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The Trouble with Mary (Part II of II): Pray Tell

July 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Mary, Paul McCusker

Trouble with Mary

Life, As I Find It

I was in my RCIA Class one evening and the speaker stood up to teach about Mary and the Communion of the Saints. At one point she said confidently, “Now, all Catholics know that we don’t actually pray to Mary or the Saints. We only ever pray to God.” I was instantly confused. I knew over the past several months that I’d heard the word “pray” used in connection with how we communicate to Mary and the Saints. My hand shot up to inquire about the statement.

Admittedly, the Catholic Church hasn't done their PR very well when it comes to certain things. The word “pray” seems to be the word often used when it comes to our communication with Mary. So most Protestants think, “Aha! Caught you! You said you pray to Mary and to pray is meant for God alone so that means you think Mary is the same as God! You really do worship her like we always said!”

Well, okay – but not really.

As it turns out, the deficiency isn’t with the activity but with the word “pray.” I don’t know how it works in other languages since I only speak two: English and American, but all I can say is that English is a deficient language when it comes to certain things. For example, did you know that there are a lot of Greek words for the one English word “Light.” There’s one for illumination, another for a light-giver, another for the metaphor of light, another for the degree of illumination (brightness), another for enlightenment, another for kindling a fire for light, another for burning, another for a flash of light, another for something that is easy to bear weight-wise, another for carelessness (to make light of something), and so on. Imagine that: one English word – with all those meanings behind it.

There are several Greek words for “Pray,” as well. One means communication with God alone, another means to “ask”, another to “beseech” as in calling to one’s aid. Do those last two ring a bell? They sure do for me as my mind races back to all those English classes about William Shakespeare. “Pray thee…” a character would say. Or maybe “Prith’ee” or “prithy” in some versions.

I suspect most of the people in Shakespeare’s audience didn’t leap to their feet to accuse William of worshipping Hamlet or Juliet or Henry the Fifth because he used that word with them. They knew what it meant in context. They understood the English language uses single words with lots of meanings. And it’s that flaw that has become heightened over the past couple of centuries, giving Protestants another excuse to accuse Catholics of distorting the Truth.

Admittedly, many Catholics are not well educated about the Church's teaching, which makes the whole situation even more confused. Some people are reading this now and feel shocked. They’ve been praying to Mary their entire lives and had no idea anyone thought it was wrong.

I pointed out to my RCIA class that the Catholic Church has had 500 years to come up with an alternative to the word “pray” for communication with Mary and the Saints, if only to alleviate the confusion with Protestants. But have they? No. With all the redefinitions of words going on these days, you’d think someone would come up with an alternative word we could use to put an end to this quibbling.

Maybe I’ll ask the Supreme Court.

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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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  • walker_percy

    I say “pray to Mary,” intending the phrase in the theologically correct sense. We might explain to those truly curious about praying to Mary (or other saints) why we do that but we shouldn’t become overly measured in our speech just because there are a few people ready to say “Aha! Pagan!” (I’m probably never going to theologically please such a person; they typically argue over straw men and equivocations, so rational explanations won’t even register.) Most importantly, we shouldn’t neglect praying to the saints. Lately, I have sought St. Joseph’s intercession on work and family matters, and I find praying to him quite efficacious. I’m not giving that up over a little name calling or grousing from someone offended by the thought of me kneeling before a statue of St. Joseph praying a portion of a novena. Sticks and stones, as they say.


      walker_percy: I like your comment re: ‘praying to Mary.’ I’ve had untold conversations/questions about our Blessed Mother, and I never tire of giving the same answer. I ask her intercession as the Mother of my Savior and have been richly answered in most instances. Thanks for your comments. God bless you.

      • walker_percy

        Thanks, kindly.

  • RobinJeanne

    …. or instead of finding a new word, what if we used it as an opportunity
    to evangelize. To find a “new” word for pray, we miss the opportunity to teach
    about the saints, that they are just as alive as we are. That is the other issue
    is “we pray to dead people” Often I have to explain that I, we as Catholics
    believe in life after dead. Then I ask them, “don’t you?” …. When we pray to
    the saint, who are alive in living with God, we are “asking” praying, for their
    intercession on our behalf.

