Ever wonder ‘Why do Catholics pray to saints, have statues, or light candles?‘ Get all the explanations for the weird things Catholics do here!
It’s been almost a year now since our family made the switch from regularly attending a small non-denominational church that I loved to regularly attending the Catholic Church that my husband’s family has always gone to.
I’ve always told my husband that I didn’t care whether we attended a Protestant or Catholic Church–just please not this one. It’s weird.
Until I visited another church and learned more and realized–it’s not just this particular church. You’re all weird! (I say this in love 🙂 )
Here, I thought that our differing beliefs were what really separated us. I figured going to Catholic Church would just mean that they switched out the message and the songs for Catholic ones. Boy, was I wrong!
Protestant church is NOTHING like Catholic Mass, and the biggest difference isn’t in the doctrine–it’s in the culture!
You see, Catholics have been around a LONG time, so they’ve had a lot of years to think about things… to develop habits and practices and to come up with certain ways of doing things.
And unlike Protestant churches, which split and break pretty regularly, Catholic Churches don’t really. Many of the practices that made sense to the Old Testament Jews, the first century Christians, people today, and everyone in between–Well, they’re still around today.
So if you’ve ever wondered “Why do Catholics do all the weird things they do” — you’re not alone. Many lifelong Catholics don’t know either. But now you will.
This post is post 11 in a series entitled Letting God Lead: My Journey Through Protestant and Catholic Beliefs.
While you certainly can read this post by itself, I highly encourage you to check out the rest of the series as well.
*This post contains affiliate links.
Why Do Catholics Pray to Mary and the Saints?
Have you ever asked a friend or family member to pray for you? Or asked them to help you out with something you were struggling with spiritually? Catholics do the same thing when they pray to Mary or a Saint.
You see, while Protestants typically believe Mary and the Saints aren’t in Heaven yet or are in Heaven but just can’t hear us down here on Earth, Catholics believe Mary and some saints are already in Heaven and can hear us.
Catholics still pray to God and Jesus — same as Protestants do. And they still ask their friends and family to pray for them when they are struggling — same as Protestants do. They simply ask Christians who have gone before to pray for them too.
For a more thorough explanation on this, be sure to check out my previous post in this series: What do Catholics Really Believe About Mary, Saints and Statues?
Why do Catholics Pray the Rosary?
Catholics pray the rosary because they believe it is very powerful to help them grow in faith, resist evil and get their prayers answered. It helps them to focus in order to pray for longer periods of time (Protestant prayers are often very short), and some people can focus better when they hold something in their hands. It allows them to really meditate on Christ’s death and resurrection in a way that a quick prayer cannot.
According to St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church, Catholics also believe: “Our Lady (Mary) always grants our request,” “[The Rosary] purifies our souls, washing away sin,” and “it obtains all kinds of graces for us from Almighty God.”
A brief history of the rosary: Way back in the 9th century, Irish monks would recite the 150 Psalms as part of their worship. The people living nearby loved this idea, and wanted to do it too, but they couldn’t read and they didn’t have Bibles.
As an easier-to-remember alternative, people started to recite 150 “Our Fathers” instead. Pretty soon, people realized that they needed something to help them keep track of what number they were on, and the very first rosaries were created.
Tradition has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Dominic and asked him to spread the love of the rosary throughout the land, but the rosary had already been around for hundreds of years before then. Scholars do believe that Saint Dominic used the rosary in his teachings as a missionary and may have had an influence in the form of the rosary today.
How to pray the rosary: Over the centuries, the way people pray the rosary has morphed significantly. Today, Catholics recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be all while meditating on various mysteries of faith. You can find detailed instructions on how to pray the rosary here.
Why Do Catholics Confess to Priests?
Catholics don’t believe we CAN’T go directly to God — we all can — just that Jesus set things up to work a different way. They believe that the priest acts as a sort of ambassador for Christ, and that priests have the power to forgive sins. This is due, in part, to Matthew 18:18, which says
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
For a more thorough explanation, make sure you check out my previous series post: What All Christians Should Know About Priests, the Pope and Confession.
Why Do Catholics Make the Sign of the Cross?
Catholics often make the sign of the cross (and say the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) when they begin and end prayers, when they enter, leave or pass a church and when they receive communion (among other times).
This sign is meant to remind them of the Trinity and to be an outward profession of their beliefs and their status as a Catholic. It is done in Eastern Orthodox, high Anglican and high Lutheran churches as well.
Why Do Catholics Believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist?
There are several reasons, including the words Jesus used when referring to the Eucharist, the Jewish people’s reactions to Jesus’s words, and the first century church’s beliefs.
