During the summer of 1998, serving in the missions, I was struck by the ability of the children in the parish, from four to six years old, to memorize detailed catechism lessons by means of song. The one I can still remember helped them answer their playmates, who would criticize their devotion to the Blessed Mother. Sung to the tune of “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” it goes like this:
We are HON-or-ing Mary, we are HON-or-ing, We are HON-or-ing Mary, never WOR-ship-ing. People say we worship Mary: we just pay her special honor. Ev’ry body join the chorus: honor her! (Honor Mary!)
Nothing fancy, perhaps, but an effective tool to convey an important truth. We Catholic Christians reserve our worship for God alone, but we nevertheless honor human beings who exemplified to an extraordinary degree, one or more of the divine attributes: goodness, or holiness, or wisdom, or strength. Of all the saints, we believe that St. Mary, our Patroness, was the conduit par excellence, of divine love: as we say, “full of grace.” If we want to be fancy, we could use the Church’s technical terminology like doulia (veneration of the saints), hyper-doulia (special veneration of Mary), and latria (worship of God alone). There are so many lessons that flow from this: where to begin?
First, consider that “the communion of saints” is an article of faith, part of the creed itself, which goes back to the earliest days of Christianity, and underscores the collective dimension of Christian existence. If Aristotle claims that it is impossible to be a happy or virtuous human being without friends, how much more so for Catholics? Simply put, we have a “stake” in each other’s holiness, each other’s well-being, each other’s life of virtue, each other’s triumphs and sufferings. Our very experience of God implies community, does it not? (“Wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name…”) And so strong is that bond that not even death can separate us from each other, which is precisely why we pray for the dead. (“O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine! Yet all are one with Thee, for all are thine! Alleluia! Alleluia!”)
Moreover, veneration of the saints in no way takes away from God’s perfection. On the contrary, it indicates that grace has a real, profound, unmistakable effect on the lives of human beings. Catholics do well not to fall into the trap that was well described by (of all people) Voltaire, who says: Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. (“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”) Grace triumphs by healing sin, perfecting flaws, and strengthening weakness, as St. Paul tells us: “…for in weakness, power reaches perfection” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Finally, we realize in prayer to the saints (especially the Blessed Mother), that prayerful requests do not change God’s plans, but rather are themselves part of the way God “arranges” creation. In praying, say, for world peace, one looks at the world, as it were, through the eyes of God, so that both the pray-er and the prayed-for benefit from divine Providence.
As the liturgical year draws to a close, and the Church considers the “last things”—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—let us rejoice in the company and support of Mary and the saints.