Where is Mary’s place in church?

By Patricia Kasten | Catholic News Service | February 25, 2021

Question

“Have you ever noticed where churches put Mary’s statue? I have been to several and Mary’s statue is always on the left side of the church. Is there a rule about that?” — Menasha

Answer

While there is no rule, it is fairly traditional in Catholic churches to place a statue of the Blessed Mother on the Gospel side of the church. This is actually the right side — if you stand at the altar and look out at the assembled faithful at Mass. It is also the right side of Jesus on the crucifix, and the right side of the tabernacle, in most arrangements in our diocesan churches.

The only rule the church has for placement of statues can be found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal: “Thus, in sacred buildings images of the Lord, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the saints, in accordance with most ancient tradition of the church, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful and should be so arranged so as to lead the faithful toward the mysteries of faith celebrated there. Care should, therefore, be taken that their number not be increased indiscriminately and, moreover, that they be arranged in proper order so as not to draw the attention of the faithful to themselves and away from the celebration itself” (n. 318).

The U.S. bishops, in their 2000 instruction on church buildings, noted that placement of statues can be difficult, given traditions in the devotional life of each parish. They note that, “It is particularly desirable that a significant image of the patron of the church be fittingly displayed, as well as an image of Mary, the Mother of God, as a fitting tribute to her unique role in the plan of salvation” (n. 138).

Mary’s role in salvation history is partly why her image is placed to Jesus’ right side. As the Mother of God, she has a special place. As noted at the  Catholic website aleteia.org, Jewish tradition places the mother of the king at his right hand, This was the case with King Solomon and his mother, Bathsheba (1 Kgs 2:19). Being at the right hand is a place of honor, as we know from Jesus’ role at the “right hand of the Father.”

As the first disciple, Mary also has a place in the proclamation of the Gospel, which is why her statue is placed near the ambo, where the Gospel is proclaimed. In St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, there’s a 40-foot crucifixion scene by Johann Schmit behind the altar. It shows the saints on Christ’s right (including his mother) and the damned on his left (including the bad thief and those who gambled for his clothing). A chasm separates them.

None of this means Mary’s statue cannot be placed elsewhere in a church, or that sitting on one side of the church is better than the other. It is just a reminder that our faith is a faith of words and symbols, and that we can gain spiritual insight in various ways when we worship God.

 

Kasten is an associate editor for The Compass. She holds a master’s degree in theological studies from St. Norbert College, De Pere.

 

Have you ever wondered something about the church or the Catholic faith? If you have a question about the Catholic Church or faith, send it to FAQs, c/o The Compass, P.O Box 23825, Green Bay WI 54305, or via email to [email protected]

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