One of those things I remember hearing as a child was, "Catholics worship statues", and from watching the movies that's certainly how it appeared. The even sadder part was that I remember asking a Catholic I knew to explain it, and they couldn't. Nowadays if someone asks me why are there statues and icons in Churches, I respond simply, "Doesn't everybody have family pictures and keepsakes in their home?" As a matter of fact I would find it odd, if I walked into a house and there were no pictures of anybody.
These days I'm back at St. Augustine's and today is the feast day of St. Augustine. Yesterday was his mother, St. Monica. All of which gives us a chance to stop and reflect on why churches are named for people, a uniquely Christian thing to do.
To understand why we do it, we have to go back to 313, the Edict of Milan, when Christianity was allowed to come out of hiding. Christians began to build places for public worship, and a favorite place would be the grave/tomb of a martyr. The emperor Constantine sheared off the top of a hill and built the original St. Peter's over the tomb of Peter, the Apostle. Christians did this because we believe in the resurrection of the body, and so we treat the body with reverence in life and in death.
As time went on and martyrdom became less frequent the same sign of respect was shone to other kinds of saints. The part of a saint any church would have also became smaller. Even into the 20th century, Catholic Churches would have a small relics, usually a bone chip, in the altar stone — a link to the holy men and women who have gone before us.
No we do not worship these people. We worship God. But we also do not believe that they are "dead and gone." Nor do we believe that they forget about us when they make it to heaven. We remain connected as the one body of Christ. And we can talk to them, and ask them to intercede for us, because they are in God's presence. Why wouldn't we?
If your parish church is named for a saint, what is your relationship to that saint? How much do you know about him/her? When did you last ask him/ her to intercede for someone. If calling it praying to saints makes you uncomfortable, then think of it as a chat with and old friend. Often for preaching I will turn to St. Paul, and not just read his letters in the Bible but ask him to help me truly understand what he wrote. Again, why not?
Today as I celebrate with the people of St. Augustine Parish this day in honor of their patron I am reminded that there are many great quotes from St. Augustine but among my favorites is:
I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but rather
I believe so that I might understand.