What a Friend We Have in Mary

Roger Kovaciny

To help you understand why the Lutheran Reformation was so necessary, I have rewritten the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” as Catholics might have sung it before Luther. Catholics could not possibly have thought of Jesus as a Friend. The Church had characterized the Savior as a Judge so strict he would have said “Why DIDN’T you cut off your right hand if it caused you to sin? Why DIDN’T you pluck out your right eye like I told you to? You have no excuse! You’re not fit to enter heaven; your sinfulness would corrupt heaven itself. Off to purgatory with you until all desire to do wrong has been burned away!”

(Protestants charge that Purgatory is an imaginary mountain between hell and heaven that popes and poets dreamed up. Until Vatican II, it was as hot as hell at the bottom: Purgatorio 26 134 and 148, “he hid himself in the fire that refines them.” And “As soon as I was within, I would have thrown myself into boiling glass to be cooled, so without measure was the burning there.” (Canto 27, 49-51.) Pain purges the desire for sinful pleasure, so one could eventually climb out of purgatory and into heaven. Many Catholics even today may think of purgatory as Dante wrote about it, or as the even worse place that the indulgence-sellers made up. The New Catholic Encyclopedia officially admits that “the doctrine of purgatory is not explicitly stated in the Bible”–see endnote for full context.)

Catholics expected little forgiveness from Jesus; they hoped Mary would save them from the Savior’s strict harshness. Instead of asking Jesus, the Most Gracious One, for mercy, Catholics at that time turned to the Blessed Virgin. They prayed to her when they should have prayed to Him who said “Whoever comes to Me I will in no case cast out!” We call this excessive veneration of Mary “mariolatry.” (We should indeed venerate, respect, and honor her faith and reverence her role as the Savior’s human cradle–but within Biblical limits. With many people, even some priests, Mariolatry passes the bounds of doctrinal error and becomes actual idolatrous goddess worship.)

I was thunderstruck by one astounding fact in the middle of Will Durant’s monumental ten-volume History of Civilization: The medieval Catholic Church had long resisted, rather than promoting, the cult of Mary. Mariolatry was a spontaneous sprouting from the grass roots, not something that was planted by the popes. They even tried to stamp it out, but couldn’t. The source of Mariolatry was the fact that the Church had taken away Christ’s role as the Savior and turned Him into a strict and harsh Judge.

But there are some forces that are so powerful that if you try to dam them up as the popes did, they will force their way out through another and usually worse channel. Kind of the opposite of “nature abhors a vacuum”–it also demands relief for areas of high pressure.

And the need for a Savior was that great a force to those poor ignorant peasants. They were underfed, overworked, poorly clothed, often sickly, illiterate, superstitious, fearful and facing no future but eons in purgatory. The church had taken the Savior away, but their need for a Savior was so powerful a force that it had to be satisfied somehow. So some poor Catholic layman thought that perhaps the Judge’s Mother might move Him to lenience.

The idea that somebody influential up in heaven had compassion on you, felt pity for you, cared about you, that some divine being actually loved you and would help you, spread as unstoppably as dandelions. The Church couldn’t root it out so it finally threw up its hands and decided to lead what it couldn’t defeat. (Though the popes could have defeated Mariolatry, just by letting the Savior be the Savior again–but they refused. Why is there is no impulse among Protestants to worship Mary? Because Jesus Himself is merciful and approachable! The Savior delights to forgive. He doesn’t need to be softened up!)

While suffering through Dante’s annotated Purgatorio the longest specific penance I found was 1200 years, and that was only halfway up the mountain. “Thousands of months” were also mentioned. However, monkish indulgence-peddlers and perhaps even John Tetzel himself mentioned millions of years, with punishments more like those in the Inferno than those in Purgatorio. I hope to get to Paradisio some day…. Purgatory isn’t a logical place. The gluttonous in Canto 25 are condemned to centuries of being so starved they chew at the air … how was that supposed to cure them of the desire to overeat? And Dante didn’t think of having those in Purgatory try to help each other, only to help themselves, so they were almost as selfish at the top as they were at the bottom.