I cover this question in depth in most post: Is the Eucharist Really Just a Symbol? 5 Convincing Proofs that Say that it’s Not. You should check it out!
Why Do Catholics Use Holy Water?
Similar to how the Old Testament Jewish people used to purify themselves with water before they entered in to worship, Catholics will make the sign of the cross with Holy Water as they enter and exit a church. (They use it for blessing things and baptisms as well.)
Holy Water is meant to accomplish three purposes: to signify the believer’s repentance from sin, to be a reminder of their baptism, and to help protect them from evil.
Why Don’t Catholics Eat Meat on Fridays During Lent?
Catholics give up meat on Fridays during Lent for three reasons:
- To greater identify with Christ’s sacrifice for us
- To exercise spiritual discipline and increase in holiness
- Because the church says so.
Meat isn’t the only thing Catholics give up for Lent though — there are actually a bunch of guidelines as to what Catholics can and cannot eat, which you can read more about this in my post, What Can I Eat During Lent? Your Ultimate Lenten Eating Guide.
And before you think that’s too weird, remember: the Jewish people in the Old Testament also had many, many dietary restrictions. Not for their salvation, but because God said it was good for them. So for Catholics to have similar restrictions today really isn’t that unusual.
Why Do Catholic Churches Have Statues and Stained Glass Windows?
In the early years of Christianity, most people were illiterate. Therefore, the Catholic Church often used visual aids such as statues, the stations of the cross (pictures showing the story of Jesus’s crucifixion), and stained glass windows to help teach the people the story of Jesus since they could not read their Bibles (which they didn’t have) for themselves.
(Similar to how we Protestants grew up with flannel story boards 🙂 )
Today, the statues simply remind Catholics of the Bible story and inspire them to remember the saints who have gone before.
Catholics do not worship these statues any more than Protestants who put up nativity scenes worship theirs.
Why Do Catholics Believe We are Saved by Works?
The Catholic Church does NOT teach that people are saved by their works. In fact, the catechism of the Catholic Church actually specifically forbids this notion.
Rather, the Catholic Churches basically teaches that “If you call yourself a Christian, but you don’t act like it, maybe you’re not really a Christian after all.” Or “Yes, God saves you through faith, but it’s a living faith that naturally produces good works.”
This Catholic belief is actually 100% Biblical, and is even taught by some highly respected Protestant/non-denominational pastors, including the most Godly man I’ve ever heard speak, Francis Chan.
Why Do Catholics Genuflect When Entering and Exiting a Pew?
For the same reason that people centuries ago would have bowed briefly when going in front of a king: to show respect. And who deserves respect more than the true King of Kings, who is present in the church?
Why Do Catholics Ring Bells During the Eucharistic Prayer?
The first few times I heard the bells sound during the Eucharist prayer, I thought they were just a cheesy sound effect that accompanied the Eucharist turning from wafer to the Body and Blood. (You can laugh, I won’t be offended. But seriously, how are newcomers supposed to know what any of this means???)
The actual reasons are:
- They call the people to worship
- They make a joyful noise
- They signal that something important is about to take place
- They remind Catholics that Mass isn’t just celebrated in the local church but with the angels in Heaven
- Simply because it’s tradition.
- (They also help wake people up, but that’s more of a perk than the point. 🙂 )
Why Do Catholics Light Candles?
Lighting candles is not a formal church teaching, but rather, a very commonly held practice. Catholics light candles: to prolong their prayers, to memorialize the dead, to symbolize Jesus, to symbolize the power of light over the darkness, as a form of prayer and to celebrate special occasions.
Why Do Catholics Set Aside the Bible for Man-made Traditions?
They don’t. Catholics do have plenty of traditions (all churches do), but that doesn’t mean that Catholics just follow traditions and ignore the Bible.
Instead, Catholics follow the teachings of Jesus first, and then the teachings of the early apostles second. Some of these teachings were written down in the Bible – but not all. Others were passed down orally throughout the generations. While Protestants don’t follow those traditions anymore (most of them were lost in all the massive church splits), the Catholic Church still does.
There’s nothing wrong with traditions themselves — only when they distract from what’s really important. And the churches the Catholic Church follows are meant to bring people closer to God, not take them further away.
Why Do Catholics Get Ashes?
On Ash Wednesday Catholics often get ashes on their foreheads in the shape of the cross. The practice of putting on ashes dates back to the Old Testament, and Catholics still carry it on to this day.
