Picture of Martin Luther King Jr. in a Church

And More on Breast-beating

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ROME, NOV. 16, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Is it permitted to place a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. in the church proper during the time when the U.S. celebrates the holiday in his honor? Many times the picture is decorated and may even have one or more candles lit around it. This seems to violate Canon 1187 which states that only those saints and blessed which the Church has approved are to be venerated. This seems to be more common here in the U.S. I have even encountered this during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament when his picture was placed in the sanctuary near the altar with lit candles. — L.S., O’Fallon, Missouri

A: As you note, Canon 1187 is clear that «It is permitted to reverence through public veneration only those servants of God whom the authority of the Church has recorded in the list of the saints or the blessed.»

The reasons for this can be deduced from the canon that precedes it.

Canon 1186 states: «To foster the sanctification of the people of God, the Church commends to the special and filial reverence of the Christian faithful the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, Mother of God, whom Christ established as the mother of all people, and promotes the true and authentic veneration of the other saints whose example instructs the Christian faithful and whose intercession sustains them.»

Therefore the reason for public veneration of Mary and the saints is twofold: example and intercession.

When the Church reverences a person through public worship she thereby makes a statement that she holds, not only that the person is an example to others but also that that person is certainly in heaven and the faithful may pray so that the saint or blessed intercedes before God on their behalf.

In order to be assured that the said person can be thus reverenced, the Church carries out a stringent process that usually lasts several years.

Except in the case of martyrdom, which usually requires proof that the person’s death was primarily related to his or her Christian faith, it is first necessary to determine that the person in question can be presented as an example in all aspects of life. He or she has had to have lived the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity as well as the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance to a heroic degree.

If heroic virtues cannot be proved, then the cause does not proceed, and only after these have been declared do Church authorities commence the examination of any supposed miracles.

The miracle is used as a proof that the person can effectively intercede before God and obtain special graces. This is usually the final step before beatification.

In order to proceed to canonization or sainthood, proof of another miracle is required of all those declared blessed, including martyrs.

These conditions are so stringent that jumping the gun by publicly reverencing a person in anticipation of official approval can stop a beatification process in its tracks.

While many may be convinced that a particular non-Catholic is enjoying the beatific vision, the Church as such takes no official stand regarding his or her heavenly state. Nor does it initiate a canonization process for those who adhered to other creeds — not even in the case of those commonly esteemed to be martyrs of the faith as, for example, the Anglican companions of Uganda’s St. Charles Lwanga certainly were.

Thus no liturgical veneration may be attributed to non-Catholics and so their images should not be located in churches in any way that would cause confusion by implying that Catholics are solemnly affirming their blessed state or, what is more important, praying for their intercession.

This does not mean that exemplary figures of non-Catholics may not be admired by Catholics, or that their good deeds may not be extolled and recommended for imitation.

Given the details you describe as to how the image of Dr. King is decorated, it would appear that a real danger of confusion does exist. A more theologically appropriate means of honoring his memory should be found on a par with that offered to other similar historical figures graced by public holidays such as Lincoln and Washington.

There may be some rare occasions when a deceased person’s image may be temporarily placed in a Church.

Although it does not appear to be a widespread custom, on some occasions, especially if the cause of death was especially tragic, photos of a deceased person are placed near a casket or in some visible area if no mortal remains are present.

In such a case the reason is not veneration or reverence but a means of asking others to join in prayers for the soul of the deceased.

* * *

Follow-up: Breast-beating

Some readers expressed disappointment with my reply about striking the breast at the Lamb of God (Nov. 2) and I can understand this as it is a significant gesture for many.

However, my purpose in this column is to do my best to explain actual liturgical law, and that is what I did.

One reader even suggested that I contradicted myself. She writes: «If ‘striking one’s breast is a gesture implying penance and admission of sinfulness,’ as you stated in your answer, then it is totally appropriate — the Agnus Dei asks the Lord to have mercy on us, recognizing that we are sinners in need of His mercy.»

I do not believe that I contradicted myself for, as I mentioned previously, the «Lamb of God» is not strictly penitential from a liturgical point of view.

Our reader, however, does have a valid point.

If we ask whether the gesture of striking one’s breast at the Lamb of God is «appropriate» (rather than just a current liturgical norm) then I believe it could well be. For it is a gesture subject to several symbolic meanings that go beyond the strictly penitential.

The same could be said about the custom, still common in places, of striking the breast when the bell is rung at the consecration. Here the gesture does not just express unworthiness but also devotion and the realization that one is in the presence of a great mystery.

In Italy, such small acts of personal devotion realized by some members of the faithful are generally left undisturbed. I personally fail to see any pastoral benefits accruing by attempting to enforce a rigid uniformity in areas where the Church has made no prescription.

Thus there is a difference in the situation of catechists, who, while preparing children for Mass, should generally limit themselves to explaining the universal responses and gestures of the liturgy as well as the most common prayers of preparation and thanksgiving for before and after Mass, and that of parents and other family members who are free to inculcate other devotional expressions and attitudes that do not contradict the general norms.

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Readers may send questions to news@zenit.org. Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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