Are Catholic superstitions OK?

Dear Father Joe: Is it OK to pray for Notre Dame to win their football games? After all, they have “Touchdown Jesus.”

You can feel free to pray for whomever you’d like, but we know that God’s favorite team is the Michigan State University Spartans! Seriously, though, it’s fine to pray that your favorite team plays well and safely. You just need to understand that God’s desired outcomes for those players’ lives might not have anything to do with whether or not they win the game that day.

My mother always prays to St. Anthony to find lost things, and my friends buried St. Joseph's statue in the yard to help sell their house. Are all these “Catholic superstitions” OK?

I think you nailed something right in the question itself – the word, “superstition.” The First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods but me.” It proscribes superstition, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) calls “the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes.” Specifically, we must not “attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand …”

This means that, of course, you can pray to St. Anthony, who is the patron saint of lost things, and ask him to intercede for you with God to help you find something that is lost. But this is like all prayer – in which you are aligning yourself with the will of God, thanking him for his blessings, and asking his assistance. It is not a magic formula, so you want to avoid the irreverent jingle-prayer, “Tony, Tony look around; something’s lost and must be found” that I remember hearing in my childhood.

Regarding the statue of St. Joseph – here’s a thought. You are asking Joseph, as a friend, brother and the father of Christ on earth, to intercede for you with God. If you were asking one of your friends or family members to pray for you, would you bury their picture in the garden? Upside down? I bet not. The same is true here – you treat the image with the respect you’d show the photo of a dear friend.

Here’s the critical thing – faith isn’t magic. Faith is the opposite of that. In magic, we trust in empty idols – not the living God who gives life and intervenes in human history. According to the Catechism, idolatry is a constant temptation – and it consists in “divinizing what is not God.” We commit idolatry whenever we honor and revere something in place of God – and that can include superstitions.

My mom insists that we have to burn a blessed candle all night long on Christmas Eve – is this another “Catholic” superstition that we shouldn’t be doing?

This is not a superstition – it’s a “small-t” tradition. That is, it’s a cultural practice that is particularly popular among the Irish. Rather than expecting some magical effect from burning a candle, this tradition symbolizes a welcome for the Christ child on a night where his parents could find no room at any inn. This practice from County Kerry involved burning candles in glass jars or stuck into hollowed-out turnips, leaving fires unbanked and keeping doors unlocked – all to indicate welcome, not only for the Christ child, but for any traveler who comes to your home in the winter night.

Even if you’re not Irish, you might want to consider something like this to remind yourself that we are to be welcoming to all who cross our paths, because they are all our brothers and sisters in Christ. Be smart, though, and put the candle in the kitchen sink before you go to bed – you don’t want to burn down the house!

Merry Christmas and enjoy another day in God’s presence.