The most common comment I hear from other Christians regarding the Catholic faith is this: “But there’s that whole Mary worship thing…”

Okay, let’s get one thing cleared up: Catholics do not, never have and never will worship Mary or the saints. Rather, they venerate Mary and the saints.

ven·er·ate
ˈvenəˌrāt/
  1. regard with great respect; revere.

“Oh, but wait!” you say.  “Look! A synonym for venerate is worship!”

Weeeellllll… not quite. You see…

The word “worship” has undergone a change in meaning in English. It comes from the Old English weorthscipe, which means the condition of being worthy of honor, respect, or dignity. To worship in the older, larger sense is to ascribe honor, worth, or excellence to someone, whether a sage, a magistrate, or God.

For many centuries, the term worship simply meant showing respect or honor, and an example of this usage survives in contemporary English. British subjects refer to their magistrates as “Your Worship,” although Americans would say “Your Honor.” This doesn’t mean that British subjects worship their magistrates as gods (in fact, they may even despise a particular magistrate they are addressing). It means they are giving them the honor appropriate to their office, not the honor appropriate to God.

Outside of this example, however, the English term “worship” has been narrowed in scope to indicate only that supreme form of honor, reverence, and respect that is due to God. This change in usage is quite recent. In fact, one can still find books that use “worship” in the older, broader sense. This can lead to a significant degree of confusion, when people who are familiar only with the use of words in their own day and their own circles encounter material written in other times and other places.

In Scripture, the term “worship” was similarly broad in meaning, but in the early Christian centuries, theologians began to differentiate between different types of honor in order to make more clear which is due to God and which is not.

As the terminology of Christian theology developed, the Greek term latria came to be used to refer to the honor that is due to God alone, and the term dulia came to refer to the honor that is due to human beings, especially those who lived and died in God’s friendship—in other words, the saints. Scripture indicates that honor is due to these individuals (Matt. 10:41b). A special term was coined to refer to the special honor given to the Virgin Mary, who bore Jesus—God in the flesh—in her womb. This term, hyperdulia (huper [more than]+ dulia = “beyond dulia”), indicates that the honor due to her as Christ’s own Mother is more than the dulia given to other saints. It is greater in degree, but still of the same kind. However, since Mary is a finite creature, the honor she is due is fundamentally different in kind from the latria owed to the infinite Creator.   (“Saint Worship” – Catholic Answers)

Annnnndddd… if you don’t want to get bogged down in the specifics, to put it more simply, “Catholics adore God. They only honor the saints.”

“Okay,” you say. “But, why do they pray to Mary and the saints?”

This, in my eyes, is an unfortunate turn of phrase. I still bristle when I hear of Catholics “praying” for Mary’s or the saints’ intercessions.

Typically, when we hear the term “intercession”, we think of someone acting on our behalf. However, neither Mary nor the saints, as finite creatures, have the power to act on anyone’s behalf, let alone answer anyone’s prayers.

But let’s back up a bit: To fully understand why Catholics ask for Mary’s or the saint’s intercession, you have to understand that Catholics view the Body of Christ as both believers here on earth and believers who have gone on before us to be with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. His “saints” consist of Christians here on earth and in heaven. If we’re all part of that body of Christ, then just as we ask our brothers and sisters here on earth to pray for us, we can also ask our brothers and sisters in heaven to pray for us.

So, it’s not that Catholics are praying to Mary or the saints, asking for their help; rather they’re asking for their prayers.

Make sense? Does that maybe clear up all those “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” arguments you were waiting to launch at me? I hope so. Because Catholics are not the polytheists they’ve been accused of being for centuries.

Just so we’re clear, this is still a concept I struggle with. It makes sense logically, but it’s probably not something I’ll ever incorporate in my prayer life. I’m not saying it’s wrong… just foreign.

But I have to admit, what I’ve discovered about Catholicism by actually researching and digging and asking those hard questions… I’ve fallen in love with. Because if I’m going to understand the ins and outs of a belief system, then I’d prefer to get to the nuts and bolts of the matter rather than relying on hearsay and rumor. As should we all.

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