Statues in Churches

Q. There has been a request by some parishioners for a statue of our Patron Saint to be placed in our church. There is already a statue of the Saint at the back of the church. Would it be appropriate to have another statue in the church and, if so, where should it be placed?
A. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal offers clear guidance regarding the number and placement of statues in the church. “In keeping with the Church’s very ancient tradition, images of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Saints may be displayed in sacred buildings for veneration by the faithful…. As a rule, there is to be only one image of any given Saint. In general, when dealing with the ornamentation and arrangement of a church, the criteria regarding images should be the devotion of the entire community as well as the beauty and dignity of the images.” (GIRM 2000 #318)
There are several questions then that need to be asked when responding to a request to place a statue in a church: Is there already a suitable image in the worship space? Does the proposed image reflect the spirituality of the parish as a whole? Do the qualities of this piece of art make it appropriate for placement in the church for public veneration?
In keeping with the General Instruction, a second image of the Saint should not be placed in the church. If the proposed new image is of superior quality, perhaps it could replace the original image. This will be problematic if parishioners have a particular affinity with or attachment to the existing statue or it was donated by current parishioners or their forebears. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy indicates that decisions about the quality of images for churches need to be made by people with expertise in art (CSL #126).
Some churches still have statues or other objects in central locations in the worship space, despite the fact that they are quite inappropriate in light of post-Vatican II theology and liturgical practice, because they have been donated by parishioners or their relatives. For this reason, it is important to exercise caution when accepting gifts of church furnishings or decoration.
With regard to the placement of statues and other images, the guiding principle is that all art and environment must serve the liturgy, not the other way around. The central liturgical symbols are the altar, font and lectern. Visual objects such as statues, banners and flowers should never draw attention away from these central symbols or from the sacred action of the assembly. Rather, they should contribute to the sacred mysteries being celebrated.
A balance needs to be struck between over-decorating the worship space and leaving it too bare. Blank walls, vast empty spaces and a complete absence of artwork will not open us up to the transcendent. On the other hand, an overabundance of statues and images can be disquieting and intrusive. It is also difficult to experience the power of a symbol when it is multiplied, and thereby diminished.
Rational and informed discussion can often uncover “win/win” solutions rather than “either/or” choices in situations such as this. Perhaps placing the statue in a separate shrine would be a way of accepting the gift without intruding on the worship space and the community.


Elizabeth Harrington