‘Worship’? Just say ‘NO’

I apologize, gentle readers, for having to go over this issue again so soon. Still, I have to admit that when a reader sent the following URL to your GetReligionistas, I thought for a second that it was a prank.

Before I serve up a chunk of this way-below-average Associated Press report — a version posted at FoxNews.com — let’s review a crucial term in the religion-beat dictionary.

… transitive verb

1: to regard with reverential respect or with admiring deference
2: to honor (as an icon or a relic) with a ritual act of devotion

With that in mind, here is the top of the AP report:

JERUSALEM – Remains of a revered French nun who died more than 100 years ago have traveled the world, ventured into outer space and been worshipped by hundreds of thousands of Catholics. Now the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux are making their way through the Holy Land.



No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

The faithful in the ancient churches of Christianity do not “worship” the relics of saints, in the definition that is clearly implied in this story. The proper word is “venerate.”

Here is a useful comparison. Let’s say that your immediate family includes a grandmother who, at some point in the past, lost her husband. Let’s say that on her bedside table there is a picture of her beloved and, at bedtime, it is her custom to kiss this portrait goodnight. The proper term for this action is “veneration,” not “worship,” in the sense that this word is customarily used.

This subject is fresh in my mind because this past Sunday was the first in the season of Great Lent in the churches of the East — known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. At the end of the service, in a rite marking the ultimate defeat of the iconoclasts, the faithful loudly make the following proclamation. Note the language used in the references to icons (since this would also apply to relics) and the language applied to Jesus.

As the Prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the Teachers have dogmatized, as the Universe has agreed, as Grace has shown forth, as Truth has revealed, as falsehood has been dissolved, as Wisdom has presented, as Christ has awarded, let us declare, let us assert, let us preach in like manner Christ our true God and honor His Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in deeds, in churches, in holy icons — worshiping Him as God and Lord and honoring them as His true servants of the master of all, and offering to them due veneration.

This is the Faith of the Apostles! This is the Faith of the Fathers! This is the Faith of the Orthodox! This is the Faith, which has established the Universe!

This is certainly not timid language. However, note the terms applied to the icons — “honor” and “veneration.” What is the term applied to Jesus Christ? The phrase is “worshiping Him as God and Lord. …”

Now I bring this up as a journalistic issue, not as a subject for doctrinal debates. Other churches are free to believe what they believe and the Associated Press should cover those beliefs accurately. However, this particular AP story is simply wrong. The word “worship” should not be used in this lede because that is not what Catholics believe.

Now, you could say that AP could write a story in which Protestants and Catholics (or the Orthodox) debate the validity of what the ancient churches teach on this topic. That’s true. That’s a different story and it’s valid, if that subject happens to be in the news.

But this particular lede needs to be corrected. Period.

Yes, I also noticed this passage later in the piece:

In the Catholic faith, relics refer to the bodily remains — bits of bone, hair and blood — of beatified religious figures. Devotees pray publicly to the remains of the venerated to ask for help or spiritual guidance. …

(Cue: audible sigh)

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dan Crawford

    Journalists accurately reflect the attitude of the great majority of Protestants toward the veneration of relics. It’s a point of view that’s been fairly prominent since Halloween 1517.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    It is the curse of the thesaurus. Words that have similar meanings are treated as as though they have identical meanings.

  • http://adeaconswife@wordpress.com Susan Kehoe

    Dan, but they are reporting on what Catholics do. It is, therefore, grossly inaccurate to say that the relics of St. Therese “have been worshiped by…Catholics”.

  • Karen

    AP and FoxNews are corporations, so their primary interest is turning a profit. If they think their customers don’t care about such nuances, they won’t be bothered to pay attention to them. The product will only be as good as the consumers require it to be.

    Sorry to be cynical, but this is the only reason I can come up with for this problem to recur.

  • CarlH

    No need to apologize, tmatt. For this non-Catholic, each of your posts has helped clarity further what are some pretty fine but, I think, important distinctions. However, as I reread the linked post at your own blog about the miracle on which the expected beautification of Pope John Paul II is based, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the point might need some reiteration for the benefit of Catholics themselves. Even Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, after having clearly articulated her belief that the miracle was due to the intercession of John Paul II, goes on to state (at least as quoted) that “John Paul II cured me.” This blurring of the distinctions is consistent with discussions I’ve had about these questions with Catholic friends and acquaintances.

