Praying to Saints and Venerating Statues: Is It Kosher?

Question (submitted by a fictitious friend): A friend of mine told me that the Catholic Church is sinning by giving honor to the saints. He said we are guilty of idolatry, worship­ping someone other than God. While I know this is not true, I couldn’t explain it well enough. How do I respond to my friend’s question?

 Answer:   Your friend’s objection, while common, is based on a misunderstanding of our practice of giving honor to the saints. We are not in fact worshipping the saints at all. There are several levels of what in English is commonly called “worship”. In matters of faith we are careful to make dis­tinctions between them. The worship due only to God is what is called in Greek latria. (We take our English word idolatry” from this, meaning “false worship”.) True worship is the praise and honor of God for whom He is and the humble submission of ourselves before His sovereign majesty. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives the following explanation of worship of God:

“To adore [worship] God is to ac­knowledge, in respect and absolute submission, the ‘nothingness of the creature’ who would not exist but for God. To adore God is to praise and exalt him and to humble oneself, as Mary did in the Magnificat, confess­ing with gratitude that he has done great things and holy is his name. The worship of the one God sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2097)

Hopefully, anyone would clearly see that this is not at all what Catholics do when we honor the saints. We show toward the saints what is called in Greek dulia. (Our English word “adulation” comes from this word.) It is best translated as esteem or honor, but not as worship, certainly not as latria. We admire them somewhat like heroes. They are people who have lived this life and shown us that it can be done. They encourage us to keep the faith and remain in the ways of the Lord, knowing that if we follow their example, we too can obtain the glory of God’s Heavenly Kingdom. Some of them we honor as particular patrons, and we develop special devotion to certain saints due to their occupation, their homeland, their particular trial in life, or because we bear their name. So, for example, a doctor might have special devotion to St. Luke, the patron saint of physicians, because Luke was a physician. Irish Catholics have great devotion to St. Patrick be­cause he Christianized Ireland. In Siena, Italy, St. Catherine is especially honored because she came from Siena. People with throat ailments turn to St. Blase, who, according to legend, miraculously healed a young boy who was choking on a fish bone. Women named Ann might have great devo­tion to St. Ann because they bear her name. Or sometimes, people are simply affected by the saint’s life, and they find a helpful example in their story or their writings. And this is why the Church directs us to venerate the saints. They show us that this life can be lived according to the Gospel. They have survived the period of trial here on earth, and their life gives us an example and thereby strength­ens us in our efforts to follow Jesus. We are not worshipping them; rather, we are turning to them to ask them to pray for us. It is best to say that we venerate them, but we worship God!

Objection:  My friend also asked me why I feel I have to go through a saint? Why don’t I just go straight to God and pray to him?

Response: Have you ever asked a friend to pray for you? Wouldn’t you be surprised if your friend responded by saying, “Well, why are you asking me to pray for you? Why don’t you just go directly to God yourself?” I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply that you yourself were not going to pray for your need. You were asking your friend also to pray for you. That’s what we’re doing with the saints: in addition to our own prayer, we ask them to pray for us as well, since they are in God’s Kingdom and can help perfect our prayer, as they are wiser than we. It’s amazing that some people have no problem asking ministers, parents, friends and others to pray for them, but when we ask the saints to pray for us, they raise objections. If we can ask our friends on earth to pray for us, why can we not ask our friends in heaven to pray for us as well? Who better to ask to pray for us than Christ’s friends who are at his side? It is part of our belief in the Communion of Saints, that because we are one body in Christ, all the members of the body not only can but also should care for and be concerned about the welfare of the others. The saints in heaven are not excluded; on the con­trary, they live in the fullness of the presence of Christ, and desire to be of help to us in our struggle to join them in God’s Kingdom. This hits on another common misunderstanding: we are not really praying to the saints, but through them! No proper prayer asks a saint to respond directly to our need as if he were personally able to respond and grant our request. We ask the saint to pray for us. We’re not praying to the saint instead of to Jesus; we’re praying to Jesus through the saint, and asking him to pray with us. Are there abuses? Sure there are! It’s bound to happen in any part of life that involves human beings. But we work hard to try to correct them. An example of a faulty notion of prayer that we’re forever trying to correct is the “magical miracle prayers” that are often left in the candle racks in churches or are published in the personal pages of newspapers, usually on the same page as the obituaries. These prayers promise results if a person says the prayer and leaves copies in church. They claim the prayer is “never known to fail.” Such prayers are not official Catholic prayers, are contrary to Catholic belief, and are not sanctioned by the Church. They are the product of probably well-intentioned individuals with a somewhat warped understanding of what prayer is. Whenever we find those prayer sheets in our church, we simply throw them away. But just because some people distort and abuse the practice of involving the saints in our prayer doesn’t mean the practice is bad. It is our job to correct abuses and help people understand what proper prayer is.

