Having grown up in South Carolina which is something like 3% Catholic, a lot of my conversations in middle and high school were about the differences between where we all went to church. My friend Meghan, a Baptist, was especially inquisitive about what we Catholics were up to. I invited her to attend mass with me.
One of the first differences she noticed was the church building itself. We had a statue of the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, the stations of the Cross, and images adorning the walls of the sanctuary. Not to mention St. Francis, our parish patron, holding a bird bath in the garden.
“The only thing we have on our wall is a cross,” Meghan explained. “My grandmother says Catholics worship statues. Do you?”
I was taken aback. I knew I worshipped Jesus, but I didn’t think there was anything unusual about statues. Since these were the days before Google, I found some books about Catholicism and looked it up. I learned that most non-Catholic churches don’t have statues — unless it’s their nativity set at Christmas time. The reformers (those who left the Catholic Church during the Reformation) embraced “Iconoclasm,” the idea that religious images were idolatrous and thus against the first commandment (Exodus 20:3-5) and even went as far as to destroy or white-wash images in Catholic Churches.
What the reformers failed to understand is that Catholics aren’t superstitious. We don’t worship statues, paintings or images of the Blessed Mother and the saints. A statue can’t “do” anything for you, it holds no power and isn’t a “lucky charm.” Nor do we worship the saints they represent.
Recognizing the great example of holiness the Blessed Mother and the Communion of Saints provide for us, we honor them and look to them as examples. They are the “cloud of witnesses” described by St. Paul in Hebrews 12:1, those who inspire us in our “struggle against sin” (Hebrews 12:4). Much like you hang up photographs of family and friends in your home to remind you about your heritage, we adorn churches with statues and images that testify to our heritage of faith.
To a visitor like Meghan, however, the interior of a Catholic Church can still be confusing. If we don’t worship the saints then why are their kneelers where we sit? Why do we genuflect?
We genuflect in a Catholic Church because the Eucharist is present in the tabernacle. As Catholics, we believe that during the Consecration of the Mass, the promise of Christ at the Last Supper — when Christ stated “This is my Body” (Matthew 26:27, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19) — is realized. Therefore, we kneel at that moment at Mass, when the bread and wine change into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ and we genuflect or kneel before the tabernacle, because it is where consecrated hosts are kept after Mass.
In summary, we worship Christ, present in the Eucharist. We honor the Blessed Mother and the Saints. And statues, pictures, medals, cards, and all the other ways we remember Christ and the saints are just that — reminders. They don’t hold any special power, but they draw our attention to the all-powerful one.
Don’t Dodge the Questions
What about my friend Meghan? She continued to ask questions — sometimes seeking my mom out when I didn’t have the answers. She moved away in high school and I didn’t hear from her for ten years.
Then I received this e-mail: “Hi Alison~ Do you remember me from way back when??? Around 7th grade, I think? . . . I started RCIA this year . . . finally.”
Ten years after Meghan first started asking questions, she entered the Catholic Church with gusto and dove into ministry– teaching Confirmation preparation with her husband, educating people on the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life and leading support groups for Catholic mothers like herself.
Don’t avoid questions about your faith. You never know where the answers can lead.