Saturday, June 19, 2010

Meeting the Mother of God, Part III: Defending Mary

By the fall semester of my senior year in college, I decided I was going to be received into the Catholic Church at the Great Vigil of Easter 2009. At the time I still had some qualms about the place of Mary in the Church. Catholics don't worship Mary, but why do they show her so much devotion? If you can pray to Jesus, where's the need to ask Mary for her intercessions?

One weekend, I visited my parents' church. By that time, I already made my decision. I attended the English-speaking service there. While I was listening, the speaker Carl made this claim, "You guys, we have a whole religion of Roman Catholicism that worships Mary." Interesting, I thought. Let's talk to him afterward.

After the service, I asked him about it, and informed him that Catholics don't worship Mary. Carl said, "Oh yes they do. I am a former Catholic." That definitely disoriented me. Huh? Okay, maybe I need to do my research further on the Catholic Church.

We had a little talk, about praying to Mary and he made the claim that prayer is worship, therefore, praying to Mary is worshiping her. We didn't have much time to talk, but he asked for my e-mail address so that we could dialogue further on what Catholics believe.

A couple months later, Carl e-mailed me on Mary, citing Vatican II documents and the Catechism.

I tried replying as charitably as I could. At this point, several e-mails have been exchanged. And I was already received and confirmed in the Catholic Church. I began to suspect that Carl's intention in our e-mail conversations were not to understand what Catholics believe, but to show me that I am in error. I told him, "I don't know if the purpose of your e-mails is to call me back into the Protestant fold or for your own understanding of the Catholic faith. If it is to re-convert me, please do stop. I am firm in my decision, the Catholic Church has been as the source and summit of my walk in Christ through the Holy Communion. I was received into the Church this past Easter. If it is to come to a better understanding of what Catholics believe, I would then be delighted to continue our conversation."

His response was uncharitable as it was ill-informed, "it is my firm conviction to help those who have been deceived by other religions. You talk so highly about the Roman Catholic Church... I am concerned for your soul, not your affiliation with another church over your church... I pray that you are truly saved, but an exaltation of a person or persons to the same degree as Christ will not save. We must worship and follow Jesus the Jew, the Messiah that came and saved us."

As it was explained in previous blogs, Catholics have devotions to the Mother of God, but we do not worship her. We do not give her total homage of who we are.

When we make statements of offense, to break down arguments, it causes the other side to come to the defense of what they consider good, sacred, or true. Carl’s last e-mail placed me on the fast-track to my relationship with the Virgin Mother: by looking up arguments in support of Marian doctrines, by praying with her and through her to the Gate of Life, in meditating upon her role in God’s plan of salvation. And Carl’s e-mail was what pushed me into loving Mary more.

Next week: Marian Devotions

Friday, June 11, 2010

Meeting the Mother of God, Part II: Mary and Worship

The summer after my sophomore year, before I left for Scotland, my sister Tammy and Dad and I were eating Dim-Sum. I quietly said, “I’ve been thinking about Catholicism.”

Dad said, “Một điều về người Công giáo là họ thờ thần tượng.”

“No they don’t,” I objected right away. “They don’t worship idols.”

I supposed my Dad was keen on not getting into a debate or argument with me, so he brushed off my interest by saying I’m probably interested in Catholicism because of some girl.

Now that ticked me off a bit more, to say that my spiritual and intellectual pursuits were motivated by base passions. I didn’t reply to what he said.

But statues and idols. Dad did have a good point. If you ask me, I never thought Catholics worship idols. Never. Maybe because I never saw Catholics parading around with statues of Mary and throwing garlands around her, or that I never saw them bowing down and kissing the statues that I never thought them worshiping the statues.

When I was in Sunday School, somewhere in elementary school, the teacher explained that Catholics pray to Mary and she prays to Jesus. In the evangelical mind, prayer and daily devotions is probably the most spiritual thing you can do. Coming to know Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Saviour effects one’s salvation. So we thought, “If we can pray to Jesus, why do we need to go to Mary in the first place?” I guessed the matter was framed as a salvation question. Catholics pray to Mary so they could get saved. We pray to Jesus so that we could saved. We just streamlined the process.

That lesson in Sunday school is probably the few times in my childhood I learned about Catholicism. Notice there was something I didn’t learn. I didn’t learn that Catholics worship Mary. So when I came to mature later in my walk with God, I did not see Catholics as Mary-worshippers.

So when I was in Dr. Budziszewski’s office in my sophomore year, his explanation of the different attitudes of reverence and worship made sense to me. Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory. Only God is given worship. All others, saints, etc. are only given reverence and veneration. That was a very Oriental outlook to me. Filial piety. Respect for one’s own parents and ancestors. Very American too. We honor the fallen soldiers, the national leaders in great times of crisis. No one would claim we worship Lincoln or Washington because we built monuments and memorials for them.

Back to Dad. The Ten Commandments puts an injunction for the Israelites: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Quite clear to me. And yet, what is an idol? Are photographs included? How bout videos? They’re images too. Not a couple chapters later do we see God commanding the Israelites to make an statues of Cherubim for the Ark of the Covenant. In my mind, I thought, if Catholics don’t think they are worshiping idols, then they probably aren’t. If one subjectively think he’s withholding the total devotion of his self, then there must be something else going on here. Maybe a cultural difference of honor and veneration.

