When I was in the third grade, I remember my Baptist mother telling me I could no longer go to a friend’s house to play with her. My mom had discovered my friend was Catholic. “Catholics worship Mary,” she explained as the main reason I couldn’t go. She inquired if there were any statues of Mary in my friend’s house, too. At the age of 8, I couldn’t remember.
I did remember that my friend had a Nintendo and a Kirby game that we liked playing together and that I was upset that I wouldn’t see her large, fluffy poodle again. I still played with my friend at school — and tried to convince my mom that I should be allowed to go to her house. However, I never saw the inside of my friend’s house again or found out about those statues. My friend and I ultimately drifted apart: I never revealed why I couldn’t visit her house anymore.
When I converted to Catholicism in my 20s, situating Mary in my faith life still felt off-putting. I loved the rituals of the Church and its history, but I remember looking at Marian iconography — paintings and statues — and instinctively averting my eyes a little. Venerating Mary was a devotional part of the Church that my heart didn’t fully understand. I felt a little guilty on multiple accounts — in part because of the experiences with my mom from my childhood but also because I realized that, without understanding the devotion to Our Lady, my conversion to Catholicism was incomplete.
It was during the season of Advent a few years after I converted that Mary first began to break through the boundaries in my heart. I was at a holiday party with friends and pregnant with my first child. Becoming pregnant had taken years for my husband and me, and I was overjoyed to have a child on the way. A few days before the party, though, I had gone to the hospital with unexplained bleeding and stomach pains; the doctor had assumed I was miscarrying. My baby son was fine, but I was considered a high risk throughout the rest of my pregnancy.
While at the Advent party, I spoke with a friend about my fears, and we discussed how much Mary traveled while she was in her third trimester. Pregnant and worried about my child and my family’s future, the Nativity story took on new meaning for me. I realized how scared Mary must have been to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem — a journey of approximately 90 miles — not to mention how physically difficult it must’ve been for her to ride a donkey while pregnant during this trek.
Suddenly, I began to admire Mary’s courage and faith in a way I never had prior. I thought about what it meant to be “filled with grace,” or to be filled with God’s love in the way that she was. I wanted to have that peace in my life. Here I was, someone with the amenities of modern medicine and cars to take me to doctor’s appointments, worried about the future. Mary had none of these. I wanted to mirror her certainty in God’s love and the path for her life even when she struggled, even when she must’ve been in pain, physically and emotionally.
Now, nine years later, I am blessed with a son and a daughter, both healthy. Our second child, my daughter, now 7 years old, has a relationship with Mary that was formed almost entirely on her own — and one I think that was meant to bring our entire family closer to God. My daughter has a devotional prayer space in her room, where together we’ve placed roses, a rosary, and different Marian prayer cards.
When we sit in this space, we talk together about how reflecting on Mary’s virtues leads us to a better prayer life. Following from this, we often talk about Jesus as a child, especially his relationship with his mother. In this space, my daughter asked me soon after Halloween this year if Jesus also worries about his mother hiding his candy from him. This small moment of sharing, which came in the middle of an unexpected chat about virtues and Twix bars, brought us closer. We talked about how Jesus and Mary exemplify self-control–one of the fruits of the spirits–and how to exercise it better. Then, we sought Mary’s intercession for strength to do so.
Likewise, I pray about my shortcomings with my daughter — particularly when I’ve been ill-tempered with her or focused more on work than I should have been. We’ve chatted about how I aspire to be more faithful like Mary. That my daughter chooses to have iconography throughout her room has become a lesson for our entire family about openness to veneration that feels full circle to me after my childhood experiences.
In today’s world, Mary’s example of grace and courage is one that I constantly look to and hope that my family will continue to do so in the future. Rather than shying away from Marian veneration, I welcome it. Earlier in 2022, Pope Francis stated that we should all emulate Mary, posing this query to all of us: “Again, as I observe world events, do I let myself be entrapped by pessimism or, like the Virgin, am I able to discern the work of God who, through gentleness and smallness, achieves great things? Brothers and sisters, Mary today sings of hope and rekindles hope in us.”
Every year during Advent, as Catholics prepare for the birth of Jesus, I am reminded anew of how Mary rekindled hope in me on a day when I was scared about the birth of my child. Now, as Pope Francis calls us to do, I try to follow Mary’s example and live in hope. It isn’t always easy; none of us humans are without sin like her. Yet, she is a light for us to try to remain steadfast in our faith no matter what life brings us. For me, she has helped me discern God’s work even when I have suffered.
As the Church prepares to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception — when Mary was conceived in her mother, St. Anne’s womb, without original sin, my family will have a feast with bread because my daughter remembers that Mary and Jesus both eat and like bread in the Bible. Each member of our family will create something lovely for Mary, too, a drawing or a poem, because of how much her spiritual presence means in our lives. Participating in these small devotional acts helps us to recall that while we may never be sinless like Mary, we can try to create beauty in the world that glorifies her purity and reminds us to try to be like her. As Pope Francis advises us, we will all encounter troubled times in our lives that test our wills, but as Catholics, we have Mary’s guidance about the ways we ought to respond in those times. This lesson, along with greater peace, is what Marian veneration has added to my faith life since that Advent when my heart first became open to the awe and the love for who I now recognize as — and whom the Catechism calls — the Mother of the Church I now feel more fully a part of.