Ask Father Leo: Why do Catholics give so much attention to Mary?

Dear Fr. Leo:
As a convert, I have difficulty with all the attention paid to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It seems to overshadow even that of Christ. Why is it so important that she was conceived without sin? – G

Dear G,
You raise an exceptionally good point. From the outset, it is important to make the very important distinction between “worship” and “veneration.” As Catholics, we worship God alone. We venerate, that is, give honor, to Mary and the saints. Another way of thinking about it is that we pray to God; we pray with the saints. A good resource on this is Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Marialis Cultus, “For the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

As the first disciple, and our example of discipleship, Mary holds a special place in the Church. She was the first to believe that God was working in her life for the salvation of the world. She also had a very special vocation within God’s plan of salvation in that she would be the “theotokos”, the God-bearer, literally the Mother of God.

Since she herself is a disciple of Jesus, it is important to remember that anything we say about Mary is indirectly a statement about Christ. We believe that Christ is divine. Thus, she who would bear him in the womb would have a very special vocation. Furthermore, the Church firmly believes that God never calls us to any task or vocation without giving us the grace to do it. It stands to reason that Mary would also have received a special grace for what God was asking of her. Over the centuries, the Church discerned the nature of this grace was that Mary “by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” (Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus, 1854). The wording of this doctrine is particularly important. It does not say that she was conceived without sin. It does affirm that God granted her a special grace by preserving from all stain of original sin, so that she might embrace her vocation without any obstacle or blemish. It is a purity that can only come from God.

If you think about it, it is a similar grace, and foreshadows the grace that each of us receives at our baptism when the stain of original sin is wiped away entirely. After our baptism, there is no obstacle between us and God. What an amazing thing.

Finally, when it comes to the Blessed Virgin Mary, I like to think she is always the first one to draw attention away from herself and point us towards her Son. Remember the last words recorded of her in scripture: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) We would do well to follow her advice.

Dear Fr. Leo:
There is much ado among our protestant brethren about baptism of the Holy Spirit. Is it ok for us to seek this experience? – S

Dear S:
There is much ado about it in the Catholic charismatic movement as well. If you want to check it out, I suggest seeking out the local Catholic charismatic renewal group near you.

The “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” is typically used to describe a spiritual experience where one is overwhelmed with the power of the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues sometimes accompanies this experience, but not necessarily. St. Paul writes about it several times in his letters. While it was part of the early Church’s experience, even St. Paul was quick to point out that it is never to be seen as a litmus test for one’s faith, nor is it necessary for salvation. (See 1Cor 12:4-11, et al.)

Any spiritual gift, or “charism” as they are properly known, is given to the individual for the good of the believing community. It is never one’s personal possession. If it does not lead to greater unity and the building up of the Body of Christ, then it should be held suspect. As Christ said, “By their fruits you will know them.”
(Mk 7:15ff)

Dear Fr. Leo:
Why don’t Catholics put the mezuzah on our doorposts?
Is it against Catholic doctrine? – J

Dear J:
The main reason we don’t put the mezuzah on our doorposts is because we are not Jewish. Thus we are not subject to the Mosaic proscription to put the Shema Yisrael on our doorposts.

It is not against our doctrine since we recognize the Jewish scriptures (“the Old Testament”) as inspired. It is simply not our tradition, nor our obligation, in the same way that a pious Jewish family would not hang a Christian icon on their wall.

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