“…Let us carry on and imitate Mary, a deeply Eucharistic soul, and all our lives will become a Magnificat.”
– Pope Benedict XVI
Closing of Lourdes Grotto Ceremony in the Vatican, May 2005.
We begin our inquiry into the person and role of Mary, Mother of Jesus, by addressing a most fundamental question: What is devotion to Mary?
To answer this question we must first make a basic theological distinction. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, adoration, which is known as latria in classical theology, is the worship and homage that is rightly offered to God alone. It is the manifestation of submission, and acknowledgement of dependence, appropriately shown towards the excellence of an uncreated divine person and to his absolute Lordship. (1) It is the worship of the Creator that God alone deserves. Although we see in English a broader usage of the word “adoration” which may not refer to a form of worship exclusive to God—for example, when a husband says that he “adores his wife”—in general it can be maintained that adoration is the best English denotation for the worship of latria.
Veneration, known as dulia in classical theology, is the honor and reverence appropriately due to the excellence of a created person. (2) Excellence exhibited by created beings likewise deserves recognition and honor. We see a general example of veneration in events like the awarding of academic awards for excellence in school, or the awarding of olympic medals for excellence in sports. There is nothing contrary to the proper adoration of God when we offer the appropriate honor and recognition that created persons deserve based on achievement in excellence. (3)
We must make a further clarification regarding the use of the term “worship” in relation to the categories of adoration and veneration. Historically, schools of theology have used the term “worship” as a general term which included both adoration and veneration. They would distinguish between “worship of adoration” and “worship of veneration.” The word “worship” (in a similar way to how the liturgical term “cult” is traditionally used) was not synonymous with adoration, but could be used to introduce either adoration or veneration. Hence Catholic sources will sometimes use the term “worship” not to indicate adoration, but only the worship of veneration given to Mary and the saints. Confusion over the use of the term worship has led to the misunderstanding by some that Catholics offer adoration to Mary in a type of “Mariolatry,” or idol worship given to Mary. Adoration of Mary is a grave rejection of Christian revelation and has never been nor will never be part of authentic Catholic faith and life. (4)
Under the category of veneration we see the honor and reverence that the saints rightly receive. Why? Because the saints manifested a true excellence in the pursuit and attainment of Christian holiness, and in light of this excellence, Our Lord grants the saints in Heaven an ability to intercede for those on earth who are in the process of pursuing holiness. This is a basic principle of the Mystical Body of Christ and the communion of saints.
St. Thomas Aquinas points out a further truth regarding veneration of the saints. The devotion a person has to God’s saints does not end with the saints themselves, but rather reaches ultimately to God through the saints. (5) For to give honor to a saint who has excelled in loving union with God is also to honor the object of his loving union: God himself.
For example, if we praise a beautiful piece of artwork then we are ultimately praising the artist who created the artwork. So too, when we honor the saint we are ultimately giving honor to God himself, who is both Author and object of their holiness and their love.
In short, we can say it is pleasing to God and, ultimately, it gives him glory when we honor those who excelled in love of him. This is especially true about honoring the Mother of Jesus, who is the Heavenly Father’s greatest masterpiece and the Queen of all saints.
Within the general category of veneration we can speak of a unique level of veneration, an exalted level of honor, that would be appropriate for honoring a created person whose excellence rises above that of every other created person. It is in this special level of veneration, classically called hyperdulia, that we find the proper devotion ascribed to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Hyperdulia, or the entirely unique devotion given to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remains essentially different and inferior to adoration that is due to God alone. Devotion to Mary is never to rival in nature or in degree the adoration proper only to God. While veneration of the Blessed Virgin will always be inferior to the adoration given uniquely to God, it will always be superior and higher than devotion given to all other saints and angels.
This distinction between adoration and veneration and the unique veneration due to Mary is discussed by the Second Vatican Council:
This cult (veneration of Mary), as it has always existed in the Church, for all its uniqueness, differs essentially from the cult of adoration, which is offered equally to the Incarnate Word and to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and it is most favorable to it. The various forms of piety towards the Mother of God, which the Church has approved within the limits of sound and orthodox doctrine, according to the dispositions and understanding of the faithful, ensure that while the mother is honored, the Son through whom all things have their being (cf. Col 1:15-16) and in whom it has pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell (cf. Col 1:19) is rightly known, loved and glorified and his commandments are observed (Lumen Gentium, No. 66).
