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Ask a Franciscan: Why Catholics Love Art

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Are Statues Idols?

Q. Where does the Catholic Church stand on images of Christ, statues of saints, pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady of Guadalupe, etc.? Is it wrong for me to have these items in my home?

On one occasion my brother, who is not Catholic, and now belongs to an Assembly of God church, came to my house and saw my pictures, candle, images, etc., then proceeded to tell me that this was not right, that I was worshiping idols. I was very hurt by his comment but now I am left questioning. I know that our Church does not worship idols. Yet I would like some more information on what we believe.

A. When I was a young man, I read a story by Stephen Vincent Benét titled “By the Waters of Babylon.” The mood was one of a traveler finding the ruins of a previous civilization. Throughout the story the hero kept coming across an idol of the God Ashing. At story’s end, the reader discovers Benét has looked into the future and the city of New York, after some great catastrophe. The “idol” is simply the ruins of a bust of George Washington.

My point is simply that people can misinterpret, misconstrue and fail to understand what others are doing or have done.

The next time your brother criticizes your use of statues, or accuses you of idolatry, you might ask him if he has a picture of his wife or children in his wallet. If he says yes, ask him why he is worshiping them.

Or ask him if he thinks all those tourists going out to see the Statue of Liberty in New York, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., or the faces of the presidents on Mount Rushmore are guilty of idolatry.

Those statues, like pictures of George Washington in so many courthouses, are ways of honoring heroes from the past. They put us in touch with great people in our history. They become occasions for teaching children about the past and offering examples of great citizens.

Stained-glass windows, statues and paintings have long served these same purposes in the Church. Crucifixes and statues of the Good Shepherd or Sacred Heart remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice and love for us. Statues of Mary and the saints recall the heroism of the saints and suggest to us what we should strive to become.

They are occasions for telling the children of today about the real saints and heroes of the past, for telling children what it means to live out their faith and religion. To all of us they offer the occasion to reflect and pray on the action of God in our lives. They help us to better sentiments of piety, call upon us to express our own faith and love. In honoring the saint we honor God who has worked such good and holy things in and through the saint.

Tell Me about Indulgences

Q. I understand Vatican II changed the rules on indulgences and that there are only three ways to gain an indulgence. What is the basis of the Church’s authority to grant indulgences? Our Lord did not mention indulgences specifically to my knowledge. Are indulgences (for example, the Portiuncula Indulgence) presumably gained before the change by Vatican II still effective?

A. Pope Paul VI, in 1968 in the wake of Vatican II, did authorize new norms and a handbook, the Enchiridion of Indulgences. The authorized English edition was published by Catholic Book Publishing Company and is in its third edition under the title, Handbook of Indulgences: Norms and Grants.

All general grants and ordinances concerning indulgences that were not included in the new Enchiridion were revoked by Pope Paul VI’s action. A Catholic Catechism defines an indulgence as a remission of temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. The faithful Christian, who is duly disposed, may gain an indulgence under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.

The power of the pope to grant indulgences rests on the power of the keys—the power given him by Jesus to bind and loose.

In granting indulgences the pope draws on the treasury of the Church—the superabundant merits of Jesus and the merits of the communion of saints.

It is not quite correct to say there are only three ways to gain an indulgence. The Enchiridion established three general grants followed by other grants attached to particular pious works or prayers. General grants of partial indulgences are made: 1) for those who raise their minds to God with humble confidence in the performance of their duties and in bearing the trials of life and add some pious invocation; 2) to the faithful who give of themselves or their goods in the spirit of faith and mercy to serve their brothers and sisters in need; and 3) to the faithful who, in the spirit of penance, voluntarily deprive themselves of what is licit and pleasing to them.

These general grants are followed by others attached to particular prayers and acts such as reading the Scriptures, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and prayer before a crucifix.

Indulgences obtained under the norms before Paul VI’s new norms remain valid. But now you can obtain indulgences only under the new norms. Since you asked about it in particular, the Portiuncula Indulgence attached to a visit to a parish or quasi-parish or cathedral church on August 2 is contained in the new Enchiridion. Besides a visit the person must say an Our Father, the Creed and some other prayer for the intention of the Holy Father.

