One of the most difficult things for non-Catholics and many new Catholics to understand is the idea of statues of saints in homes and churches and even on dashboards in the car. To many it brings forth the idea of idolatry which was prohibited in the Old Testament when God said, “You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them”1.
First, let’s examine this: the statues that Catholics have in their home and churches do not fit this criteria. God had just brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and across the Red Sea into the Sinai desert. In giving the Hebrews the Ten Commandments (properly called The Decalog), this prohibition against graven images was for God to declare that he alone was God and that the Hebrews had to give up their worship of Egyptian gods. Most of the Hebrews in captivity in Egypt most certainly did worship the one true God of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; however, a good number had either gone over to the worship of the Egyptian gods and/or partook of what is called syncretism — which can loosely be defined as the combination of different forms of belief or practice.
In fact each of the 10 Plagues that God cast among the Egyptians was to discount and to disempower the 10 main Egyptian gods. “These Egyptian Plagues were harsh and varied to correspond to the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses that were prevalent during Moses time in Egypt”2. For example, the first plague of the water of the Nile turning blood red was to discredit Hapi, the Egyptian God of the Nile. For a list of the other nine corresponding plagues and Egyptian gods, go here: http://inthedoghouse.hubpages.com/hub/Ten-Plagues-For-Ten-Gods
Second, in the same Old Testament that prohibits the carving of images it is God himself who commands the casting of a seraph serpent out of bronze and mounting it on a pole where “those who had been bitten would look at it and recover”3. Recall that while in the desert, the people had grumbled against God and Moses so God sent seraph serpents (a type of venomous snake) amongst the people and bit people “so that many of the Israelites died”4. God could have snapped his fingers and made all the serpents go away but he didn’t; hence, the bronze serpent.
In fact, the Evangelist John refers to this cast image as a type of cross: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”5.
Notice, too…in Exodus 25 in the directive for building the Ark of the Covenant, God directs the craftsmen: “You shall then make a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide. Make two cherubim of beaten gold for the two ends of the cover; make one cherub at one end, and the other at the other end, of one piece with the cover, at each end. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, sheltering the cover with them; they shall face each other, with their faces looking toward the cover”6. They were made of gold and clearly in the image of creatures. In fact, the footnote to this verse describes the two cherubim as “probably in the form of human-headed winged lions”7. Talk about graven images!
All this, then, to show forth that the command against graven/carved images has nothing to do with statues in the Catholic Church. Rather, it has to do with the prohibition against “bowing down and worshiping them.”
Catholics do not in any way bow down and worship statues or sacred images. The images — whether stained glass, holy cards or statues are like keeping family portraits on display in a home — be they of loved ones who have died or are still alive. They draw us in. They teach us. Inspire us. They help us to focus our prayer. They comfort us. Whether they are small enough for our dashboard or large enough for our yards and gardens or life-size in our churches, they are reminders that we are never alone on our faith journey. Oh, the stories they could tell if they could talk! Oh, the stories they do tell in their autobiographies, testaments and diaries. Saints are part of that “great cloud of witnesses”8 that Paul tells us “surrounds us” and he encourages us to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us”9. So, too, do the saints encourage us. In fact statues and stained glass are “the catechism of the illiterate and, by extension, of children”. Oftentimes they are a person’s first experience of viewing something of the grandeur of God.
Some statues have been declared miraculous. In 1729 a sailor left Spain for Peru. Somehow his wife’s many letters never reached him. When his wife was nearly out of cash she wrote yet another letter which this time she brought to the local church and placed it in the hand of the statue of St. Anthony de Padua and confided her desperate need to him. The following day she notice a different envelope in the saint’s hand; it was addressed to her and in her husband’s handwriting. Inside were several gold coins for her to provide comfortably for her family until his return. The letter still exists and is housed in the Franciscan church in Oviedo, Spain. It is dated July 23, 1729. St. Anthony is thus the patron saint of mail. One used to be able to buy S.A.G. (St. Anthony Guide) stamps in religious stores to affix to their mail. Others would simply write S.A.G. on the envelope or packages.
Other statues have wept or shed tears. Some emit actual tears or holy oil or even blood. It is entirely up to the Church to determine the veracity and genuineness of such things. Statues and images have no power in themselves but can indeed serve to lead us closer to God.
1. Ex. 20:4-5; Deut. 5:8; NOTE: All scripture quotes are taken from the New American Bible as found on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: www.usccb.org/bible
3. Cf. Numbers 21:8
4. Numbers 21:6
5. John 3:14-15
6. Ex. 25:18-21
7. Footnote for Ex. 25:21
8. Hebrews 12:1
About Cynthia Trainque
Cynthia Trainque is an author who is enrolled in the Master of Arts in Ministry (MAM) for the Laity at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA. She has served the church for several years as a worker, writer, and volunteer and is presently an active member of Our Lady of the Lake in Leominster, MA. She has a great love of sacred art and objects and enjoys photographing them. She may be contacted at Catherineofsienamedia@yahoo.com.