As a young child growing up on the southern shores of Puerto Rico, I attended a Catholic school named Academia Santa María. I have fond memories of that school, especially as the time in my life when I was first introduced to devotional prayers in an academic setting. It was at Santa María that I first said a Rosary with my classmates.

I remember vividly how hard it was for me as a kindergartner to sit through Mass every week, and how I became a member of a school club called "las Bernarditas," named after St. Bernadette of Lourdes, France. Since my full name (or, as I call it, my real name) is María de Lourdes — in English, literally, Mary of Lourdes — I was especially taken by the fact that so many "big" girls wanted to be in this club. I was impressed that these older girls found it important to ask Mary for her protection and intercession on behalf of each of us as "women." I still have, in a keepsake box, the small ribbon and medal of St. Bernadette that I received upon entering the club.

Mary has remained a part of my life as I’ve grown older, even if I have not always been attuned to her presence. I don’t know why or how my devotion to Mary started. It was to Mary that I cried for comfort when I was a new kid in a strange school. It somehow just seemed natural to talk to her, a mother, when it appeared that no one else could possibly understand how I felt. Years later, when I became a mother myself, I instinctively turned once again to Mary, sharing with her my fears, hopes and dreams for my own children.

These are not theological or philosophical reasons for the religious importance of Mary, but I suspect they are not an unusual starting place for a Christian developing a personal relationship with Jesus and getting to know His mother.

Our understanding of Mary is rooted in Scripture and grows out of 2,000 years of faith, devotion and theological reflection. As the mother of our Savior, Mary of Nazareth is important to Catholic families for many reasons. First of all, Mary is a key figure in the divine story of our salvation. Simply put, without Mary, there can be no Bethlehem story. Church tradition teaches that Mary was preserved from original sin in view of God calling her to be the mother of Jesus. Because of her singular role in the history of Christianity, she was gifted in grace beyond measure, and she fulfilled her role in a unique pilgrimage of faith, thus becoming the mother of the church and the spiritual mother of all people.

In the first chapter of Luke, the angel Gabriel calls Mary of Nazareth the "highly favored daughter" of God, adding, "The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women." From the beginning, early Christians found it natural for believers to honor the mother of their Lord, the woman who "found favor with God" (Lk 1:30), with special reverence. As early as the Council of Ephesus (431), the Church has addressed Mary with the title of mother of God, Theotokos ("God-bearer"). As the most holy mother of God, she was, after her Son, exalted above all angels and people. In the writings of the early Christians, we read of Mary, holy and free from sin, who gave her full heart to God and was declared "full of grace" by the angel Gabriel. Because of her unequivocal faith and surrender to God, we call Mary "blessed."

Mary is also our greatest model in faith. Because she is human, like us, Mary is one with all human beings in our need for salvation. Yet, by her unique cooperation with God’s plan of salvation, she also became for each of us a model of what it means to say yes to God in our individual lives. She was the first Christian, the first to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of the almighty God, the Messiah for whom her Jewish people had long awaited. She was the first disciple of Jesus, the first to "hear the word of God and act upon it" (Lk 8:21).

Yet Mary was human. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother. As parents, we can relate to Mary’s human joy, her suffering and her hope. We understand how difficult it must have been to trust in God’s plan for her life. We can feel Mary’s awe as the child grew within her, and we can feel her joy at giving birth to new life. We can imagine her sense of hope as she taught Jesus and watched her baby grow into a young man.

We can also suffer the brokenness and extreme agony she felt as she watched her own Son suffer and, ultimately, held His dead body in her arms. We can relate to Mary in a personal way because she walked a very human journey.

Like a human mother advocating on behalf of her children, Mary also mediates on our behalf when we ask her to offer our humble petitions and prayers to God. Every morning, I commend my own children to Mary, asking her to lead them to her Son. I know she understands the myriad of emotions I feel each day as I watch my children grow into adulthood. And I turn to her as my model, ultimately surrendering in faith to a mysterious and often incomprehensible Divine plan: "I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38).

Undoubtedly, as the mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary holds a special and unequaled place in our faith. Yet, ultimately, it is in understanding the balance between her holiness and her humanity that Mary stops being just a theological issue and becomes someone with whom each of us is invited to have an intimate, personal relationship.