|ROME, 16 NOV. 2004 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: Is it permitted to place a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. in the
church proper during the time when the U.S. celebrates the holiday in
his honor? Many times the picture is decorated and may even have one or
more candles lit around it. This seems to violate Canon 1187 which
states that only those saints and blessed which the Church has approved
are to be venerated. This seems to be more common here in the U.S. I
have even encountered this during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament
when his picture was placed in the sanctuary near the altar with lit
L.S., O'Fallon, Missouri
A: As you note, Canon 1187 is clear that "It is permitted to reverence
through public veneration only those servants of God whom the authority
of the Church has recorded in the list of the saints or the blessed."
The reasons for this can be deduced from the canon that precedes it.
Canon 1186 states: "To foster the sanctification of the people of God,
the Church commends to the special and filial reverence of the Christian
faithful the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, Mother of God, whom Christ
established as the mother of all people, and promotes the true and
authentic veneration of the other saints whose example instructs the
Christian faithful and whose intercession sustains them."
Therefore the reason for public veneration of Mary and the saints is
twofold: example and intercession.
When the Church reverences a person through public worship she thereby
makes a statement that she holds, not only that the person is an example
to others but also that that person is certainly in heaven and the
faithful may pray so that the saint or blessed intercedes before God on
In order to be assured that the said person can be thus reverenced, the
Church carries out a stringent process that usually lasts several years.
Except in the case of martyrdom, which usually requires proof that the
person's death was primarily related to his or her Christian faith, it
is first necessary to determine that the person in question can be
presented as an example in all aspects of life. He or she has had to
have lived the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity as well as
the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance to a
If heroic virtues cannot be proved, then the cause does not proceed, and
only after these have been declared do Church authorities commence the
examination of any supposed miracles.
The miracle is used as a proof that the person can effectively intercede
before God and obtain special graces. This is usually the final step
In order to proceed to canonization or sainthood, proof of another
miracle is required of all those declared blessed, including martyrs.
These conditions are so stringent that jumping the gun by publicly
reverencing a person in anticipation of official approval can stop a
beatification process in its tracks.
While many may be convinced that a particular non-Catholic is enjoying
the beatific vision, the Church as such takes no official stand
regarding his or her heavenly state. Nor does it initiate a canonization
process for those who adhered to other creeds
not even in the case of those commonly esteemed to be martyrs of the
faith as, for example, the Anglican companions of Uganda's St. Charles
Lwanga certainly were.
Thus no liturgical veneration may be attributed to non-Catholics and so
their images should not be located in churches in any way that would
cause confusion by implying that Catholics are solemnly affirming their
blessed state or, what is more important, praying for their
This does not mean that exemplary figures of non-Catholics may not be
admired by Catholics, or that their good deeds may not be extolled and
recommended for imitation.
Given the details you describe as to how the image of Dr. King is
decorated, it would appear that a real danger of confusion does exist. A
more theologically appropriate means of honoring his memory should be
found on a par with that offered to other similar historical figures
graced by public holidays such as Lincoln and Washington.
There may be some rare occasions when a deceased person's image may be
temporarily placed in a Church.
Although it does not appear to be a widespread custom, on some
occasions, especially if the cause of death was especially tragic,
photos of a deceased person are placed near a casket or in some visible
area if no mortal remains are present.
In such a case the reason is not veneration or reverence but a means of
asking others to join in prayers for the soul of the deceased.
* * *
Follow-up: Picture of Martin Luther King Jr. [from 11-30-2004]
Pursuant on our reply about the liturgical veneration of non-Catholics
(Nov. 16) a reader from Lexington, Massachusetts, asked a further
"In regard to your response to the issue of the picture of Martin Luther
King Jr. in a Church, I seem to recall reading that Pope John Paul II
officially recognized Dr. King as a martyr of the faith a few years ago,
which was very unusual given that Dr. King was not Catholic. If my
recollection is correct, does that recognition by the Holy Father alter
your analysis at all? And is that recognition more than the 'commonly
esteemed' recognition of the Anglican companions of St. Charles Lwanga
as martyrs? If it is, then it seems to me that while it would clearly
remain inappropriate to publicly pray to Dr. King for purposes of
intercession, such papal recognition might imply the appropriateness of
publicly honoring him with a properly restrained display (perhaps a
photograph or painting without candles located some distance from the
sanctuary and tabernacle), for limited periods, in a Catholic Church."
I have been unable to find anything that could amount to an "official
recognition" of Dr. King as a martyr of the faith. A search of the
Vatican Web site produced just two mentions, neither of them by the Holy
The only significant mention was in a 1998 letter of the Ecumenical
Commission of the Central Committee of the Great Jubilee of the Year
2000 to the corresponding national commissions. Among other things this
letter proposed the formation of an ecumenical martyrology.
