On Worshiping Mary and the Saints

There is a Protestant gentleman who reads our web site at least occasionally. He has made his presence known by some comments posted on line, comments in which he makes no bones about his disagreement with key Catholic doctrines. Although I clearly believe that there are certain negative ramifications to his objections and consequent aloofness from the true Church, I respect the fact that he voices his disagreements. Unlike the religiously indifferent majority of people, my Protestant friend is certainly not apathetic. (A sobering apocalyptic reference to lukewarmness and vomit comes to mind.) And because he bothers to speak his mind, I have been able, I think, to offer him some food for thought.

A comment he made recently, voicing a common Protestant objection, was to this effect: “You people are obsessed with Mary and Joseph; you don’t pay enough attention to Jesus.” I responded briefly that if he knew what the Mass is, he wouldn’t say that. What I would like to do in this article is to unpack the meaning of that statement somewhat.

The words of the Curé of Ars I providentially came upon the other night provide me be a good start. Addressing himself to his fellow clerics, he said that the priest cannot fully understand the mystery of the Mass in this life, but must wait until the next, for, “If he understood while he was in this world, he would die, not of fear, but of love.” The august Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is so elevated an act of divine worship of the Blessed Trinity “through, with, and in” Christ, that nothing can compare to it. Nothing, that is, except the bloody Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, of which the Mass is an unbloody representation.

The Holy Mass is, to quote Father Feeney, “God giving God to God.” Yet, at the same time, it is impossible without man — without, that is, the human nature of Jesus, for God as God cannot be sacrificed. And because the Sacred Humanity of the Man-God is present in the liturgical offering, our humanity, too, is drawn into this sublime act of Eucharistic homage. For He is our Head, we His members.

Sacrifice is the central act of religion. Cain slew Abel in a jealous rage because Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God, while Cain’s was not. The first thing Noah did when he got off the Ark was to offer sacrifice to God. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob offered sacrifice, and so did Melchisedech, whose prefigurative oblation was bread and wine. And what can we say of the minutely regulated sacrifices of the Mosaic Law? The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers go on page after page detailing the manifold sacrifices to be offered first in the Tabernacle, and then the Temple.

Then, that Sacrifice of which all the antecedent ones were merely a faint foreshadowing was offered: the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Protestants leave it at that. Jesus did it once; we can’t improve on that, so sacrifice is finished. But religion has not ended, and the central act of religion — sacrifice — is not over. The night before He shed His Precious Blood on the Cross, Jesus instituted a new rite, offering up His Body and Blood in sacrifice. He commanded His Apostles, “Do this for a commemoration of me” (Luke 22:19). In keeping with their notions of the Sunday Lord’s Supper being a mere memorial, Protestants frequently emphasize the word commemoration in that passage, but they forget this. What is this? It is what Jesus just did: mystically but truly offering Himself by changing bread and wine into Himself, to be offered in sacrifice.

From the Upper Room, this awe-inspiring sacrifice has spread all over the world, in a wonderful variety of rites. Sacrifice continues; religion continues.

And there’s the rub. Because Protestants know not the Mass, they see the worship we give to Mary and the saints on the same level as what they themselves give exclusively to God. In other words, when all you know how to do is give God second best, you will think it idolatry when you see others giving second best to God’s creatures.

In a penetrating article entitled “Mary Worship,” Orestes Brownson drives this point home with his characteristicly forceful logic:

Protestants call the worship we pay to Our Lady, Mariolatry. [In the preceding section, this charge has been fully answered.] The peculiar distinctive external worship of God is the offering of sacrifice. Those who have rejected the sacrifice of the Mass have retained nothing more than we offer to Mary and the saints. Consequently they are unable to perceive any distinction between what they regard as the external worship of God, and that which we render to Him in His saints – that is, a worship of prayer and praise. But we have a sacrifice, and are therefore able to distinguish between the highest honor we render to His saints, and the supreme worship we render to Him…. never to any creature.