It was worth reading Purgatorio, though, because the thought came to me–If the whole purpose of purgatory was to purge the last vestiges of sinful desire out of you by suffering, why should anybody’s prayers shorten your stay? Let’s say you are in purgatory primarily because of avarice. An indulgence, or the Virgin’s prayers, will spring you out of there. Wouldn’t you then enter heaven still lusting to pry up and steal the golden pavement? The illogic of it fails. But then, purgatory is nothing but a superstition. Superstition is defined as “any supernatural belief that is not supported by the Word of God.”

To make clearer the distinction between Catholicism and Biblical Christianity I composed this hymn that the medieval Catholic might have sung. Catholics then–and many today–could not POSSIBLY have sung “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It would have seemed as outlandish to them as the following parody will seem to you. Note that this was what the common people and many priests actually thought, not exactly what the Vatican taught. There may be Catholics even today who believe what is in this hymn, even if I had to exaggerate a bit to make the rhyme and meter come out even. Sing it to yourself according to the tune “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”


What a Judge we have in Jesus!

He sends sinners straight to hell,

Where they burn alive forever,

Howl and scream and curse and yell.

Christians too will likewise suffer;

Purgatory is as hot.

Climbing out by our own merits

Is our future and our lot.

Hot as Hades at the bottom,

But it’s open at the top.

We climb up by own efforts,

Then the suffering will stop.

When our wish to sin is finished,

When each wrong desire is gone,

Then our pain will be diminished,

Then the light of hope will dawn.

Oh, how we will cry for mercy!

But there’s only Justice there.

Agonized we crawl to heaven,

Suff’ring torments on each stair.

Is there no way to appease Him,

Since our prayers He will not hear?

Yes, in truth there is an answer,

We can beg His mother dear.

How could Christ refuse His Mother?

She, the sinless Virgin pure,

She will help us like no other,

She, our blessed hope and cure.

Pray to Her and rise to heaven–

She, the saints and nuns and priests,

And our off’rings and our fastings

They will help us sinful beasts.

Months of centuries of suff’ring

Seem like endless burning pain;

But She’ll help us climb to heaven

Prayers to Her are not in vain.

Though in death we long for heaven,

Purgatory is our part;

We will only find relief in

Mother Mary’s sacred heart.

What a friend we have in Mary,

Blessed Virgin, full of grace,

Savior from the Savior’s harshness,

She alone will plead our case.

Not the blood on Jewish altars,

Scarcely more the blood of Him,

But the tears of Mother Mary

Can appease this Judge so grim.

What a friend we have in Mary,

Blessed Virgin, pure and mild–

She’ll protect us from Her very

Harsh but just, demanding Child.

So eternally we’ll praise you,

Queen of Heaven, Mother-Nun!

What a friend we have in Mary,

Co-Redemptrix with God’s Son!

(There are five million signatures in the Vatican’s files petitioning the Pope to proclaim Mary to be the Co-Redemptrix. That means “a second Savior, equal to Jesus.” This song may help you understand why they think that way. It should also help you understand how necessary the Reformation was–and still is. The Blessed Virgin never saved anybody’s soul, not even her own.

Nor should we pray to her, because prayer is an act of worship and it’s a sin to worship anyone but God. We should pray to Jesus, the God-Man, because only the Savior saves. And He saves us by allowing us to offer His sinless life and innocent death to God as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. God will accept this offering and forgive us our sins and sinfulness. In the Resurrection we shall be raised from death but our sins and sinfulness were washed away from us by the blood that was shed on the Cross. We shall miraculously be made “non posse peccare,” unable to sin and confirmed in bliss. This happens when and only when we die with faith in Christ.)


In the official New Catholic Encyclopedia this paragraph occurs in the article “Purgatory.”: “Although the doctrine of purgatory is not explicitly stated in the Bible, belief in its existence is intimately related to the biblical doctrines of divine judgment, the forgiveness of sins, the mercy of God, and the temporal punishment due to sin.” Catholic University of America. (2003). New Catholic encyclopedia (2nd ed., vol. 11, p. 824). Thomson/Gale. Online at Encyclopedia.com.

Roger Kovaciny is a retired missionary to Ukraine, now living in DeForest, WI. For a free printable sharable copy of this, e-mail profkov@yahoo.com.