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Do Catholics worship Mary?

Q: Why do only Catholics, of all Christians, worship and pray to Mary, the mother of God?

-- C., Jupiter, Fla.

A: Catholics don't worship Mary; they venerate Mary. Worship is reserved only for God. If you worship anything or anyone other than God you're an idolater committing the sin of idolatry. Worshipping Jesus is not idolatry for Christians because Christians believe Jesus is God.

Venerating someone is not idolatry, because veneration is the belief that some human person reflects the values God has given to us to follow. A person we venerate as living a nearly perfect, godly life is called a saint. Judaism calls such a person a tzadik. Buddhism, which does not have a Western idea of God, calls such a spiritually enlightened person a bodhisattva. Every religion has a vocabulary of veneration.

I understand how some non-Catholics can become confused when Catholics pray to Mary to answer prayers and comfort the afflicted. Why is this called veneration and not worship? I admit that the line between the two can become a bit blurry, but the main difference between worship and veneration remains important and distinct.

A saint is a human being, not God. A saint reflects God and inspires people to try to be more like God, and sometimes is even a conduit for God's grace, but a saint is not God and must never be worshipped the way we worship God alone.

Perhaps a nonreligious way to understand this distinction is to think of genius. We recognize artistic genius, athletic genius, and certainly intellectual genius. A saint, a tzadik, or a bodhisattva are examples of religious geniuses. They amaze and inspire us to see what is possible when a person comes as close to God as is humanly possible.

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Q: What's your opinion of religious email chain letters? They're often passed on by perfectly lovely, sincere people, exhorting you to pass each letter on to 12 more people with the assurance of a reward or blessing from God, such as a financial windfall, removal of worries, healing of an illness, a new job or house. (This is very different from an inspirational, no-strings-attached email between friends.)

Besides the obvious danger of a vicious computer virus, or providing some unscrupulous individual with a lot of good email addresses, I've received such letters that start very reverently with cute pictures and a sweet verse, then deteriorate into ill-tempered missives warning that something terrible will befall you if you don't pass it on.

I can't believe religious email chain letters and their terms and conditions have anything to do with a gracious God, nor do they have any legitimate control over His actions. If my feelings are not justified, then I, too, will join the merry throng and spam everyone on my email list in the name of God and winning the Blessing Lottery! -- R.

A: Thou hast been spammed! Whether the spammer is indeed kind and loving is something you can't know for sure and have good reason to suspect. The best assumption is that the people who send such letters are just callous, criminal spammers trolling for email addresses to use in some identity theft crime or, as you yourself imagined, using you as an unwitting accomplice to some virus attack on you and your friends.

The basic problem with so-called spiritual email chain letters is that God does not work through strangers asking you to surrender your privacy in order to qualify for some miracle. The whole point of God's grace is that it's a free gift of love, not a device to extort information or give us several million dollars in an anonymous overseas bank account. Believing in such things is just one step away from believing in magic.

So until I find the verse in the Bible that commands us to "Spam thy neighbor," I'd just delete these emails the way smart fish swim away from even the most tantalizing hooks.

Send questions only to the God Squad, c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207, or email them to godsquadquestion@aol.com.

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