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The Trouble with Mary (Part I of II)

July 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Mary, Paul McCusker

Life, As I Find It

I remember sitting in a conference where the speaker, an Evangelical Protestant, began to talk about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in complimentary terms. He stopped quickly then said, “I know it makes some of you uncomfortable talking about Mary like this. You’re afraid we might accidentally slip up and start worshipping her.”

The line got a laugh and I thought, as an Evangelical Protestant at the time, how true it was – as if there existed a razor-thin line between merely complimenting Mary or falling to our knees in the kind of unbridled worship that would make God jealous. I thought much later that that’s why some Christians tend to relegate Mary to Christmas alone, with maybe a cursory acknowledgement at Easter. There’s a fear they might start acting like frenzied Catholics.

I understand why Mary is difficult for non-Catholics or even former Catholics. The appearance of Mary-worship seems to be there when looking in from the outside. Just recently an Evangelical Protestant said, with a straight face, “I don’t know how you could become a Catholic. Doesn’t it bother you to worship Mary?”

The quick answer is this: any Catholic who is actually worshipping Mary is in defiance of Church teaching. That much is clear. Worship is reserved for God alone. On the other hand, to revere Mary or the Saints is acceptable. Reverence, or veneration, isn't worship – though it can look a lot like worship to those who aren't used to such a heightened level of respect for beings who aren't God (much in the same way that kissing the feet of a statue of Jesus, or a cross, or an icon of Mary or any of the Saints, may seem like a form of idolatry.)

I have to acknowledge that, for some, the emphasis on Mary seems “disproportionate” in the same way that there seems to be a disproportionate emphasis on the Holy Spirit or the Gifts of the Spirit in some of the Charismatic Churches (one could argue how, at least, the Holy Spirit is part of the Trinity, whereas Mary isn’t).

I’ve also come to recognize that part of any overemphasis is very human: people latch onto the people or things that brought meaning to their relationship to God Himself. Some people are unmatched in their devotion to Mary because, through her, Christ became real. And, if I suggested that those people are wrong somehow, that they love Mary more than Christ, they might look at me as if I’d lost my mind – as if anyone could love Mary more than Jesus. As if.

I may use the example of how love, as seen in my family, might look to an outsider. My wife and I love one another deeply and that's the foundation of everything that happens in our house. Yet, if you came to my home and saw all of the pictures of our kids – certainly more than you'll find of me or my wife – you might conclude that I love my kids a lot more than I love my wife – or that we love our kids more than we love each other. Out of the proper context or apart from the right assumptions, you might draw the wrong conclusions.

I think that happens in some Catholic Churches. There is an assumed foundational understanding of worship of, and devotion to, Christ, but people from the outside see all those other things – like representations of Mary – and it reinforces their perception of a disproportion. (Shrines, of course, are purposefully dedicated to certain aspects of the Catholic Faith, so it shouldn't be a surprise that there would be an overemphasis of the very thing to which it’s dedicated. Otherwise, it'd be like going to a car museum and being surprised that there's such an emphasis on cars.)

For some people, there's even a certain kind of math that gets employed in their perception. I can't tell you how often, as a writer, I've heard from Evangelicals who complained that I mentioned something in one of my novels or plays more times than I mentioned the name of Jesus. They were actually counting, as if the number was indicative of my dedication to Christ. I think those same people go into a Catholic Church and see Jesus represented once on the Crucifix, but then count the number of images of Mary dotted around the sanctuary elsewhere. It’s scandalous to them. But, again, I would argue that it's like counting the photos of my kids to see how they outnumber pictures of my wife. Some things simply can’t be compared in the same way.

I suppose a word-count in a traditional Sunday Missal would be enlightening. Jesus versus Mary. We could create a scoreboard to see who “wins”.

Lumen Gentium “exhorts theologians and preachers of the divine Word to abstain zealously both from all gross exaggerations as well as from petty narrow-mindedness in considering the singular dignity of the Mother of God” (Chapter 8, Section 4).

But there’s another thing to say about all this – and it has to do with a single word that has been terribly misunderstood over the years. I’ll save that for another time.


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About Paul McCusker

Paul McCusker is an author. He converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 2007. He still works for an Evangelical organization. Paul has over 40 published works, including novels, plays, scripts, and lyrics.

