The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 44, No 3, May-June 1991

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul Duffner, O.P.

The answer to the above question depends on what one understands by the word worship. If by that word one means honoring the Virgin Mary in the same way we honor Christ her Divine Son, in that sense we do not worship the Mother of God. It is certainly the will of God, however, that we love and honor the Mother of Jesus; yet this is something essentially different from the homage we offer to her Son.

To God, the Supreme Being, the Creator and Lord of all creation, and to Him alone we offer ADORATION, which is the most fundamental act of religion. It is an act by which we fulfill the precept given by God to Moses: "I am the Lord, your God . . . You shall not have strange gods before Me." (Ex. 20:2) Adoration expresses manís recognition of Godís infinite perfection and complete dominion over manís life and being, and his total dependence on his Creator. From this it is clear that the worship of adoration should be given to no person apart from God.

However, Godís perfections are manifested in His creatures, and especially in His saints, who in a special way mirror the perfections of God. It is most fitting, then, that we offer them special homage because of the perfection that God has bestowed upon them, for the ultimate goal of our veneration and praise is always the God who made them, just as in praising a work of art, we are praising the artist who made it. And among the saints, we honor in a special way the Blessed Virgin Mary because of her sublime role as Mother of the Divine Redeemer, and because of the special privileges by which God has exalted her above all other human beings.

In any science, technical language is used to express more precisely the truths of that branch of knowledge. Likewise in theology, theologians use precise words to express the distinction between the devotion and honor offered to God, and that offered to the saints. That offered to God alone is adoration, expressed by the Latin word LATRIA. The veneration offered to the saints is expressed by the Latin word DULIA; and the special veneration offered to the Blessed Virgin Mary because of her unique prerogatives, is HYPERDULIA. We will focus our comments mainly on the last two elements of the above distinction, on the veneration of the saints, and especially of the Virgin Mother of God.


Devotion to the saints takes the form of praise and imitation of their virtues, and of seeking their intercession before the throne of God. A failure to distinguish between the honor given to God directly- by adoration, and that given him indirectly- by veneration of the saints and invoking their intercessionó has led to confusion and error. Some of the heretical sects of the middle ages (e.g. Cathari and Waldenses) denied the intercession of the saints and their knowledge of menís prayers. A few centuries later the Confession of Augsburn (1530), approved by Martin Luther, rejected the intercession of the saints as prejudicial to Christís unique mediatorship. Zwingli and Calvin also rejected the doctrine of intercession. For this reason, Protestants still today for the most part do not pray to the saints for help, for they see devotion to them - and especially to the Blessed Mother - as taking away from the honor due to Christ.

The Catholic response to this came from the Council of Trent (1563). Appealing to the apostolic tradition and to the teaching of the Fathers and the preceding Councils, it directed that the faithful should be instructed that the saints intercede for men, and that it is "good and useful" to invoke them to obtain benefits from God, through Christ who is the sole Redeemer.

In the light of the above, we can understand why some non-Catholics suspect us of sinning against the first Commandment because of the honor we pay to the saints. This would be true if we paid them the divine worship that is due to God alone. But this we do not do. Even in the special honor we pay to the Blessed Mother, surpassing as it does the reverence we pay to the angels and all the other saints, is of an entirely different nature from the adoration we give to God alone.

St. Thomas Aquinas expresses this difference in relation to our prayer:

When we pray to the Blessed Mother and the saints in heaven asking their help, we know that whatever graces and favors we receive come to us from God, through their intercession. If we value the prayers of our friends on earth, and feel that those prayers will help us, the prayers of our friends in heaven will be even more powerful, for as St. Thomas Aquinas says, "the more closely one is united to God, the more efficacious will be his/her prayers." (ibid. a.11)

The saints are Godís chosen friends, heroes in spiritual combat. It pleases God that we strive to imitate them; and He is pleased to show His love for them by dispensing His graces through their intercession. This does not in any way detract from the honor that is due to God. In our prayers to the saints we are not by-passing Our Divine Savior, but we seek their help because we are convinced that they can obtain graces and favors from Him more readily than we can. In every prayer we offer to Mary, for example, we are actually directing our prayer to God - through Mary. Just as Jesus came to us through Mary, so it pleases Him that we go to Him through Mary. And so we go to her with the plea that she will place our petitions before her Divine Son; and we are convinced that because of the boundless love of His Sacred Heart for His Mother, He will refuse her nothing.


God Himself honors the saints, and especially the Mother of Jesus, by the miracles He works and the graces and favors He grants through their intercession. He would not do so if He did not want us to seek His help in that manner. And so, for the devout Catholic, it is disturbing to find that devotion to Mary and the saints is a stumbling block to Christian unity; for after Christ, and because of the graces that Christ bestowed upon her, there is no one more dedicated to the cause of Church unity than the Mother of Jesus.

Catholics have a special devotion to the Virgin Mother of God, because of her unique role in the divine scheme of things because of her extraordinary fullness of grace - greater than that of all the other saints of heaven combined - and because of her great powers of intercession before the throne of God. If she has been exalted far above all others in the gifts that God has bestowed upon her, she is also the most humble, the most grateful, and the most submissive to the divine will. Apart from the sacred humanity of Christ, the pure soul of Mary gives God more glory than all of the rest of creation combined. All that she is, is Godís creation, Godís masterpiece; and in honoring her, we are honoring the God who made her. All her graces on earth and her glory in heaven stem from the unique privilege of her divine motherhood.


