Probably the oldest and most common protest against Catholicism is the accusation of Mary worship. The accusation ranges from deliberate idolatry to unintentional excess of devotion.
First of all, the disputing of such an accusation requires clarifying the definition of what worship actually means biblically and historically. The reason that this is important is that in the protestant’s experience, worship means something totally different than what was originally called worship by the first Christians. Terms likes “worship music” and the way the word “worship” is used in the evangelical culture show the idea that worship in their vocabulary consists simply of singing and praying to God and loving Him a lot. This is not actually worship though, but devotion, which even protestants practice toward other living — and sometimes deceased — persons. Spouses love each other very much, and the love between parents and children soars even higher than that. We sing to each other all the time: love songs, birthday songs, tribute songs…. We “pray” to each other too.
The Latin word used for prayer, “ora”, simply means to talk. For example, an oral exam is a test administered verbally rather than in writing. The English word “pray” simply means to ask for something and in the old English the word was used the same way we use the word “please” today. I remember when I was a young evangelical girl, about ten perhaps, and I was reading an illustrated book for children on the childhood of John Wesley (a renowned hero in protestant culture): I was quite surprised when I saw a picture of young Wesley sitting with his family around the dinner table and asking in the caption “Sister, pray pass the potatoes.” This was my first exposure to the original meaning of the word because I had been told my whole life that prayer was equivalent to worship, but here was a little protestant boy “praying” to his sister whom he clearly didn’t regard as divine. This makes sense, though, when you think about it. All the typical postures used in prayer, such as kneeling and clasping hands, have their roots in asking or begging. When a slave in ancient culture would beseech his or her master or mistress for a favor, such postures were employed in gaining the favor desired but were not necessarily a declaration of divinity.
So anytime you talk to someone or ask them for something, you are “praying” to that person. An interesting vocabulary enlightenment, huh?
So now that we’ve established what worship isn’t, let’s take a look at what it is. Firstly, worship as an attitude rather than an action: The Catholic Church recognizes two attitudes dulia (veneration) and latria (worship). Adoration has always been only for the one triune God: Father, Son, and Spirit. It is described in the Hebrew shema and Jesus’ words in Revelation “I am the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end….” Worship is to recognize God as the only and ultimate source and end of all things, and the possessor of our whole self. We recognize God alone as our Creator and the one who provides all that is good. Even products of nature, and things done for us and given to us by other people, are to be recognized as coming ultimately from God. My brothers and sisters will sometimes look at me funny when they hear me thanking God for the YouTube or the internet, and I’ll explain to them that even products of human genius are to be accredited ultimately to God as the Creator of human genius. Just like it says in James 1:17 — “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.” When someone prays for us, we may thank the person who prayed for praying, but the ultimate thanks for the answer to our prayer goes only to God. Even when the Apostles healed people in Jesus’ name, it was God who received credit for the healing, not the Apostles. Mary and the Apostles and the angels and saints have no power of their own, only God’s power, so only God can receive our ultimate thanks and worship. Veneration simply indicates reverence, honor, devotion, and admiration. We venerate many people: role models, historical figures, the dead, heroes, superheroes and book characters, and saints, but only God is to be adored. Mary is the greatest of the saints, but she is just a saint — a sister in the Faith — and even our mother, but not God. If errors in human language or human understanding throughout our culture sometimes give a different impression, do not take this as authentic Catholicism, but only the official teaching of the Church contained in her catechism and ecumenical documents. *
Secondly, worship as an action: When Moses demands freedom of worship for the Israelites from Pharaoh, he speaks primarily of sacrifice. Sacrifice is the theme of worship you will find in Scripture, and the entire Torah or Pentateuch is dedicated to this subject. It is not a feeling book or a song book or a prayer book, but a sacrifice book. Prayer and singing and feelings of devotion often accompany the sacrifice, but the sacrifice is what makes it worship and not just devotion. When God complains about idolatry over and over and over throughout the old testament, you will see again that the focus is on sacrifice. He complains about child sacrifice to moloch or sacrifice to baal, not so much about songs and prayers. The idea of sacrifice may be kind of lost to the more modern protestant denominations because they do not celebrate the Mass, but for Catholics and older protestant denominations like Anglicans and Lutherans our monotheism becomes pretty clear. There is only ONE Sacrifice offered in the Catholic Church and that is the sacrifice of Jesus to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Jesus is NOT re-sacrificed, rather the sacrifice He has already made is made present to us so we may we unite ourselves with Jesus in offering His sacrifice as a “kingdom of priests” united with the Great High Priest. See Revelation 1:6.) Never will the One Sacrifice or any other sacrifice be offered to anyone other than God within the Church. There was a heresy a long time ago known as Collyridianism, where female priestesses would sacrifice cakes to Mary as a goddess, but the Catholic Church very quickly condemned and eliminated that heresy because that’s how much against worship being offered to anyone other than God the Catholic Church is. The only actual “Mary-worshipers” to have ever existed are now extinct, thanks to the Catholic Church. You’re welcome!
So it should be clear at this point that Catholics DO NOT worship Mary and that any such idolatry would be considered a mortal sin in need of immediate Confession in order to avoid hellfire. With that out of the way, we can now consider the subject of “excessive devotion” and whether there is such a thing. It really comes down to the question: “Is it possible to love someone too much?” Most logically and theologically minded persons would say no, as long as proper worship is in place. If the credit for answers to prayer and all the good and beautiful things about Mary is going ultimately to God, and if Mary is a means to our ultimate end which is God, then there’s no reason to consider her in competition with God but rather a path to God. Just like you ask for your pastor’s prayers, there is nothing wrong with asking for Mary to pray for us also. Jesus Christ is the one Mediator and Intercessor, and all of us members of His Body in heaven and earth share in His one intercession as His disciples and imitators. To ask Mary or anyone else to pray for us is to acknowledge that God is the only answerer of our prayers and all the rest of us must go to HIM together as a family. To ask Mary to pray for us is actually a statement that Mary cannot help us of her own power, but she must go to God with us.
[an interesting fact: you will never really even find a prayer to anyone other than God in public or liturgical prayer like the Mass or Liturgy of the Hours, only prayers about Mary and the saints. For example, you will see prayers like “We thank you, God, for the life and intercession of the Virgin Mary.” but not many prayers like “Pray for us, Holy Mother of God.” Prayers to the saints mostly occur in private prayer like the Rosary.] * Regarding the word “adore”: in modern English language it is often considered equivalent to worship, but in old English it was also sometimes used to describe veneration, so if you see in an old book or an old hymn the word “adore” used in relation to Mary or the Cross or something, don’t freak out. If you see the word “adore” used for anyone other than God in modern literature, however, you might want to have a word with the author to clarify what was meant.