What Do We Do When Churches Are Attacked?

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 39

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., holds 10,000 people: 6,000 in the main nave and 4,000 in the crypt. In September 2020, the Shrine celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding. The city government allowed just 100 people to attend.

Other places, like restaurants, were given more generous limits. But worship was considered “non-essential,” and therefore no one needed the church buildings in which Christians worship. The secular iconoclasts couldn’t tear down the church, but they could empty it.

The Church faces more violent secular iconoclasts. In the last few years, we have seen horrifying attacks on Catholic churches and art in them. The iconoclasts feel a very visceral need to destroy a religion they believe is wrong, so they destroy its physical expressions in order to prevent others from having devotion to or taking joy in it. We see this in the case of conscious destruction of a symbol of a government or an economic regime, like the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. The act is meant not only to destroy, but to incite fear and to cripple.

The destruction of images is an act of war. Vandals (an old word from ancient Rome) destroyed the images of people they hated, which often led to actual violence against the people the images portrayed as well as against the thing they represented. The French Revolution began with the destruction of images of the royalty and sacred art, the expressions of the old order, but quickly moved to killing the people who represented the old order.

The destruction shows us something important and good about our churches, and points to the responsibility we have to care for them and to protect them.

The Destruction

In previous times and not so long ago, saints have been recognized for defending the Church by defending churches. How are the acts connected—defending the Church and defending the churches?

In 1704, two native catechists in the Apalachee Province of Florida were martyred during an invasion of their village. They refused to leave the church building, saying that they were in the house of God, that God’s house was their house and they wanted no other. The assailants mocked them and set the church on fire. During the same invasion, a fourteen-year-old native named Manuel, who aspired to become a Franciscan priest, was tortured and died trying to put out a fire in a chapel.

Another example is Blessed Joan Roig Diggle, beatified by Pope Francis in November 2020. He was martyred in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s at age nineteen. There was a great outpouring of hatred toward Catholics during the war. Armed members of anti-Catholic hate groups destroyed thousands of churches.

Blessed Joan was a catechist in Barcelona and was given the Blessed Sacrament to take to those who could not go to church. One night he had the Blessed Sacrament in his room to distribute the next day, and the police came for him. He consumed the Blessed Sacrament before he was taken away and shot by a firing squad. He died trying to protect the Blessed Sacrament, trying to defend the Church, trying to defend the churches.

Acts of Violence

Let us highlight a few examples from the past year of conscious acts of violence against churches. Two churches in Santiago, Chile, Santa Maria Asuncion and San Francisco de Borgia, were destroyed in November 2020 by a group unhappy with the government. There are photographs of the vandals in the act of destruction. They seem to be taking pleasure in the destruction of a beautiful building, which took their ancestors a lot of effort, time, and money to build. Even though the churches are valued and loved by fellow Chileans, the vandals feel that they have the right to destroy it.

Over twenty churches in France have been victims of arson over the last two years.  The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Nantes, France, was set on fire in July 2020. A sacristan in the church started the fire. In the images of it you see fire coming out of the stone building, and even though stone is supposed to be fireproof, it is not. The beautiful pipe organ was destroyed. If the fire hadn’t been stopped, it would have caused much greater damage.

The organ in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Nantes, France, was destroyed in an arson attack in July 2020. Photo: wikimedia.org/GO69.

In Sicily, some criminals came in to Sant’Agata al Collegio in Caltanissetta to rob the church. Part of their act was the conscious destruction of the Blessed Sacrament and the tabernacle.

In the United States, a man in Florida drove his car into a church narthex last July, and then set it on fire. He said he was angry at the Church, so he decided to destroy the building.

At the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in El Paso, Texas, there is a beautiful high altar with a statue of the Sacred Heart. Someone went to a lot of trouble there to destroy this statue. Why commit violence against a statue? In this case, it was against the image of the Redeemer, the main focus of the church. Why would you do that? Probably to send a message, or to shock or give fear.

The Cathedral of Saint Patrick in El Paso before the Sacred Heart statue was destroyed. Photo: flickr.com/Robert Storch. 

Saint Gabriel Mission in California, founded by Junipero Serra 250 years ago, was also struck by a fire last summer. We don’t know if it was arson, but it happened during the summer of violence against Catholic churches and against statues in this country. In a sense it was a mini-conflagration, like at Notre-Dame Cathedral.

In general, I don’t think these people are angry at the buildings or the art, but they are angry at the Church. And so they attack the church building, which makes sense if the church building is really something that is sacred. If the building is just a functional structure, it doesn’t make sense to attack it, because it doesn’t do anything or symbolize anything.

That’s the implicit message, sometimes made explicit as at Sant’Agata al Collegio. And that is how defending the Church and defending the churches is connected. The vandals’ desire to attack the Eucharist is antagonism toward the Catholicism itself, an act of aggression against the faith, which holds that it is actually the body and blood of Christ. Sacrilege is done in order to send a message. These attacks on churches are not just random destruction, but are sacrilegious attacks on the Catholic religion, and against Catholics, and especially against the One the Church worships.

Notre-Dame Wakes Us Up

However, secular iconoclasm is only part of the story. The whole world was shocked by the fire at Notre-Dame in Paris. It woke up many, including many of the French, to the importance of the building. And not just that famous building, but church buildings in general. Sometimes we don’t appreciate things and people until they are gone. The conflagration inspired a great outpouring of love for the cathedral, which is an icon of Paris, but also an icon of France. Even secular people recognized what the secular iconoclasts do not.