It stated: "The witness of faith given by Christians, even to the
shedding of their blood, deserves particular attention in view of the
Jubilee. This testimony has become the common inheritance of Catholics,
Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants (cf. TMA, 37). The Christian
community cannot allow the memory of these witnesses to Christ to
perish, for they demonstrate the presence and efficacy of the Holy
Spirit in the different Churches and ecclesial Communities. This voice
from the 'communio sanctorum' is louder and more convincing than the
elements of division (cf. TMA, 37). The memory of their testimony and
faith is a pledge of hope for the future. To this end, it could be
useful to compile a 'common calendar' or an 'ecumenical martyrology,' a
compendium of Christians
Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant
who have rendered testimony to Christ our Savior, sometimes even by
shedding their blood."
Among the practical suggestions of this letter was this one:
"In many places Christians have acknowledged in their midst martyrs and
exemplary confessors of faith, hope and charity
both men and women. Some of these, such as Francis of Assisi, Roublev,
Johann Sebastian Bach, Monsignor Romero, Elizabeth Seton, the martyr
Anuarite of Zaire, and Martin Luther King, have been for various reasons
recognized beyond confessional boundaries. Ecumenical groups could look
at the example of some of these witnesses with a view to identifying how
the work of the Holy Spirit can be distinguished in them and what their
role might be in the promotion of full communion."
The suggestion of preparing a common martyrology did not fully prosper.
But the idea of honoring non-Catholic martyrs and witnesses to the faith
in some way was taken up in an ecumenical service held at the Roman
Colosseum on the Third Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2000.
For this event, another group, the "New Martyrs" Commission within the
Committee for the Great Jubilee, issued an invitation not to forget and
to "update the Church's memory with the witness of all those people,
even those who are unknown, who 'risked their lives for the sake of our
Lord Jesus Christ' (Acts 15:26)."
They therefore provided a list of martyrs and witnesses to the faith
with representatives of many Christian denominations.
Dr. King's name was, I believe, included in this list. But he was not
explicitly mentioned at the event attended by the Holy Father. Nor is
the full list available among the documents published on the Holy See's
In the press conference presenting the ecumenical service, the
organizers went to pains to explain that this was not a canonization but
a duty of recognition and remembrance of the heroic sacrifice of many
In his homily on this occasion, the Holy Father further explored the
meaning of this event. We offer some excerpts:
"The experience of the martyrs and the witnesses to the faith is not a
characteristic only of the Church's beginnings but marks every epoch of
her history. In the 20th century, and maybe even more than in the first
period of Christianity, there have been a vast number of men and women
who bore witness to the faith through sufferings that were often heroic.
"How many Christians in the course of the 20th century, on every
continent, showed their love of Christ by the shedding of blood! They
underwent forms of persecution both old and new; they experienced hatred
and exclusion, violence and murder. Many countries of ancient Christian
tradition once more became lands where fidelity to the Gospel demanded a
very high price. In our century 'the witness to Christ borne even to the
shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics,
Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants' ('Tertio Millennio Adveniente,'
"And there are so many of them! They must not be forgotten, rather they
must be remembered and their lives documented. ...
"The presence of representatives of other Churches and Ecclesial
Communities gives today's celebration particular significance and
eloquence in this Jubilee Year 2000. It shows that the example of the
heroic witnesses to the faith is truly precious for all Christians. In
the 20th century, almost all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities have
known persecution, uniting Christians in their places of suffering and
making their shared sacrifice a sign of hope for times still to come.
"These brothers and sisters of ours in faith, to whom we turn today in
gratitude and veneration, stand as a vast panorama of Christian humanity
in the 20th century, a panorama of the Gospel of the Beatitudes, lived
even to the shedding of blood. ...
"'Whoever loves his life loses it and whoever hates his life in this
world will keep it for eternal life' (John 12:25). A few minutes ago we
listened to these words of Christ. They contain a truth which today's
world often scorns and rejects, making love of self the supreme
criterion of life. But the witnesses to the faith, who also this evening
speak to us by their example, did not consider their own advantage,
their own well-being, their own survival as greater values than fidelity
to the Gospel. Despite all their weakness, they vigorously resisted
evil. In their fragility there shone forth the power of faith and of the
"Dear Brothers and Sisters, the precious heritage which these courageous
witnesses have passed down to us is a patrimony shared by all the
Churches and Ecclesial Communities. It is a heritage which speaks more
powerfully than all the causes of division. The ecumenism of the martyrs
and the witnesses to the faith is the most convincing of all; to the
Christians of the 21st century it shows the path to unity. It is the
heritage of the Cross lived in the light of Easter: a heritage which
enriches and sustains Christians as they go forward into the new
Therefore, given the particular context of this event, it is perhaps
something of a stretch to say that the Holy Father has "officially"
recognized Dr. King as a martyr of the faith.
However I suppose that Dr. King's image could well be included, among
others, as part of an ecumenical exposition of witnesses to the faith
placed in a Church vestibule or in a parish hall. But it does not seem
justifiable, from religious motives alone, to single him out for special
recognition within the body of the Church. ZE04113022