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Venerating JPII’s image: a reflection

By Fr. Russell A. Bantiles

 

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The unveiling and blessing of a life-sized brass statue of St. John Paul II last March 10, 2014 at the Saint John Paul II College of Davao has evoked in me two types of reaction: one intellectual , the other affective . On the first, it made me recall the true meaning of this deeply-rooted practice in the Catholic Church, which our brothers and sisters in Protestant denominations often do not comprehend well. On the latter, it deepened my devotion to and intimacy with this newly-canonized saint of the Catholic Church.

Catholics and Protestants agree that since God is pure spirit, no human depiction can truly represent Him. However, Christianity teaches that since the immaterial God took flesh in Jesus Christ, it is now possible to create depictions of Him in the human form. Belief in the Mystery of the Incarnation, therefore, is the basis for Christians to reinterpret the Old Testament prohibition against making images of God 1 . Depicting God (the Son of God, particularly) in human form is not anymore understood as idolatry (as Deuteronomy understands it, and, therefore, prohibits it), but merely as an act of honouring the person of the one being depicted by such image.

Here lies the reason behind the veneration of icons or images either of Jesus Christ, Mary or of any saint. When we, Catholics, venerate an image, our intention is to honour the person depicted, not the image itself. We don’t venerate – much less adore – the image itself, but the person that the image represents. The Eastern Orthodox Church’s teaching also expresses it clearly. To kiss an icon of Christ, in the Eastern Orthodox view, is to show love towards Christ Jesus Himself, not to mere wood and paint making up the physical substance of the icon. As St. Basil, the Great puts it, “The honour shown the image passes over to the archetype.”

The saint also illustrates this point by saying, “If I point to a statue of Caesar and ask you ‘Who is that?’, your answer would properly be, ‘It is Caesar.’ When you say such you do not mean that the stone itself is Caesar, but rather, the name and honour you ascribe to the statue passes over to the original, the archetype, Caesar himself.” 2 So it is with an icon or image.

St. John of Damascus also said that anyone who tries to destroy icons is the enemy of Christ, the Holy Mother of God and the saints, and is the defender of the Devil and his demons. Again, the reason for this is closely related to the Mystery of Incarnation mentioned above, so that attacks on icons typically have the effect of undermining or attacking the Incarnation of Jesus Himself. It is important to point out here that Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church conform to this teaching of icon veneration.

It is in this spirit that I venerate the brass statue of St. John Paul II unveiled and blessed in SJPIICD. Whenever I touch, kiss or bow in front of this image, I am not venerating (or adoring) the image itself, but the person of this Great Pope. The statue reminds me of his presence (It is as if the pope himself is present in the school.) Venerating his image (or the pope himself through his image) helps me grow in my intimacy with him. Lastly, it deepens my true sense of devotion to this saint.

Many people gave testimony of their strange feelings upon experiencing the presence of this saintly pope. I also had my share of these on several occasions. In October 2002, during the canonization of St. Josemaría Escrivá in Rome, I was blessed to get near Pope John Paul II as he toured the St. Peter’s Square on pope-mobile after the rites.

A few months later, on May 2003, the pope canonized five new Spanish saints in Madrid. I can still imagine his smiling face as he jokingly told a huge crowd of young people at the Air Base of Cuatro Vientos : “I give you my own witness: I was ordained a priest when I was 26 years old. Fifty-six years have passed since then. So how old is the Pope? Almost 83! A young man of 83!” Until now, I can still feel the force of his words as he assured us, especially the seminarians by then, “that it is worthwhile dedicating oneself to the cause of Christ and, out of love for him, devoting oneself to serving humanity. It is worthwhile to give one’s life for the Gospel and for one’s brothers and sisters!”

On the canonization day, May 4, how can I forget his loving gaze as he turned to me and a couple of my friends, shouting to him, “Vale la pena! Vale la pena!” (It’s worth the pain!)? And after the Mass, when the pope bade goodbye saying, “Farewell, Spain! Farewell, land of Mary! I carry you all in my heart”, I could still remember how I burst into tears for I knew that was the last time I would see him.

The veneration of his life-sized brass statue evokes in me these memories and makes me feel his presence once again. These memories, in turn, help me to relate more intimately with him, so that I could ask him with confidence some favours, big and small. I can’t forget how he helped me in 2007 raising considerable funds to save the Davao Catholic Herald from economic downfall through a film showing on his life.

Indeed, the veneration of his person through this life-sized brass icon in SJPIICD helps me deepen my devotion to him – a kind of devotion that the Church teaches, that is, to emulate his virtues and embrace his teachings, and to ask for his intercession on many personal and communitarian needs. Indeed, as a priest, my devotion to St. John Paul II helps me become steadfast in my struggles to remain faithful to my vocation and ministry.

1 Deuteronomy 4: 15-18: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore, watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.”

2 Price, S.R.F., Rituals and power: the Roman imperial cult in Asia Minor , (reprint, illustrated), Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 204-5. The author is paraphrasing St. Basil in Homily , 24: “on seeing an image of the king in the square, one does not allege that there are two kings”.