Do Catholics worship Mary and the saints… you know… idolatry?
I recently met a sweet little lady while shopping for paint with my kids at Home Depot. She was one of those ladies that starts an awkward conversation with a stranger, and 20 second in is trying to get you to go to her church. I kindly said thank you, but we are Catholic, go to church every Sunday, love our parish and couldn’t think of leaving…
“Oh… My church is Christian… We only believe in one God…”
I chuckled at that. “Great! Catholics are Christians too, and yes, we only believe in one God.”
“Yes… But we don’t worship the saints like gods.”
Oh boy, here we go…
It amazes me how many misconceptions there are about Catholics! And I think a great deal of the confusion comes down to the inaccuracy of the English language.
Take the word “love” for example. That’s it. We have one word. And that one word is used to describe so many vastly different concepts! We love pizza. We love our children. We love our country. We love our new boyfriend. We love our spouse of fifty years. We love God.
Are these all the same feelings? Of course not! Trying to convey all the variations of love with a single word is crude and inaccurate. The ancient Greeks actually had six words for love! Eros, Philia, Ludus, Agape, Pragma and Philautia. Sexual passion, love between friends, playful childlike love, selfless love, deep long-lasting love and self love. (and though they didn’t have pizza, they would have used a different word entirely to describe a like for it)
A little History Lesson
In the early Church, there were three distinct Greek words to describe our relationship with those in heaven.
Latria means the supreme and complete worship and adoration due only to God.
Dulia means the honor due to good men, especially those who are already in heaven. The saints. This is a deep respect and honor, but in no way is this similar to the worship of God.
Hyperdulia is dulia taken a bit further. Hyperdulia means the honor, respect and love given to the Blessed Mother Mary. Hyperdulia sets her above the saints, as the greatest of all the saints. However, hyperdulia is still not at all resembling the adoration that belongs to God alone.
The Church has always been very clear that Latria belongs only to God.
But! Some older Catholic books actually talk about “Worshiping Mary!”
Alright, so, in ancient Greek, everything was pretty clear cut. Nobody was getting confused about who was worthy of what kind of honor. Unfortunately, we don’t all speak ancient Greek…
All six words for “love” (plus whatever word means “pizza love”) are all smashed into one single, crude word in English. It’s up to the audience to interpret what is actually meant by the word. The same fate happened to the word “worship.” In Old English, the word “worship” could be used to mean both deep respect, or complete adoration. Latria, dulia, or hyperdulia. It was up to the audience to take the context into consideration to figure out exactly what was being said.
If you see an old Catholic book mention worshiping the saints or Mary, it is vitally important to remember that that word had a much broader definition at that time. It should be read as “dulia-worship” or “hyperdulia-worship” and never as “latria-worship” unless it is directed toward God.
Magistrates in England are still called “Your worship.” This isn’t idolatry. They aren’t being worshiped as a god. It’s just a little piece left over from the time when the word “worship” had a broader definition. This would mean honor or dulia-worship.
Language isn’t stagnant. It changes over time. Eventually, the definition of the word “worship” narrowed to mean only the supreme adoration owed to God alone.
So do Catholics worship Mary and the saints? Absolutely not! That would be the grave sin of idolatry. God and God alone is due our deepest worship. The saints in heaven, even the greatest saint, Mary, get only our respect, honor and love. Nothing more.
But… But! You guys PRAY to the saints and Mary! You should only pray to God!
Here we go again, with our crude English language getting in the way! There really should be more words to accurately define “pray.” The way we speak to God is completely different from how we speak to the saints.
Do you ever ask your friend to pray to God for you? Do you ever talk to your grandma in heaven?
That’s all we do with the saints!
We talk to those beautiful Christians who have already made it to live forever in God’s glory. We know they hear us, because they are in God’s eternal life! Just like talking to your grandma. We ask these dear fellow Christians to pray for us, because they are always before the face of God.
The saints have no power on their own. They are human, just like all of us. We simply ask them to pray to God for us. If we say “Help me.” to one of the saints, it is with the deep understanding that they are powerless without God, and we are really asking them to speak to Him for us.
That’s it. No worship. No idolatry.
Even with Mary, it is the same. We honor her as a holy woman, love her, and ask her to pray for us before the throne of God.
Take the “Hail Mary” prayer, for example:
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” straight from scripture, where the Angel was announcing the future birth of Christ.
“Blessed art thou among women, and Blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Again from scripture, the words of Saint Elizabeth to Mary (with the Name of Jesus added.)
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” A term of honor for Mary, and a heartfelt plea for her to pray before God for us. We recognize that she has no power on her own. She is human. We only love her for her role in Our Blessed Savior’s life. We only ask her to pray to Him for us.
Again… No worship. No idolatry.
Alright, but what about all the statues and stuff? Worshiping statues is idolatry, ya’ know.
Classrooms and government buildings have pictures of the president hung on the wall… is that idolatry? What about that photo of your deceased grandmother in the foyer? Or how about showing honor to the flag and treating it with respect?
But we don’t worship those things!
Catholics don’t worship statues. That would just be just plain silly. It’s just a hunk of stone, or plaster, or wood. It’s a thing, an object. We show reverence to these images in the same way that the flag receives reverence for the ideas that it represents. We look loving at these images the same way you look lovingly at the old photo of your grandmother, wishing you could see her again and maybe telling her you miss her, or remembering her beautiful life. We gaze at the crucifix and open our hearts up to the beautiful Gospel of our Savior.
The paintings, stained glass, statues, all the images are just visual reminders to us of God’s perfect love for us, and the life he is calling us to live. Everything points us back to Him, and brings us to worship Him alone. While kneeling before a statue of a saint, we remember his holy life and reflect on all the ways our Great God worked in him. Remembering the holy Christians that came before us causes us to rejoice in God’s goodness and love, and praise him even more!
The exact same way that reading the letters of saint Paul in the Bible isn’t about worshiping Paul, but is about seeing the works of God throughout his life.
Christ is all we need, but in His love for us, He has given us the richness of a relationship with His Blessed Mother and the saints. It all points our hearts and souls back to the one and only God, the only One we will ever worship and adore.
In Corde Maria,
featured image via flickr user Mark Mitchell