An Evangelical friend wrote me in the course of an Internet conversation about Catholic piety toward the saints and said, “If some church had set up a statue to John the Baptist, and was sacrificing doves to it, then smashing that idol to rubble would be an act of honor and respect for John, not one of dishonor.”
I understand the sensibility at work here since I believed something similar to it. I too once believed Catholic piety was intrinsically idolatrous and that Catholics honored saints (especially Mary) “way too much.” My problem came when I began to encounter actual Catholic piety. I discovered that no informed Catholic adored Mary or any saint as a god or goddess. I discovered that no informed Catholic thought Mary was omnipotent or omniscient. I discovered that no informed Catholic believed she could grant prayers when our curmudgeonly God refused to grant them. I discovered that one very seldom discovered dismembered doves in front of either her or John the Baptist’s statues. In short, I discovered that the cartoon of Catholic piety I had believed appeared to have been picked up from sort of subsonic frequencies since no real Catholics I have ever met in 12 years as a Catholic (and a year as an inquirer) ever engaged in anything like the outlandish practices that “everybody” knew Catholics engaged in.
But still, I retained the ominous sense that Catholic veneration of the saints and Mary was grossly excessive. Far better, I said, was our own Evangelical piety which honored the saints and Mary “just enough.”
And I believed that until I began to ask myself a hard question. Show me, I started to ask myself, the Evangelical who honors Mary “just enough”. The more I looked, the less I found. For the day to day reality is that my native Evangelicalism recoiled from any and all mention of Mary as though she were leprous. It began to seem to me that Evangelicals could talk all day about St. Paul and never feel as though by focusing 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the thought and life of St. Paul, they were “worshipping Paul” or “giving him “too much honor”. That is because Evangelicals rightly understand that Jesus comes to us through St. Paul and there is no conflict between the two (even though St. Paul demonstrates a lot more character flaws than Mary ever did). Yet I had seen with my own eyes that the slightest mention of honor paid to Mary by a Catholic immediately brings a flood of warning and remonstrance down upon a Catholic head from well-meaning Evangelicals who talk as though a devotion to Mary for ten minutes will surely sunder a soul from the love of the living God while a lifetime of meditation on Paul is all part of living the Christian life. That’s why, despite the claims to honor her “just enough” the reality was that there was effectively no attention paid to her beyond singing “Silent Night” each Christmas.
Why the creature named Paul is sure and certain doorway into Christ, but the creature who gave Jesus Christ his human nature can only be a snare and peril, is something I came to understand less and less as time goes on. We Evangelicals rightly reverenced St. Paul for his work as an apostle sent by Christ. What I had a harder and harder time understanding was why we must be petrified of reverencing the Lady whom Jesus commended to his Beloved Disciple as Mother, and from whom our Lord derived the flesh with which he purchased us on the cross. Surely, if we can honor Paul for his apostolic sufferings, we can honor her who “all generations” were to called “blessed” and pay her the tribute she is due for willingly offering her own cherished Son. She, like no one else on earth, felt the sword that pierced the side of Christ pass through her own soul.
That’s why I came to change my mind about Catholic belief about Mary. It started to look increasingly like any honor given to Mary was “too much” by Evangelical lights, just as the tiny sip of consecrated wine at mass was “too much” wine for a teetotaler to stand. It began to occur to me that perhaps Catholic honor given to Mary and the saints was simply normal and it was Evangelicalism’s strange aversion to her that needed the explanation.