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  • Thank you, Paul. Haha, Liz, I am the first to make a short, concise comment on this misunderstanding of who Mary is to us Catholics. And it is this:

    To God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit we pray: “Have Mercy on us”

    To the Holy Mary Mother of God – she who is full of Grace – we pray: “Pray for us”.

    Only God forgives and sanctifies us. The Holy Mary and the Saints pray and intercede for us to God our Creator, our Sanctifier and our Redeemer and Saviour.

    Conclusion from this old gal as taught by Mother Church…….we worship and adore God and God alone. We venerate the Immaculate Mother of God. A world of difference here like the chasm separating Heaven and Earth

    • RobinJeanne

      When ever possible I try to teach people the original meaning of the word “pray” which meant “to ask, to beseech, to request”. Yes, we do pray to the saints, but we worship God alone. Our priest would preach… we don’t “pray” to Mary or the saints but “ask” for their intercession…. I try to explain to his what the word means but he didn’t want to hear. I think instead of conceding to the non Catholics, and what they think, to pray means, we should educate them and our Catholic brothers and sisters. It was probably the protestants that change the meaning of “pray” so that they could say… see they worship statues… for the same reason they are against that we pray the rosary, saying… see, they use repetative prays…. It is their ignorance in believing things that have been taught to them for generations, passe dow from they original protesters. To a point they are not responsible for their misguided beliefs… Lord forgive them for they know not what they do.

      The harvest is great but the laborers are few…. we who know, need to
      evangelize, share the Truth as taught by the Church.

      • Thank you, Robin. Every time I am confronted by these accusations, I take my time to explain to the Non-Catholics the Doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding the Venerated and unique Position of our Lady in the Salvation Mystery. And I am glad most of them – especially those genuinely want to understand – are really happy when they realize just how erroneous they have interpreted our Faith.

        And you are right. A number of our Priests do not take their Evangelization Ministry seriously and fail to impart the Tenets of our Faith always and all the time. They, therefore, need our prayers.

        • LizEst

          Yes, there are even special words for these differences in our prayer. The following definitions come from “A Concise Dictionary of Theology” by Gerald O’Collins, S.J. and Edward G. Farugi, S.J…but they can also be found in many other similar sources:

          “Hyperdoulia” (Gr. ‘more than just veneration’). The special devotion paid to Mary as the Mother of God. It is more than “doulia” (Gr. ‘servitude’) or honor shown to other saints but less than the “laetria” (Gr. worship) or adoration due to God alone.”

          Adoration. The highest reverence to be offered only to God (Ex 20:1-4; Jn4:23), our creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, who alone should be ‘worshiped and glorified’ (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).”

      • Paul McCusker


        You’ve actually hit on the subject of the next post 🙂


        • LizEst

          Thanks for sharing ; )

  • RobinJeanne

    Or another example I heard was an artist paints a picture and I admire it,
    buy it and hang it in my living room but I don’t have a picture of the artist
    hanging anywhere. Does the artist get upset? No, he is delighted that we see the
    beauty in his work and placed it in a prominent place. To love Mary and the
    Saints IS to love God, we know, we understand where their goodness comes from… the grace of God.

    I do have a problem with our cathedral, Our Lady of Guadalupe, maybe you can
    help with. They move the Tabernacle and it’s beautifully ornate altar and placed
    it to the side of the church and hung a huge banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the middle so when one walks into the Cathedral, the first thing you see is Mary and then have to look for Jesus(tabernacle). I think they should have left the Tabernacle front and center like it had been for almost a hundred years and placed the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe over it.

    • LizEst

      Love the artist example you shared. God bless you RobinJeanne.

  • Erin Pascal

    Thank you so much for providing us with this very clear explanation Paul. It was a very good read and I learned so much from it. I hope many people will be able to read your post.

