Saint Worship - Part 15

"And is it allowable to honor relics, crucifixes, and holy pictures? Yes; with an inferior and relative honor, as related to Christ and His saints, and as memorials of them. May we then pray to relics and images? No; by no means, for they have no life, or sense, to hear or help us."

So says the catechism, and so the Catholic Church teaches all her children. Relics of saints, crucifixes, holy pictures, and images may be honored with an inferior and relative honor, because they are related to Our Lord and His saints, and are memorials of them, and serve to keep them fresh in our memories. And why should they not be [honored]? When one is thought to be dying, far from home, among strangers, some dear old lady who had been kind to him cuts off a lock of his hair to send to his mother. The lover wears the portrait of his beloved next to his heart, and prizes everything that has belonged to her. The pious son preserves with tender care the picture of his mother, and will not suffer it to be profaned. The mother preserves the playthings and little coat of her infant boy when his body sleeps in the churchyard, or cherishes with almost painful fondness every memorial of her heroic son slain on the battlefield fighting for his country. Is the saint, the martyr slain fighting for that nobler country, heaven, the true patria of the soul, less dear to the memory of the Christian heart?

The republic delights to honor her patriotic sons, those who have fallen in her cause, who have defended her in danger, led her armies to victory, secured her independence, or rendered her illustrious by their statesmanship; she erects monuments to show her deep sense of their worth and to perpetuate the memory of their civic virtues. Do we not call the national capital Washington, and does not a picture of "the Father of his Country" hang in the house of almost every American? Does not the nation preserve among its choicest treasures the very coat and sword he wore? Is there a state in the Union that has not a Washington county, city, or village, or a city that has not a Washington street? Have not innumerable citizens called their sons George Washington in his honor, and has not a national association of noble-minded and noble-hearted women purchased for the nation the land on which stands his tomb, (7) that it may through all time be free to the pilgrimage of the grateful sons and daughters of the republic which he had the chief hand in founding? The same honors in kind, though less in degree, are paid to others who have [give luster to] the nation by their genius, their talents, and their public services.

The Church has her battles and religion her victories, and should they who battled for her, gained through grace the victory for religion, and came off conquerors and more than conquerors, be regarded as less deserving of honor? Is there a greater or truer hero than the Christian hero; than he who gives up all for Jesus, and never ceased to do valiant battle against all His enemies? Our Lord judges not so, for to such a one He promises a crown of life, of immortal glory and honor, in His kingdom. The civil hero must add the Christian virtues to his civil virtues, or fail of the heavenly glory. Why, then, should relics, pictures, statues, memorials, of a saint be less deserving of honor than those of a mother, a sweetheart, a patriot?

The principle on which rests the veneration of relics, crucifixes, and holy pictures is natural and dear to the human heart; and I have shown, over and over again, as the Church teaches, that grace does not supersede nature. Most true is it that nature is below the plane of our origin and end, for they are both supernatural, and we can do nothing without the regenerating grace of Jesus Christ to gain or merit eternal life. But grace supposes nature, accepts, elevates, purifies, and directs it. Whatever is true and beautiful in nature or natural affection Christianity hallows and makes her own.

When I ask a saint to pray for me I am guilty of no superstition, for I ask only what he can do; but if I ask him to raise, or believe he can raise, a dead body to life, I fall into gross superstition, because that only God can do. God may raise the dead to life in answer to the prayer of the saint; but no saint, not even our Blessed Lady, can do it. When I honor relics, crucifixes, holy pictures, and images only as memorials of Christ and His saints, reverence them only as related to the real worth I venerate, I am neither superstitious nor an idolater; I simply treat things as they are, and for what they are; I simply adhere to truth.

"But the practice of Catholics is forbidden by the Decalogue." I think not. God does not forbid in one law what He authorizes in another. What is forbidden in what Catholics call the first commandment, and Protestants the first and second, is the making, keeping, or honoring of pictures, not as memorials, but as gods. "I am the Lord thy God, Who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt not have strange gods before Me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them." It is plain that what is here forbidden is neither painting nor sculpture, but the making of images to be worshiped and served as gods; otherwise everyone who has his likeness taken by either the painter or the sculptor would break the precept. The great gentile apostasy had take place prior to Moses, and idolatry had become very general in his time. It was one of the main purposes of the Hebrew [sacred law] to protect the Hebrew people from the infection of the prevailing worship of false gods, and to keep alive with them the knowledge and worship of the One Living and True God. Many things were, no doubt, prohibited to them which otherwise might have been allowed; but it cannot be supposed that Moses understood the prohibition in the rigid Protestant and Mahometan sense, for he himself ordered the construction of the brazen image of a serpent, and of the cherubim whose out-stretched wings over the ark covered the mercy-seat; nor did the Jews understand it in that sense, for the gold sea in their temple rested on twelve brazen oxen. Evidently the precept is directed against idolatry, the worship of false gods, not against the arts of painting and sculpture.

Moreover, the heathen themselves, as I understand it, did not worship literally that which they believed or knew to be made with men’s hands. What, in their own minds, they worshiped was the daemon or numen which they believed entered into the image upon the sacerdotal consecration or conjuration, and afterwards dwelt therein. But as this belief was vain, and the numen or daemon supposed to inhabit the image was also vain, the sacred writers, who treat things as they really are, without taking notice of what is purely subjective, represent the heathen as literally worshiping gods of wood and stone fashioned by men’s hands; because there was, objectively, nothing else present to be worshiped. As no Christian believes that God, whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain, or that even a saint, can be shut up in an image made by human hands, or confounds the image with that which it represents, no Christian can, in keeping and honoring holy pictures and images, be in the least danger of falling into the sin of the heathen, or be regarded as violating the precept.