Stop the toppling: We Catholics love our statues, saints, and all children of God

A vandalized statue of St. Junipero Serra in San Francisco is seen June 19, 2020. The Spanish Franciscan founded several missions in what is now California. (CNS/David Zandman via Reuters)

We wouldn’t venture a guess at the total number of life-sized statues located on Catholic properties throughout the Diocese of Peoria. It is certainly in the hundreds and likely in the thousands. Most are inside churches and chapels, hospitals, schools, etc., while others are outside in cemeteries or on parish and institution grounds.

Made of all manner of materials, our religious statues are examples of sacred art. Most depict Jesus, Mary, or St. Joseph. St. Francis of Assisi and St. Patrick are especially popular figures. But within our diocese are statues of a host of other saints and notable figures. Some, like the statue of St. Malachy inside the church in Geneseo, represent parish patrons. A 1,000-pound bronze image of Mother Teresa outside of St. Mary’s Cathedral commemorates the saint’s 1995 visit to Peoria.

Whether they are exquisite or functionary, these works of art draw us to prayer and inspire us to reflect on God’s goodness, love, and beauty. They are holy to us.

So it is no wonder that church leaders and the Catholic faithful around the United States reacted strongly when the vandalizing and toppling of statues that began with Confederate leaders spread to include Catholic figures such as St. Junipero Serra in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In St. Louis, there have been protests at the statue of St. Louis, the King, in Forest Park, and even calls to rename the city.

After the Serra statue and others were brought down as part of a protest against racial inequality, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco said in a statement: “The memorialization of historic figures merits an honest and fair discussion as to how and to whom such honor should be given. But here, there was no such rational discussion; it was mob rule, a troubling phenomenon that seems to be repeating itself throughout the country.”

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez asked Catholics of the archdiocese to invoke the intercession of St. Junipero Sierra “for this nation that he helped to found.” Noting the saint’s feast day is July 1, he also urged prayers especially for “an end to racial prejudice and a new awareness of what it means that all men and women are created equal as children of God.”

When a Black activist publicly encouraged the destruction of “white” statues and other artistic depictions of Jesus — labeling them as forms of “white supremacy” — Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison, Wisconsin, issued a strong response.

“In the Catholic Church, every culture, country, ethnicity, and race has claimed Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary as their own,” he wrote. “Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego as a mestiza, African art depicts Jesus as Black, Asian depictions of the Blessed Mother, too take on similarities of both bodily appearance and, often, cultural garb. In this context, are white representations of Christ and His Mother inherently signs of white supremacy? I think not.”

As we approach the Fourth of July, we are grateful for the religious freedom we enjoy to practice our faith — including displaying on our property statues of saints who were imperfect men and women striving to live holy lives. We continue to pray that the energy being summoned in this moment to dismantle racism and create a more equal society is directed toward efforts that bring reconciliation and peace, not violence and destruction that only work against those worthy goals. — Thomas J. Dermody

 

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