, there are two concepts of Mary that Protestants have to agree with. They will acknowledge that Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments is to honor your father and mother. We know that Christ honored his Father in heaven perfectly. Then, ask your Protestant friend did he honor his mother perfectly? Of course, they have to say yes. If they answer no then Christ sinned. Well, the Son of God can honor his mother in ways that we as humans can never do. He can lavish riches, graces, privileges on Mary that far exceed what we can do. Given that we know Jesus honors Mary and gives her special privileges, it is no wonder the Catholic Church as well admires her.
The second point that you can make to your Protestant friend is that Jesus died on the cross and poured out his flesh and blood to save us. Ask them where did Jesus get that flesh and blood? Did Jesus come to the earth in physical form by directly descending from heaven? No, instead God choose for the Son of God to enter into the human sphere in the portal of space and time through the Virgin Mary’s womb. Therefore, when Christ was nailed to the cross and when he poured out that blood Mary played a significant role in this process.
If the world received Jesus through Mary, no wonder that to get closer to him we’d use the same instrument – Mary. To reject her is to reject him. The fact of the incarnation shows that Mary contributes to our salvation by bringing us the flesh and blood that we desperately need.
The third point to show your Protestant friend is that the more we make of Mary, the more we make of Jesus’ work. Mary is God’s masterpiece as she was made without sin. The more you make of the artwork the more you make of the artist who crafted that masterpiece. Imagine you are at an art gallery praising an artist’s work. If the artist is standing right beside you while you’re admiring his work, he’s going to love that you’re honoring his work. He certainly won’t feel offended by it. Jesus is the artist and Mary is his artwork. When we praise her we simultaneously praise him. I can assure you that Jesus does not have a pride complex in that he will become offended when you honor his mother. Therefore, as we stand before Mary, the divine artist who created Mary, will be smiling from the background.
The same logic holds true with a parent and a child. A parent would naturally be pleased when someone praises their child. In fact, if you want to make a parent happiest, compliment their child – their own creation.
As you walk your Protestant friend through all this evidence, they may resist at first, but at least you’ll get them thinking. Notice too, that we did not even bring up the plethora of well-documented Mary miracles that have occurred throughout the world in different periods of time. From the Miraculous Medal that took place at Paris, to the Marian appearances at La Salette, Lourdes, Knock, Mexico City, Fatima, Beauraing, Banneux, Medjugorie, and so on. In fact, these Marian miracles have become so immense that even the secular news source National Geographic ran a cover story on the world-wide Marian miracles. What all these Mary miracles showcase is that God is still very much using Mary has his divine messenger to interact in the world today. The fact that she comes to us through miracles shows that Jesus is continuing to honor his mother by using her as a cosmic messenger.
It’s impossible to force someone to honor and adore their mother. But, if you plant a few seeds in their mind and show them who their mother really is, the seeds will begin to grow.
Once we present these ideas to the non-Catholic, they’ll be better able to see into the Catholic lenses. Who knows, with a prayer to Our Lady, they might even want to order these Catholic glasses long term and eventually board our ship the next time our ships cross paths.