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Our readers asked:

When did statues of saints start appearing in Catholic churches, and how is this not idol worship?

Rachel Bundang Answers:

Christianity emerged from Judaism, which itself rejected figurative religious art as being too much like idol worship (see Ex 20:3).  But once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine in the 4th century CE, it was not long before Roman practices of portraying and honoring the divine (their gods and emperors) would make their way into Christian practices as well.

Although the saints are portrayed in statues, icons, paintings, and other media, they are not worshipped as God is.  Rather, we venerate the saints, meaning that we honor them, give them respect, and show them devotion for what they have accomplished in their lives of faith.  John Coleman, SJ sees saints as generally having five characteristics:

exemplary model

extraordinary teacher

worker of wonders or source of benevolent power

intercessor

possessor of a special, revelatory relation to the holy.

In short, they invite to see and relate to God anew.

Asking saints to intercede for us is not idol worship because they themselves are not the object of worship.  We are asking for their help to make our case before God, just as you might have a friend advocate for you.

 
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The Author : Rachel Bundang
Rachel Bundang is a writer and doctoral student in theology and ethics in New York City.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Sunny F Nwodo

    I am a catholic, but, i do believe that christ is the intercessor, to ask the saints to pray for us is idolatry. in the gospel of matthew (17:4) the transfiguration of jesus. peter sought permission to make shrine’s, one for christ, one for moses and another for elijah. but was only told to listen to christ as the one God is pleased with.

  • http://www.facebook.com/guinevere.s.jacobs Guinevere S Jacobs

    @ cj: No one can ever need anyone other than Jesus. Jesus said that “the Father and I are one”, so because Jesus said it, Catholics believe that Jesus is God, as He said that God the Father and Him are one. Therefore, Jesus isn’t the intercessor, as the intercessor goes between one party and another party, He is God whom we worship, along with God the Father, and God the Spirit (The Trinity).

    The way intercession works can be compared to a naughty child doing something wrong. The child knows that he did something that he is going to be severely punished for it, so instead of going to his father first and confessing the wrong doing, he goes to his aunt, uncle, brother, mother, sister, etc to speak to his father on his behalf, in the hope that the father would be softened in heart before he speaks to his father. In the same way, if the child really wants something, he will go to his mother, brother, sister, etc (whoever is closer to the father at that time) and ask that person to speak to the father about the child’s need/ want/ desire, in the hope that the father’s heart will be softened, and the desire/ need will be granted.

    The saints are closer to God than we are, as they are in heaven, so they are in the best position to ask God to grant us our needs, or to grant us forgiveness.

    Do we need them? Well, it’s certainly a privilege to have them on our side, but God does what He wants in the end anyway, so whether the saints talk to Him for us or not, God is the Father that answers. Can we pray to God directly? Of course we can, but it’s seen as a sign of humility when we know that we have sinned, and cant look God in His pure face, and thats where the saints are so useful – in speaking to God on our behalf before and while we confess our sins.

  • http://www.facebook.com/guinevere.s.jacobs Guinevere S Jacobs

    @ Mary: I’m afraid that the only one that is deceived is you. There is definitely a difference between venerating (ie: respecting) and worshipping. Catholics do not worship saints as that would be sacrilege. We use the lives of the saints as motivation to better our own lives. The saints walked in Jesus’ footsteps, even unto death, and we thank them for their great lives, and try to follow by the example that they lived – and in that way be even closer to Christ ourselves.
    The statues are most definitely not a form of worship by Catholics, and if you deny this and say that they are, then you are most definitely deceived. The statues and pictures that we have can be compared to a photograph of a loved one. Many people kiss pictures of their loved ones, put it over the mantlepiece, frame it, talk to it, etc, and thats exactly what Catholics do. The pictures are not something worshipped, but man made items (like photographs) to remind us of the person it’s portraying. Even pictures of Jesus are there not to worship, but to remind us in our daily lives that He’s always with us.

  • cj

    Why does a believer need anyone other than Jesus as an intercessor? Where is the authority for that?

  • Mary R.

    I am amazed that people are so deceived by their own words and in this case saying you are seeking the statues help and you are placing honor in a idol of stone and God does need a idol’s help in answering his prayers. This is an abomination to God and the Bible is clear on this. whether you intend to worhip them or not, the Bible is clear as what constitutes worship and what you described as “not” worshiping the idols is exactly that. The fact that the Catholic Church puts their trust in the Catholic Church and traditions of men is another thing that God speaks of too. Sad that there are so many deceived people who reject the Word of God over man’s manmade religions.

    • Abraham

      I believe the Statues of Saints remind us of the many believers of Christ that came before us and that in many instances if not all were persecuted and suffered greatly but never lost their Faith in Jesus.

      For this i admire them and Venerate them for their Humanity and Sacrifice. They are Soldiers of Christ.

      Rachel Bundang, Beautiful post. Thank You

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