by Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.
Some years ago, Father Andrew Greeley wrote an interesting book entitled The
Catholic Imagination. Through researching the differences in the ways that that Catholics
and fundamentalists approach God, Greeley found an important distinction: Catholics see
God as immanent (existing or remaining within, nearby and touchable), while other
Christian denominations see God more as eminent (towering or standing out above
others, distant and untouchable). It looks like a minor distinction because both words
sound and seem so similar. But we think of God in our midst, close by and in easy reach,
and others experience God as a distant observer. This distinction explains why we Catholics
have so much “stuff” as part of our life and worship. Far from seeing material
things as getting in the way of God, they remind us of God, draw us to God and give us
a “connection” to God within our physical and emotional lives.
Just think for a moment of the gestures we use. The Sign of the Cross
is the simplest act of faith in the Trinity and usually identifies a person as a Catholic.
That simple movement of our hands and arms says a great deal about who we are. But a word
of caution: The Sign of the Cross, or any sacramental, is not magic. It won’t raise
your batting or free-throw average. And above all, for you golfers out there, please don’t
make the sign of the cross while standing over the 18th hole while putting to win the round.
Your partner will be embarrassed, your opponents will demand a two-stroke penalty and,
worst of all, what if you miss the putt? It has been said that although God’s name
is frequently used on the golf course, he is fortunately out of earshot.
At the beginning of the Gospel at every Mass, we also make a little
Sign of the Cross on our forehead, our lips and our chest. It is a beautiful symbol that
includes the intention, “Lord, may your holy Gospel be on my mind, in my heart and
on my lips.”
Incense is symbolic of two things: our prayers rising to God and a sign
of blessing and respect. At a funeral Mass, when the priest blesses the body or the cremains,
it is a sign of respect for the body of the person who was so dear to us. If the person
were a parent, from this body came life. It reminds us of how Mary Magdalene and the other
women went to the tomb of Jesus with oil and spices to anoint the body of Jesus, which
they expected to find. It was their way of expressing love and respect for Jesus.
Holy water reminds of us the cleansing power of God’s love and
forgiveness. Oil used in the sacraments has always been seen as a means and a symbol of
healing the body and spirit. Candles or votive lights are burned as a symbol of our own
wish to give ourselves to God. When people leave flowers at a graveside or decorate the
grave on an anniversary, it is not merely decoration. Those flowers represent individuals'
leaving something of themselves by the resting places of their loved ones.
A medal or scapular worn around the neck is also a reminder of who we
are and our faith. At a funeral, when the white pall is placed on the casket, it speaks
of the white baptismal garment the person received as an infant at his or her Baptism many
decades before. The prayer at the time of Baptism ends, “…and with your family
and friends to help you, take this garment with you unstained into eternal life.” It
is the family who places the white pall on the casket, thus fulfilling that hopeful prayer
made many, many years ago.
Statues frighten some people who don’t understand that we are not “worshipping” them.
They are only reminders of the saintsmen and women of great holinessand how
God worked so powerfully through their lives. Even nations have statues of their founders
and great leaders.
Sacramentals are part and parcel of our faith. However, they are only
aids in the expression of our beliefs. There is nothing magical about them, nor can any
sacramental come close to the importance and significance of the seven sacraments as signs
of God’s grace.
respond to Friar Jacks musings on Why
St. Francis Belongs on the Birdbath.
Dear Friar Jack: Thank you for your wonderful column on St. Francis.
We dont have a statue of St. Francis in our garden, but we have one in our kitty
cemetery. When my daughters cat died, she comforted herself with the fact that Nicholas
Ivan had gone to be with St. Francis where he would eat his favorite cat food
and play with St. Francis all day. That sounded good to us and it still does today. Thanks
Dear Terry: I like your daughters perspective on a heaven
for pets. Although the Church does not have a clear teaching on animals in the afterlife,
we can find many comforting hints and clues in the Bible, in our Christian practice and
in the life of St. Francis that Gods saving love reaches out to all creatures. I
invite you to read my essay on this point: "Will
I See My Little Doggy in Heaven?" Friar Jack
Dear Friar Jack: Our statue of St. Francis is in our front garden.
I had to smile when I read your line: Francis was in awe of the swallow and cricket
and rabbit. There has been a cricket in the area for the last few days and I know
St. Francis has enjoyed his joyful noise as much as we have. Thanks for your words. Cathy
Dear Friar Jack: Thank you for your inspirational words regarding
St. Francis of Assisi. I am a Catholic convert joining my husband in our faith. But even
as a Protestant I felt a kinship with St. Francis. I have always loved nature and all of
Gods creatures. They are the true innocents in all of Gods creation. I feel
closer to God when I am in the woods or walking through beautiful gardens. I always have
an answer to anyone who asks me about St. Francis and the birdbath. We have two dogs, and
I bought St. Francis medals and sewed them on their collars for protection. St. Francis
is very close and dear to me. Thank you. Sherry
Dear Friar Jack: A shrine of St. Francis has been in my garden
for almost 40 years. He now lives with us in Hawaii. What a blessing to look out at Gods
creation here and see our beloved St. Francis there as well. Carol
Dear Friar Jack: Your essay about the statues of St. Francis in
birdbaths made my day. I agree that Francis belongs to the lowbrow and the
birds. I have birds (and other pets) and have always prayed to St. Francis for their health
and safety. I also have a charming Peruvian clay statue of St. Clare with birds all over
her, and she is actually letting one of the birds eat from her mouth. Thanks for the sweet
Dear Cathy, Sherry, Carol, Sue and many others who took the time to
write: I appreciate the great love you have shown for Francis and Clare as well as
for you love and respect toward all of God's creatures. You have made your own the wonderful
spirit of St. Francis. Friar Jack
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