October 17, 2005


How can gestures and objects remind us of God?
What is the Sign of the Cross?
How are incense, oil and holy water symbolic?
How do medals and statues remind us of our faith?

Friar Jack’s Inbox:

Readers reflect on Friar Jack’s musings

Catechism Quiz

by Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.

How can gestures and objects remind us of God?

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.

What is the Sign of the Cross?

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.”

How are incense, oil and holy water symbolic?

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.

How do medals and statues remind us of our faith?

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 saints—men and women of great holiness—and 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.

Friar Jack’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jack’s musings on “Why St. Francis Belongs on the Birdbath.

Dear Friar Jack: Thank you for your wonderful column on St. Francis. We don’t have a statue of St. Francis in our garden, but we have one in our kitty cemetery. When my daughter’s 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 again! Terry

Dear Terry: I like your daughter’s 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 God’s 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 God’s creatures. They are the true innocents in all of God’s 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 God’s 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 thoughts. Sue

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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