  • debby_d_NJ

    Ah, Paul! The age old competitive human heart….I am also a convert, but unlike all of you, I am no theologian or scholar. Just plugging along reading and praying and “working out my salvation with fear and trembling” day by day. One little thing I would like to add- maybe this has occurred to you as a convert as well: there is no Competition between the hearts of Jesus and Mary. I think since the fall in the Garden with the darkening of our intellect and the concupiscence of the soul, in losing intimate communion with God Who is Love, our capacity and ability to both receive love and give love was radically diminished. The war began between the spirit and the flesh and is usually played out in our relationships with the people around us. Men and women were no longer complimentary partners but competitive opponents (on a practical level – even if you love one another, so much selfishness must be conquered!), and the general acceptance and mutuality of each other became a constant struggle. It dawned on me one day that I think somewhere in the soul’s subconscious there must lurk the idea of Jesus and Mary being “just like us”, namely, in competition rather than living and moving and having their being in pure love, at peace and in union with one another. She humbly receives all God bestows without twisting the circumstances to fit her own idea of the way God’s Will shall be accomplished. I find no evidence in Scripture of any other person (with the possible exception of the Prophet Daniel) who completely surrendered the self over to the will of God. Even Abraham screwed up royally, and he is called “our father in faith”! Love, devotion,, to Jesus and Mary are not a case of either/or. He received His fully human DNA, His Sacred Heart and Precious Body, from her, which He offered in sacrifice. They have one heart, one intention, one will. Without being divine, Mary models what we will one day be in Heaven- all His, “we shall be like Him.” She lives the union I was created for and one day will be. There’s my two cents. Can’t wait to read your next post!

    • Jeanette

      Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” Matt. 11:25

    • LizEst

      Beautiful sentiments, Debby. We have to be careful when we say Jesus and Mary have one heart, one intention, one will. To say that would be to say that Mary does not have free will, from which some people would say God forced her to bear His Son. Instead, we can say that Mary’s heart, intention and will are fully united to Christ’s. She does and did have free will when she freely gave her fiat, her yes, to God’s plan for salvation through her.

      Christ did receive his Sacred Heart and Precious Body from her…and a lot of his DNA. But, we cannot say that He received all His DNA from her. It’s possible, too, that God provided all Jesus’ DNA (I don’t have a sample to send to the lab! Ha!) But, this is fascinating. Through the study of genetics we know, except in cases of genetic aberrations, that a man has both an x and a y chromosome; a woman has two x chromosomes. Each parent can give only one of these sex chromosomes to a child. Where, then, did the y chromosome come from if Mary is ever virgin and could only provide an x chromosome (I can’t say for sure whether God used the x from her, but it’s possible)? The y chromosome, which is the determiner of maleness, could only come from the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit. That means that God Himself provided the other necessary Y chromosome, the other necessary DNA components, to form this male Child in her womb. It’s pretty awesome! This means, for me, even though God is spirit and is neither male nor female, besides the fact that Christ taught us to call God Father, I have no problem calling God Father.

      p.s. Lest anyone misunderstand, it does not mean that God had sex with Mary. It means God himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, provided the necessary physical material that Mary did not already possess as a woman, a great and wonderful and beautiful mystery.

      • Well put, Liz… usual…..

      • debby_d_NJ

        Hi Liz,
        I read your response yesterday but chose not to immediately reply. Somehow I think you read my comment to Paul from a different realm than I was coming from. You started with “Beautiful SENTIMENTS….” – according to the dictionary a sentiment is a refined or tender emotion….
        In Isaiah 49:16 the Lord says the following through the prophet, “Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands…..” some translations say “carved you…” I would bet that while in captivity some of the Israelites must have thought that a nice sentiment. Jesus proved it as a fact at the Crucifixion.

        When I said our Lord and our Lady have “one heart, one will” I was not implying that Mary did not have a free will. As a matter of fact, I said she was the only one I can find in Scripture who fully Surrendered her will, rendering her Fiat over and over in her life on the earth to the Will of the Father – it is obvious that her heart was pierced by a sword many times, yet she never resisted what God allowed. And as far as DNA goes, “God from God, Light from Light….Begotten not made….” Yes, the necessary physical matter was present for God to become Man through the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by a Mystery. Why on earth would anyone doubt that it was Mary’s X chromosome? Where does the Church question that or is that your question? Of course it was her’s, otherwise we are back to an ancient heresies of Docetism and later Monophysitism that Jesus was not fully human, He was just acting like a human rendering her unnecessary. The truth is that she is the Mother of God by His own choosing. This is not science, it is Faith. I do not know if the Church invests Her energy in natural scientific means to prove articles of Faith which are of a supernatural realm. One is an apple and one is an angel. How do you measure an angel’s matter? (I am not implying that Faith cannot be proved to a certain extent by Reason and the Natural World. I have read St. Thomas Aquinas, but without being a scholar, what he reasons out is evident in the natural world to a degree. But there comes a place where one must exercise Faith in what is “invisible”.) So we believe that Jesus was conceived by a most supernatural means of conception. I am sure as a Human Being, He had Human DNA – I think that is part of emptying Himself and taking on the Humanness St. Paul speaks so eloquently about. All of this is an article of Faith. I am positive Jesus looked just like a masculine reflection of Mary, but probably with a beard. Meanwhile, my main point was not DNA but rather their Communion of Life as opposed to the waring Competition the rest of us live. Phew!

