One of the classic questions for Catholics (especially from other Christians) is whether we worship Mary. Sometimes it is even phrased *why* we worship Mary, as if the issue isn’t even in question! This is a major obstacle for some people with accepting the Catholic Church.
We actually agree that worshipping Mary as a god would be a big problem! Mary is not God, and treating her as if she were is clearly against the Ten Commandments. Instead, Catholics venerate her. We see “veneration” as something that is proper to a human being, while worship (adoration) is the level of respect that is reserved for God alone. Catholics see Mary as a model and a mother. She is a model of the Christian response to God. When Gabriel appears to announce that she will conceive the Son of God she accepts the mission bravely. She follows her son closely even to the foot of the Cross, and is in prayer with the apostles as they wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Mary, though, is also a mother. At Cana (John 2) she intercedes with her son for the needs of the wedding couple, and at her request Jesus works his first public miracle. At the foot of the Cross Jesus directly calls her a mother to St John—his last teaching before giving up his spirit. Catholics believe that the saints in heaven are not disconnected from those on earth, but can still pray for them and their needs (we call this the “communion of saints”). In that sense, we don’t consider praying to the saints essentially different from asking someone on earth to pray for us. When we “pray to Mary” (or another saint), we aren’t praying to them in the sense of asking them to answer our request by their own power. Instead, we are asking them to pray with us to God for our need. We can of course go straight to Jesus by ourselves, but Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray together and for one another (eg Matthew 18:19-20). Jesus even was seen speaking with Moses and Elijah (Old Testament “saints”) at the Transfiguration! Devotion to the saints is a logical continuation of this with those who live with the Lord.
A final question is about representing Mary (or other saints) by a statue or image. Does this violate the prohibition against graven images? First, even in the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to form images of angels for the Ark of the Covenant or Temple. But, most importantly, the incarnation of Christ as God-made-flesh changes the relationship of the earthly to the divine. God has cast his own image in this world, and the veil of the Temple has been torn open. Therefore, we believe that images do not violate the commandment against idolatry. We see them reminders of a person that is alive with God rather than worshiping the image itself as if it were a god.
To return to the original question, while some may take it for granted that Catholics worship Mary/statues/etc, most Catholics would be baffled by this suggestion! I myself was very surprised the first time I encountered this question. The Catholic veneration of Mary isn’t set in contrast to the worship of God, but an aspect of praising him. All of the graces that Mary has received come from God. We believe that God rejoices to include us as co-workers with him (1 Corinthians 3:9). If I praised the beauty of the Mona Lisa no one would object that I should be praising Leonardo da Vinci directly—it’s understood that the two go together! The same goes with God and the saints.
At their root, many of the questions can be answered by simply clarifying what we mean by some of our terms. A lot of times misunderstandings dominate the conversation. At times our language or imagery doesn’t seem to reflect all of these distinctions, even if we have them in the back of our minds. But, in my own life, I have found my devotion to the saints (and Mary in particular) to have brought me closer to God and made me a better Christian. Rather than viewing the saints with suspicion or fear let us see them as powerful friends on our road to God. We are “surrounded by a crowd of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), and that can only help!