In a society who doesn’t bat an eyelash when it comes to inaugurating “halls of fame” for the heroes of our age (musicians, actors, sports players, etc), why are Catholics looked upon with suspicion and ridicule when it comes to the veneration of the saints? Why is it that we cover our walls with of our favorite celebrities and use our social media to unceasingly announce their “glory,” and without a second thought we ridicule those who venerate (never worship!) the saints?
The clearest example of this can be seen every time some popular artist or celebrity dies. Prince Rogers Nelson died at his Paisley Park recording studio and home Minnesota, on April 21, 2016, at the age of 57. A world-renown musician, Prince’s death has sparked a huge reaction amongst fans and celebrates. In addition to countless news articles and celebrity tweets, over 4 million copies of his albums have been sold in the U.S. just in the last two weeks. Social media, along with society in general, continues to mourn and grieve over the loss of this artist who apparently meant so much to them.
To explain this point, I will outline 10 ways that people honored Prince (as well as other recently deceased artists), each of which bears a natural kinship to the Catholic practice of venerating saints:
Most people have a certain level of respect for an individual when they have recently passed away. For example, if anyone makes jokes about this individual’s death shortly afterward, one may be heard to retort “TOO SOON”, though that artist may have in fact “danced with death” their whole career. Yet, when it comes to music and Hollywood, there is a special kind of gentleness of tone that certain individuals may not afford anyone else. These individuals often build shrines, speak about their influence, and even wax poetic about the meaning and substance of their life.
I still remember when heavy metal legend Ronnie James Dio died, and many of his admirers talked of his kindness and good deeds. Indeed, one does not need to appear before a saint in a cathedral to see a vigil candle lit in the name of a beloved popular figure. Simply look at the awe and “holy fear” with which the devotee speaks of their favorite artist, whoever they are, and you will see that very same instinct. In this famous scene from the film Wayne’s World, the lead characters demonstrate just how naturally we fall into religious postures, even when the figure seems to evoke quite the opposite of that instinct.
This example isn’t so much about how individuals honor the popular figure as it is about how the popular figure seeks to define (or re-define) himself. Whether in Hollywood or in the religious life, it is hardly extraordinary to change your name. In the case of the religious figure, their name is changed often to embody some virtue or figure they wish to imitate. When one is canonized such a figure frequently becomes synonymous with their place of origin, or with some virtue (and sometimes even a flaw) that captures the larger narrative of their life.
As it relates to the artist Prince, Prince was indeed his given name (though interestingly it was given to him by his father who had previously taken this as his own stage name). In any case, this was not enough for Prince, for at some point in his career he chose to change his name (so to speak) to an unutterable symbol. So “sublime” was this particular performer (apparently) that no word could capture his essence. Beyond “The Artist”, as he was sometimes called, there are countless other examples of people taking stage names for all of the same reasons that religious figures do (Sting, Bono, Marilyn Monroe, Snoop Lion, David Bowie, Madonna, etc.), though their reasons for doing so are usually considerably less humble, say, than consecrated Religious who take on a saint’s name upon profession of vows.
While praying for the dead is associated with the souls in Purgatory, these prayers are nevertheless offered for those whom we hope will eventually be in heaven, so it applies at least in that sense. Granted, this is only a rudimentary form of prayer, almost a subconscious aspiration offered by admirers of the particular celebrity, but it is prayer nevertheless.
In the town where I reside, on the day Prince died, there was a neon billboard that prayed that Prince would “RIP”, or rather, “rest in peace”. The “RIP” prayer is basically a universal way that people can express their desire for eternal peace for someone without explicitly saying it (whatever your religion or irreligion). Perhaps this is because the acronym “R.I.P.” feels a little less Catholic, thus the rest of the world is a little more OK with it. I won’t tell them (or maybe I will), that it comes from the Latin requiescat in pace… which is a Catholic prayer for the dead.