        • LizEst

          Phew indeed! I think we are on the same track. Yes, I get the communion of life aspect of what you said. My point is that we have to be careful how we state things, as some would take it the wrong way. As to the DNA, certainly Mary contributed all she had, my point was that God provided what she did not physically have. And, she did not have the y chromosome, so God provided it …otherwise Jesus could not have been male. In order to be positive of how they looked, one would have to have seen each of them. Happen to you? Or, is it firm belief? Again, it’s important to choose our words carefully. My sense is that it is firm belief for you…but, then again, I am human and could be very wrong. If you have seen both, then you are indeed very, very blessed.

          • debby_d_NJ

            Well, Jesus says to Philip, “You have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Now does the Father look like Mary? Does the Father “look Jewish?” OMGosh! I don’t know if God the Father will have what we would call a human face. Then again, Adam and Eve “walked with God in the Garden…” So you have a very good point, one I have never thought about before-THANK YOU! It would seem that on the one hand Faith teaches that God the Father is pure spirit, God the Son through the Incarnation took on human nature in another great mystery of hypo-static union, the Holy Spirit is, well, Spirit. Therefore, of the Three distinct Persons of the Most Holy Trinity, only Jesus has a human face-that we KNOW of. It never occurred to me that He would chose Mary as His mother but want to look like someone else. It always bugs me when the two are depicted in art not resembling each other. And, No, I am not indeed “very, very blessed for seeing them” (but am for other reasons – namely, I am His). You must be from NJ – very snarky! but I LOVE that! haha! hey, in NJ sarcasm is our second language….now I can laugh both with and at you and myself….thanks again for new things to think about while pulling weeds and doing dishes. Have a blessed day!
            p.s. the Son of God is mentioned in the OT a few places – off hand, to Abram with a couple other “guys” who tell him he is going to be a father, and in the fiery furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar declares there is “one like the son of god” walking around with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. I am not sure about this but I seem to recall hearing/reading that this could be interpreted as a revelation of Jesus Pre-Incarnation, so that, like some angelic appearances, the form of a man is taken. I’m sure there are others but that’s all that pops into my head at this moment. Do you know if those references are Pre-Incarnation Jesus since St. John clearly states that Jesus was “In the beginning..was with God, was God…and became flesh…” thanks. I don’t want to walk around with the wrong info in my head.

          • LizEst

            Wow! That’s a lot of stuff. I can hardly take it all in at first glance. I was not trying to be snarky. I always have to take into account that the Lord may have manifested Himself to someone. It’s not beyond the range of possibility. I never want to discount that or be presumptious about it. I’m not from NJ but I have lived there! May something wore off unbeknownst to me! I’ll try to get back later. I have two wakes and a funeral today. The next event is in a few hours and I must catch up. Blessings to you. ps. when we are with the Lord, we will have answers to many things.

    • Paul McCusker

      Dear Debby,
      I’m no theologian – though I suppose we all have to be these days, if only to articulate the faith.

      An interesting thing about Mary, which I haven’t dealt with yet, is her statement “From this day forward, all generations will call me blessed.” There are some verses in the Bible that I guess people dismiss as merely “wishful thinking” – and not to be taken literally (except when it suits them). That verse is one. (Another is Jesus’ prayer of unity, or his statements about His body and blood, but that’s another conversation for another time.) There is something remarkable about Mary that gets squashed by the fear of appearing “too Catholic.” It’s sad, really.

