“Ask a Priest: What If Marian Devotion Seems Too Much?”

Q: My husband and I are Catholic and converted from Protestantism. We have been Catholic for years but still struggle with all the attention Mary receives. To us she receives more prayers, attention, devotion, processions and obedience than Jesus, which to us still after all these years is worship and not mere veneration. We were going to go to the Orthodox but don’t want to start the church-bouncing thing again, and believe in the basics of the Catholic Church which no other but the Orthodox teach; however, we decided to stay at the Catholic Church. We went to confession (I didn’t mention that I had had problems with Mary and the constant attention to her over God). For penance the priest told me to ask Mary to pardon my sins and then say five Hail Mary’s. I tried to do this penance and felt so spiritually dirty. Why is Mary able to forgive sins? Why was I ask to do this? Is there another explanation I have missed? As is, I had been struggling to go to church because of Mary, and now I never want to go back, not to any church. – M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I understand the difficulty you are describing. I have a priest friend who is also a convert from Protestantism, and he tells me that people’s exaggerations of Marian devotion were a stumbling block for him even after years of being a Catholic. I hope that a few distinctions and observations can help you in this area.

First of all, it’s important to remember that from the perspective of Catholic doctrine (not the practice of individual Catholics), true devotion to Mary always leads us closer to her Son. It is also true that some people can exaggerate Marian devotion if it diverts their attention from Christ as the center of our Catholic faith.

But these cases of exaggeration are anomalies — they aren’t the intention of the Church. The Church gives a revered but balanced place to Our Lady in the history of salvation and the work of redemption. Here is an official expression of how the Church sees Marian devotion:

“There is but one Mediator as we know from the words of the apostle, ‘for there is one God and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a redemption for all.’ The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no wise obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows His power. For all the salvific influence of the Blessed Virgin on men originates, not from some inner necessity, but from the divine pleasure. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it. In no way does it impede, but rather does it foster the immediate union of the faithful with Christ” (Lumen Gentium, No. 60).

Notice how this teaching recognizes that God chose to involve Mary in the history of salvation in a special way, but her special role flows from (and leads back to) Jesus.

Any Catholic who begins to worship Mary as if she were a goddess, or who seeks to obtain grace from her as if she were the origin of that grace, is making a mistake. Mary is important only because Jesus is much, much more important.

Think, for example, about the highest form of worship in the Church, the Mass. It is extremely Christ-centered, as it is his sacrifice of himself to God the Father for the redemption of the world.

As for the penance you received: Perhaps the priest in his zeal misspoke when he implied that Mary would be the one to forgive you. It is always God who forgives us in the sacrament. Mary cannot forgive sins; only God can do that.

I doubt that the priest meant to say anything that could be heretical — after all, he absolves “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He was probably just trying to encourage you in your relationship with Mary.

Perhaps the solution is all this is to familiarize yourself more with what the Church actually teaches about Mary and Marian devotion. She has an important place in God’s plan; through her the Second Person of the Trinity took on human nature and was born a man. It is significant, too, that from the cross Jesus entrusted her to John and the Church, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:27).

The key thing is not to dismiss entirely the role of Mary simply because some folks might seem to take things to an unhealthy extreme.

You could read up on Mary in the Catechism, starting at No. 963. Also helpful is a wonderful book by a convert to Catholicism, called Hail, Holy Queenwhich explores the scriptural roots of true Marian devotion.

Here at RCSpirituality.org we have also put together some retreat guides on Mary, showing that she can be for us an inspiration and an example in our following of Christ. See, for instance, “Welcoming the Word: A Retreat Guide on the Annunciation.”

Having a healthy view of Our Lady will help you in your Catholic faith and in your efforts to come closer to our Lord, as it has helped so many saints through the centuries, such as Pope St. John Paul II. And could help you from the temptation to start “church-bouncing” again. That is the last thing you want to do.

You want to be careful, too, because the devil would like to sow seeds of doubt about the Church in you, especially after your journey over the years.

In the meantime stay focused on Jesus in the Eucharist and in Scripture. Mary would certainly approve of that. After all, her last words in Scripture are, “Do whatever He [Jesus] tells you” (John 2:5).

 

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