Why is Mary So Important for Catholics?

From a Reader

As a Protestant, I just can’t fathom why there’s such a gulf between us about Mary. You Catholics seem to idolize her. Almost all Protestants feel you do. Could you explain it? I don’t mean your dogmas about Mary — the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption — I know the arguments you have for them. But I sense there’s something bigger, deeper, and more hidden in the soul about this whole Catholic schtick about Mary, whether it’s right or wrong.

Why is she a million times more important to you than she is to us? Can you explain it?

Dr. Kreeft Responds

I understand your question, and it’s a good one, because it perceives that our differences are not only about doctrine, about the dogmas. It’s a sensibility, an intuition, a “big picture.” Let me try to explain our side of the “big picture”; then you can explain yours and respond to ours if you like.

Every Catholic convert from Protestantism that I know of asks your question. Here’s a very mysterious puzzle. On the one hand, the Marian doctrines are almost always the single hardest thing for a Protestant to understand and accept in Catholicism, the last obstacle.

 

But on the other hand, once converts have been Catholic for a long time, they look back on their Protestant objections and just can’t understand why Mary was such an obstacle; she is so beautiful! What God did in her is so beautiful. She used to be the biggest minus to them, when they were Protestants, and now she’s one of the biggest pluses. It’s a change in sensibilities, and intuitions, and appreciations — not just the minds but the hearts.

They wonder, as I do, why Protestants don’t see the beauty of it all and love Mary as much as Catholics do. They forget their Protestant sensibilities so completely that they just don’t understand them anymore. That’s true of me, and of almost all Protestant-to-Catholic converts I know. Check it out; ask them; nine out of ten will say the same thing.

This article is from the book Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He’s Ever Been Asked. Click image to order your copy.

So, I can’t explain your side of the great divide, because I’ve forgotten how it used to look to me as a Protestant and why Mary was so unimportant to my Protestant sensibilities. All I can tell you is why she is now so important to me, to my Catholic sensibilities. The answer is a single word. Do you want to guess what the word is?

OK. For me, the word would be “idolatry,” but I guess that’s not the word for you. So, it must be “Church authority” or “tradition,” right?

Nope. Try again.

The theology of grace using nature, perfecting nature?

Good guess, and that’s involved in it too, I think, but no, that’s not it. It’s just one word.

I give up. What is it?

Jesus.

That’s my favorite word too.

Good! If there’s one thing Protestants really get, it’s Christocentrism, the all-importance of Jesus, loving Jesus, adoring Jesus, seeing Him as absolute Lord and Savior, as everything. There’s another group of Christians who are like that too: all the Catholic saints. Not all the Catholics, but certainly all the Catholic saints.

Let me try to explain Mary by Jesus. Just as Mary never pointed to herself but only to Him, so all the doctrines about Mary are ways of praising not just Mary but Him. We love Mary for one reason: because we love Jesus. The more we love Jesus, the more we love Mary. If we could grade Catholics on a scale of sainthood, a kind of spiritual graph, three lines would be almost identical in height or depth: how saintly you are, how much you love Jesus, and how much you love Mary.

That’s the empirical fact. Here comes the explanation.

Look at the Hail Mary prayer. It stops halfway through. The speaker has to take a silence break before and after the name “Jesus.” He’s at the heart of that prayer as He was at the heart of her body, her womb. Look at the title we give her in that prayer: “Mother of God.” Unbelievable, astonishing, incredible, amaz­ing, infinitely wonderful! What? Jesus in Mary, Jesus incarnating, Jesus coming down to us in Mary.

Suppose He had chosen to come in another way. He could have. He could have appeared instantly as a full-grown man descending from the sky, the reverse of the Ascension. He could have come down on a mountaintop, or in the Temple. And if he had, every Christian in the world who adored Him would make a pilgrimage to that mountain or that Temple. They would love that place above all places in the universe. They would make a very big deal of it. Why? Because they make a very big deal about Him.

Well, why not do the same with Mary? She is the place where the single most important and miraculous and wonderful thing that ever happened, happened. It’s what C. S. Lewis called “the grand miracle.” It’s far greater than the creation of the universe. The eternal, immortal, infinite God became a temporal, mortal, finite man out of love of us, for our salvation. Wow! The sparks from that “Wow” are what fires up our love of Mary.

Here’s the same point from another prayer, the Angelus. The second stanza starts with these two sentences word for word from the Gospels: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word” (see Luke 1:38). And the next sentence says, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Look how it juxtaposes those two sentences. The second sentence is the most amazing sentence ever uttered. It tells us the most amazing thing that ever happened: God became man. And the sentence before that tells us why, tells us the cause: it was this woman’s free Yes to God’s invitation. It was God’s invitation, of course; the angel was only the mailman. And it was not a command, it was an invitation, and she could have refused it, and if she had, then no one could ever have gone to Heaven. Her words were “Be it done to me according to Your Word.” “Fiat.” “Let it be.” The same word God spoke to create the entire universe. The word of power. The word that released the Word, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Eternal Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Lord of the world, our Savior and our only hope, our everything. The great­est thing that ever happened, happened in her and because of her.

So, you see, the more we love and adore Jesus, the more we love and reverence Mary. We just can’t stop it. We love Him infinitely; we love Him far too much not to love her as much as any creature can be loved because she is as good and as beautiful as any creature can be.

That’s where we’re coming from. And all the Eastern Ortho­dox churches too. I hope you Protestants can use your Christian imagina­tion and your Christian empathy to understand that crazy, wild love of ours. Yes, our love for Mary is crazy and wild, because God’s love for us is crazy and wild. And God’s love for us hap­pened in her, first in making her immaculate when He created her soul at her conception, to prepare her for her perfect Yes, and then in making her the Mother of God in the Incarnation — which, by the way, happened not on Christmas, December 25, but on March 25, nine months before Christmas.

We make a big deal out of Christmas; we should make an even bigger deal out of March 25. The greatest event in history, the Incarnation, happened at the Annunciation.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He’s Ever Been Asked. It is available from Sophia Institute Press and your local Catholic bookstore.

Peter Kreeft

By

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and also at the King's College (Empire State Building) in New York City. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 55 books. Dr. Kreeft is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He has received several honors for achievements in the field of philosophy, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, Yale-Sterling Fellowship, Newman Alumni Scholarship, Danforth Asian Religions Fellowship, and a Weathersfield Homeland Foundation Fellowship.

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