      All the best,

      • debby_d_NJ

        Exactly! but they “love” the verse where Jesus says, “Who is my mother and brothers……” reading it as if He would not keep the 4th Commandment and completely ignoring the cultural context. One of the great problems with Bible Translations and the western mind. I wish there was a Bible out there which had the actual word with properly contextual understanding elaborated on. I am left with what scholars “tell me” the Aramaic, or Greek, or Hebrew, or down the road Latin mean in English. I have Erasmo Mirakakis’ Fire of Mercy but it is a “for the rest of my life” work and only cover the Gospel of Matthew! It is a lot to sort though when all I really want is to Know Him, Love Him and Serve Him with all I am.
        Thank you for your thoughts and may we all grow in love for the woman He calls Mommy. I think she helps me know Him better than I ever could on my own.

  • clare

    I like to say to those who question me about Mary, I do not worship Mary, BUT I do apply Romans , Chapter 13, Verse 7, to Mary, which is “to render” or to give Honor and Respect to those you OWE Honor and Respect,

    and certainly I OWE Honor and Respect to the Mother of God,

    When questioned further, I like to reply with Romans, Chapter 12, Verse 10, which implies that: one must Honor another ABOVE yourself,


    • LizEst

      Very good, clare. “Love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). I like that. God bless you!

  • MaryofSharon

    Hah! Today, being my birthday, I’ve gotten a bunch of birthday greetings in my email in box. In the midst of them I found an e-mail entitled “The Trouble With Mary.” Perplexed, I thought it might be some kind of joke from a friend, but quickly realized it had nothing whatsoever to do with me or my birthday, but rather was this article on the Blessed Mother.

    • LizEst

      Too funny! Oh yes…and, Happy Birthday to you on this memorial of St. Benedict. You are blessed!

    • Happy Birthday, Mary

  • jack

    Actually, Catholics DO worship Mary.

    • Jack – I edited your comments because your first sentence captures it all and there is no need to rehash what has already been settled. I will repeat here what Liz put in her comment which is the position of this site and the Church on your statement:

      Yes, there are even special words for these differences in our prayer. The following definitions come from “A Concise Dictionary of Theology” by Gerald O’Collins, S.J. and Edward G. Farugi, S.J…but they can also be found in many other similar sources:

      “Hyperdoulia” (Gr. ‘more than just veneration’). The special devotion paid to Mary as the Mother of God. It is more than “doulia” (Gr. ‘servitude’) or honor shown to other saints but less than the “laetria” (Gr. worship) or adoration due to God alone.”

      Adoration. The highest reverence to be offered only to God (Ex 20:1-4; Jn4:23), our creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, who alone should be ‘worshiped and glorified’ (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).”

    • Well, this Catholic does not worship Mary…she venerates her as the Singular Immaculate Vessel where God found a Pure Residence in her womb and was nourished from her Breasts

  • James

    Protestants, because they do not have the Mass, fail to give to God the praise that is due to him (Latria). They actually give to god what they ought to give to Mary. Without the Mass their worship is reduced to a mere human gift. Jesus established the Mass as a gift that is worthy and acceptable to the Father. So if you want really stir the pot you tell a protestant – It isn’t that we give Mary too much it that they give God so little.

    • LizEst


  • Jim Wustrack

    Two Prayers.

    There is not any ‘Jesus vs. Mary’.

    It’s only ‘Jesus through Mary’.

    All you peoples, please understand! Their hearts beat together!!

    Truth exists, whether you like it or not.

    +++Jesus’ entire life is, was, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

    In our Catholic life of faith, I’m gonna let a Saint take care of this.

    The vision of St. Francis de Sales –

    Who saw two ladders to heaven;

    A rather steep one leading directly to Jesus and another far less steep leading toward Mary.

    Jesus told St. Francis, “Tell your sons to come by the other Ladder”, meaning the easiest way to Jesus is through his mother Mary.

    It is a beautiful reminder of Jesus’ love for us in giving us His Mother as our own.

    Keep followin’ the Truth!

    Act of Faith, Hope, & Charity (F. H. C.)

    +++Saint Joseph, father and guardian of virgins, to whose faithful keeping Christ Jesus, innocence itself, and Mary, the virgin of virgins was entrusted, I pray and beseech you by that twofold and most precious charge, by Jesus and Mary, to save me from all uncleanness, to keep my mind untainted, my heart pure, and my body chaste; and to help me always to serve Jesus and Mary in perfect chastity. Amen.

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