As is this case when many popular artists die, there’s a natural tendency to idealize their lives. “Santo subito” is the Latin phrase which declares, on behalf of the sensus fidelium and the vox populi, that this person warrants immediate canonization. Obviously the standard is very different in the eyes of the world as to what that means (virtue is not always high on the list), but nevertheless there is a similar attitude of indefectibility that we impute to the artist. There’s almost a kind of general absolution that is granted to him or her, especially with regard to any indiscretions committed (i.e., questionable behaviors or lifestyle choices).
They are afforded this because of all the good we ascribe to their particular talents. But the truth is, the religious saint has a much greater claim to this “absolution,” even though the world tends to see it in reverse. Below is a brief clip from the funeral of Whitney Houston, a beautiful singer who tragically overdosed on drugs. Kevin Costner eulogizes her as if reflecting on the Blessed Virgin Mary. I point this out not as a mockery, but in order to indicate how natural is this instinct to canonize, whether it be a deceased loved one or a celebrity.
Whether one is talking about a famous figure like Princess Diana, or someone like Blessed Mother Teresa, the term “icon” is often used interchangeably. In the strictly religious sense, it refers, at least artistically speaking, to a specific type of art that serves as a window to the divine. But in the broader sense, it refers to anyone who seems to have transcended their own historical time period.
The world uses this term as a kind of catch-all for anyone whose name has endured. Coupled with their memory, there is also usually some kind of iconic photo that accompanies their fame, not to mention an image which is ultimately emblematic of their success, and seems to embody what is most memorable about them. Prince is no exception on this front, for there are any number of “iconic” symbols, colors, and images associated with him.
Without getting into the different classes of relics that one can possess, it is more than a little easy to see the connection between the Catholic mentality surrounding relics, and the larger attitude of society surrounding objects connected to significant events and people. Whether you’re talking about sports, film, music, or even loved ones, objects have an incredible power over us to the extent that they are connected to our favorite figures. Indeed, no one would call it strange to kiss a picture of someone we love, or even someone who we long to be loved by. No one would deny that they have at least at one point kept an object, ticket, article of clothing, as a keepsake because it connected us to a memory of a person in whose presence we felt a kind of glory. I can only imagine all of the Prince “relics” that are out there now.
While the Catholic faith takes it a step further by directly connecting those objects to the divine realm, this kind of higher devotion seems to be a natural extension of the former. One can even find direct examples of this in Scripture, whether in the Old or New Testament, all the way from the healing bones of the prophet Elisha, to the miraculous handkerchief of St. Paul. If we experience the power of some drumstick thrown into the crowd by a musician, how much more should we venerate the relics of one who is totally united to God in heaven?
Along with attempting to canonize these popular figures in the earthly sense, there is also a push by the vox populi to place him or her in the high heavens, bypassing just about every the Catholic criterion (which is founded on holiness). This could be seen most distinctly after the death of David Bowie. One particular meme quipped that God had finalized his “super-group”, for there had been a recent spate of popular musicians dying in a relatively short period of time. But, whatever the case, when artists like this die, people admit religion, if only as a kind of desire or aspiration, a way for that artist to live on in perpetuity. In some ways, this explains the seemingly paradoxical study that came out in the U.S. recently that showed that people hadn’t given up the belief in heaven per se, but they had stopped believing in God. I will leave to my readership to write the punchline on that one.
When we become enamored with a particular artist or athlete, we often find ourselves scooping up every little detail about them, real or imagined. When it comes to the lives of the saints, the Church has sometimes been criticized for conflating the truth with reality. Yet this is not only a Church problem, this is rather a human tendency anytime when we encounter someone who is in our sight remarkable. Just look at how stories are sometimes framed surrounding Pope Francis (for good and ill), especially surrounding the manner in which he bucks the traditional narrative of a pope. My favorite story came with this particular headline: “Pope Francis Picks Up Hitchhiker”.
From such a headline, any number of magnificent images and stories might arise. What was the story on the ground? A priest friend of his from Argentina happened to be in St. Peter’s Square as the pope was making his way through the crowd, so the pope gave this priest a ride in the “popemobile.” This is not to say that extraordinary things do not happen, but rather that even the ordinary becomes extraordinary in the presence of a beloved figure.
