With all the misconceptions and unanswered questions about the Catholic Church floating around, it’s important that we Catholics clearly explain what we believe and address all the fingers pointed at the Church. If only those who criticize the Church would give us a chance to explain ourselves fully, we just might soften some stony hearts. As Servant of God Fulton Sheen stated so perceptively, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
I would like to begin this series with some Catholic basics. For Catholics genuinely interested in their faith, these “basics” might be old news; for doubtful Catholics, they might prove a much-needed reminder; and for non-Catholics, they will hopefully refute some common allegations. Overall, I hope I will inspire a deeper appreciation of what the Catholic Church is all about.
Question #1: Why the name “Catholic”?
Answer: The word “catholic” comes from the Greek kat’ holon or katholou and it means “universal”, as in relating to the whole. There is a rather rich array of symbolism within the name, but only one or two explanations will be necessary:
1. The Church is universal because She obeys Christ’s command to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” – Matthew 28: 19
2. The Church is whole because She believes that Christ resides very really with Her, in His fullness (“Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” – Matthew 28: 20); and because Christ handed on to the Church His Truth – that is, the whole truth. “I gave them Your word, and the world hated them … Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth.” – Jesus’ prayer to His Father, John 18: 14, 17
The word “catholic” was first applied to the Church – what was then simply known as the Christian Church – in St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Smyrnaeans, about the year 110 A.D. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 A.D.) later stated, “Both in substance and in seeming, both in origin and in development, the primitive and Catholic Church is the only one.”
Misconception #1: Catholics worship Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Refutation: By honoring Mary, we are following the example of the early Church.
The respect and distinction granted the Mother of God by the Church is an ancient, ancient custom. Before any theological decisions were made officially by the Church regarding such issues as Mary’s virginity, her freedom from original sin, and her merited right to be called the Mother of God, devotion to Mary was common in the early Church. One of the earliest known paintings of Mary was found in the catacombs, dating from the late 2nd century. (See picture at the end of the post.)
Many of the Church Fathers, great men who were active in the Church from its beginnings to 750 A.D., wrote tracts in defense or in praise of Mary. One of the earliest references to Mary among the writings of the Church Fathers is from Irenaeus, who wrote in 189 A.D., “The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God.” Ambrose of Milan wrote in 377 A.D., “The first thing which kindles ardor in learning is the greatness of the teacher. What is greater than the Mother of God? What more glorious than she whom Glory Itself chose?” Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “The Father bears witness from heaven to His Son. The Holy Spirit bears witness, coming down bodily in the form of a dove. The archangel Gabriel bears witness, bringing the good tidings to Mary. The Virgin Mother of God bears witness.” (350 A.D.)
It is also worth mentioning that one of the famous early councils of the Church, the Council of Ephesus held in 431 A.D., was convened because the early Church was fighting one of the many heresies then plaguing it. A bishop named Nestorius – of Greek nationality, and therefore inclined to be a Platonist – believed that created things were imperfect and sinful. He thus tried to make the claim that Christ was not God, and therefore Mary was not the Mother of God, but simply the mother of a great human being. The council, of course, made the decision that Christ must be God, and so Mary must be the Mother of God – or the Theotokos, Greek for “God-bearer”. It is interesting to note that this decision was made based on logic more than anything else, and that shortly thereafter, the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built in Rome around the year 435, Saint Mary Major. This basilica still stands in all its glory in Rome. (see picture)
By honoring Mary, we are following the examples given to us in Scripture.
Not only does the Catholic Church have innumerable writings of the Church Fathers to turn to for guidance in this matter, but She also has the authority of Scripture. I would like to reference five Scripture passages which maintain Mary’s position as honored Mother of God:
1. Luke 1: 26-28. “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.’ ”
2. Luke 1: 41-42, 46, 48. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice, ‘Most blessed are you among women’ … And Mary said ... ‘Behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.’ ”
3. John 2: 1, 3-5, 7, 9-10. “There was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there … When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servers, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ … Jesus told them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ … And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine … [he] called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves good wine first … but you have kept the good wine until now.’ ”
4. John 19: 25-27. “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister … when Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.”
5. Acts of the Apostles 1: 13-14. “When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus.”
The first two passages are in many ways self-explanatory, but I would like to briefly explain the great significance of the latter three.
- · At the wedding feast, Mary first informs Jesus of the bridal party’s plight – no wine – and then she, in a sense, disregards His rationalization and orders the servants to pay attention and follow whatever directions Jesus gives them. (She is gently, but subtly, ordering Jesus to help the bride and groom out. Sounds like a mother, doesn’t it?) And then – Jesus listens to her. One could argue that Jesus was merely testing Mary, that He was planning all along to change the water into the needed wine, that she “pressured” Him to work a miracle; and perhaps all these were factors, but the point is that Jesus listened to her, and obeyed her. He offers to us an example of the respect and obedience we should give to Mary.
- · At the Cross, Jesus sets before us a most tender symbol: that of giving His Church to the care of His Mother, as her own children. St. John the Disciple, perhaps pointedly unnamed (although John the Evangelist insists on calling himself the disciple whom Jesus loved throughout his Gospel), stands on one side of the Cross, representing the Church. Mary stands on the other side. Jesus, who seems concerned not only for the welfare of His Church, but also for that of His Mother, gives Mary to the disciple and the disciple to Mary. At Jesus’ last dying moment, the Church is bequeathed to an ever-loving mother.
- · In the upper room, where the beautiful Descent of the Holy Spirit will take place in a few moments, the Apostles of Jesus gather with the women who followed Jesus, and with His Mother. St. John seems to have taken his role as Mary’s adopted son quite seriously, and all the other Apostles as well. Her presence among the closest disciples of Jesus during the very beginnings of the Church (Pentecost) indicates her personal and guiding role in the early Church. One can imagine the love she showered on them as the dear friends of her Son, and how much the Apostles must have been devoted to her as the Virgin Mother of their Lord.
It can thus be gathered from these examples that devotion to Mary is not something new. The practice of honoring the Mother of God has been around since the Church began. Before the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church split, before Islam was formed (even centuries before Muhammad was born), the Virgin Mother held a cherished place in the heart of the Church. That is why we honor her today.
But don’t you pray to Mary?
For the sake of convenience, we say “praying to Mary”, which is something of a euphemism, although we are indeed asking her for her motherly help during times of trouble. But we are not praying to her as a goddess, or as some deity equal in omnipotence to the Triune God. We like to call it “praying to Jesus through Mary”, and in that sense we are referencing the Scripture passage where the wedding feast at Cana takes place. (The significance of that passage has been mentioned already.) It is as if we were asking our own mothers to pray for us, and like Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, God listens with special attention to the prayers of a mother. How much more so will He listen to the requests of His own Mother, when she presents Him with the needs of the Church.