    What is still unclear to this outsider is whether the form of veneration of and/or praying with saints, etc., is different from praying to God, or if the difference is an inward understanding of the distinction, which has left outsiders to take outward appearances as an equivalence.

  • Jerry

    To expand on what mattk said, one dictionary says:

    Synonyms: adore, deify, glorify, revere, reverence, worship


    I agree that these are not really synonyms, but I remember similar struggles over the word hacker many years ago.

    And as someone who has written poetry, I’ve sometimes searched dictionaries and synonym lists looking for a better word to use. It’s perfectly understandable that someone who does not know the theology would do the same. This does not make it right, but in this case I think the windmill wins, Señor Quixote.

  • JWB

    The issue is not what “venerate” means, but what “worship” means, or, rather, the range of different things it can mean. When that noted Roman Catholic hymnwriter F.W. Faber says, “O then, my Brethren, let us worship the grand Mother of God with every faculty of our minds” or when the Catholic Encylopedia translates the holy fathers of the Second Council of Nicea as saying: “he who worships (ho proskynon) an image worships the reality of him who is painted in it,” are they getting the English language wrong? Are they simply engaged in scurrilous Protestant propaganda?

    Here, I think it’s a bad word to use because it’s ambiguous, and in context creates a substantial risk of a misunderstanding by the reader. But saying it can NEVER be the right word to use and that “venerate” is ALWAYS the right word to use seems, to me, to suggest that the AP stylebook should be keeping journalists from writing in English and instead force them to write in some quite boring imaginary language which lacks synonyms and words with overlapping meanings.

    What’s the easiest edit to fix the later sentence? How would you change “pray publicly to the remains”? “Pray publicly in the presence of, while intently focusing on . . .”? That’s a lot of extra words. I think I’ve heard people in Orthodox circles say things like “we don’t pray to icons, we pray through them,” but just substituting in “through” in this context is probably too cute.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I can understand a general reporter (as well as simple believers) not getting the language in debate here right. But reporters are paid to get it right. So I can’t understand why, with today’s instant communications, a reporter can’t have someone on-line (or right in his office) , that knows well whatever religion the reporter is writing about, quickly vet it for mistakes-especially some of the “howlers” I have seen– in vocabulary, etc.

  • http://orthogeeks.com RiverC


    That is what is known as a ‘gloss’. A Catholic is not required to state the means by which a saint cured someone; it should be understood that it is the grace of God. Implying otherwise is beyond the scope of a combox.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Carl H.— I just noticed that you referred to the “beautification” of Pope John Paul II. Actually, I have seen this mistake repeatedly in the media, and in some cases I don’t think it was a misspell but some writers apparently think the Church is making a “beauty” of the pope. The proper word is “beatification” from the word “beatify” which is a statement by the Church declaring its belief that the person in question is in the beatitude (perfect happiness)of heaven. It is one of the steps on the way to declaring that a person is a saint. That final step is called “canonization” from the word “canon” (a yardstick) meaning that that person’s life is a good yardstick to measure one’s own life against (along with being a good person to spiritually adopt into one’s family to be called on when needed).

  • CarlH

    I appreciate the responses–including the noting of my typo, which I have to attribute to overly zealous synapses, since even in my limited understanding I realize that it is “beatification” and not “beautification” that is being discussed here. I’m chagrined to have fallen inadvertently into even yet another common error.

  • Passing By

    Relics are not just body parts; I have a holy card of St. Therese which functions as a third-class relic because I touched it to her casket while I was worshiping her bones.

    Wait a minute… let me re-phrase that…

    Ok, it’s reasonable for journalists to get these things wrong because a fair number of Catholics get it wrong. I was being silly above (although I did venerate her relics on their visit here). It’s also reasonable to get confused about the “pray to” pray through” stuff, because we want to forget the principle of incarnation, that God works through people.

  • Julia

    I seem to remember a post not that long ago that discussed ad nauseum how the word “worship” was formerly used, as well as former meanings of “pray”. The subtleties of language change over time. If somebody is going to point to the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, then they must acknowledge how the word “worship” was used in 1911.

