Catholics are often accused of being superstitious. We treat sacred objects as something set apart, something that lifts our hearts and minds to the Lord. And that reverence can often be misunderstood as superstition or idolatry. But what about when you as a Catholic are questioning the line between reverence and superstition? How do you know when to draw that line?
A listener named Joseph called in to Father Simon Says™ in just that predicament. He explained that he has been reading Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and something that stood out to him was how casual we have become when it comes to using God’s name, and how we treat Sacred Scripture.
“So I’ve been trying to be careful about books I have that have the name of God in them, even if it’s not Sacred Scripture,” Joseph explained. “What I’ll do is I will keep St Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life in my backpack. But sometimes shoes get thrown in the backpack too, and I always feel really bad about having shoes on top of God’s name. So I’m trying to figure out, what is a good way for me to approach this?”
Fr. Simon offered a practical solution, which is that if it bothers him, simply put the book in a plastic bag so that it wouldn’t be jostled up against the other contents of his backpack.
“But I think that what you’re asking is an extremely difficult question, believe it or not,” he added. “How can one treat things like things, and yet maintain reverence?”
Fr. Simon pointed out that reverence is a form of piety, a form of worship. It is to honor something because it has to do with the Lord. Therefore it is a worshipful attitude.
On the other hand, Fr. Simon said, “If you want to carry a pious book of the Bible, you’ve got to carry it somewhere. Not all of life is a procession with lit candles. So it’s a very difficult thing. How do you put the Bible in the backpack with your shoes and still maintain reverence? It’s a tough question, and I will give a stab at answering it. ”
He explained, “One of the ways we have to think about this is through personhood. Does the thing have personhood? Our highest reverence is to persons. The Eucharist, the Sacred Host, that’s not a thing. That’s a person. Whereas the Bible is a thing that refers to a person. So it’s a lesser degree of reverence. You wouldn’t genuflect, necessarily, in front of a Bible. But you would in front of a tabernacle.”
“What’s your purpose in putting it into the backpack?” Fr. Simon asked. “If it’s so that when you get some time you can read it, that’s a reverent attitude. To say, ‘Eh, throw it over there,’ that’s an irreverent attitude.”
In summary, Fr. Simon told Joseph to think about the purpose and intent of how he is treating something. If your purpose is to neglect something, that’s irreverence. But if your purpose is that you’re going to read it later (and maybe you’ll put it in a plastic bag so it doesn’t get dirty) then you’re treating a thing like a thing. The key is to treat a thing like a thing, a person like a person, and references to a person quasi-personally.
In terms of the Bible, he suggested, “Treat the Bible like you would a picture of your mother. Because you love your mother. You wouldn’t hesitate to put it in your backpack, if it was properly protected in a plastic bag. It has all to do with the personhood of a thing.”