Catholics and the Mother of God
Let me start by saying that Catholics don't worship Mary. That is a common charge, but it has no basis in truth.
However, anyone even vaguely familiar with the Catholic faith realizes we have a very special place in our hearts for the Mother of God. We don't know much about her life, except that she was born to a couple named Anna and Joachim. They longed for a child for many years, and, finally, they had a baby girl.
At the age of three, we know she was presented at the temple. She might have lived there. As a teenager, she was betrothed to a man named Joseph and they were wed.
However, according to the custom of the time, a newly married couple did not live as man and wife for a year. So it was a great surprise to Joseph when Mary became pregnant.
Mary Risks All
The pregnancy was announced, presumably when Mary was at prayer, by an angel named Gabriel. He told her that God had chosen her to be the mother of the long-awaited Savior, if she gave her consent. Even though she was puzzled, and probably very frightened, she agreed to the plan.
In those days, a woman found guilty of adultery could be stoned to death. So Mary, even though she was totally innocent, took this risk of being greatly misunderstood. Her husband, Joseph, originally planned to quietly divorce her. However, in a dream, he was assured she didn't conceive the usual way.
All her life, Mary probably carried this stigma of giving birth to a child of unknown paternity. It was a different time, and those of us living today probably have a hard time imagining the shame associated with bearing a child out of wedlock.
A Life of Hardship and Sacrifice
Mary lived with the knowledge that her only Son was destined for a great sacrifice. It was she who stood at the foot of the Cross when just about everyone else had fled.
It's for these reasons that we honor her with many titles, such as Our Blessed Mother, Our Lady and Mary Most Holy, as well as many others.
We also have great respect for Joseph, her husband. (We call him Saint Joseph.) A woman and child alone in those days wouldn't have easily survived. As foster father of Jesus, Joseph gave Him worldly legitimacy and protected and provided for both mother and child.
Catholics believe that, from time to time, Jesus sends His Mother to warn us or to encourage us in our faith. During the last 2,000 years, a number of widely reported apparitions have been recorded.
Biblical Basis for Devotion to Mary
Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe is based upon a Church-approved Heavenly visitation that took place in Mexico, in 1531. Millions of Native Americans converted to the Catholic faith after Mary, the Mother of God, appeared to a peasant by the name of Juan Diego. She left a beautiful imprint of herself on his cloak, which is visible today, where it hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Mary, under this title, is often called the "Patroness of the Americas."
There are other reasons, with a Biblical basis, why we turn to Mary in our time of need. The first public miracle performed by Jesus was at the Wedding Feast in Cana. This is where He turned water into wine. He did this reluctantly, because He didn't believe the time had come to manifest His Divinity. But, in the end, He listened to His mother.
The married couple were at their wedding reception. However, they had run out of wine. In order to spare the couple, and their parents, a great embarrassment, Mary asked her Son to help. So he turned water into wine, and the guests remarked how good it tasted. Normally, people in those days served the best vintage first. Then, the cheaper stuff came out later, after everyone had relaxed a bit.
This is one of the reasons we ask the Mother of God to intercede on our behalf. She did it once, and it's recorded in the Bible. She probably did it many more times as well. We believe that since she's in Heaven, with Jesus, she's still asking Him to help people. And, being an obedient Son, he listens to his Mother.
Marian Devotion and Scripture
When Catholics talk about Mary, we often refer to her as Our Blessed Mother. There is a Biblical tradition for this as well. As he was stretched out on the Cross, shortly before His final agony, he turned the care of his mother over to Saint John the Evangelist. (Protestants know him as John, one the the Apostles.) This loyal follower stayed right by the foot of the Cross with Mary.
Jesus said to his Mother, "Woman, behold Thy Son," meaning Saint John was now Mary's son. Then he told Saint John to behold his Mother. This was a very curious thing to say, and we believe that at that moment, Jesus was giving His Mother to the world.
It also makes a certain amount of sense that if Mary is the Mother of God, whom created us, then she is also the mother of all of us.
Visiting a Catholic Church
If you walk into a Catholic church, you will see it filled with statues, pictures and perhaps Byzantine-style icons. As a place of worship, it's meant to give us a taste of Heaven while we're still on earth. This is why medieval cathedrals are very elaborate, and seem to soar into the sky.
Catholics also have a tradition of honoring Mary under the titles that arose after various apparitions, such as the one in Lourdes, France. This particular devotion is known as Our Lady of Lourdes.
In the mid-1800's, Mary appeared to a French girl named Bernadette Soubirous. The woman from Heaven asked Bernadette to dig a hole in the ground at a certain spot near a grotto. Soon, a spring began to flow and it hasn't stopped since.
Lourdes, France is now the biggest Catholic pilgrimage site in Europe, attracting millions of visitors a year. Countless miracles and cures have been reported, after people bathed in the waters at this Marian shrine. Dozens of these unexplained recoveries have been meticulously investigated by medical professionals. Some of the doctors who've been on these investigatory teams have been Jewish and atheist. Yet all have reached the same conclusion, which is that there is no scientific explanation. So the cures are classified as "miracles."
Other popular Marian titles are Our Lady of Fatima, based on another apparition to three children in Fatima, Portugal. People in Poland revere Mary under the title of Our Lady of Czestochowa. This devotion centers around a miraculous image of Our Lady.