    This phenomenon is most apparent to me in doing the Sunday cross-word puzzles. I’m now ancient and often find that the clues are not quite in sync with what the word or phrase means – or used to mean in my salad days.

    Try reading Chaucer or Shakespeare without the OED. The meaning of words changes over time. And in real life, people often get sloppy in their choice of words to avoid a long dissertation with others who they assume know what they mean. Casual speech within any tribe often needs explanation to non-tribe friends.

  • Evanston2

    Carl H and JWB, thank you for your comments. Quite clear and pertinent.

  • Bain Wellington

    To take JWB’s point a little further:

    I fully recognise the need to affirm the Catholic understanding that there is a difference in quality between the reverence owed to God and the reverence paid to the Blessed Virgin and the angels and saints (the proof text on what is owed to God alone is the Dominical saying at Lk.4:8, which alludes to Deut.6:13). However, the English word “worship” (verb and noun) cannot be confined in the way tmatt argues for. The root meaning is “worth”.

    We see this in the usual form of the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer: “With this ring I thee wed: with my body I thee worship: and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

    Consider also the prevalence in English (at least) of “your worship” as a mode of address (to a County Court judge and to a mayor), and “worshipful” as applied not only to certain office-holders (such as justices of the peace) but also to certain institutions (the guilds of the City of London generally hold the title “The Worshipful Company of” etc.). In poetic English there is no sense of suppressed blasphemy in saying “I worship the ground she walks on”; nor is there any when using the term “hero-worship”.

    In other words, “worship” is the wrong place to take a stand, and you can reassure yourselves on this point from this article in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912).

    Although the Greek terms latreía (the word in Lk.4:8), hyperdouleía, and douleía are used to convey the differing levels of honour due, respectively, to the Almighty, the Blessed Virgin, and the angels and saints, all three words have the same root meaning (slavery). The New Testament epistles are full of the imagery of slavery to Jesus (Ro.1:1; Phil.1:1; Tit.1:1; Jas.1:1; 2Pet.1:1; Jud.1), but the word there is doulos (not látrios, as we might have expected from Lk.4:8). Meanwhile, “Holy Slavery” has long been attributed to Marian devotion: see Ven. John Paul II’s address to Polish bishops on 17 December 1987 (translated here).

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Your argument, simply stated, is worthy of a theological journal on liturgy. It makes no sense in a daily newspaper.

    I still see no need for newspapers to thumb their nose at the Catholic Church in this manner. The goal is to promote understanding in the public. The goal is the most direct of definitions. Clarity is the point.

    Again, I see no point for the mainstream press to spread confusion about this.

  • Joan Haselman

    CarlH, as a convert who has taken about 35 years to understand these “nuances”, I would like to explain
    that there is a difference in the way that Catholics and Protestants pray. I love Protestants and I love praying with holy believers, I want to bring that to the table.

    However, there are certain Catholic prayers which Catholics understand that the whole power of the Church stands behind.

    We pray to the Holy Triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We pray in the HOLY NAME of JESUS. God is SUPREME, He is our Creator, and above every created creature. Even the Blessed Virgin Mary is a creature, although she, of all created human beings, is sinless. Jesus is God and Man, and he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, of course He is also sinless, but He is also God, and Mary is not God, she is a humble, the MOST HUMBLE of all creatures. The whole point is that we invite the entire HEAVENLY COURT to pray for us for our needs. And, once we understand this, we feel kind of sorry for our, very much loved, Protestant brothers and sisters who do not understand this profound truth. And so, we keep on with our feeble attempts to share such a sublime and beautiful and graced mystery. I hope this helps. God bless you.

  • Bain Wellington

    OK, I am trying to respond to tmatt, but my posts are not appearing on the page. I will try again later.

  • Bain Wellington

    tmatt: it seems to me the problem resides in a Protestant idea of worship; there is no objection to using “worship” with reference to the BVM; and you have over-reacted in taking exception to its use in newspapers (which I doubt are deliberately “thumbing their noses” here). We find the word used of the BVM in Catholic literature.

