Have you ever been to a Catholic wedding where the bride and groom offer flowers to an image or statue of Mary? Or spent time in church after Mass and seen someone kneel down in front of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, or a pedestal holding the Infant of Prague? To an outside observer, it may look as though Catholics are worshiping these statues and images by kneeling before them or kissing them. But that’s a common misconception. Catholics do not worship statues, but images do play an important role in our acts of worship.
Recently a listener called in to Go Ask Your Father™ to ask Monsignor Stuart Swetland for help in explaining the veneration of images to her husband who is a Jehovah’s Witness. He knows that the Lord commands us not to worship idols, but it seems to him that’s exactly what Catholics are doing.
Msgr. Swetland responded, “I had trouble with that as a convert myself. And one of the things that really changed it for me was thinking of Numbers, chapter 21, where we see God Himself saying to make an image. … When the people are being bit by the serpents, Moses was commanded by God to make a bronze serpent. And the people would look upon this bronze serpent and they would be healed.”
“The same God who gave Moses the commandment not to make a graven image, gave him the commandment to make this bronze serpent on a pole,” he pointed out. “And that bronze serpent on the pole lasted all the way to the time of Jeremiah. And Josiah had to have it destroyed because people started to worship it. We would be wrong to worship such a thing. But God Himself understands the need for incarnational reality.”
Msgr. Swetland explained that statues and images aid us in our worship of God, but are not to be the object of our worship as Catholics.
“There’s nothing wrong with these things as long as we understand we’re not worshiping the thing,” he said. “We’re worshiping the reality that the thing images, and we’re being helped in our worship by using the image to evoke our understanding of the mystery when we’re worshiping.”
And it isn’t only in Catholic churches or homes that this concept is practiced. It’s the same concept as having a picture of your family on your desk at work or as the background image on your phone.
Msgr. Swetland pointed out, “When I was in the military, I saw this all the time. I had it myself – I had a picture of my family on my desk. And there would be times when I was a long time away from my family that I would kiss the picture. Men did this when they had pictures of their wives or their fiancées. The men who had children had pictures of their children. And, you know, we understand that when we were kissing a picture of someone, the picture isn’t the person. But it’s what the picture stands for.”
“Some people even will have locks of hair (that gets into relics and things like that) that they find valuable in keeping close. So none of these violate the commandment. And God Himself asked us to do these kinds of things, because He understands the incarnational reality of our lives.”
You can hear the clip by playing below