My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
On the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, we commemorate the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven because she was conceived without sin. This is because no corruption would ever touch her body since her soul was uniquely preserved from Original Sin by the grace that she was to be the Mother of God by giving birth to Jesus Christ.
Yes, this is our faith and we celebrate it in a special way on this Feast of the Assumption. Around our country, you will recognize that there are many who seem to want to attack statues, especially those of Our Lady. The headline of an editorial in the New York Post on July 15, 2020, said, “When they’re going after the Virgin Mary, you know protest has turned to madness.” I am not sure that all of the vandalism of statues was the work of those protesting in recent months, however, the Catholic Church certainly is a target in many ways for what we stand for and what we preach. It seems that these visible signs of our faith, unprotected as they are outside our churches or buildings, have become the object of scorn and derision and even violence against them.
Our own 100-year-old statue of Our Lady, which stands outside in front of our Cathedral Preparatory High School and Seminary in Elmhurst, was vandalized on July 10, having the word “idol” scrolled upon it using black spray paint. There are those who see the depiction of any holy person as idolatry. We know that Jehovah’s Witnesses especially are against this type of depiction of the sacred, as well as the Muslim religion that forbids any type of statues. However, we attribute this crime to no one, since the perpetrator has not been found. Last year, we also saw that statues of Our Lady and others were desecrated at St. Gerard Majella Shrine Church in Hollis. This phenomenon, unfortunately, has been happening beyond just Brooklyn and Queens; Miami, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Francisco, Boston, Hartford, and more in the last month all have had attacks on outdoor statues. Our statues mean to be an affront to no one. Truly, these acts are an affront to our faith and our right of religious observance in the way we feel proper.
First of all, as I have said in previous columns, all statues have clay feet. The statue of Our Lady, however, is not in that category since she was without sin. But every other saint, or every other hero that has been recognized for some reason, is never perfect. At some point, however, they rose to the height of sanctity or did some heroic act for which they should be remembered. Sanctity goes well beyond heroism. Sanctity is a required state of life that shows the person’s union with God.
In the Eastern Church, an icon takes the place of statues as we use them in the Western Church. Eastern theology is much more developed than our own when it comes to icons. In a certain sense, these represent and make present the person in whose honor they are painted. Again, traditional icons are painted on wood with real colors derived from natural sources, but more importantly, the artist must fast and pray before he or she attempts to depict an icon since it is a sacred act, even to depict the sacred.
These desecrations have just become a symbol of disdain for our Catholic faith, and we must defend ourselves as others defend their religious beliefs. It does not mean that we should in any way bear hatred towards those who misunderstand who we are and what we believe. Our images are sacred to us and remind us of the sacred. We cannot, however, let these issues and desecrations go without our speaking up about them.
Recently, it was reported on Currents News that Saint Damien of Molokai was talked of as an example of colonialism and white supremacy and his statue’s inclusion in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall as “what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like!” Already there have been calls for the removal of the statue of St. Junipero Serra from that same National Statuary Hall. Using the word colonizer in the same sentence as Saint Damien could not be more wrong. St. Damien gave his life ministering to the lepers held on the island of Molokai in Hawaii and cared for their everyday needs. By the way, the statue is a replica of one that stands outside the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu, of Father Damien, a Belgian by birth, who spoke and preached in the Hawaiian language. His feast day is a holiday in Hawaii, and St. Damien of Molokai is routinely named on lists of the most admired figures in modern Hawaiian history.
He contracted leprosy himself and is recognized as both a secular and religious hero.
Everyone should know the entire story of Molokai as there is another saint, Saint Marianne Cope, who was born in Germany and came from Syracuse, New York, with her Sisters to assist Father Damien in ministering to the lepers. St. Marianne remained on Molokai her whole life with her Sisters. I do not know what more of a testament there is to our Catholic faith that, over the centuries, the Church, with all of its faults, has taken care of the most neglected members of any society in which we find ourselves. For this, we should be recognized as an example of lived faith. Unfortunately, these days we are made an object of derision, some of it we deserve because of the sexual abuse crisis, but also for what we will not admit as compatible with the Christian faith. And yet, this is our situation today, and we must recognize that reconciliation is the only answer because we must be peacemakers as the Beatitudes tell us. We cannot launch a cultural war with those who do not agree with us. However, we must stand our ground and make sure that we give no territory to those who would deride us.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty, in speaking about the recent toppling of statues of St. Junipero and other historic figures, said, “Broken windows invite further broken windows.” How true then is it about broken statues as we have seen.
Also, Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, Wisconsin was one of the first bishops to publicly condemn the destruction of statues and memorials in a letter decrying the vandalism. He wrote, “I cannot remain silent … The secular iconoclasm of the current moment will not bring reconciliation, peace and healing. Such violence will only perpetuate the prejudice and hatred it ostensibly seeks to end.” How correct is this statement. We are called to put out into the deep recognizing the complexity of modern society for the misunderstanding of the moral values for which the Church stands. When all is said and done, although we stand as a bulwark against immorality, more importantly, we are continually reaffirming the invitation of Jesus Christ to bring us together as a Church and the people to God.
Follow Bishop DiMarzio on: Twitter @BpDiMarzio