When you go into a Catholic Church and you see a big, splendid statue of Mary with flowers in front of it, a bank of candles lit before it and an old woman kneeling down, fervently praying her rosary it would seem to be what it looks like: the woman is worshipping a statue of Mary.
But if you ask the old woman if she is worshipping Mary she’d say, “Whataryatalkinabout?, I’m praying the rosary.”
So what is going on? First we have to define “worship”. From time immemorial worship was identified with a particular action: the action of sacrifice. Pagans worshipped their gods by making sacrifices to them. The Jews worshipped by making sacrifice to Jahweh.
The reason we moderns get confused about worship is that we’ve forgotten the principle of sacrifice so we don’t really know what worship is all about. This is understandable from Protestants because they got worried about the sacrifice thing 500 years ago and threw it out. What is most depressing is that most Catholics also don’t understand the “sacrifice is worship” idea either. They’ve been told the Mass is all about “the family of God gathering around the table of fellowship to increase their mutual self esteem and discuss peace and justice issues.”
Because of this nonsense the majority of American Catholics don’t have a clue what the sacrifice business is all about, and therefore they don’t know what worship is supposed to be about either. Like the neo-Prots that they are they have come to think that worship is all about hearing a sermon, singing some songs and praying.
Now we’re getting down to the reason why Protestants think Catholics worship Mary. They think worship and prayer are the same thing. Therefore, if you are praying to Mary you must be worshipping Mary.
Well, the Catholic faith has been around for a long time, and believe it or not, these questions have been asked before, and the Catholics have the answer. It goes like this: there are three categories of respect due in the realm of worship. They go by specific names: Latria, Dulia and Hyperdulia. Latria is worship. It is the worship that is due only to God. This worship consists of offering God our lives, our souls, our minds and our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans. 12. 1-2) We do this pre-eminently through the sacrifice of the Mass.
Dulia is not worship. It is honor. We honor anyone who is eminent and accomplished. We honor them for their brains, their discipline, their wit, their achievement. We honor our parents and grandparents because we owe them that. We honor our loved ones. Part of this honor is that we ask them for things. We come to them with our needs. We look up to them. We respect them. They are our role models and mentors. We have a relationship to them of subservient honor. They are awesome to us. Dulia is also what we give to the saints and angels. We give them the honor that is due to them. As part of this we have a relationship with them. We ask them for things. This is called “praying to the saints.”
Hyperdulia is the honor we give to the Virgin Mary. We give her the highest honor because she is unique amongst all God’s creation. She is higher than the cherubim and seraphim. She is the only created being who was honored by God so greatly that his son took his flesh from her. She has totally unique place of honor in heaven and therefore also amongst all of God’s people on earth. The honor we give her, therefore, and the dulia we give her is higher than any other being. But it is not latria. We’re clear about that. We do not worship Mary. The sign of this is that we do not make sacrifice to her. You don’t find any Catholic priest offering a Mass to Mary. No. The sacrifice of the Mass is offered to God the Almighty Father.
This also should be understood clearly: the dulia and hyperdulia which we give to Mary and the saints is ultimately honor given to God. We honor the saints (including the Blessed Mother) not for who they are, but for who God made them to be. We honor in them the completed work of grace. We honor in them their faithful obedience, which itself is a gift from God. The Blessed Virgin says, “the Almighty has done great things for me!” We honor Mary and the saints because we are struck with delight and awe at the wonderful things God has done for them. As the moon reflects the sun, so the Virgin and saints reflect the light of Christ. Without him they are nothing. With him they have become divinized–sons and daughters of the Almighty Father.
Finally, we insist that it is proper devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary which corrects all the other errors. Do you think it is a co incidence that as neo-Protestantism has grown in the Catholic Church that Marian devotion has been marginalized, limited sometimes even banned or prohibited? When Marian devotion plays its proper part in the life of the Church we also start to realize what real worship is, and how important the sacrifice of the Mass is to everything else. This is why, despite misunderstandings we come back time and again to thank God for Mary and to honor her as the greatest of all created beings.