Question: My friend also said our practice of using statues is sinful because it violates the command­ment to not make a graven image. Is he right?

Answer: No, he is not, although at first glance it may seem so. We need to understand precisely what God was forbidding when he forbade carving idols, or graven images. The commandment reads as such: “You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.” (Ex 20: 4-5) We need, however, to understand the difference between an idol and a statue. In the ancient world, it was common practice for people to carve images and worship the image itself as if it were actually the god it represented. They thought the statue itself was the god. This was what was happening in the instance when the Israelites made the golden calf and worshipped it. They declared, “This is your God, 0 Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Ex 31:4) The Lord grew angry with the Israelites because they worshipped the calf as if it were God Himself A similar situation can be seen in the Book of Genesis in the story of Rachel – Jacob’s wife – who stole her father’s household gods. Her father runs after Jacob asking him why he stole his gods. (cf Gen 31) The implication in this story is that she has stolen more than mere images: in effect, she has actually stolen his gods! This is what the commandment in fact prohibits. If someone were to enter our church and steal the crucifix, we’d have to go out and get a new one. No one, however, would think that Jesus Himself had actually been stolen from us. Furthermore, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the Ark of the Covenant, and the cherubim.” (Catechism, 2130) We must not forget that, with the incarnation of God as Man in the person of Jesus, we are under a new system. As proof of this, observe what happened at the Transfiguration of Jesus. In the Old Testament, it was forbidden for anyone to look upon the face of God and live. When God appeared before Moses on Mt. Sinai, God covered Moses’ face as He passed by, so that Moses could only see His back. (cf. Exodus 33:18-23) Similarly, when the Lord appeared to Elijah on the same mountain, when Elijah heard the voice of the Lord in the tiny whispering sound, he hid his face and stood at the entrance of the cave. (cf. l Kings 19:13) At the Transfiguration, however, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus as His glory is revealed, and they are permitted to look into His face. And not only they, but Peter, James, and John are also privileged by Jesus to do so. (cf. Mark 9:2-8) It is therefore clear that Jesus is introducing a new understanding of the relation­ship between God and man. While the Jews never called God by name, we now may do so freely by calling upon the name of Jesus. We can see Him, touch Him, even eat His body and drink His blood. By becoming man, God has introduced a com­pletely new relationship with us, not one of fear and distance, but of love and closeness. The catechism continues,

“By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images. The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, ‘the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,’ and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.’ The honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adora­tion due to God alone.” (Catechism, 2131, 2132. Quotes are from St. Basil.)

Basically, what the Church is saying is that, by venerating images of Jesus, and even the saints, the Blessed Mother and the angels, we are actually giving honor to Jesus Himself. We are honoring the person they represent, not the images them­selves. It is interesting to notice that many people who object to the use of statues of Jesus or the saints have no problem with paintings or drawings of them. Well, statues are simply three-dimensional drawings. Surely God is not declaring that sin is determined by the number of dimensions in an image. That would be an example of the very hair-splitting differences for which Jesus criticized the Pharisees. How could anyone honestly say that a two-dimensional figure is holy but a three-dimensional one is idolatry? We must look to the heart of the law, not merely the letter of the law. Once again, it is important that we remember the significance of the Incarnation, of God becoming man. In doing so, He has introduced a new order – a new economy – of salvation. Because Jesus took on flesh, He has brought the divine into our world in a human way, so that our representation of Him or of anyone who now beholds Him face to face has become a pious act. Since we can now view God in human form, we can also represent Him in human form and venerate that image – and the image of any creature in His kingdom, includ­ing the angels and saints – for in doing so, we reflect upon the fact that our mortal flesh has been called to share in the dignity that is His and that has been granted to those in His kingdom. He has taken on our nature so that we can take on His.

Is the United States ruled by the Constitution or a dictator?