    So instead of us changing, let us educate and correct their
    misunderstandings. Share the beauty of our faith and Church teachings. Even if
    we found a new word, it won’t explain us kneeling before a statue or pictures.
    Here again is an opportunity to evangelize. When a man goes down on his knee to propose marriage to the woman he loves, is he worshiping her? (Well let’s suppose he isn’t) No, he is simply humbling himself before her, showing her honor (which falls under the 4th commandment). When I go down on my knees to talk with a child, am I worshipping them? No, I’m just making myself small. In the light of the saints who are great and honored because they “ran the good race” persevered to the end, making it to the loving arms of the Lord. I am but a peon in the light of that and so I lower my body as I’m lowering my spirit in humility as I pray for their help or guidance, all in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord…..
    lets try to bring them home, by taking the time to all learn our faith and share
    it with those who do not know (even with our Catholic brothers and sister, who
    are lacking in good catechesis). To dispel all the false and twisted idea that
    have been handed down to them for 500 years.


      RobinJean: Your comments re: kneeling is excellent. Thanks.

    • Karen

      Great answer! Couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ll have to remember the “kneeling” part when I teach my RCIA on Mary and the Saints. Thanks!!

  • Chris L

    We don’t “pray” to Mary, we ask her to pray for us. To Christ through Mary is what I have always understood. The Blessed Mother intercedes for us.

    • RobinJeanne

      You missed the point of this blog. “to pray” means, to ask, to beseech, to
      request…. and is that not exactly what we do? We ask, we pray…. Mary,
      intercede for us…. “to pray” also mean to lift up our heart to the Lord.

  • Johnpr

    Hi Paul, don’t know if you got this earlier… it’s the first time I’ve commented on this website so it might have gone astray. Anyway, I have enjoyed reading
    your two articles on the problem with Mary. There’s really so much to say about
    this topic that i did my theology thesis on her 4 years ago. The idea developed
    from a question I had asked myself at the time: If God does not need us to
    implement His salvific plan for all humanity – His creation – then why does He
    so obviously need Mary in it? I realised that the problem was not God but us,
    because we are so entrenched in our own ideas as to who is in charge of things.
    The “I” concept. So to try and circumvent the problem we created, to
    reopen the doors we closed, this all loving, freewill giving God, worked out
    other ways of reaching us wherever we were. How many of us are aware, for
    example, that The Blessed Virgin Mary we are so devoted to is equally revered in a
    large number of religions. There
    is also ample proof that one also finds the figure of a “woman; whether or not with the same Biblical or Marian
    connotations of our own religion is not important,
    but it seems to indicate that God Himself has allowed these cultures some avenues through which they could
    draw closer to Him through Her or through following
    Her. Mary is to be found directly (as in Christianity) or as Maryam (as in Islam, where she also has a
    great following), or as in Buddhism as Guanyn in
    China and Gwan-Um in Korea; in Taoism she may simply be their “The Mother” or the “Eternal Mother” (Wusheng Laomu)
    of certain Taiwanese cults. While one has to
    clearly delineate the differences between these female deities and our Mary, having some form of link with these
    religions in our minds should in itself be very
    beneficial to understand the “Why Mary?” question. In fact, in
    a homily he gave in Parakou,
    Benin on 4
    February 1993, Blessed John Paul II said that God
    desires the salvation of everyone. “In a mysterious but real way, he is present in all. Humanity forms one
    single family, since God has created all human
    beings in his own image. All have a common destiny, since they are called to find fullness of life in God. Among
    human beings then, differences of creed notwithstanding,
    there is a mystery of unity.” Yet the average Catholic is somehow still
    conditioned by some pre-Vatican Council II tenets, and fails to see the hand of the Divine in
    all this. Anyway, to a comment you passed in part II re knife edge dividing
    line of the meaning of “praying” to Mary, I find the Jesuit approach
    rather helps me overcome it. They call this communication a
    “colloquoy”, a sort of friendly conversation rather than a direct
    prayer of worship. I find it helps me a lot in my quiet time and often
    converse with Jesus and Mary in different ways asking their intercession before
    The Father as a lead in to my own colloquoy with God Himself. And it is
    surprising how the type of one’s conversation changes as the relationship
    becomes more friendly and you know you can be freer to speak out your deepest
    thoughts. The words of the 1st Reading
    of July 11 44 say it all: “At this, Judah
    went up to him and said, “May it please my lord, let your servant have a word
    privately with my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, for you are like the
    Great Ruler himself”. (Genesis 44 – today’s 1st Reading)

  • Jeanette

    I have had non-Catholics ask me why we pray to Mary. The simple answer is that many times we ask our friends/relatives to pray for us (meaning to intercede for us) and they will ask us to do the same for them. No one seems to worry about that though. But isn’t this exactly what we are doing when we ask our Heavenly friends, Mary and the Saints, to pray (intercede) for us too?

