Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Honoring Mary and the saints
by Father Jan Larson
(From the March 17, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)
At times some people who do not share the Catholic Christian tradition have difficulty with what they see as the Catholic attachment to statues and images of the saints. They have trouble with Catholics who touch or kiss statues, who put flowers or candles before such images. They may even have trouble with having images and statues of Mary and the saints in the first place, quoting Scriptural passages that forbid the worship of objects. Such criticisms have gone on for centuries, but what is the answer to these critics?
The answer is found in the Apostles’ Creed, one of the two professions of faith that we may recite together almost every Sunday of the year. In that profession of faith we profess to “believe in the Communion of Saints.” Our belief is that our community of believers, gathered together to worship each Sunday, is not only united to all other Catholics throughout the world, but also to all Christians who have ever lived. Our God, after all, is a God of the living, not of the dead. All who have gone before us are still part of the Church. They are still well and alive, and this is why, for example, we celebrate the annual feast of All Souls on Nov. 2.
We believe, as we say in the creed, that these people who have died are in communion with us, and like members of a family, we support and help one another. We pray for them, and we believe that they pray for us, and so it is natural to ask them to put in a good word for us. In particular, we remember those who have gone before us who are models of discipleship and holiness. Mary and the saints are in the presence of God. It is therefore quite natural to revere and honor them, to converse with them, and ask them to remember us before the Lord of all life. The sharing of prayers, after all, is a normal expression of any community of believers.
How Catholics remember the dead is really no different from the way anyone else remembers the dead. People will light a candle before a photo of a deceased love one, put it in a place of honor on a desk or on the wall, set flowers near it, or kiss it on an anniversary. This happens because we remember the people of the past most easily through ritual actions – through the use of symbolic objects and careful words and gestures. People will kiss and reverently touch the marble of the Vietnam Memorial, or the American flag. People are not worshiping these objects, but the objects have become sacred objects precisely because they are the route, the avenue, that connects us to the realities that lie beyond what we can see and touch. The photo is the symbol that connects us to the loved one and the precious memories of the past. The flag is the symbol, not only of the United States, but of all the people who sacrificed so much for the safety and good of our country.
Sacred images of Mary and the saints are sacred because they symbolize the heroism and holy lives of believers who have gone before us. We don’t worship statues, paintings or stained glass windows. These are simply reminders of the holy people and things we believe in. Imagine how difficult it would be to remember our departed loved ones if we did not have the photos and other cherished mementos and keepsakes that help us to remember. Catholic Christians, indeed all people, have the same need.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)