Misconceptions about Iconoclasm

Griffin Wacker, Contributing Writer

As a freshman and a transfer this semester I have had to make friends very quickly. Naturally, when making new friends one discusses similarities and differences between them; one of the differences constantly discussed is the fact that I am one of the few Catholics on campus. In their curiosity they ask me, “Why does the Catholic Church hate gays? Why do Catholics worship Mary?” They assume that the Catholic faith preaches this doctrine. Instead they should be asking, “Does Catholic doctrine state the Mary is divine? Why do Catholics believe contraception is sinful?” These questions are inquisitive rather than assuming.

In order to clear up some misconceptions about the Catholic faith, let’s talk about icons, statues and other artwork to represent Jesus, Mary, and other saints. Icons are not to be confused with idols, which is something that is not God but is divinized like God (CCC 2113). Throughout my life and recently at Mississippi College, I have been asked, “Why do you Catholics worship statues, when Exodus clearly says not to,” referring to Exodus 20:4-5. However, the exert clearly states that we can’t have “idols” (Ex 20:4). The question would carry some credence if idols and icons were the same, but since they’re not, it doesn’t.

Catholics use icons for three purposes: as a reminder, as an inspiration, and as a source of education. In our humanity, we sometimes forget to set time aside for God. These murals, portraits, and statues act as post-it notes to ourselves to give God time from our day. While others may state that you would only need the figure of a cross to do this, to me the message of just a cross is very limited, therefore making your prayers limited. When I see a cross I think, “Alleluia, Christ has risen,” and I become overwhelmed with joy. In turn, my prayers are joyous and celebratory. All of which is fine, but there are numerous types of prayers. When one see’s a crucifix, they tend to think of the Passion rather than the Resurrection, which invokes a whole other set of emotions, in turn “inspires new expressions of the same basic form of prayer” (CCC 2644).

We as humans are incredibly foolish, and sometimes, even when we remember to pray, we choose not to because we think there’s no point, that nothing will come of it. When we see representations of the Virgin Mary, Saint Peter, Saint Padre Pio, Saint Maximillian Kolbe, and others, it reminds us of the point and inspires us to live better lives like them. All of them had tough times, doubts, and hardships. Christians can relate to that, and it inspires them to live like the saints. Catholics then either pray to God, ask the saint that reminded them to pray for us, or sometimes both. Catholics use these representations of the saints because: what’s the point of an inspiration if you’re not going to use it? Does the Christian community not do the same with movies and books today? Movies are watched; books are read, hoping the stories inspire us and give us a closer relationship with God. Is a picture or statue nothing more than a cover for the book? And the story the person’s life?

The third purpose that Catholics use icons for is to educate. Since the Bible did not get translated into vernacular languages until the early 1500s, artwork was used to teach what the Bible said, its interpretations, and its characters. Common images in statues or artwork are the dove, representing the Holy Spirit, and keys, referring to the “keys of the kingdom” Jesus gave Peter in Mathew 16:18. It was a tool against illiteracy. Today, Catholic educators use this same tool with young children and sometimes just to explain something that can’t quite be put into words.

In conclusion, Catholics do not “worship statues,” nor do Catholics worship what the statures represent – except if the statue is that of Jesus. Catholics use statues and other art pieces as post-it notes to remind themselves to pray. Everyone needs a little help with that. Catholics use icons as inspirations. If you’ve never heard or read anything about Padre Pio, do it as soon as you can. That was a man close to God and an inspiration to all. Catholics use icons as visual aids in learning about the Bible and the philosophies surrounding God. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, how many words is a sculpture worth?

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