    • saijiki88

      Bingo! I think you hit the nail on the head. As Catholics, we are not the ones who have “Mary issues.” But we have to respond to Protestants. Jeannette, what you stated is exactly our response. We ask for the prayers of others, and we ask for the prayers of Mary, as well as the Communion of the Saints. No difference. That usually, at a minimum, gives them something to think about. Thanks!!

  • Cheryl Ann

    We pray THROUGH the Blessed Mother, and all the saints as they each act as an intercessor on our behalf. Graces are dispensed by God alone; requests for graces can come from or through anyone in the communion of saints, living or dead.

  • Maria

    Deep down, Protestants know what we mean by “pray” used in context with Mother Mary. Most probably know Greek more than Catholics (me included!). Coming up with an alternative word will not end the quibbling. I feel for them that they cannot see how blessed Mother Mary’s role was in God’s plan for salvation.

    • I wish your assertion were true. As a former committed Protestant (for 15 years) the word “pray” was never used in any context other than in conversation with God. As far as using better terms, as one involved with evangelization, it is very helpful to use terms that do not trigger immediate rejection of an idea and thereby allow for more substantive engagement. We should never be ashamed of the truths we hold dear but we should follow St Paul’s admonition to become “all things to all people that some might be saved.”
      Sent from my iPad

  • mary

    The Blessed Mother gave us the Rosary. In the Rosary we repeat the Words in the message God gave to the angel Gabriel: Hail Mary. Full of Grace. The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and Blessed is the fruit of thy womb–Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for US SINNERS, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

    What is there not to understand? We beg her to pray for us and help and guide us to the will of God. It is the same way we beseech the saints who throughout their lives followed God’s will and so we ask them to help, aid and guide us to find the strength to do God’s will. We are all directing our will to God’s will with their guidance not to their wills.

  • Murphy Brown

    Perhaps I am to simplistic in my approach to Mary, but I choose to HONOR her for many reasons:

    1. Her “Fiat” set the entire plan of God for our salvation into motion by simply DOING the will of God. (“Be it done unto me according to THY word —and the WORD was made FLESH and dwelt among us.”)

    2. She became and is the Mother of God. (Theotokos)

    3. HONOR your Mother and Father.

    4. I pray the rosary because it is based on the mysteries of Christ’s life bound in Sacred Scripture.

    5. And like unto Mary, to treasure all these things and to ponder them in my heart.

    Psalm 19:14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

    • LizEst

      Beautifully put, Murphy. God bless you!

  • barjonah

    As a former Protestant, it breaks my heart that well meaning Catholic lay people and clergy use Catholic jargon to try and dialogue with Protestants regarding differences in belief. Dan I appreciate your comment to Maria. Protestants usually do not know what Catholics “mean”. I for one did not, and to be honest, sometimes still do not because I did not “grow up” in the Catholic faith. My frame of reference from my Protestant upbringing is wholly different, although God has enlightened my thinking and blessed me with a better understanding. I do not think that we should apologize for our beliefs as Catholics, far from it! However, if we are truly concerned about and desire unity, or at least understanding, should we not care about how we frame things?

    I want our separated brethren to truly understand what we believe, but we can’t lump all Protestants into the same stereotypical category and think they do not want to understand and are hard headed. Sure many ARE hard headed and frustrate us to no end, but many are earnestly seeking truth and are frustrated with Protestant forms of worship. Many like I did, see something different and unique about the Catholic church and want to simply understand it better in light of what they have been taught all of their life. It is our responsibility to be patient and in the love of Christ, bring them to the understanding of the fullness of faith in the church handed down from the Christ and the Apostles: “The Roman Catholic Church”!

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