Q: Why do Catholics pray to Mary and the saints?
A: I remember visiting a Protestant couple I had befriended during my seminary years at their home in Maryland one evening. As dinner was winding down, one of them asked me, “So why do you Catholics pray to Mary and the saints? Shouldn’t they go directly to Jesus?”
This is a common concern of our Protestant brothers and sisters. I looked around their living room and noted many family pictures hanging on the walls, spanning generations. I asked them why these pictures were meaningful to them. The couple said that these were the people they loved and cared about the most. They entrusted their deceased relatives and friends to God’s mercy and they prayed for their children and grandchildren to have healthy and blessed lives.
I replied that this is a perfectly sensible thing for a Christian disciple to do – and it is why it is perfectly sensible to have statues and pictures of Mary and the saints in our churches and homes. They are important members of our family of faith, family related by blood, the precious blood of Jesus. Just as we turn to fellow Christians to ask them to pray for us, we turn in a special way to our Blessed Mother Mary and the canonized saints of the Church for their intercession and guidance as we make our pilgrim way in this life. This sharing of spiritual goods flows from our baptism into the mystical body of Christ, the Church. It is why we profess in the creed our belief in “the communion of the saints.”
It is important to understand that, as Catholics, we don’t worship Mary or the saints; worship is due to God alone. Instead, we honor them with special devotion because of their example of faithfulness to God’s will in their lives and their place worshipping God in eternity. Just as the moon reflects the sunlight, Mary and the saints reflect God’s grace and love in their own unique, beautiful ways. The power of their good example and intercessory prayers spurs us to join them in heaven.
We venerate Mary precisely because of her unique relationship to Jesus and her complete openness to the work of the Holy Spirit. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Mary’s role in the Church is inseparable from her union with Christ and flows directly from it.” (CCC #964) Her motherhood in the order of grace inspires all generations to call her blessed (cf. Lk 1:48) and, as poor sinners, to seek her prayers now and at the hour of our death.
Mary always wants to lead us to her son. She is powerful precisely because she knows her total dependence on God’s Providence and grace. The saints imitated her fiat, her trusting “yes” to God in the obedience of faith. Like them, we, too, are invited to surrender our lives to God in our time and place.
The power of Mary’s intercession is evident even from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. When our Lord performs his first miracle at the wedding of Cana, it is through Mary’s intercession after she brings the needs of the newlywed couple to her son and then tells the servants at the banquet, “Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:5) Wonderful things result every time we heed Mary’s sage advice and strive to do whatever Jesus tells us.
How is God calling each of us to reflect his light in the particular circumstances of our lives? It would be rather intimidating to strive to answer this call on our own. Thank God for the gift of our Blessed Mother and the saints who accompany us on our journey of discipleship.
So, instead of saying that we Catholics pray “to” Mary and the saints, perhaps it is better to say that we pray “through” them or “with” them to our Triune God. They are our models in virtue and intercessors in prayer. Like a good corner in the boxing ring, we find this great cloud of witnesses coaching us, encouraging us, binding up our wounds with their prayers, refreshing us with their good example and cheering us on to fight the good fight of faith, to run the race of discipleship and so gain the prize of eternal life in Christ as they did. (cf. 2 Tm 4:7).
Mary, queen of all saints, pray for us!
Father Jeffrey Gubbiotti is pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Ansonia.