Although, there is room for error. One could think he doesn’t worship Money, but in fact slaves away his life to the devotion of Money. Do Catholics do that? Do they put all their hope, all their trust, their life in the hands of Mary? Well, in the sense I used the first example of money, no. But for now on, as I explored Catholicism further on, I worked from the assumption of charity: give the Catholic the benefit of the doubt, maybe he doesn’t worship Mary. But let’s see how these strange forms of devotion make sense with this.

A couple years later, I was in RCIA. I had a chat with my Deacon and his wife about Mary and worship. The Deacon’s wife was a bit steamed about accusations of Catholics worshiping Mary, so she said, “There is a very well known Protestant who loved Mary very much. He prayed to her daily. His name is Martin Luther.” Well. That put a stopper to my thoughts. The Deacon was gentler, “No, we don’t worship Mary. In fact, we kick people out of the Church for doing that. They’re called pagans.”

I came to know the Deacon and his wife on a personal level by then. The kindness they showed me secured my trust and respect in what they had to say. It kept me to graciously accept their arguments, critically examine them, yet still in charity. That Catholics don’t worship Mary I began to assent to. I’ll tell you more next time about what sped the process up.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Meeting the Mother of God, Part I

This is the first in a five-part series on my personal encounter and relationship with the Mother of God.

When I was younger, I only thought of the Virgin Mary here and there. She didn’t really stand out in the Bible as other people did. First, people like David, Moses and Daniel were more active, more prominent in my eyes. Second, being a guy, I didn’t really pay attention to women of faith in the Scriptures. Third and last, bluntly said, Mary just doesn’t stand out in the Bible; you don’t see her doing anything glorious, anything that shows glory like Deborah or the wicked Jezebel. I’ll comment on that later on in my story.

A lot of time, Catholics don’t realize how hard it is for other Christians of Protestant traditions to swallow Marian dogma, doctrines, and devotions. Very hard for me to swallow. Here’s my account of how I eventually did. The stories will contain holes, due to space, due to my inability to remember every detail. One day, the Holy Spirit will remind me of that little, tiny, detail that made all the difference to the story’s conclusion. I’ll tell you more about that in the life of the world to come. : ) For now, please do forgive me, if I left out the part you played, or made it hard to understand the psychology of my journey.

Where to begin? Let’s start in March 26, 1998. I was only eleven years old. My sister Tammy and I were at St. Luke’s hospital. My little sister was about to be born that night. Tammy and I were in the waiting room. There was a Hispanic couple there. Being arrogant as I probably am today, I asked them if they were Catholics. They affirmed so. Then I went to challenge them on the doctrine of Mary being the Mother of God. Boy, would you look at that, an eleven year old boy thinks he knows more than the whole two-thousand year old Catholic Church, thinks Catholics are in error for saying that God has a mother.  The Hispanic couple was polite. They tried to explain that Mary is the mother of Jesus, and Jesus is God, therefore, Mary is the mother of God. My eleven-year-old mind could not understand it. How can a human give birth to God? God is eternal, Mary isn’t.

Fast forward to spring 2008, my junior year, I spent some time reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Encyclical Spe Salvi, “In Hope We are Saved.” At the end of the letter, Benedict spoke of Mary, the star of hope, the one who guides us to hope. I didn’t finish reading that part. Call me close-minded, but I just thought to myself, “oh, that’s just Catholic speak,” so I just skipped that part.

A couple days later, I went to see my old professor, Dr. B. I told him I read Spe Salvi. Then I told him about my concerns on Mary toward the end. I didn’t verbalize it, and I still don’t think I can today. It was just an uneasy feeling. Let me try my best here: The Catholic Church emphasizes on the unity of all Christians under one roof, namely, the Catholic Church. Why put a foot down on divisive Marian doctrines like the fact that she was conceived without sin or that she went to Heaven (both body and soul) or calling her with these fancy titles like Mother of God or Holy Queen of Heaven? Would not more Christians be united if it were not for these doctrines?

Dr. Budziszewski explained to me what “Mother of God” meant. Its meaning was to affirm the divinity of Christ. Jesus is both fully God and fully Man. Budziszewski knew what I was thinking already. “It does not mean that Mary gave Jesus His divine nature,” he said. In the same way a mother doesn’t give her child his soul.

My objection? Well, “Mother of God” is misleading. Perhaps, the professor thought, but it's a misunderstanding the Catholic Church can deal with. I don’t think fast on my feet, so I brought up other objections, titles like Redemptrix or Mediatrix. This one Professor B. agreed with me. In the English language, it would sound like Mary is equal to the Son by being a co-mediator or co-redeemer.

I wasn’t looking for an argument when I stepped into Dr. B’s office, but he said, “I didn’t bring this up; you did, but I tried explaining the best I could the Catholic Church’s teachings.”

Fine with me. I had to go. Running late for the next class. So I said my good-byes and left.