Growing up evangelical Protestant in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic town, I memorized at an early age the differences that at the time seemed to represent an unbridgeable gulf between my faith and that of my friends. I “knew” that Catholics would rather talk to saints than Jesus, confess to priests than God, recite formulaic prayers than prayers from the heart, endure fires of purgatory than be sanctified on earth, play bingo than read the Bible and go to church on Saturday night so they could sleep in on the Lord's Day. Most disturbingly, I knew that Catholics would rather worship Mary than Christ.
Something must have gone terribly wrong between the death of the last apostle and the posting of Luther' s 95 theses at Wittenberg, and whatever that something was had pulled the wool over the eyes of a billion people. The wrong, I thought, was best represented by the disproportionate role Mary seemed to play in Catholic life.
In fact, for evangelical Protestants, misunderstandings about Mary may prove to be the most difficult — and last — obstacle to reuniting with Rome. It was for me, perhaps because she was more than an intellectual problem, she was an emotional one. Marian devotion, as I had mistaken it, seemed to dilute the very core Christian belief in the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice, especially in assigning her titles such as Coredemptrix and Mediatrix of all graces. Mary was a shoal in the waters of faith, I believed, and many ships had wrecked upon her.
When I began exploring the Catholic faith, I made up my mind that I would remain open-minded at least long enough to really try to understand terms like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. In his book The Catholic Church and Conversion, G.K. Chesterton quips that “the old traditional [Protestant] version of the terrors of Popery was almost always wrong, even where it might possibly have been right.” The same might be said of the imagined “terrors” of Marian doctrine. None of it was as scary as I thought.
In fact, my greatest fears of Catholic “mariolatry” were dissolved almost as soon as I understood the difference between veneration — or deep reverence and respect — and worship — the adoration reserved for God alone. (For Catholics who want to reach out to Protestants, a simple explanation of that slender but profound distinction is one way to dynamite a huge roadblock to discussion.)
Protestants sometimes find it difficult to understand the nuance in Catholic prayer; that what Catholics say is often not what the outsider thinks he's hearing; that rococo devotional language has been crafted and gilded over centuries by saints who have tried to express in words inexpressible groanings and joys. So when Protestants hear Mary described in the Salve Regina as “our life, our sweetness, and our hope,” they fail to recognize that she is that only insofar as she can point the way to her Son. Mary is not, ultimately, the point of Marian devotion: The fruit of her womb is.
I knew that Catholics would rather worship Mary than Christ.
When I first realized this, I felt, as I often have on this journey, that I had stumbled into yet another vast storehouse of spiritual treasure, as I had in discovering the lives of the saints or the whole lost history before Wittenberg. Growing up, we didn't talk much about Mary in our churches and camp meetings, Sunday Schools and Bible studies. She might make an appearance in a sermon about the Cana wedding or about the time when Christ seemed to rebuke her by asking, “Who is my mother?” She might be seen scurrying about the Temple looking for her lost 12-year-old. Only at Christmas did she play more than a cameo role.
During the past 18 months of RCIA — instructions for adults entering the Church — my appreciation for Mary, Mother of God, has deepened as I've come to better understand her role as Mother of the Church. That's not to say I've embraced Marian devotions yet — the rosary feels uncomfortably foreign on my tongue, like practicing subjunctive clauses in German — but I have found in Mary someone to admire and follow during the homestretch toward my first Eucharist.
At first glance, the Annunciation on this month's calendar (March 25) looks like a celebration out of season, a day belonging more to festive Advent than to sober Lent. Yet Mary's act of faith, her willingness to let God breathe divine life into the world, is the consummate Lenten message, and it serves as an encouraging model for those of us preparing to enter the Church — indeed, for the whole Church preparing to renew its baptismal vows.
Mary knows what her “yes” required and how difficult that word can be to say. She was skeptical of what the angel promised, asking “How shall this be?” In a similar way, we in RCIA have peppered our catechists and priests with questions about the inscrutable aspects of faith. Mary must have feared the reaction of her community to a pregnant, unmarried girl. Many of us have wondered: How this will change our relationships at work or home? Mary “treasured” and “stored up” what she saw and heard, and what she promised (Luke 2:19, 51). The long preparation period for catechu-mens and candidates has given us time to do the same. Most of all Mary, full of grace, shows what it means to empty oneself in order to make room for God.
David Gordon, a former Newsweek editor, writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He will be received into the Church this Easter.