    First: I find nothing in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993) about “worship” as owed to God alone. At CCC 971 it speaks of adoration owed to God alone (cf. 2096 and 2097), and devotion offered to BVM. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church ( Lumen gentium, n.66) also speaks about the special cult of honour and veneration to her, compared with the adoration offered to God (which differs essentially from it).

    Second: the now superseded Catechism of Christian Doctrine authorized for England and Wales (1889, revised 1985) included at 184 the question: Is it forbidden to give Divine honour or worship to the angels and saints? The answer was yes (I paraphrase). Question 185 read: What kind of honour or worship should we pay to the angels and saints? And the answer was: We should pay to the angels and saints an inferior honour or worship . .

    Third: in his Apostolic Exhortation, Marialis cultus (1974), Pope Paul VI spoke repeatedly of devotion to the BVM as situated within Christian worship, of which it forms a part, e.g.: “From this point of view worship (cultus in the Latin) is rightly extended, though in a substantially different way, first and foremost and in a special manner, to the Mother of the Lord and then to the saints . .” (25).

    Fourth, a venerable hymn has “all her feasts her actions worship” (Daily daily sing to Mary, 19th c. English trans). etc. etc.

  • JWB

    Perhaps the AP stylebook should recommend eschewing the word “worship” altogether and just saying “latreia” or “proskynesis” as might fit the context? As I said above, I think that in this particular context, the ambiguity of “worship” creates a substantial risk of misunderstanding and should be avoided for that reason. Of course, I’m not sure what the median reader of the AP wire story would understand “and been venerated by hundreds of thousands of Catholics” to mean, either. What the story ought to be conveying is “hundreds of thousands of Catholics have done that difficult-to-explain thing that Catholics do with relics to these particular relics of this particular deceased person who has been officially declared a saint by their hierarchy — we’ll try to have a paragraph later on in this article expanding on what that difficult-to-explain thing is.” I think it’s hard to get a single verb that will clearly and accurately convey that difficult-to-explain thing that Catholics do with relics to someone who doesn’t already understand what Catholics do, in fact, do with relics. Come to think of it, if a non-Orthodox visitor to my parish asked “what are you guys doing with all that bowing and kissing with those funny pictures” and I responded “oh, we don’t worship the icons, we venerate them” I don’t know that the questioner would know much more than he began with. If “venerate” is better, it’s because it’s a vague and mushy word, whereas “worship” is arguably a loaded word which may summon up certain old Protestant polemics against Popery. So one journalistic sin is being committed in order to avoid another one.

  • Bain Wellington

    JWB’s point is very fair, but mine was a slightly different one (length constraints prevented me from making it).

    Catholic usage of “worship” in connection with the BVM is perfectly normal and correct. I hope I have sufficiently proved that. The question is: what type of worship – well, the type we technically call hyperdulía which is lower than the worship offered to the Almighty and higher than the worship offered to the angels and saints.

    Nothing is served by getting Catholics all defensive about journalistic shorthand, because if you offer tmatt’s response “we don’t worship Mary”, it won’t be long before someone will demonstrate (from impeccably Catholic sources) that Catholics DO worship Mary (as indeed we do), and you will be left either looking foolish and dumbfounded, or doubting an important aspect of your own faith, or (unfairly) fulminating against sloppy and “misleading” use of language by the Church at the very highest level. A modicum of humility is indicated when spoiling for a fight over the word “worship”. It is unreasonable for tmatt to bring his own preoccupations so boldly into the mix here unless he is willing to admit that they are indeed very much his own private concerns.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think there are two issues.

    On one hand there is an almost subliminal anti-Catholicism in America. In some ways it is connected with a view that religious organizations should be as democratic as political ones, and thus an antipathy towards any organization where the leadership is not elected.

    On the other hand, much of this problem is a result of imprecission. Too many people think it is a good literary style to change up words to avoid repetition, even when this leads to using words interchangably that are different in meaning.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Another issue at play here, at least in some cases where the term “worship” is actually used, is that at times reporting what people actually say can be misleading. The words people use result from their specific religion-cultural background, and if you lift those words and deliver them to people in a different religious-cultural background without explaining what they meant in the first case you create false impressions.

    This is of course made even more difficult because it is hard to know what the religious-cultural background of your readers is. However in journalism it is best to assume your readers are not of the faith you are describing.