This essay answers typical questions about Catholicism in regards to Mary and the saints.
The "holy one" who leads a life in union with God through the grace of Christ and receives the reward of eternal life. The Church is called the communion of saints, of the holy ones.
(From the Glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church)
The Saints and Mary
Why does the Catholic Church canonize saints?
In Catholic usage, the word saint refers to one who is perfectly united with God in Heaven. The saints have been fully sanctified, purified of any remaining attachment to (or consequence of) sin. They experience God's unveiled glory and love, seeing Him as he is, face to face.
When the Catholic Church canonizes a saint, it is a declaration that this person is in heaven. Canonization does not cause people to go to heaven, it is an official recognition that they are there. A person does not need to be declared a saint by the Church to go to heaven. There are surely countless saints in heaven who will remain unknown by the world and whose stories we will not hear told until the end of time.
One reason that the Church canonizes saints is to promote their Christian lives as models for us here on earth. Hopefully we all have people in our lives whose goodness and virtue we emulate. In canonizing saints, the Church offers them as role models in the faith for the entire world.
But isn't Jesus sufficient as our role model?
All Christians are called to imitate Christ, but we also benefit by imitating others as they imitate Christ. As Paul urges, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." (1 Cor 11:1) Another reason saints are canonized is so that they may be honored by the Church.
But shouldn't we honor God alone?
The greatness of the saints is due to their relationship with God. In honoring them, we honor Him, and this is pleasing to God. Jesus teaches, "Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is righteous will receive a righteous man's reward." (Matthew 10:41) Will not those who similarly honor the saints because they are saints will be rewarded by God? Another reason the Church canonizes saints is to encourage the faithful to ask for their help through prayer.
But shouldn't we pray to God alone?
Christians consider it good and right to ask other Christians to pray for them. That is exactly is what prayers to the saints are all about. It is not looking for help apart from God; it is requesting that the saints pray with us, to God, on our behalf. "The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful." (James 5:16b) So imagine how powerful the prayers of the saints must be; the fervent prayers of those whose love has been perfected.
Do Catholics believe that the saints are "better than" or "above the standard" of all other people, as if God loves them more?
When measuring greatness by how much God loves us, all of us are equal. When measuring greatness by how much we love God and our neighbors, then the saints in heaven definitely have us beat. It all depends on how you look at it.
What is the "Hail Mary" prayer about?
The Hail Mary is a fine example of a prayer to a saint. It honors Mary by recounting some of what God has done through, with, and in her. Then the prayer asks Mary to pray to God for our good.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen
The first two sentences of the prayer are greetings to Mary found in Luke 1. The first is said by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:28). The second greeting comes from Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. (Luke 1:42)
Do Catholics hold Mary in the same level of reverence as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
No. Mary is not a goddess. We especially honor her as the greatest of the saints.
Why is so much emphasis placed on Mary because she was the vessel that God chose to use to deliver Jesus?
Of all women, God chose Mary to be the mother of His Son, but the role of Mary in the life of Christ cannot be reduced merely to biological origin. Mary was there for it all.
At the beginning, she consented to God the Father's will, and Jesus was conceived within her. Jesus received his flesh from her flesh, his bone from her bone. Through her and from her he entered into the world. She raised him and loved him with a mother's love all her life. She was there at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus performed the miracle at Cana at her prompting. She was there until the end. She witnessed Jesus' Passion standing at the foot of the cross. And she was there after the end, at the new beginning, when the Holy Spirit descended on her and the other disciples at Pentecost.
Mary plays a unique part in our salvation story. Mary is Jesus' first disciple. "Do whatever he tells you." She is the ark of the new covenant, who carried the divine Word within her. She is the queen mother of the Davidic reign, who intercedes on other's behalf with the King, her son. As Jesus is the new Adam, Mary is the new Eve. Through their disobedience, Adam and Eve brought sin and death into the world. But through Jesus and Mary's submission to the will of the Father, our redemption was achieved and our salvation was made possible. Because she said, "May it be done to me according to your word," he can come to say, "Not my will but yours be done."
I will not get into Mary's Immaculate Conception and Assumption here, but even without these elements of the Catholic faith, the role of Mary is still a huge deal; both in Jesus' life and in ours. From the cross, Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved. He said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother." The beloved disciple stands for all Christians. We are entrusted to her, and she is given to us as our mother. The Catholic devotion and honor shown to Mary is not excessive. To God's glory, it matches what is due.