Are statues of Mary allowed to be the focus in churches?

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statues of Mary
Statue of Our Lady of Grace. Shutterstock

Question: I was at a church recently that had a 4-foot-tall statue of Our Lady of Grace standing front and center of the altar with flowers at her feet. Is this allowed in the Catholic Church? I thought the crucifix and tabernacle were supposed to be a priority. During Mass, my focus kept going to the Virgin Mary instead of Jesus.

Debbie Wurdeman, via email

Answer: This sounds like a devotion for the month of May. Many parishes have May crownings and prominently display the Blessed Mother during May, a month dedicated to her. While the devotion is worldwide, in the United States, May also features Mother’s Day. Here, statues of Mary are crowned with flowers and often displayed in prominent places in churches and homes.

As for Church norms, while it is true that modern parishes often feature the crucifix prominently and the tabernacle on the central axis, older churches often featured a patron saint over or near the altar. The tabernacle was certainly at the center in old churches, but the cross may have been smaller and beneath a statue or painting of the patron saint. Some churches also had a depiction of some biblical or spiritual theme.

The current practice of a large crucifix on the back center wall is widespread today and certainly encouraged by norms. The bishops’ document, “Built of Living Stones,” says the following: “The cross with the image of Christ crucified is a reminder of Christ’s paschal mystery. It draws us into the mystery of suffering and makes tangible our belief that our suffering when united with the passion and death of Christ leads to redemption. There should be a crucifix ‘positioned either on the altar or near it, and … clearly visible to the people gathered there.'”

Hence, it is fitting that in most modern churches, the central axis features a crucifix plainly visible to the faithful. Statues of saints are more often at the sides or elsewhere in the church. However, this does not preclude the presence of other statues or holy objects in the sanctuary if it is tastefully done and does not clutter the sanctuary or distract. It sounds like this was not the case in the situation you describe. To be clear, however, we don’t usually speak of the Blessed Mother as a distraction competing with Jesus for the focus. She always leads us to him. A final caution should be that this norm does not require the dismantling or destruction of older altars in churches prominently featuring saints. Many such altars are priceless masterpieces we should not lose, even if the cross is less prominent.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at Send questions to