They do so as an outward sign of their sinfulness, their repentance and of their desire to die to this world. It is also used to commemorate Christ’s death, and as a reminder for Catholics to examine themselves as they enter into the Lenten season.
Why Do Catholics Choose a Saint at Confirmation?
Choosing a saint at confirmation is optional, but encouraged. Catholics are encouraged to choose a saint who they would look up to as a role model.
Saints can be chosen on a wide variety of criteria, but they should be chosen with care. Some people choose the Patron Saint of a particular place, a Saint who had a particular hobby, job or characteristic, or simply a Saint they admire. Catholics can pray to their Saint for help if they want.
Why do Catholics Use Crucifixes?
Crucifixes, like statues and stained glass windows, are used by the Catholic Church to help tell the story of Jesus.
Catholic churches use crucifixes instead of empty crosses because it helps bring the message home in a deeper way and because the cross is meaningless without Christ’s death on it. Catholics do realize, of course, that Christ didn’t stay there.
The Catholic church requires a crucifix to be visible during Mass. You can also find them in Catholic homes, hospitals and schools, for example.
Why Do Catholics Say Scripted Prayers?
While Catholics do also pray impromptu prayers off of the top of their heads just like Protestants do, you’ll often also find them reciting scripted prayers such as the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and the Grace Before Meals prayer.
My husband’s grandfather even writes up an entire page long prayer for everyone to recite together when we all get together on Easter, Christmas, etc. Why?
For one, it is unifying to have all of the people pray the same thing together at the same time (and to know that people all across the world and throughout time have all prayed the same prayer as well).
Some prayers simply became repeated often because people liked them and found them helpful.
And lastly, having a scripted prayer to pray can be helpful if you are uncomfortable praying and don’t know what to say.
(Although it has the opposite effect when you’re the only Protestant in a room with a whole bunch of Catholics who all “know the secret handshake,” so to speak.)
For Protestants who are uncomfortable with scripted prayer, it may help to realize that you probably use Scripted prayers more than you realize. For example, signing a great praise and worship song in a Protestant church can actually be a form of scripted prayer as well. And don’t forget the old classic “Now I lay me down to sleep…” that I bet you learned when you were a kid.
Why do Catholics Baptize Babies?
Catholics believe that baptism removes original sin. To find out why–as well as to learn TONS of facts about baptism you never knew before–be sure to check out my previous series post: Infant Baptism or Believer’s Baptism: Which is Correct?
Why Do Catholics Sit, Stand, Kneel?
Different parts of the Mass require more reverence than others. Plus, it helps keep people awake 😉
This post gives a good overview of what to do when and why. It’s a lot to remember, but you can usually just watch everyone else and follow along pretty easily.
Why do Catholics Pray for the Dead?
Praying for the dead is a longstanding custom that dates all the way back to the Old Testament Jewish people. Catholics still do it today because they believe it will help Christians who have died make it through Purgatory faster. To find out why and how, be sure to check out my previous series post: What is Purgatory? What are Indulgences?
Why do Catholics Wear Scapulars?
History of the scapular: Scapulars actually started off as large garments monks wore as work aprons. Wearing a scapular was a great honor. Eventually the average Church people began wearing them as well, and they shrunk down to a much smaller size.
Tradition has it that in 1251, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock and told him that “whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire.”
Why do Catholics wear scapulars: Catholics wear scapulars as an outward sign of their Catholic faith, to represent their faith and to obtain the protection and graces they provide. Scapulars are NOT magic charms and they do not automatically send just anyone to Heaven. However, when faithful Catholics wear them as a sign of their devotion, they do believe it will protect them and impart graces. Non-Catholics can wear scapulars too, although they don’t get all of the graces.
Why Do Catholics Use Incense?
The Old Testament Jews used incense in their worship, so the practice probably simply carried over. Today, Catholics use incense to symbolize their prayers rising to Heaven, to create the ambiance of Heaven, to symbolize sanctification and purification, and to remind us that Mass transcends the physical building and reaches to Heaven as well.
You don’t have to spend much time researching Catholic history to see that it is steeped in more than two thousand years of symbolism, tradition and meaning. Everything the Catholic Church does is for some deeper symbolic meaning–even if all of the people don’t really know what that is. 🙂
Hopefully this post answered some of your questions. Otherwise–what questions do you still have? What clarifications need to be made? Let me know in the comments below!
Enjoyed this post? Don’t miss the rest of the posts in the series!
Resources and Further Reading
I’m not asking you to believe because I say so. Please DON’T take my word for it! The purpose of this series is only to share what I’ve learned on my journey in order to inspire you to begin a journey of your own. Here are a few helpful resources to get you started.