The Protestant may speak of internal sacrifices, those of a broken heart, and of inward justice, but these are only sacrifices by way of analogy, and what should always accompany the sacrifice proper. If the Protestant tells us he has in the interior homage of contrition and real submission of himself a distinct and peculiar worship of God, we tell him, in return, that then he must not call the worship we render to Mary Mariolatry, because this homage and submission, in the sense he means, we never offer her. If he has something in this interior homage that pertains to supreme worship, the worship of latria, he must bear in mind that we do not offer it to the saints, and therefore our worship of them is not idolatry; if he has not something of this sort, then he does not himself offer any worship proper to God, external or internal, and he therefore has in no sense any worship to offer to God of a higher order than that which we offer to Mary and the saints.

The Church has a consecrated language by which we distinguish between different kinds of worship offered to God and the saints. Brownson has just invoked it. The WikiPedia article “Latria” gives us a fair summary:

Latria is sacrificial in character, and may be offered only to God. Catholics offer other degrees of reverence to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the Saints; these non-sacrificial types of reverence are called Hyperdulia and Dulia, respectively. Hyperdulia is essentially a heightened degree of dulia provided only to the Blessed Virgin. This distinction, written about as early as Augustine of Hippo and St Jerome, was detailed more explicitly by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae, A.D. 1270, II II, 84, 1: “Reverence is due to God on account of His Excellence, which is communicated to certain creatures not in equal measure, but according to a measure of proportion; and so the reverence which we pay to God, and which belongs to latria, differs from the reverence which we pay to certain excellent creatures; this belongs to dulia, and we shall speak of it further on (II II 103 3)”; in this next article St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “Wherefore dulia, which pays due service to a human lord, is a distinct virtue from latria, which pays due service to the Lordship of God. It is, moreover, a species of observance, because by observance we honor all those who excel in dignity, while dulia properly speaking is the reverence of servants for their master, dulia being the Greek for servitude.” From St. Thomas it is apparent that a clear distinction exists among latria and forms of dulia within Catholic theology.

With these distinctions now firmly in place, we can speak of devotion to Mary, Saint Joseph, and the other saints and angels. The reverence they are shown is based on their being honored members of Christ’s Mystical Body. (To appreciate devotion to the saints more, I recommend reading two articles on this site: What a Saint Is, by Father Leonard, and my own apologetical piece, Praying to the Saints.)

Saint Paul says “honor to whom honor is due” (cf. Rom. 13:7). We honor our fellow creatures who have been divinized and who now dwell in “light inaccessible” (1 Tim. 6:16) with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It is because they have been deified to such a degree that they are worthy of honor.

We can illustrate this honor by a reference to the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, one of the “wonderful variety of rites” I mentioned earlier. Before the Divine Liturgy proper there is the Preparation. Part of this ritual is an elaborate cutting of the unconsecrated leavened bread used for the Eucharist by our Eastern Christian brethren. Pieces of bread are carefully cut and placed on the discos, the paten or communion plate used in that beautiful liturgy. Particles representing the Mother of God, the nine choirs of angels, the apostles, and many other saints are carefully ordered around the “Lamb,” the larger bread which signifies Christ Himself. It is a symbol of the Mystical Body whereby we are all united to Christ in “one bread, one body” (1 Cor. 10:17). At the terrible moment of consecration, all these pieces representing the saints give up the nature of bread to take on a new substance, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The sublime theology of the Mystical Body, shared by the Eastern Fathers and Occidentals like Saint Augustine, is thus ritually expressed.

The Mass both symbolizes and effects our holiness in Christ. In it, Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers to the Father, through the Holy Ghost, perfect adoration, thanksgiving, reparation, and supplication. And we who are baptized into the “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) are privileged to assist at this dread spectacle. No creature receives such honor as God receives in the Mass.

But those who are closest to God are certainly entitled to “second best.”