My cradle Catholicism comes out in full force when I’m asked to pray for someone- anyone and for any reason.
That is to say, when I’m asked to offer a prayer for somebody, I automatically begin the words of a prayer from memory, and nine times out of ten, it will be the Hail Mary.
I became sensitive to this when a good friend, fellow Air Force ROTC cadet from the University of Portland, and fellow lieutenant stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB, married another friend and cadet from UP. She was Lutheran and he was Catholic. On one of our frequent “coffee walks” around the HQ building where we both worked, we talked about the ways our faiths were similar. She mentioned she’d thought about converting to Catholicism for marital ease, but she couldn’t wrap her head around our “worship” of Mary.
I didn’t quite have the words to differentiate between praying to Mary for her help, and praying as an act of worship.
Lucky for me, I married a brilliant man from whom I could learn!
My husband, baptized a Catholic at birth but not raised in the faith, chose Catholicism for himself (and us) when we began to broach the subject of marriage. If you haven’t realized it yet, converts tend to be very much better at understanding and defending the faith than most of us who were given it at birth. He had a coworker, and devout Christian, ask him the same question about the notion of Catholic worship of Mary via our prayers to her.
He tackled the discussion by breaking down the Hail Mary.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” This is a Biblical quote found in Luke 1:28, when the angel, Gabriel addresses Mary at the Annunciation.
“Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” These are the words of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth found in Luke 1:41-42.
“Holy Mary, mother of God,” Christians agree in the divinity of Christ, so this part of the prayer should also be agreeable.
“Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.” Here, we are simply asking the Blessed Mother to pray for us, as we would ask anyone else to pray for us.
What my husband carefully and respectfully pointed out to his coworker was that, for Catholics, prayer is not synonymous with worship. When we offer prayers to God, it can be in thanksgiving, petition, glorification and praise, or worship.
But when we pray to Mary and the myriad of saints, it is to ask them to pray on our behalf, not to answer our prayers directly. We request their help in the form of prayers as we would request the prayers of our friends.
This approach to understanding the Hail Mary was revolutionary for me, and it has helped me to explain both a devotion to Mary and to the saints to our Protestant brothers and sisters who have wondered about the practice. I continue to rely on the Hail Mary and the rosary as my go-to when praying because I find comfort in asking for the prayers of a fellow woman, wife, and mother, when seeking our Lord’s help.
I take to heart Matthew 18:20 (“Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”) and find comfort in the idea that one of those gathered is his own mother. Because one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible, the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) shows us that our Lord Jesus is definitely responsive to His mother!