No, not the football play. The woman.
Some people think Catholics pay too much attention to Mary. But when you understand Mary from a Catholic perspective, you'll see that she deserves it! (I hope....)
We're going to break this up into two parts: One, Mary in our theology, and two, one of the great Catholic prayers--the rosary, which is a devotion to Mary and her Son. Really. I promise. And since October is the month of the rosary, talking about this during the first week of October is fitting.
So let's get to it.
At the most basic level: Mary is the mother of Jesus. When she said "Yes" to being God's mother (Lk. 1: 26-38), she became the most special woman in the world! How many other mothers does God have?
She also reversed Eve's disobedience, by being entirely obedient to the plan God had for her. Could Mary have said no? Yes. She had free will, like we all do. But she didn't. She said Yes.
And Jesus came into the world.
Keep in mind that Jesus is both God and man. He gets his humanity from Mary. That's pretty awesome, right?
Catholic doctrine holds that Mary was forever a virgin. So Jesus was her only child. We don't know much about her day to day life--the Bible is pretty silent about it. We can guess that she spent her life like most other wives and mothers in Nazareth--taking care of Jesus, taking care of the home, etc. It was a typical life of the people of her era. Of course, Jewish prayer and cultural traditions were vitally important in the home, including Jesus being presented to God in the temple (Lk 2:22-38). The Bible tells us that she and Joseph made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover at least once, when Jesus was twelve. (Lk 2: 41-52)
Tradition holds that Joseph died before Jesus reached manhood, so Mary was a widow when Jesus went to perform his public works for the last three years of his life. But she was present at His Death, where Jesus commended her into the care of the "beloved Apostle", St. John. (John 19:25-30)
(Incidentally, this is another piece of evidence that Mary didn't have other children; if she had, then it would've been their job to take care of Mary, not John's.)
Mary was also present on the Day of Pentecost. (Acts 2) Tradition, again, tells us that she died in Ephesus, in modern day Turkey, and that "Mary's House" can still be found there.
So these are the basics of Mary's life, as the Bible and Sacred Tradition tell us. And based on all of that, the mother of God's son is a pretty important person, right?
Catholics also believe two additional things about Mary:
1) That she was born without original sin--The Immaculate Conception, celebrated Dec. 8
2) That was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven--The Assumption, celebrated August 15
The first means that, before she was born, when she was conceived in her mother Ann's womb, God preserved her from original sin. That does not mean that she didn't need a savior. Mary was human, and like all humans, needed a savior! It means that God specially created her and prepared her for the role she would play in Salvation History.
(That doesn't negate the fact that she has free will.)
This doctrine was accepted as far back as the fifth century, according to the documents we have, but was only defined infallibly in 1854. When something is defined as a dogma, it means that Catholics are obliged to believe it. So, since 1854, this has been the case. The Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are part of a very small collection of instances of papal infallibility.
(Side note: A lot of non-Catholics think that we think the pope infallible every time he opens his mouth. Not true.)
No, the Immaculate Conception cannot be proven. But last time I checked, we can't prove the Trinity, either. So...
The Assumption refers to the fact that Mary, being sinless at her conception and sinless her entire life, was assumed body and soul into heaven after her death. The idea of the Assumption has been around since the fourth century; the fact that no one has found, or ever noted, where Mary was buried, is another point in the doctrine's favor. If people knew that, there would definitely be a church there, and relics galore. But there's never been any evidence of the grave site.
The dogmatic declaration of the Assumption only occurred in 1950, so it's pretty "new" in that sense. But there is evidence that people believed in the Assumption, as I noted, in the early church.
It's important to note here that Mary is not God. Mary is very, very special. We do not worship Mary. To Catholics, worship is the Mass. The only person that Mass is offered to is...God. We don't say "Oh, Mary, accept our offering of bread and wine and change them into the body of your son" etc. etc. etc.
Catholics have worship, but we also have reverence and devotion. We are devoted to Mary because she is the Mother of God. She was human, like us, and she lived through many difficult things: the death of her husband, the death of her son, fleeing her country because a crazy king wanted to kill her son, not to mention having to explain a miraculous conception to her husband. To Catholics, Mary is our mother, and we come to her like we would come to our moms here on Earth.
Yes, our churches, more often than not, have statues of Mary, and pictures of her. She's one of the most common subjects in the history of art. Yes, we light candles before statues of her and statues of saints. But this isn't worship, to a Catholic. This is piety. This is prayer. We have pictures of her, and Jesus, and Joseph, and the saints, the same way people keep pictures of loved ones in their homes. We love them, and they're our examples and our helpers. When we ask for their prayers, we ask it the same way I would ask you blog readers to pray for me. Just because someone is dead doesn't mean they still don't exist.
Mary is God's most brilliant creation. (Jesus doesn't count, because....he's GOD.) But she's also the humble, believing girl from Nazareth. And she loves us all, because we are brothers and sisters of her Son. So Catholics ask us to pray for her, and we honor her with hymns and paintings and feast days. But we don't worship her. She wouldn't want us to! Mary always, always points us to her Son. If we've forgotten about her Son, we're doing it wrong. But Jesus also wants us to remember his mother. It's a two-way thing. She wasn't just the body that bore him and took care of his physical needs. She was his Blessed Mother.
The Fourth Commandment is "Honor thy father and mother." You can be sure that Jesus fulfilled this perfectly in His life. If we are to follow His example, then we are to honor His father and mother, as well. Being devoted to Mary doesn't mean being less devoted to Jesus. If anything, she brings us always closer to him.
Next week, when we talk about the rosary, we'll see this practice in action.