President Obama’s attempt to wield his pen like a hammer and crush our First Amendment Freedom of Religion should be a wake-up call for all Americans. This November more than ever in our history, the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution is being put to the test. We as Catholics have never voted as a solid bloc, but I feel this year we must. While there are many issues of concern that face our nation, the decision by Obama and others in Washington to ignore the First Amendment Freedom of Religion clause and force us to provide contraception coverage in our Catholic institutions should lead every American to shudder! If the Obama Administration is allowed to squash the First Amendment, which Right is next to fall? (Actually, Obama has already attempted to squash Freedom of Speech by advocating “no protest zones” any time he or the Secret Service should deem that protesters are “threatening” – without defining what constitutes “threatening”.) Today, Cardinal Dolan announced a series of lawsuits against the Obama administration’s attempt to violate our TRULY constitutional right of Freedom from government intereference in our beliefs. We MUST put the preservation of the Constitution above any other concern. Please view the attached video and vote this November for the Constitution.

“Did Mary have other children?” subtitled, “Is the Catholic Church wrong about the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?”

ImageSince the second century, the Catholic Church has had a clear history of belief that Mary was ever-virgin. Some people, however, would try to refute our belief. They refer to the lines that speak of “the brothers of the Lord” as proof that Mary had other children. This is simply not true. The word in Scripture that is translated as “brother” is adelphos in Greek and aho in Hebrew. In both cases the word literally means “male relative.” While it does not preclude the possibility that Mary had other children, neither does it prove that she did. The best translation of the word would be “kinsman.” For example, in the book of Genesis, Lot is referred to as the aho or “brother” of Abraham, yet we know from the story that Lot was his nephew. There are other strong indications that Jesus did not have any blood brothers. For one, Mark refers to Jesus’ brothers in Chapter 6 as “James and Joses and Judas and Simon.” (Mark 6:3) It would seem to many from this that they were other children of the Blessed Mother. But in his account of Jesus’ passion, Mark mentions that, standing at a distance were “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome.” (Mk 15:40) If James and Joses were other sons of the Blessed Mother, then why wouldn’t Mark call this woman “the mother of Jesus?” Would it make any sense not to do so? The fact that Mark calls this woman “the mother of James and Joses” rather than “the mother of Jesus” is because this woman was not the Blessed Mother but someone else; thus, James and Joses were not his siblings but probably his cousins. Also, John relates the beloved story of Jesus entrusting Mary into the care of St. John at the foot of the cross. (cf John 19:26-27) There was a law at the time of Jesus that, if a woman was widowed, the oldest son was to take care of her; otherwise, she’d be left destitute. If the eldest brother died, the next brother took care of her, and so on. St. Joseph was obviously dead by the time of Jesus’ ministry, and Mary is always somewhere behind the scenes throughout all Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was clearly the firstborn son. If we count all the men referred to as “the brother of the Lord,” there would be about seven of them. As Jesus was dying, the care of Mary would automatically fall to the next son, and then the next, and so on. There would have been about seven men to care for her. So why, then, did Jesus entrust her into St. John’s care? Because there was no one else! With Jesus dead, Mary would have been left destitute, and so even in His passion, He provided for His mother’s care. We also know from ancient traditions that Mary followed along with St. John during his ministry. Are these proof that Mary had no other children? No. But they are strong indication that she did not.

The first time Mary was called ever virgin was in a document called “The Protoevangelion of St. James.” This document, written somewhere between 140-170 AD, while not historically significant as an eyewitness testimony of the life of Christ, is nonetheless a valuable historical testimony to the fact that the perpetual virginity of Mary was a belief held very early on in the Christian community. The document is subtitled, “An Historical Account of the Birth of Christ, and the Perpetual Virgin Mary, His Mother, by James the Lesser, Cousin and Brother of the Lord Jesus, a Chief Apostle and First Bishop of the Christians in Jerusalem.” This is very significant, as it clearly demonstrates that already in the second century AD Mary was considered ever-virgin; furthermore, it clearly calls James a cousin of the Lord Jesus. No one could possibly present a document making these claims as being credible if in fact it was known that Mary had other children.  Furthermore, there is no ancient evidence of any belief whatsoever that Jesus had siblings. Every ancient tradition testifies to the credibility of the Catholic belief in the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Why does that matter/ Well, for one, could you imagine the problems that would have arisen if Jesus had had siblings? They may have tried to claim a role of prominence simply because of their bloodline. (Remeber Dan Brown’s hoax?) But more importantly, it shows us the nature of the call of God. God doesn’t merely use us; when He calls us, His call is permanent. Virtually all Christians admit that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. If after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph then went on to have other children and raise a regular family, it would seem as if God used her and then dismissed her. It would be as if He had said, “Thank you! I used your virginal womb to accomplish my task, but now it’s done and your services are no longer needed. You may go now!”  God doesn’t use us; He calls us permanently! I like to think of it this way: suppose you went to a friend’s house for dinner and they told you they had had eight priests in their family, all of whom have passed away, but they kept their chalices in remembrance of them. Then you go to the dining room table, and there at each place setting is one of the priest’s chalices. The hostess then pours Pepsi into them and says, “Okay now, drink up!” I think you’d be horrified. We’d surely say, “Hey! Those chalices held the Precious Blood of Christ! In soing so, they were forever consecrated and should never be returned to ordinary use!” The same thing with Mary’s womb. By conceiving Jesus, it was consecrated as the very womb of God. To allow it to be used afterwards for others would seem a desecration of something holy. So, while it may not be necessary for the salvific work of Christ for Mary to have retained her virginity, it does tell us of the unique and irrevocable call of God for all of us, as is witnessed by the Perpetual Virginity of the Virgin Mary.

