We have already looked at the first commandment that says “I am the Lord your God: you shall not have strange gods before me.” Included under this commandment is the prohibition of idols and setting up of images. Yet, the Catholic Faith expresses belief in the intercession of the saints and the practice of the faith legitimately includes the veneration of saints themselves, the relics of the saints, and the use of sacred images. How do we rightly understand this veneration of saints and the use of images and still keep the commandment.
In The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, Lesson 17 expresses that such veneration of saints, relics, and images aids us in being drawn closer to God, especially through the intercession of the saints. Acknowledging that God alone is to be worshiped, the saints are understood as ones who help us by their interceding with God for us. When we pray “to” the saints, we mean to ask them for help (just as we ask one another for prayers and pray together with others for a common intention). Such prayer is therefore not directed to the saint as though they themselves are the source of the answer of prayer. Rather, in our directing of prayer toward a saint we are conscious that we are asking them to go to God for us, as they are in perfect communion with God and lack no access to God – whereas we on earth remain limited in our access to God due to our fallen nature.
As for relics, these items (whether actual parts of the body of the saint, called “first class relics,” or clothing or other articles that were used by the particular saint, called “second class relics”) invite our honor as having been of the saint in their holiness, inviting us to ask their intercession while aiding us in our human limitation to acknowledge both their holiness in this life and their eternal nearness to God in heaven. Likewise, religious images (whether they be images of Jesus, the saints, or of any of the holy mysteries) invite our honor according to what is signified by the image; thus, we honor (and worship) Jesus himself with the aid of a statue of Jesus, a crucifix, or painting of Him; we are able to call upon the help of the saints through images of them or relics of them. These images and objects themselves are never worshiped; the objects simply facilitate right worship of God and right honor of the saints as intercessors and models for us.
It is important the we understand “how” such is permissible, minding the prohibition of idols and images in the first commandment. Simply put, God Himself wills to take on our human nature in the person of Jesus. Likewise, God wills to give His life to us through perceptible and created things in the sacraments (as we will study in greater detail later). Accordingly, God wills that we are able to receive Him and truly respond in worship to Him through images which are perceptible – not as worship of the objects/images themselves (with the exception of the Eucharist as a sacrament of His Real Presence), but as a passing through the object/image to He that is portrayed – whether it is Jesus who is to be worshiped, or the saint through whom we ask to be aided in prayer and worship. As a simpler example: think of the portraits of your loved ones displayed in your home: it is not the picture (composed of paper and ink) that you love; it is the person of whom you are reminded by the paper and ink that you love, facilitated by the picture. So too in our use of relics and images it is God who can be more greatly worshiped by our being reminded of Him/drawn toward Him through what we perceive.
Next time, we will look at the second commandment on keeping God’s name holy.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2129 – 2132 and 2141 offers teaching on images; while paragraphs 946-959 and 2683-2684 teach about the saints and their interceding for us.