For this there is a plenary indulgence if the person is completely detached from sin. Otherwise there is a partial indulgence in accord with the individual’s dispositions. Also part of the usual conditions attached to the reception of a plenary indulgence are the reception of the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

Indulgences and the ‘Fisherman’s Rod’

Q. Many years ago, as a young priest traveling in Europe, I encountered an unusual ceremony and have never seen it since. Outside the confessional, in a semicircular formation, knelt the penitents, one after the other, as they came from receiving absolution. A long, slender pole was affixed to the confessor’s Dutch door. Periodically his hand would take the pole and move it randomly over the heads of the kneeling penitents, finally tapping one of them on the shoulder. With that, the selected penitent blessed himself and departed.

This procedure continued until all had been tapped and thereby dismissed. I was told that the pole was called the “Fisherman’s Rod” and served to indicate that an indulgence had been granted to the penitent, having performed his penance on his knees and patiently waited for the Rod to send him on his way.

Can you tell me where and when this practice was commonly in vogue?

A. To answer your question, I called Father Cyprian Berens, O.F.M., who spent some years as a confessor at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.

Father Cyprian told me that until the time of Pope Paul VI, there was attached to the doors of all the confessionals in the four major basilicas a rod that looked something like a fishing pole.

Confessors in these basilicas have their faculties from the Apostolic Penitentiary which has charge of all matters of the internal forum—both sacramental and non-sacramental. Among its responsibilities is directing things concerning the usage and granting of indulgences.

Confessors in these basilicas were able to grant an indulgence to anyone who asked for it by kneeling outside the confessional and waiting for a tap on the head or shoulders with the rod.

Among explanations of the practices were ideas that the one asking the indulgence sought a kind of spiritual knighthood or wanted to offer himself or herself to God in the spirit of sacrifice.

Under Pope Paul VI, there was a complete revision of indulgences and a new Enchiridion of Indulgences was published.

Father Cyprian speculated that this practice in the basilicas had become a kind of curiosity or novelty and that this became a reason for eliminating it.

The Heroic Act

Q. Many years ago, as a child of 11 or 12, I read a book on Fatima. At the end of the book was a pledge called a heroic act where persons pledged to give all the indulgences they earned during life and after death to the souls in purgatory.

I made this act and I have never seen anything about this since and I can’t find the book it was in. Do you know anything about it?

A. There is indeed a practice of piety called the Heroic Act. It has been encouraged by the Theatine Order. It is called heroic because of the complete selflessness involved in the practice. According to T.C. O’Brien in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion, persons who make the heroic act offer to God any and all indulgences they might gain, as well as all expiatory works and all prayers offered for them after death.

The Heroic Act should not be confused with Saint Louis Marie de Montfort’s act of total consecration to Mary or the offering made by “victim souls.”

De Montfort urged that the most perfect devotion to Mary was in consecrating self entirely to her, and Jesus through her, becoming a slave of Mary. That means completely consecrating self to Mary for all eternity—body, soul, spiritual and material possessions, the atoning value and merits of our good actions and the right to dispose of them, past, present and future.

The act of “victim souls” is to accept suffering without reservation in union with the self-offering of Christ in atonement for sin. O’Brien remarks that this offering is not to be made lightly or easily permitted by a spiritual director.

I would say the same of the Heroic Act and total consecration. They should not be spur-of-the-moment actions but thoughtful and mature acts.

‘Asleep in Christ’?

Q. In my Bible readings I come across passages about “those asleep in Christ.” What is meant by those “asleep in Christ?”

A. Both the expressions “asleep in Christ” and “fallen asleep” are found in Paul’s letters. Whether you wish to call “sleeping” or “asleep in Christ” a metaphor or a euphemism, it means “dead.”

The Oxford Annotated Bible (Revised Standard Version translation) says in a footnote to 1 Thessalonians 4:14, “those who are asleep” was a common metaphor for the dead. The footnote refers to the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, verses 11-16, where Jesus dialogues with the apostles about the death of Lazarus. In verse 11, Jesus tells the disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” When the apostles fail to understand him, verse 14 tells us, “Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead….’”

We ourselves use various euphemisms to talk about the dead and death itself. We speak about those who “rest” in Christ or peace, and we say “the Lord came and took her.” “Asleep in Christ” would also help convey the idea that it isn’t the end of everything when Christians die. Christians have the resurrection and life afterward to anticipate.