A few years ago I went to see the tall ships that were visiting Boston harbor. On my way home I stopped at Saint Anthony’s Shrine downtown. As I was walking toward it I noticed a tall, thin man hanging around in front of the church, sort of huddled into a corner wall. Though he looked around furtively through his black-rimmed glasses and seemed a bit timid, he didn't appear to be begging. True to my New York upbringing, I began to walk quickly past, pretending not to notice. As I went by, he suddenly reached into a white plastic grocery bag, pulled out a leaflet, and waved it in my face. I realized immediately that it was one of those anti-Catholic tracts, so I didn’t take it.
After a short time praying in the church, I got an inspiration that on my way out I should stop and talk to this man. I felt reluctant, since I generally don’t approach strangers on the street and talk to them. But I thought: Here’s this person handing out anti-Catholic leaflets in front of a Catholic church, so why should I just go by without responding in some way? So I asked him, “What’s that you're handing out?”
He handed me the leaflet, listing some typical fundamentalist objections to the Catholic Church. He said he had been Catholic but now was going to another church. His big point was that the Catholic Church has “man-made” beliefs and practices, and of course, the intercession of Mary and the saints was a huge issue. So I talked to him for a while about this. I wish I could say that he converted back to the Church, but it’s never that easy. Only the grace of God can bring that about.
Hopefully, however, if Catholics had a better understanding of why we have devotion to Mary and the saints, they would not fall away so easily when challenged about this. So the question arises: Why do we ask Mary’s intercession at all? Can’t we just go directly to Jesus? Yes, we can and certainly do pray directly to God and to Jesus, who is the “one mediator between God and humankind” (1 Tim 2:5). In this, as in so many other things Catholic, it’s not a matter or either/or, but of both/and.
Jesus came to earth for our salvation. He redeemed us by his death on the cross and his resurrection. Without that, we could not be saved. But Jesus established the Church and wanted us to play a part in helping others to be saved. For example, shortly before he went back to heaven, he told his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15–16). Jesus gave the disciples a role through which others would be saved. Their role was subordinate to that of Jesus, of course, but it was still a true role. Something similar is at work with the intercession of Mary and the saints. It is part of the plan of God, by which he wills that we can help each other along the way of salvation.
Jesus merited for us the gift of grace, which is how we become like God. Jesus undid the evil of the original sin committed by our first parents at the very beginning of the human race. The irony is that in sinning they thought they would become like God, as the tempter told them (see Gen 3:4–5). But in reality they were already like God since he had given them the gift of original grace, and they lost it when they sinned.
So how do we become like God? The short answer is through faith and the sacraments. Looking at it more broadly, however, Saint Thomas makes an interesting point. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but basically he says that we can become like God in two ways. First, because God is good, we become like him by being good. Second, because God is the cause of goodness in creatures, we become like God by bringing goodness to others, by doing good (see Summa Theol., I, q. 103, a. 4).
That second point is the key aspect in regard to the intercession of the saints. By praying for us, they play a role in bringing goodness to us. It’s part of God’s plan. It’s more perfect for us to reflect God’s goodness by doing good rather than simply by being good. We’re meant to be active, to reach out, to help others, and that reflects God. And while we can help others in all sorts of ways, to help them get closer to God is the best thing we can do for them. The intercession of the saints does precisely that.
When you think about it, isn’t this the way God acts in regard to other things? He brings about goodness through other creatures. For example, he could have just directly created all the people he wants, instead of having them come into the world through their parents. But by giving parents a role in procreation, God is acting through them to bring goodness to others. And the parents’ role is not only good for their children, but good for themselves too. It gives them the wonderful ability to cooperate with God in bringing life into the world.
That’s good for us, because it’s an important part of the way we become holy. We reflect these two aspects of God by both being good and doing good. God isn’t concerned about doing things in the most efficient way. If he were, he would just do everything himself. God is concerned about drawing us into his very life, and he doesn’t want us to come all by ourselves. He wants us to come with a lot of other people.
The Catholic faith takes this seriously. It’s not just a matter of me and Jesus, but of me, Jesus, and the whole community of the Church. …
On Calvary, Mary offered up her sufferings at seeing Jesus die such a cruel death. She joined her sufferings to his and so she became the Sorrowful Mother, the mother who understands our own pain and sufferings. As Jesus was dying, he saw Mary standing there with the beloved disciple. Turning toward them, Jesus said, “‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then [turning to John,] he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (Jn 19:26–27). Even though we usually think of Saint John as being the beloved disciple, and he probably was, he is never named in John’s Gospel. Some writers think this is because he is meant to represent all of us as disciples. So in giving Mary to him, in effect Jesus was giving her to all of us. He was asking us to bring Mary into our lives, to welcome her and give her a place. It’s as if Jesus was asking us to develop a relationship with Mary.
So how do we do that? Basically, we can do it just as we develop other relationships, by getting to know the person and sharing knowledge of ourselves. Granted, it may be a little harder to do this in regard to Mary, since prayer operates differently than when we speak to others face to face. And even though when we pray we may not hear a response, we can know without a doubt that she is listening to what we say and bringing it to Jesus. She will ask him for all the graces we need.
Excerpted from the book: Mary Help in Hard Times, written and compiled by Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, FSP.