Do Catholics worship idols by having pictures and statues of Mary and Saints?
“And God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. "You shall have no other gods before me. "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; ” (Exodus 20: 4-5)
Divine laws, rules and commandments are given for a reason. Just like we have rules in football – be it the offside rule or the maximum number of substitutions or the rules on tackling from behind – these rules are what makes the game beautiful, free flowing and thoroughly enjoyable. Without a concrete set of rules and an officiating authority, a game is sure to quickly descent into chaos. However, laws and rules are not an end in itself – though the offside rule helps in making football more interesting, it is seldom the reason for playing the ‘beautiful game’ – rules are a means to an end. Divine laws are also a means to an end – to help us in our goal of achieving that perfect communion in and with Christ; to become a saint and in turn, to be led into the perfection of our Father in heaven. Rules help us in that journey, giving us direction and pointing us in the right path.
Though the laws of a game or a nation might change, divine laws (as Christianity believe those 'revealed laws’) never change. Yet, as God is a mystery Who becomes more and more comprehensible as one deepens and grows in his/her journey of faith in Christ, so has the Christian understanding of the Old Testament (OT) divine laws become refined and better illuminated through Jesus himself. So we have Christ through his words, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” bringing to the Old Testament commandment of Sabbath, a holistic interpretation. Jesus did not change the commandment of “Keep the Sabbath Holy”, but he brought home an understanding of Sabbath which went deeper than the mere “doing or not doing” of work during Sabbath. In His own words, Christ came not “to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfil”. And fulfil he did, and the Church’s understanding of the OT laws stem from this Christ who fulfilled the Old in the New – never abandoning the Old, but giving it meaning and completion.
Looked through this lens, the commandment of not worshipping images implies much more than what the text says, especially in our time and age. As Bishop Barron says, “at the heart of the Old Testament sensibility is the conviction that God chose a people, Israel, whom he would shape according to his own mind and heart so that they might draw all of humanity into right relationship with God”. Right relationship flows from right worship – because eventually we become what we worship. Yet, the history of Israel is one of repeated failure to worship the ‘One True God’ and in the whole of the Old Testament we see Yahweh, through prophets and kings, trying to lead His people back into a proper order and sense of worship. For a small nation like Israel, the lure to worship the gods of the neighbouring Kingdoms – the gods of the more prosperous, powerful and mighty kingdoms surrounding it, was all too tempting. And Yahweh through the commandment to not worship images is explicitly telling His people that everything on earth and in heaven is part of His creation, and “man is the only creation that God has willed for its own sake, and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life” (CCC 356). When we worship anything in creation other than the Creator God (as in the worship of Idols), we are forgoing of the dignity that God has called us into. God is utterly transcendent, beyond anything that we know of, or have experienced in the created world.
However, this utterly transcendent God took human form and as St John says, “The word became flesh” so that all of us humans – whose knowledge primarily stems from experiences through our five senses – could know and experience God in a tangible way. The same God who said “you shall not worship anything on earth below or heaven above”, in Jesus says, “I AM the way, and the truth and the life” and that “whoever has seen me has seen the Father”!! In Jesus, God has a face and a body and Christians are people who worship God in Jesus. The utterly transcendent God became utterly immanent by entering time and space, such that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”. And saints are those people who received him; believed in his name and tried to follow in the paths laid out by him, even in struggles, difficulties and suffering. Following St Paul’s exhortation to be “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ”, Christians have always held in special esteem the lives of these men and women who led heroic lives, and have honoured and revered their memory.
So is it idolatry that Catholics have the images of Saints in their churches?
Not at all - the images/pictures of saints by themselves, is seldom an object of worship for a Catholic. The images serve a purpose and the purpose is to keep the heroic life of that saint alive in the consciousness of people. The power of stories in shaping culture and humanity is enormous, and the life stories of saints are given by the Church so that it comforts as well as inspires the present generation to walk the faith, even when the chips are down and all seem lost. Take the case of Mother Teresa of Calcutta – my generation would know her by name, have an image of her in our minds and can quickly remember how she took care of Christ in the poor, sick and the dying. But I doubt that would be the case for my children – they would hardly recognize her, unless of course they see her picture in our homes and churches, where at least out of curiosity they will ask who she is and hopefully, be intrigued by her life, struggles and the joy amidst those struggles.
Is praying to Saints in breach of the first commandment?
No – praying by definition is communication with God. I don’t think any of the Catholics who pray to St Anthony would consider St Anthony to be God. Prayer takes a myriad of forms – we pray sometimes in silence, sometimes using scripture and/or with words; sometimes just those tears are our prayer, yet other times our prayer takes the form of complaints or petitions. There is no one way to pray – one form might work better for some people, a different form for some others. When Catholics say they are praying to St Antony, what they really mean is “I am praying to God through and with the help of St Antony”. Catholics believe in the communion of saints – which means that Church is not an entity down here on earth alone, but encompasses both heaven and earth. For God, who is not constrained by time or space, heaven is where he wants us for all eternity and after this pilgrimage of life, death is the door through which we enter into that new life. And saints we believe have entered into that beatific life and just as I pray for my fellow beings here on earth, our older sisters and brothers – the saints, would pray for us in heaven. How cool is that!!
Would God be jealous that more people are going to St Antony than him?
Christian God is not a God who is in competition with his people. That thought of a competing God is synonymous with the common atheistic position, that humanity can achieve progress and success only if we banish God from our midst. Both the thoughts are born of the notion that God is a bit jealous of human achievement and in order for God to maintain his status as God, humans need to be held from progress, success and achievement; and any time a human being is praised or looked up to, God loses some of his aura. Well, God is not a being in time and space to be in competition with humans, but God is "being itself". “The glory of God is man fully alive” and who else has shown us how to be fully alive than the saints? God rejoices mightily, when through the prayer and intercession of saints, more and more people come to faith and come to Him. St Therese could say, “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth”, only because she understood the nature of God and his relationship to us.
Is praying for the dead futile?
No. (More on this some other day).