October 13, 2020. Restraint Urged in Use of Images.
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I find it somehow confusing to have two statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary present in a church. Is it the practice elsewhere? During this month of the rosary (October), the Legion of Mary lay group has brought in anther statue of the BVM and lighted candles have been placed there. Does it mean the other statue of permanent nature is not enough? Kindly assist if there are any texts to that effect. — E.C., Kabwe, Zambia
A: There is a general principle which is found in the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, “Sacrosanctum Concilium”:
“125. The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained. Nevertheless, their number should be moderate and their relative positions should reflect right order. For otherwise they may create confusion among the Christian people and foster devotion of doubtful orthodoxy.”
This principle was incorporated and specified in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:
“318. In the earthly liturgy, the Church participates, by a foretaste, in that heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem, toward which she journeys as a pilgrim, and where Christ is seated at the right hand of God; and by venerating the memory of the Saints, she hopes one day to have some share and fellowship with them. Thus, in sacred buildings images of the Lord, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saints, in accordance with most ancient tradition of the Church, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful and should be so arranged so as to lead the faithful toward the mysteries of faith celebrated there. Care should, therefore, be taken that their number not be increased indiscriminately, and moreover that they be arranged in proper order so as not to draw the attention of the faithful to themselves and away from the celebration itself. There should usually be only one image of any given Saint. Generally speaking, in the ornamentation and arrangement of a church, as far as images are concerned, provision should be made for the devotion of the entire community as well as for the beauty and dignity of the images.”
The U.S. bishops’ conference offers useful guidelines in its document “Built of Living Stones”:
“135. Reflecting the awareness of the Communion of Saints, the practice of incorporating symbols of the Trinity, images of Christ, the Blessed Mother, the angels, and the saints into the design of a church creates a source of devotion and prayer for a parish community and should be part of the design of the church. Images can be found in stained glass windows, on wall frescos and murals, and as statues and icons. Often these images depict scenes from the Bible or from the lives of the saints and can be a source of instruction and catechesis as well as devotion. Since the Eucharist unites the Body of Christ, including those who are not physically present, the use of images in the church reminds us that we are joined to all who have gone before us, as well as to those who now surround us.
“136. In choosing images and devotional art, parishes should be respectful of traditional iconography when it comes to the way sacred images are recognized and venerated by the faithful. However, they also should be mindful that the tradition is not limited to literal images. While Mary is the mother of Jesus, she is also an icon of the Church, a disciple of the Lord, a liberated and liberating woman. She is the Immaculate Conception, patroness of the United States, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of all America. Other symbols such as the crucifix, icons, or images of patron saints depicted in various ways can also draw us into the deeper realities of faith and hope as they connect us to the stories behind the image.
“137. The placement of images can be a challenge, especially when a number of cultural traditions are part of a single parish community and each has its own devotional life and practices. Restraint in the number and prominence of sacred images is encouraged to help people focus on the liturgical action that is celebrated in the church. Separate alcoves for statues or icons can display a variety of images through the year. Some parishes designate an area as the shrine for an image that is being venerated on a given day or for a period of time, such as the image of a saint on his or her feast day.
“138. It is important that the images in the church depict saints for whom devotion currently exists in the parish. It is particularly desirable that a significant image of the patron of the church be fittingly displayed, as well as an image of Mary, the Mother of God, as a fitting tribute to her unique role in the plan of salvation. As time passes and demographics change, saints who were once the object of veneration by many parishioners may at another time be venerated by only a few. When this happens, these images could be removed, provided sensitivity is shown with regard to the piety of the faithful and the impact on the building.”
I believe that the above guidelines are also useful outside of the United States.
We must also distinguish between types and kinds of images. The general principle that there be no more than one image of any given saint applies above all to images set up for the devotion of the faithful.
Historical images — for example, murals, mosaics or stained-glass windows which depict episodes in the life of a given saint — would not fall under this rule. Nor, obviously, would depictions of the mysteries of the rosary or other episodes of the history of salvation set up for devotional or catechetical purposes.
Also, the history of the particular building should be respected and treasured as far as reasonably possible. This might mean preserving some historical images that go against current practice.
The above guidelines make a wise suggestion of the disposition of a side chapel, alcove or other suitable place for the purpose of temporary seasonal devotions. Even though there is rightfully a permanent image of the Blessed Virgin in the parish, there can be several reasons why it might not be the best option for a seasonal devotion.
Some permanent images are located within the area of the sanctuary, and it is difficult for the faithful to approach it or light candles without disturbing the harmony of the sanctuary area itself.
On other occasions, the faithful might prefer an image of a particular advocation of the Blessed Mother than that of the parish. Thus, it is understandable that a group dedicated to praying the rosary would seek to set up an image of Our Lady of the Rosary, such as the image venerated in Pompei, during the month of October. In the same manner a novena leading up to the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe would naturally call for the presence of this miraculous image even if there is some other Marian image permanently set up in the church.
Thus, while observing a certain equilibrium, and avoiding anything that might be divisive rather than a source of Christian harmony, the use of temporary images set up for seasonal devotions is a pastoral possibility that may be adopted whenever it proves fruitful.