Why Do We Ask Mary to Pray for Us?

“After her Son’s Ascension, Mary ‘aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.’ In her association with the apostles and several women, ‘we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.’” (CCC 965)

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650
Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650 (photo: Public Domain)

In the Epistle of James (5:16) we read, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”

Two verses earlier (5:14-15), James writes:

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man ...

So these three verses express the idea that we should seek out holy men and women to pray for us, and that their prayers have a lot more effect than our own. One could say that it is wise, efficient spiritual practice. And that’s what lies behind asking Mary (and the saints) to intercede. We are asking them not to answer the prayers themselves, but to go to God, who alone answers prayers. But even if it appears in Catholic prayers and devotional literature that they’re the ones answering our prayers, it is only by the direct power of God; he brought it about.

A Protestant whose video I critiqued cited a prayer that asked the Blessed Virgin Mary to “grant us grace.” This, of course, sounds horrendous and blasphemous to Protestant ears. But I don’t see how, with sufficient reflection. In the Bible, there are many passages that describe grace being distributed by someone other than God (2 Corinthians 4:15; Ephesians 3:2; 4:29; 1 Peter 4:10; Revelation 1:4), and even of salvation channeled from God through human beings (Romans 11:13; 1 Corinthians 1:21; 7:16; 9:19-22; 2 Corinthians 1:6; 1 Timothy 4:16; 2 Timothy 2:10; James 5:20; 1 Peter 3:1). Protestants read and accept all those passages and never dream that they interfere with God’s sole prerogative as [the ultimate] grace-giver and savior. So why can’t they accept the same language applied to Mary, who is a creature just like St. Paul and the others? I see no essential difference. 

The deeper we delve into the Bible, the less “controversial” Catholic doctrines are. My Protestant friend cited more of the same prayer, where it states: “Make the Lord our God propitious to me by your merits and prayers.” This is nothing more than what Moses and Abraham (and others) did. Moses said: “I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30). In Numbers 14:19 Moses prays: “Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray thee ...” Moses and Aaron stopped a plague that had already “gone forth from the Lord” (Numbers 16:46-48). God proclaimed: “Phinehas ... has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel” (Numbers 25:11).

Then there is the remarkable passage where Abraham “stood before the LORD” (Genesis 18:22) and interceded for the people of Sodom, asking God to spare the wicked city if there were “50 righteous” there (18:23-26). Then he “bargains down” God to agree to not judge the city if 45 (18:28) or 40 (18:29) or 30 (18:30) or 20 (18:31) or 10 (18:32) righteous people could be found. But alas, there were not even 10, and so it was destroyed. But this shows the extraordinary power even to “persuade” God that a holy, righteous person has.

Since Catholics believe that Mary was without sin and is the greatest creature God ever made, and the Mother of God to boot, we think her prayers have the most power of any creature’s prayer. It makes entire biblical sense. Does asking Mary or any saint to intercede for us imply that she or Moses or Abraham (or someone like Billy Graham or Mother Teresa) is holier or more powerful than God? No, not in the slightest! It’s merely following these biblical directives.

My friend objected that many Marian prayers imply that Mary is more “approachable” than God. But I would say this is self-evidently true, if understood on the level of her being a creature as we are. This is exactly the reasoning, after all, that the Bible uses in describing Jesus, over against God the Father. We can relate to Jesus more, and he can even relate more to us, from his experience of being a man. The Bible states (Hebrews 4:15):

For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Catholic Mariology takes this to the next logical step. The holiest creature who ever lived: Mary, is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” because she is human like we are, albeit one given so much grace that she never sinned (similar to Jesus but on an essentially lesser scale). But she is not God, so we can relate to her better as human beings than we can relate to God, and may choose to ask her to intercede for us to God.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is more “approachable”, just as Jesus is — in a sense — more approachable than the Father, as Hebrews 4 expressly states. It makes this “approachability” to the One who can better sympathize with our weakness the basis of our being able to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace” (4:16).

Protestants often contend that the Marian prayers make Mary higher or more powerful than God. They possibly can do so in the mind of the person praying them if he or she doesn’t understand them. But that’s a danger with anything in the life of the Christian disciple. Absolutely everything can be, and is distorted or corrupted. Our responsibility is to be properly educated so that we don’t fall into any of these devil’s traps. The presence of corruption in practice is not a reason to get rid of anything. The Bible would have to be the first thing to go, if so.

If we want a prayer answered, Mary is the most powerful, holy creature who can help us obtain that.