I find it so uplifting and inspiring to look at holy pictures and statues, and we have many of them around our house. Here is one of my favorites. It is an Italian-made plaster statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which was bought for me as a gift by my #4 son many years ago, when he was just a little boy, at a garage sale fundraiser at our Catholic elementary school. He only paid $1.00 for it, but this statue is priceless to me. It was dirty and chipped and in need of some TLC when my son gave it to me, but I painstakingly restored it to its original beauty; I repainted it and even bought some gold leaf to touch up the Rosary hanging from Our Lady's belt and the decorations that adorn Her white gown. There is something so sweet and beautiful about this statue, especially the serene expression on Mary's face. I love to look at it.
The veneration of holy statues and images--of Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, and the saints--is as old as Christianity itself, but many people don't understand the Catholic use of such imagery. Non-Catholics sometimes accuse Catholics of "worshipping statues." A Protestant to whom I'm very close once actually said that to me, and I was completely unprepared to explain why my friend was wrong. I first got tongue-tied and then very defensive, and I didn't know how to tell him what I knew was the truth. I vowed that I would be better prepared to defend the practice of venerating holy images the next time the subject arose.
In a publication called The Fatima Crusader, I recently read an article that perfectly explains the reasons why Catholics venerate sacred statues and images. Here are some direct quotes from this article, titled "The Veneration of Images and Saints."
"The veneration of images answers a need of our human nature; we respect portraits of those whom we love or esteem; moreover it is the will of God that man, who lost true happiness for the sake of material things, should regain them by means of material things."
"The reverence we pay to the image of a saint is not paid to the picture or image itself, but to the individual it respresents; that is, to Christ, to Our Lady, or one of the saints."
"...in venerating images, we express our love for the person these images represent."
"It is not from the images themselves that we ask help, it is from God, through the intercession of Our Lady and the saints. None but the heathen imagine that there is any virtue or supernatural power in the image itself."
"While gazing upon an image we pray with greater recollection; images are steps whereby we ascend more easily in spirit to Heaven."
"They are also a constant admonition to us; either by placing vividly before us one of the truths of religion, or exhorting us to imitate the example of the saint."
"The work of the artist does indeed often prove to be more influential than the words of the preacher, for the impressions we receive through the ear have less impact upon the mind than those which we receive through the eye."
I could quote the entire article, but those are the main points. And all of this would apply, too, when answering the question, "Why are Catholic churches decorated so ornately? Isn't it a waste of money?" No! Because when a church is beautifully decorated, and adorned with eye-pleasing holy statues and images, it helps those gathered in it to "ascend more easily in spirit to Heaven."