Catholicism and idolatry

Q. I was brought up in an evangelical Protestant church, and for most of my life I was taught that Catholics were guilty of praying to idols when they knelt before a statue of Jesus, Mary or the saints. As a Catholic, I know better, but I am still a little confused about the issue. Could you offer some clarification?

K.K., Buffalo, N.Y.

A. Here’s a reply from Msgr. M. Francis Mannion: 

Idolatry is the worship of false gods. I don’t see how kneeling before statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints represents idolatry. Christians believe in them as authentic figures of faith; they are not false gods. Although a squeamishness about portraying Christ and the great figures of faith always has been a feature of some Christian groups, the majority of Christians see such portrayal as helpful to faith.

In kneeling before a statue of Jesus in adoration or before a statue of Mary or a saint in veneration, Christians know that Christ and the saints aren’t present in these figures; rather, the statues call to mind Christ and the saints, who are in heaven yet part of the living Church on earth. Catholics do not worship and venerate plaster and paint, but what they represent.