“Time Capsule” discovered in St. Ann’s Gym

Yesterday I had the 8th grade boys help me prepare the stage for Saturday night’s extravaganza. We had to replace half the floodlights in the ceiling, which had been dead for years. Now finally we have full color lights on our stage. We also renovated the sound cabinet, which had no handles on it. Whenever we needed to open it, we had to pry it open. While installing the handles, we opened one cabinet which seemed as if it had been sealed for years. What we found was a veritable time capsule! We found a role of smarties that was green moldy, programs from old shows, (one of the boys’ mothers recognized it as a show she witnessed as a student), and several other items. But by far the most fascinating was the discovery of an ambry (the box in the wall of a church that holds the holy oils) still in the box it was shipped in! It was addressed to Msgr. Ferme, the founding pastor of St. Ann’s, and the newspaper wrapping it was dated June 22, 1960! The boys were fascinated reading newspaper accounts that mentioned Truman and Eisenhower and Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. It was truly amazing!

So here’s the deal: last night the teen club practiced their skit of “Match Game 2012” that they’re performing Saturday night. I think it’s going to be hysterical! So everyone, come on down to St. Ann’s Saturday, May 12th at 7:00 PM for our Second Annual Variety Show. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for high school students, and $5 for children. I’m confident you will find it well worth the price of admission!

“To dress or not to dress; that is the question!”

A perennial question people ask a pastor is: “Father, can’t you do something to get people to dress properly for Mass?” I share the concern of people who are upset by the overly casual attire some people wear to Mass. Yes, the Mass is the most solemn event of our lives, and by its nature it dictates that we should dress with respect for the sacredness of the mysteries we celebrate. At the same time, we come to the Lord with our lives as they are, and no one should expect us to dress in tuxedos and evening gowns for Mass. Somewhere in between is where I believe the happy medium lies. No one may stand at the doors of a church and play the clothing police. There have been a few instances in past parishes where I have spoken privately to someone who was in an almost scandalous state of undress for Mass or to parents with children who actually entered Mass wearing T-shirts with grossly inappropriate images or messages on them. Guess what the outcome was? I got both barrels of the shotgun aimed right at me! Some people get violent when you ask them very kindly to dress properly for Mass. At any rate, I’m willing to address the issue again. I appeal to people’s common sense and respect for the Mass. I encourage everyone to take a moment before coming to Mass to ask yourself if the clothing you are wearing is appropriate for Mass. Does it matter? I believe it does. When we choose different clothing for an event from what we would wear to the supermarket, it tells us that something important is going on there that deserves our respect. If someone came to a formal wedding in shorts and a tank top, I think the bride and groom would be offended. If you were invited to dinner with the President of the United States, you would certainly dress appropriately. Well, we are coming to Mass to sit down to dinner with none other than the Lord Jesus Himself. Does that not deserve our respect? While we may not be required to wear our absolute best clothing possible to Mass (although we used to when I was a child), we certainly should make sure the clothing we are wearing is not also our worst, as sometimes seems to be the case. I do recommend people wear long pants and have their shoulders covered – just like is requires for visits to the churches in Rome – and certainly to avoid beach ware. Throwing a beach wrap over a swimsuit is not appropriate clothing for Mass, nor is anything that would reveal too much of your body to others. (Mass is not a place we go to be sexy!) I do recommend that parents teach their children from an early age to dress properly for Mass, as that will help instill a habit within them that they may end up retaining. I’m confident that within all of us is a basic common sense that will tell us what is appropriate and what is not. Remember why we are here – to join with Christ as He offers Himself to the Father in an un-bloody sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins – and make sure our clothing is consistent with that dignity.

Variety Show 2012

This Saturday, St. Ann’s will celebrate our Second Annual Variety Show. It should be a lot of fun! I’ll post images afterwards.

Update: Here are some photos of my mom & myself in the show.