Statues depicting Jesus and Mary, the saints and angels are fixtures in most Catholic churches.
Even so, some people misunderstand why statues — especially those of saints — have such a prominent place in Catholic life, according to Father Michael Costanzo, assistant professor of religious studies at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford. Some non-Catholics even believe that Catholics worship the statues or the people they depict, which the priest emphasized is not true.
"It is not the official belief of the Catholic Church nor the practice of the church," he said. "Only God is worshipped. Saints are humans."
Father Costanzo said statues of saints are placed in Catholic churches because humans perceive and understand things through their senses. Looking at the statue of a saint helps Catholics remember and reflect on the saint’s life in the same way photographs help us remember family members and loved ones, he said.
Saints are meant to be venerated and admired as people who lived holy lives, said Father Costanzo, who teaches a course about them at St. John Fisher.
The word "saints" has been used for a long time, although it was originally used in a different context, Father Costanzo said. In the early days of Christianity, all of the people who converted to Christianity were known as saints. Members of the church are still collectively called the communion of saints, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
These early saints weren’t seen as icons, but that soon began to change.
"When the first Christians were martyred, people began to venerate them because they understood (the martyrs) … gave their lives for Christ," Father Costanzo said.
After the persecution of Christians stopped, Christians instead began venerating fellow Christians who lived particularly holy, heroic lives, he said. Eventually the church developed a formal process called canonization for declaring a person a saint.
Through this process the church investigates a person’s past to see if he or she lived a holy life, and whether God performed any miracles through his or her intercession, Father Costanzo said. A person is declared venerable after the first phase of the process and blessed after the second. After the third and final step, the person is declared a saint and added to the church’s official canon, or listing, of saints.