Holy Fire: Renewal After Destruction

Note: As all the world now knows, Pope Francis said Wednesday, in passing, in a video about his papacy, that gay people should be allowed to form civil unions. That was not a doctrinal statement and was asserted in a casual context, not a formal Vatican document. But it certainly adds yet another confusion to his legacy and is already being portrayed in the secular world and among liberal Catholics as a significant change. Unfortunately, this story broke too late, given other commitments, for us to do an analysis. Fr. Gerald Murray and Robert Royal were interviewed, however, by the ‘Wall Street Journal,’ and their comments may be viewed, in part, here. (The whole story is behind the ‘Journal’ paywall, but readers without a WSJ subscription can read some excerpts by clicking above or on our Notable in the left-hand column of this page.) We’ll be addressing this subject at length very soon.

I recently received a message from a former student, now a teacher at Catholic High School, who alarmingly wrote: “Dr Murzaku – hoping you are well. Did you hear about the vandalism at St Agatha church in Sicily? It’s terrible.” She had taken one of my study abroad courses in Sicily and was devastated by the news.

The Church of St. Agatha in Caltanissetta, Sicily, had undergone a new attack – robbery and desecration, the Eucharist thrown on the ground, relics demolished, the glass of a sleeping Madonna underneath a side altar shattered and her arm broken, and destruction of sacred objects. Little did my student know that the recent act of vandalism and desecration happened only a month after a previous raid on the same church.

But things were even worse closer to home. A few weeks ago, news broke that Fr. Travis Clark, who since 2019 was pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Parish, in Pearl River, Louisiana, had committed an act of desecration and sacrilege on the church’s altar. Fr. Travis had group sex with two professional dominatrices on the church’s altar and was caught on video by an eyewitness who informed the police.

The intervention of Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans was immediate and strong: the priest was permanently removed from ministry and will never “serve again in Catholic ministry.” In a video message released by the Archdiocese, Archbishop Aymond condemned the act of altar desecration, saying:

His [Travis Clark’s] desecration of the altar and the church was demonic, and I am infuriated by his actions. When the details became clear, we had the altar removed and burned. I will consecrate a new altar.

The archbishop’s measures had to do with protecting the sacredness of the altar because, in the Catholic Church, an altar is not an ornament, a decoration, or a piece of furniture. Instead, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the altar is:

the New Covenant is the Lord’s Cross, from which the sacraments of the Paschal mystery flow. On the altar, which is the center of the church, the sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs. The altar is also the table of the Lord, to which the People of God are invited. In certain Eastern liturgies, the altar is also the symbol of the tomb (Christ truly died and is truly risen). [1182]

Additionally, Canon 1239 §1, of the Code of Canon Law, specifies that an altar must be reserved for divine worship alone, to the absolute exclusion of any profane or sacrilegious use. If Canon 1212 were to be applied in this case, because of the group sex act performed on the altar, the altar was violated by gravely injurious actions to the scandal of the faithful.

The violations were so grave and contrary to the holiness of the place (Canon 1211) that the altar of the Saints Peter and Paul Parish lost its dedication or blessing – it cannot be used for sacred functions anymore.  The absolute exclusion and the lost dedication explain the three-step-action of the archbishop, which entailed removal of the old, purification by fire, and the dedication of a new altar – all part of the penitential rite of restoration.

*

Obviously, desecration is the contrary of holiness. The prophet Ezekiel used harsh words to warn his hearers of the radical nature of the sacrilege committed when the sanctuaries were defiled:

Therefore, as I live, says the Lord GOD, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your atrocities and all your abominations, I will surely withdraw and not look upon you with pity nor spare you. (5:11)

What Ezekiel was describing were the devastating consequences for all those involved in the act of desecration: God was going to strike, because the holy had been desecrated and violated.

Fire symbolizes destruction and judgment, but it is also a manifestation of God and a sign of renewal. The Lord rained down sulfur upon Sodom and Gomorrah, fire from the Lord out of heaven. (Gen. 19:24) God burned the idols: “Taking the calf they had made, he burned it in the fire and then ground it down to powder, which he scattered on the water and made the Israelites drink” (Ex. 32:20).

But destruction by fire and judgment by fire have also a constructive element. Fire is the manifestation of God and a means of the renewal of man.

John the Baptist, when he was speaking to unrepentant people, warned them that the one who was coming after him would baptize them differently: with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Mt. 3:11) This new baptism would bring Salvation; fire would destroy sin and give new life.

“Baptism by fire” is destructive and constructive at the same time; it is a fire that consumes sin and evil and causes new and regenerative life to bloom.

Archbishop Aymond reaffirmed this truth with the burning of that desecrated altar. And he then met with his brother priests and called on them to renew their vows and will celebrate a Mass of Reparation.

As for the Church of St. Agatha in Caltanissetta, Sicily, police arrested two individuals who are believed to be the vandals.  Funds immediately poured in to repair the damage and restore the altar.

Evil and the desecration of the holy we always have with us. And with the rise of post-Christian and anti-Christian currents in our culture such outrages are becoming more frequent and flagrant. (Two churches in Chile were just burned to the ground during political protests and Catholic sites around the United States have come under increasing attack.). But as the quickly purged and restored altars testify, the Church is still prompt to renewal – precisely because it is the real and living Body of Christ.

 

*Image: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by Joachim Patinir, c, 1520 [Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam]

Ines A. Murzaku

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her extensive research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. Her latest book, edited and translated with Raymond L. Capra and Douglas J. Milewski, is The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Dr. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs.

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