Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I have been enjoying reading your blog very much and appreciate your testimony. Quick question regarding the upcoming Papal visit to Cuba. I know that this is just a news article below, and believe that the Pope’s ultimate goal for Cuba would be a return to Catholicism, but I am disturbed that anyone would be celebrating the 400th anniversary of a statue. In addition, it’s gone on a tour. Can you explain how this works?
This is from an article from Reuters:
“One purpose of the papal visit is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Cuba’s most famous religious icon, the statue of the Virgin of Charity. Last month a replica of the statue completed a 16-month pilgrimage around the island that was the first such religious display since the 1950s.”
I’m not sure what you are disturbed by. The Catholic faith has always made use of images as “windows on to God”. This goes right back to the New Testament, when Paul speak to the Galatians “before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1). The prohibition against the use of images in the Old Testament was, like much of the Old Testament, provisional and meant to prevent idolatry, which is the worship of creatures instead of the Creator. For it was the destiny of the Jews to be headed off from the worship of things that resemble God to the worship of God himself. But when God the Son takes on human form in the person of the Jewish Messiah, images are transformed, because he is “the image of the invisible God” (Hebrews 1:4). So images are hallowed by the Incarnation as the Word becomes matter.
Catholics, therefore, do not worship statues or mistake them for gods. Rather, these images—exactly like the images you have in your family photo album—point to the saints they represent and the saints, in turn, point to their Lord and Savior, Jesus.
It’s worth noting that people generally only have difficulties with this concept when it comes to religious imagery. Nobody gets upset by the graven image on a bowling trophy. Nobody thought it strange when the Statue of Liberty got cleaned up a few years back and there was a big celebration to commemorate that. It’s only when the subject of an image is a religious figure that people get jittery. But there’s no reason to do so. Religious images are not gods for Catholics. They are, like that favorite picture of your Mom and Dad, a way of connecting with the one portrayed and, through them, with the God that saint loved.