What is it that the iconoclasts hate so much that they must destroy it? The destruction points us to something important about our churches. First, they are symbols of the sacred; second, they are places of worship of God; third, the buildings (and the artwork) inspire hope; and fourth, the buildings and the elements within them are images of the body of Christ. If the churches weren’t these things, and were the Church not what she is, people would be less passionate about destroying her buildings.

The building itself is a symbol of the sacred. It is symbolic of eternity, of the saints, of heaven and earth touching. Churches in the middle of cities, such as Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, even though smaller than the skyscrapers, express the presence of the sacred.

The church is a place of worship. It is the home of the Blessed Sacrament, where the Mass is celebrated, and a place where the faithful come to pray and adore. There Christians receive strength and experience community.

Churches inspire hope. I think that was very clear in the case of the conflagration at Notre-Dame. Large crowds gathered to witness it in shock. Spontaneous prayers and hymns arose. Why would all these people gather around and look at a church as it was being destroyed? This was not a day of happiness for them. It was a day of sadness, whether they were Catholic, Protestant, agnostic, or otherwise. Parisians saw that the building itself inspires hope and the building and its artwork are a representation of Our Lady and her son.

Churches offer an image of God. Catholicism teaches that the body is good, that God created the body for good, and that God becoming man showed how good it is. The Incarnation gives the human form the greatest dignity it could ever bear. The beauty of Christ the son and the beauty of his mother, who represents the Church, is reflected profoundly in the Pietà. We see the sadness of death and loss, and yet also the beauty of the one who was willing to offer his body for us.

The fact that these things are good is also the reason that people want to destroy them. They would not want to destroy these buildings, burn them down, destroy statues, and so on, if there wasn’t a connection. If there wasn’t something possibly true to these images and these buildings, there might not be a reason to tear them down. The vandals are not arguing that the churches should be torn down because the roof leaks, they are uncomfortable, or they are not beautiful.

Five Suggestions

There are a number of things that we can learn from these attacks on buildings. But we cannot leave it at that. How can we respond? I offer five suggestions. We protect, we exorcise, we reparate, we restore, and we rebuild.

First, we protect. We protect our churches because they are places that are necessary for faith, for religion, and for the practice of religion. Having the buildings also helps protect our God-given right of freedom of religion. In peaceful times, we protect them in the usual ways, like having someone there when the church is open and by providing security for them. In times of danger, we physically protect them, such as in World War I and II, when cathedrals in Europe were covered inside and outside with sandbags. The bags were a shield of protection from mortars or bombs, as we see in wartime images of Notre-Dame and Amiens.

A statue of Saint Joan of Arc stands in front of the Reims Cathedral, which suffered damage in World War I. In this photo from 1917, sandbags can be seen stacked around the statues on the lower register of the façade. Photo: wikimedia.org/Public Domain

Second, we exorcise. Catholics recognize that an assault on a church or sacred art is an act of evil, which needs to be exorcised. After two statues of Junipero Serra were destroyed in San Francisco last summer, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone performed a minor exorcism, saying “Catholics experienced this as a wound to the soul that needed to be healed.”

Third, we reparate. “We have gathered together to pray, asking God’s mercy upon us and upon our whole city, that we might turn our hearts back to him,” Cordileone said. They prayed the rosary and blessed the ground with holy water “so that God might purify it, sanctify it, and that we in turn might be sanctified.”

Fourth, we restore. Notre-Dame in Paris was attacked during the French Revolution. We see the evidence from early nineteenth-century images where statues on the outside are missing, altars are destroyed, and the central tower is missing. The tower at the crossing was removed around the time of the French Revolution and not rebuilt.

How do we restore a great building? It took Viollet-le-Duc thirty years to rebuild Notre Dame. He rebuilt it better than it had been. His flèche was bigger and better than what it had been in the eighteenth century. He added the twelve apostles on the roof, and all those wonderful gargoyles. Viollet loved gargoyles and added hundreds to Notre-Dame. In the French Revolution, the revolutionaries removed many of the statues or cut off their heads to symbolically destroy the Church, the king, and the nobility.

Viollet had hundreds of statues of Old Testament kings and queens on the front façade resculpted. He created new Gothic designs for chapels, new artwork and liturgical elements, and new stained glass to reflect the beauty of this great building.

Fifth, we rebuild. We restore the buildings when we can, but we rebuild when necessary. The Frauenkirche in Dresden was destroyed by the Allies in World War II. After the communist government kept the ruins as a war memorial for fifty years, the Germans beautifully rebuilt it. The Frauenkirche was rebuilt almost totally from scratch—the dark stones are the originals, and the light stones are modern, all cut new for the building. It was rebuilt as close as possible to the way it was.

An example that many Americans are familiar with: the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the Main Building at the University of Notre Dame are two of the most beloved buildings on the campus. Both have been rebuilt, the chapel two times and the Main Building after a great fire destroyed it in April 1879. Father Sorin and Father Corby pledged to rebuild it “more accommodating and grandiose.” They did, and opened it in time for the fall semester that year.

Joseph Stalin destroyed the cathedral of Moscow in 1931. He planned to build in its place a great palace of Communism, but the lot ended up being used as a swimming pool. After the end of Communism, the cathedral was rebuilt. Photographs and a few drawings of the original guided the work, but the artists and the architects had a great challenge in trying to replicate the building and the artwork which had been totally destroyed. The carving of the stone, the marble, and all the artwork took great talent and funding. It is an amazing building, just finished in 2000.

Dome of the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Photo: wikimedia.org/Ben Bender

We protect, we exorcize, we reparate, we restore, and we rebuild. We learn from these contemporary dangers and try to prevent future conflagrations from happening. And our work will never end because, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “the Church must be forever building.”