Mary’s Exalted Devotion
Why does the Blessed Virgin deserve a unique and higher level of veneration and love than all of the other saints and angels? There are at least three fundamental reasons an exalted devotion is appropriate to the Virgin of Nazareth.
First of all, Mary was granted by God a fullness of grace. From the greeting of the Angel Gabriel in the words, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28), we get an indication of God’s special gift to Mary at the moment of conception. Mary received God’s gift of being free from original sin from the first instant of her conception, which prepared her to be the fitting Mother of the Word made flesh. This unique gift allowed a plenitude of grace for the Virgin, since this fullness of grace was in no way limited by a fallen nature.
All other saints, on the other hand, have shared to an excellent degree in grace, but they did not possess a plenitude of grace, due to the limitations of their fallen nature. Even St. John the Baptist, who was sanctified in the womb, as Tradition tells us, (6) started with a fallen nature and was then sanctified in the womb. Only a nature free from all stain of sin allows for a true fullness of grace. Mary’s unique freedom from original sin and its effects, coupled with an exalted perfection in grace, rightly calls for an unparalleled recognition amidst the communion of saints.
Secondly, Mary alone had the privilege of being the “Mother of God.” The humble virgin of Nazareth alone became the Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” in giving flesh to the Second Person of the Trinity who became man for our salvation. In giving flesh to the “Word made flesh,” Mary is properly recognized with an excellence and a dignity beyond any other creature. We can only imagine the intimate union and the extraordinary spiritual effects of having God physically present in her for nine months and of giving Jesus his human nature. Because Mary gave to Jesus what our mothers gave to us, that is, a nature identical to her own, she is rightly the Mother of God.
Theologians have explained the singular dignity of Mary in her Divine Motherhood by stating that the Blessed Virgin Mary alone had an “intrinsic relationship with the Hypostatic Union.” (7) The Hypostatic Union is the union of the divine nature and the human nature in the one divine person of Jesus Christ. Only Mary, of all creatures, had an interior and essential role in Jesus’ taking on human nature in the Incarnation.
In short, the Blessed Mother gave the “carne” to the Incarnation. She gave flesh to the “Word made flesh” who “dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Only the Church in its fullness can ponder the unfathomable depths of how closely united Mary was, and still is, to her divine Son. This inestimable experience of having the physical presence of Jesus in the womb of Mary for nine months would be like having the Holy Eucharist, the true body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, constantly present within us for nine complete months, constantly sanctifying its human tabernacle day and night by its physical and real presence. All other saints, even St. Joseph, no matter how closely associated with the Incarnation, had at best an external relationship with God becoming man for our salvation.
The third reason for an exalted devotion to the Mother of Jesus is Mary’s perfect obedience to the will of God throughout her life on earth. Mary’s fiat, her yes to the will of God, was her response to God’s will not only at the Annunciation (cf. Lk 1:38) but throughout her earthly life. By freely cooperating with her God-given enmity against Satan (cf. Gen 3:15), his seed of sin, Mary gave her “yes” to God’s manifest will at every moment of her earthly life, and never said no to the will of God during her earthly sojourn. It is for this reason that the Council of Trent (the universal council of the Church in the sixteenth century) declared: “No justified person can for his whole life avoid all sins, even venial sins, except on the grounds of a special privilege from God, such as the Church holds was given to the Blessed Virgin.” (8)
Only one creature was granted the grace to be free from original sin, to cooperate in perfect obedience to God’s will, and never to commit even one venial sin. Because of this, the Mother of Jesus is the perfect model of all Christian virtue. She is the perfect model not only of obedience, but also of humility, of faith, hope and charity. She is referred to as the “Model of the Church,” or the person the Church seeks most to imitate in her pursuit of Christian virtue and holiness. (9)
For these reasons and many more, the Blessed Virgin rightly receives a singular and unique place of special devotion in the Church which is higher than that of the saints and angels, but always humbly below the adoration due to God alone. This is summarized in the words of Vatican II:
Joined to Christ the head and in communion with all his saints, the faithful must in the first place reverence the memory “of the glorious ever Virgin Mary, Mother of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ”…. Mary has by grace been exalted above all angels and men to a place second only to her Son, as the most holy mother of God who was involved in the mysteries of Christ: she is rightly honored by a special cult (devotion) in the Church (Lumen Gentium, Nos. 52, 66).