From all eternity God not only foresaw the fall of our first parents, and the consequences of that fall, He foresaw the way in which He would repair the damage done. He would send His only Son - begotten from all eternity - to become a member of the human race, and to offer sufficient reparation for the whole human race to satisfy divine justice. But to fulfill that plan, He would seek the cooperation of a woman in whose womb the Divine Son would be conceived, and who would be His Mother in the fullest sense of the word. He would prepare that woman from the first moment of her conception with a fullness of grace and freedom from sin that would set her apart and above all other members of the human race. And what is especially significant, she would in a unique way be associated with her Divine Son in the redemption of mankind. She would be so intimately and so fully one with Him in the offering of that sacrifice and in winning for mankind its redeeming graces, that she would become the channel through which those graces would flow to individual souls.

In the light of this the Roman Pontiffs have not hesitated to refer to Mary as Co-Redemptrix with Christ, as redeeming the whole human race with Christ. There is no grace that comes to man that has not been merited for us by Christ; but theologians also point out that Mary merited everything that Christ merited, but in a different way. He merited those graces with a merit of strict justice (de condigno), while she merited those graces with a merit of fittingness (de congruo). Pope Pius X refers to this in his encyclical "Ad Diem Illum:"


God seeks the cooperation of other persons in applying to mankind the graces won by His Son; but Mary, the Mother of Christ, had the special privilege of cooperating with Christ (in total dependence on Him) in the very acquiring of those graces. This co-operation, her intimate and profound sharing in His suffering, and the union of her self-oblation to the Father with that of her Son for the sins of mankind, are the basis of her universal role in the distribution of those redeeming graces to the whole human race.

Maryís cooperation in Christís redemption began with her "yes" to the Archangel Gabriel at the moment of the Incarnation, and reached its climax on Calvary. Her consent to become Mother of the Redeemer, and her total surrender to the will of God throughout life, found its final fulfillment in her consent to her Sonís redeeming death. Thus she acquired certain rights - over and above those coming to her as Christís Mother - in the distribution of the fruits of the redemption.

For Mary, the sorrowful mysteries of her life did not begin with the passion and death of her Son. Through the whole of her life - after the Incarnation - there remained in the background of her mind the tragic end of her Divine Son. Because of her fullness of grace, she had a clear insight into the Scriptures. She knew that the promised Messiah would be a "man of sorrows" (Is. 53:3), that she was being asked to bring into the world a Child who, by His suffering and death, would redeem the whole of mankind. And as time went on, it became more clear to her that she had been called not merely to be the Mother of the Redeemer, but that God had called her to a mission of Redemptrix along with her Son.

While the Child of her womb was truly her Son, He was also from all eternity the Son of the Eternal Father, who would dictate the circumstances of His life. Hence, in Maryís association with her divine Child, she renounced every motherly right she had on Him. It was the Fatherís will, not hers, that would prevail. She made this renunciation when she offered Him in the temple 40 days after his birth. And in later years during His public life, as painful as it was for Mary when Jesus became the object of hatred and persecution by the religious leaders for pointing out their errors and mistakes, she would never have Him do otherwise than His divine mission required.

Just as we can never fathom the depth and extent of the sorrow and suffering of the Heart of Jesus who suffered so much from the rejection of souls for whom He gave His life; so we can never fathom the depth and extent of the sorrow and suffering of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, because we can never in this life grasp the fullness and depth of her love for her Son and for the Eternal Father who gave Him to the world. Having a love for God and neighbor beyond what we can conceive, and being called to be the spiritual mother of the human race, every rejection of Jesus was an additional wound in the soul of Mary. Only in the next life will we have some true concept of the suffering of those two redeeming Hearts in reopening Heaven for a sinful mankind.

Because Mary was free from the stain and effects of original sin, she was free from the pangs of childbirth in bringing Jesus into the world. However, because in the divine plan she was to be the New Eve, the new Mother for sinful mankind, God willed that the Mother of the Redeemer be intimately associated with her divine Son in His passion and death, to suffer intensely with Him who was redeeming the whole of mankind, since this intense suffering constituted the labor pains of her universal motherhood.


St. Paul wrote in his first epistle to Timothy: "There is one God and one mediator of God and men, the Man Jesus Christ." (2:5) In regard to St. Paulís statement, St. Thomas Aquinas points out that while Christ alone is the perfect mediator, nothing prohibits Christ from associating others (angels and men) with Himself in his work of mediation, i.e. in raising manís offerings to God, and bringing Godís gifts to men. (III, 26, 1) We, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, are called to share in the work of bringing the redeeming fruits of His Passion to souls. This we do by our prayers, penances and good works.

But since, as we have seen, Maryís redeeming role was coextensive with that of Christ her Son, but subordinated to it, her mediatorship, while subordinate to that of Christ, is universal - extending to all men and all graces, as Pope Pius X explains in his encyclical on the Immaculate Conception "Ad Diem Illum". However as theologians point out:

While it does not appear in our present day calendar, in 1921 the Holy See approved for the universal Church the feast of Our Lady, Mediatrix of All Graces. She is Mother of us all. Her mediation is universal, extending to all men and to all graces that God grants to mankind. It follows that every grace or gift we receive from God, whether we pray to Mary or not, come to us through her. Even when we pray to God through the intercession of other saints, they seek it for us through Mary. Such is the divine plan.

If while on earth Jesus performed his first public miracle at the plea of His Mother, her power of intercession in heaven is far greater. As universal Mother, she knows and is concerned about our every need.

We are now in a better position to answer the question posed in the beginning: DO WE WORSHIP MARY? We do not offer her the homage of adoration, which is reserved for God alone; nor do we pray to her as if she alone could grant the graces and favors we seek. But knowing the redeeming role she shared with her Son, and knowing that she is the Mediatrix through whom God distributes all the graces won for mankind on Calvary, and knowing the great power of intercession she has before the throne of God, we do honor and venerate her in a special way, and seek Godís graces and favors through the intercession of her maternal and Immaculate Heart.

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