I shall address your questions in the order they are offered.
1. Why do you have to ask Mary to take your prayers to Jesus? Can’t you just go straight to Jesus?
Of course, one can and should address Jesus directly in prayer; however, this does not negate Mary’s role. The question is a good one and possesses some complexity. All of the attributes of mercy and love attributed to Mary find their ultimate source in the Lord. The unity between the Mother and her divine Son is very intimate and unbreakable. Even when we address our prayers to Jesus or show him homage, we are also honoring his Mother and invoking her assistance. Mary rejoices when we come to her Son, no matter what the path. The Dominican priest, Fr. Jelly wrote that in this sense, even the most fundamentalist of Protestants are showing their respect to Mary in their devotion to Christ. Conversely, God is honored when we honor Mary. God loves us to honor Mary as a Father is pleased when his daughter is honored. All the honor we give to Mary is reflected back to God since we honor her for what He has done for her, with her, and through her. When we honor her, we honor Him. When Catholics address Mary, it is because there is something about her maternal qualities which soothe our souls and remind us of the great company of heaven– the home to which we hope to one day enter. Even in human families, the love and help of parents could just as well come from one parent or the other; but sometimes we want the strength of our fathers and at other times the feminine touch of our mothers. Mary is a creature, not God like her Son, and yet her abiding proximity and union to Christ makes her a fitting figure for our prayers. We reverence her, as we do all the saints, but true worship is addressed to God alone. Otherwise, we would fall into idolatry. Christ is our only mediator (1 Tim. 2:5-6) with the Father, but Mary can intercede (pray for us) with her Son Jesus. Jesus worked his first miracle at her request ( Jn. 2:1-12). Just as we can ask other members of the church on earth to pray for us (1 Tim. 2:1; 2 Tim. 1:3; Phil. 4:22), so too, can we ask members of the church in heaven to pray for us (Rv. 5:8; 6:9-11; 7:10-12; 8:2-6; Mt. 22:31, 32).
We are also called to imitation of Christ. Did Jesus follow the commandments? Sure. Including the fourth commandment? Yes. Then if Jesus honored Mary his Mother and took her direction seriously, would this commandment be abrogated in heaven? Further, if Mary is given to us as our Spiritual Mother, are we not to pay the same respect to her as he did– imitating Christ even in this? Yes. The honor we give Mary our Spiritual Mother in no way subtracts from the worship we give to God any more than honoring our earthly mother does. In fact, it conforms to God’s holy will, and we who are adopted sons of God honor her whom the Son honored.
2. Why must Mary intercede? And what if she doesn’t want to? Does that mean your prayers are not heard by Jesus? I guess this question goes for praying to all the Saints.
Why? How can she not? If you are watching a football game and the receiver gets the ball, are you not rooting him on to victory? The crowd becomes like one unified whole– shouting, singing, doing the wave, etc. This analogy offers but a pale point of reference to the role of Mary and the saints. We are all in this together– the journey from mortal to eternal life. The very definition of a saint makes what the division you suggest impossible. The sanctity of heaven implies the utter transformation of one into a new Christ– of one mind and will with our Lord. What he wants, they want. A little girl in church was asked one time for the definition of a saint. She looked at the figures in the stained-glass windows and replied, “Saints are those who allow the light to shine through.” Quite right! And the Light of the World is Christ, dispelling the darkness of ignorance, sin, and death. This process of conversion begins in this life; we can and should be perfected in holiness by the grace of God. We can be ever remade into Christ’s image. Heaven simply brings this development to its full conclusion. People who knew Mother Teresa said that to be near her was almost like being in the presence of Jesus– so fully did she manifest the living Christ in her faith and life. We can also become saints if we allow God to so work in our lives. We need to seek a restoration of all things in Christ, including ourselves. The question about division between the saints and Jesus says less about the heavenly hosts than about ourselves– our own brokenness and bondage to sin– our own refusal to fully embrace the Gospel of Life. Sometimes selfishness and hatred invade our prayers; such is never the case for Mary and the Saints. They are immaculate windows to the divine. Further, they are a part of us. The Church in Glory is inextricably united to the earthly Church in Glory and the Church in Purgation. The Mystical Body (Eph. 1:23; 1 Cor. 12:27) remains intact. The saints intercede for us precisely as perfectly conformed elements in this wondrous union. Death is not the end of love. This is at the heart of Christ’s resurrection– his Father’s Love (the Holy Spirit no less) restored him back to life. The family of God in heaven has not forgotten those of us still facing the trial. Love compels them to remember us and to pray for us.
3. Do Catholics pray to God, Jesus, Mary, Saints, and all of the above? How is praying to a saint different than praying to God? My Christianity claims that God will listen to all prayers. If Catholics believe that (do they?) Why are they praying to saints?
Some of these concerns I have already briefly addressed. Over the last two thousand years, Catholic Christians have done much discernment regarding prayer and spiritual matters. Obvious structures in our prayers have been formulated. Note that at Mass, most orations are addressed to God as Father. Oftentimes prayers will end with a statement that it is offered “through” Christ our Lord and with some possible mention of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is again and again affirmed as the one Mediator to the Father. We also believe in the Trinity: that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is important because certain modern-day Arians and Messianic Jews deny the divinity of Christ– a fact that would immediately alter prayer. God does listen to all prayers and as I have said before, the invocation of a saint to pray with us to God does not negate this reality. All prayer is properly addressed to God. If a prayer is answered, it is because of the intervention of God. Mary and the Saints have now power of their own– they are creatures; however, God has chosen to work closely with and in us. Your question here would better be rendered: what are the four purposes of prayer?
- Adoration: Proper worship of God due to Him as our Creator.
- Thanksgiving: Gratefulness to God for His gifts to us.
- Reparation: To obtain pardon for sins and to do penance.
- Petition: We ask for spiritual and physical goods.
I hope this helps to alleviate the confusion you have about the oldest form of Christianity and our prayer practices. And, again, I do hope you are sincere. Sometimes anti-Catholic fundamentalists ask questions, not because they honestly want to understand the faith, but because they hope to trip up ignorant Catholics as part of a prosletyzation effort.May the Lord Jesus bless and keep you,
Fr. Joe J.