Since God has willed that the Blessed Virgin have such an important role in the work of God becoming man and saving the human family, devotion to Mary should not be considered either arbitrary or extraordinary. Rather, devotion to Mary is an ordinary part of the Christian journey to Christ and eternal salvation. Pope St. Pius X, the pontiff at the beginning of the twentieth century, confirms this truth about the singular privilege of Mary as being not from necessity, but part of the providential will of God, and therefore calling for our proper acceptance and response:
God could have given us the Redeemer of the human race and the Founder of the Faith in another way than through the Virgin, but since Divine Providence has been pleased that we should have the God-man through Mary, who conceived Him by the Holy Spirit and bore Him in her womb, it remains for us to receive Christ only through the hands of Mary. (10)
As is true of so many of the aspects of our faith, including our very salvation, the role of the Blessed Virgin and the proper devotion that comes as a result of her role are not from necessity, but rather from the manifest will of God whose divine ways are perfect. God did not have to use the Blessed Mother either in terms of the Incarnation or in terms of Redemption. Yet, the fact of divine revelation is that it was God’s will that Mary have this central role. Because it was God’s will that Jesus Christ come to us through Mary, and that he redeem the world with the unique cooperation of Mary, it calls for an appropriate response by the human family: We as the human family should rightly and justly offer a response of special devotion to the woman and mother chosen to be at the heart of the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption.
Devotion to Mary should not be on the same level as a preferred devotion to an individual saint, like St. Jude, St. Thérèse, or St. Francis, as valuable and praiseworthy as devotions to individual saints are. Rather, our devotion to the Mother of Our Lord should be more generous and heartfelt than our devotion to all other saints. This superior devotion to the Blessed Mother will never take away the primacy or the dignity of Jesus Christ as the one Savior and Redeemer. Her role and her corresponding devotion will always be subordinate to the adoration proper to Jesus Christ. St. Louis Marie de Montfort, one of the Church’s greatest Marian enthusiasts of all times, illustrates this point well in his very first paragraph of his famous treatise, True Devotion to Mary:
I avow, with all the Church, that Mary, being a mere creature that has come from the hands of the Most High, is in comparison with His Infinite Majesty less than an atom; or rather, she is nothing at all, because only He is “He who is” (Ex 3:14); consequently that grand Lord, always independent and sufficient to Himself, never had, and has not now, any absolute need of the holy Virgin for the accomplishment of His glory. He has but to will in order to do everything.
Nevertheless, I say that, things being as they are now—that is, God having willed to commence and complete His greatest works by the most holy Virgin ever since He created her—we may well think He will not change His conduct in the eternal ages. (11)
This article was excerpted from Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion, which is available from Queenship Publishing at 1-800-647-9882, www.queenship.org., or PO Box 220, Goleta, California, 93116, U.S.A.
(1) Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 103, a. 3, 4.
(2) Ibid., II-II, Q. 84, a. 1; Q 304, a. 1-4.
(4) Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, November 21, 1964, No. 66.
(5) Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II, II, Q. 82, a. 2.
(6) Ibid., III, Q. 27, a. 6.
(7) Cf. Suarez, S.J., Disputationes, 10, all III.
(8) Council of Trent, Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum (DS), 833.
(9) Lumen Gentium, No. 63.
(10) St. Pius X, Encyclical Ad diem illum, February 2, 1904, No. 6; Acta Sanctae Sedis (ASS) 36.
(11) St. Louis Marie de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, beginning of Ch. 1.