A few days after the death of Prince, there was an article in a music publication which successfully explained from a secular perspective – and provided justification for – why Catholics choose to venerate and mourn people whom we’ve never met. According to this article, we do so because the artist is able to speak to our collective psyche; they give voice to our inexpressible desires and longings. Obviously, one can quibble with the extent to which Prince does that in the positive sense, but what can’t be argued is that the true saint does appeal to us for just that reason. He or she is able to make living a life of holiness that much more intelligible to us. If we struggle in understanding God’s will for our own lives, or the meaning behind the world as we experience it, the iconic figures, for whatever reason, seem to be apt translators. They make it easier not only to understand life but to fathom the beauty therein even in the midst of sorrow. And so when they die (if they were alive in our lifetime), we feel sorrow because they made us feel, not only closer to the divine, but closer to ourselves.
Perhaps one of the most perplexing things, at least from an outsider’s perspective, is why Catholics ask “dead people” to pray for them. As a Catholic, I cannot help but point out that saints are not zombies, nor are they the spirits of the damned, but rather those who live forever in Christ, or, as Jesus put it; “I am the God of the living, not of the dead” Matthew 22:32. In any case, what can the death of a musician like Prince teach us about this particular Catholic instinct, for I do not know many individuals who are apt to say (while chanting); “David Bowie, ora pro nobis.”
The dictionary defines intercession as “the action of intervening on behalf of another”. Yet what is “intervening on behalf of another” if not gifting them hope in their hour of greatest need? How many individuals have found their calling through an inspired writing or story of some saintly individual? How many people have felt saved by a song that came on the radio at just the right time, or by an artist that seemed to translate the inarticulate groanings that lie deep in our hearts. On the road to Auschwitz, and in the heart of a starvation bunker, St. Maximilian managed to get his fellow inmates to sing songs of hope that they might face death with Christ-like courage. Don’t tell me that intercession is only about praying to “dead people”; it is anyone in heaven, on the earth, or in between that gives us strength to run the race and finish it!
As is the case with everything else on this list, we can see that the Church does not simply leave our worldly instincts as they are, but rather elevates them to their highest form, for “grace builds on nature, it doesn’t destroy it.” Both may not resemble each other precisely in practice, but they certainly do in the order of desire.
A final example of this parallel can be seen in Chris Carter’s Hall of Fame induction speech. In the speech, he even connects the Hall of Fame with the heavenly realm. Yet what is most moving about his approach is that the speech is only secondarily about himself. First and foremost, the speech is about all the people who made him great, all those who challenged him and who saw greatness in him. The speech itself is a kind of sermon on the communion of saints.
As a final thought, one of the biggest mistakes that Catholics make in attempting to explain the Faith to others is that they often tend to use language and concepts that are foreign to the listener. Indeed, they are much like the scientist seemingly incapable of using anything other than abstract scientific terms to explain themselves.
The challenge of the evangelist is something more personal and empathetic than all that. They have to stand outside of themselves and imagine what the Faith might sound like to someone who has never heard it before. In practicing empathy in this regard, they can then begin to help the other individual to truly comprehend the beauty of the Faith from their own perspective. The question is, how does one go about this?
Simply put, the best way to accomplish successful evangelization is not by becoming more “spiritual” in your explanation, but rather by being more down to the earth. The trick is to realize that the heavens have already spoken. It is now our job to translate and make those ideas incarnate. The good news about all this is that we do not have to re-invent the wheel. Not only are there good apologists out there, but even better, we have our own personal experience. The world already imitates in a secular way what the Church expresses in theological terms.
The doctrines of the Catholic Faith are fundamentally the doctrines of humanity, albeit infused with a supernatural significance (or, rather, their deeper significance). Hence, if you ever want to know how to explain the Catholic Faith to anyone, simply start by observing a man and how he reacts to those things which he deems to be the most essential. In other words, he may not value what we value, but he will nevertheless ultimately go about those things the similar way.
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