When Faith is Vandalized, It Deserves Many Defenders

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, tracking incidents of destruction to Church-related sites around the U.S., reported on Oct. 14 that there had been 100 acts of vandalism since May 2020, including several in the Diocese of Brooklyn. This is more than a crime statistic.

It is a glimpse of bigger social scars that should prompt thoughtful reflection and meaningful action. Attacks on Catholic structures are part of broader mischief against people of diverse faiths, cultures, and backgrounds. They call our society to a greater awareness of the negative instincts within some people.

These displays of violence and hatred must not be dismissed as victimless crimes. Damage to “a piece of property” actually causes collateral damage to individuals, parishes, and secular communities. Groups emerge with their values and hopes undermined and their hearts ready to harden.

Worse, out-of-control emotions focused on inanimate things can morph into cruelty toward human beings, like the tragic death of Maria Ambrocio, who suffered head trauma when a thief knocked her down near Times Square on Oct. 8.

After an outdoor crucifix was destroyed at St. Athanasius Parish in Bensonhurst in May, pastor Msgr. David Cassato said, “I’m just sick over it. . . When I looked at the face of Jesus smacked down and on the ground, what came to my mind was, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ ”

In their statement on the 100 acts of vandalism, Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Archbishop Paul Coakley said those deeds “underscore that our society is in sore need of God’s grace.” Catholics should be role models, reaching out with “prayer and forgiveness” to persons trapped in disruptive behaviors. If they sought retribution for some fault of ours, we pursue reconciliation. If they were angry about a Church teaching, “we must offer clarity” — which puts even greater demands on our mission of evangelizing the culture.

But there is no room for passivity. The USCCB statement instructs Catholics to speak up and condemn attacks on our faith — and to insist that our politicians and neighbors take seriously our injury and sorrow. Charity must tame our anger, but the Oct. 14 statement supports encouraging proper police enforcement and prevention, plus insisting that “this destruction must stop.”

It is good citizenship to champion accountability in our personal and civic lives, digging for and addressing the whole, grim truths behind any evil actions we observe — or perform.

We might wonder: Is the widespread weakening of religious virtue, grounded in Christ’s love and forgiveness, giving way to a distorted secular “religion,” mocking, polarizing, hating not the sin but the sinner?

We need to start redirecting the restless hearts, which St. Augustine cites, back toward resting in God — not with a culture of death and distraction, but with a respect for history and tradition, embracing symbols and realities that give life meaning. We need to point out the joy found in each unique human being and in the good images (ideally, the image of God) people want to emulate. The objects of faith we see vandalized were not part of the problem. Remember, they are part of the solution.