Guest Commentary – July 13, 2020

Newspapers with reading glasses on background

Tearing down, lifting up

— Annie Dixon

Recently a social activist received national attention for targeting images and “stained glass windows of white Jesus and his European mother and their white European friends” as a “gross form of white supremacy” and calling for them to be torn down. While this follows protests demanding the destruction of statuary on display in the public square, it is a separate issue.

Stained glass windows, statuary and other devotional imagery are not paid for with tax dollars nor installed where taxpayers must confront them. Rather, they are funded by voluntary donations of parishioners and are housed within or on the grounds of places of worship which welcome all but cannot force the attendance of any.

A healthy society should engage in civil debate concerning the meaning of imagery and names we must encounter when we must go to school or are summoned to court, or simply want to walk in a publicly funded park or drive down a municipal boulevard.

However, those wishing to avoid “white Jesus” need only sleep late on Sundays. This is not oppression. Neither is it a national or a political issue. This discussion belongs at the intersection of religion and art and is an issue for local parishes which have been addressing it with sincere concern for decades — long before it was “woke.”

Catholic churches in America are the repository of some fine artwork, much of it in the European tradition but also including some handsome portrayals of Jesus, his family, and followers as black, Hispanic, Asian and Jewish.

Most of these are recent works, commissioned by donors and committee members who made an effort to be inclusive; others are older legacies, most of which offer only supporting roles to people of color, e.g., the Magi or specific saints.

In the Diocese of Richmond, stained glass windows have been commissioned that depict a black Good Shepherd, Our Lady of Lavang from Vietnam, Mexican martyr José Sánchez del Rio and African saints Charles Lwanga, Monica and Augustine. However, more relevant to the current debate on removal have been decisions made regarding existing imagery.

A predominantly black parish had the traditional white corpus gilded and installed in the chapel, then commissioned a corpus carved in Africa for the new sanctuary. A black pastor persuaded his predominantly white congregation to order their new crucifix in bronze rather than painted.

Meanwhile, an urban parish with kente cloth altar linens opted to maintain the historic and artistic integrity of its German Gothic windows rather than switch out some apostles for darker versions. In the capital city that is in turmoil over Confederate statues, a parish had its Martin de Porres statue restored, along with updating the inscription from “Blessed” to “Saint” as it has been on display there since before his canonization in 1962.

Religious stained glass and statuary are works of art employed to spread the Gospel. While political activists demand immediate and destructive action on current causes, the faithful are called to carefully and prayerfully consider how best to visually manifest the eternal truths in the teachings of Jesus in order to uplift souls.

This is stewardship, and it is best done lovingly and locally — apart from angry national politics which cannot produce inspiring beauty because, as St. Maximilian Kolbe said, “Hate is not a creative force; love alone creates.”

Annie Dixon is the project manager for Dixon Studio, a national liturgical arts firm in Staunton, which has worked with hundreds of churches to create and restore stained glass windows and statues, including those projects referenced in the Richmond Diocese.

Understand what clericalism is and is not

— Father Pat Apuzzo

Should we confine considerations of clericalism only to the clergy? When we include the laity, do we dodge (disputed) claims that the clerical lifestyle is uniquely defective?

Those questions surfaced from comments and discussions about my commentary on clericalism that appeared in the April 6 Catholic Virginian. They prompted me to revisit clericalism with two aims.

First, I want to put tangents aside to face the injury that clericalism inflicts on good-willed people. Secondly, I want to reduce confusion over what clericalism is and is not.

Consider these two instances of clericalism:

Young parents seek baptism for their child. A parish staff person says, “Check back when you get back to coming to church” – as if even the couple’s stumbling step can’t lead to Jesus.

Then, there’s this:

Pastoral leaders, clergy or lay, avoid troublesome or skeptical youth. They have scruples about offering too much direction and support to adults who can’t find their place with God – not trusting Jesus that it’s righteous to leave the 99 for the one that’s lost.

Clericalism is corruption

Clericalism is not a “baked in” defect. Clericalism is corruption stemming from poorly made choices. It is a choice to wear an “Artisan Baker” nametag and then serve rocks instead of bread.

Clericalism describes a kind of behavior, not the people who fall into that behavior. Clericalism is words or actions, either committed or omitted, that damage our lives as Catholics.

Recently, I posted a brief statement on social media that concerned the crisis over individuals who do not live up to the authentic purposes of policing – to serve, defend and protect. The post said simply this: “Bad police are no police at all.”

There’s a difference between “bad apples” and impostors. That distinction came into play for me 20 years ago. While serving as Bishop Walter Sullivan’s spokesperson during the justified fury over sexually abusive priests, a reporter asked me about priests who were ashamed to wear a collar in public.

I said, “Remember, priests have not become abusers. Abusers have become priests.”

All Catholics — laity, religiously professed and ordained — share the same priestly duties established at baptism. When we stray from the cardinal choice to keep Jesus at the center of all our relating, we are “doing clericalism.”

What clericalism is not

Regarding what clericalism is not, I owe a good part of my convictions to two priests and two laywomen.

Father Kelly came from Ireland. In 1915, he became pastor of St. Francis Church in Fair Haven, Conn. He held a weekly Mass for Italian immigrants in the basement of St. Francis.

Father Kelly soon grew weary of St. Francis parishioners who would not welcome the Italians. He left there to get the Italians their own parish. By 1917, Father Kelly opened St. Donato Church in Fair Haven. My mother was among the first St. Donato parishioners.

Born in 1897 and ordained a priest in 1923, Bishop John Russell lived in a Church era that many romanticize as “conservative and uninvolved in worldly matters.” As our bishop from 1958 to 1973, Bishop Russell initiated the Diocesan Commission on Ecumenical Affairs and the Priest and Pastoral Councils.

When desegregation came, he added a racism-flagging interview to our school enrollment process. As localities clung to segregation, he integrated our schools. Bishop Russell also joined in the petition from which the Supreme Court abolished laws against inter-racial marriage.

The two laywomen are my longtime friends. The first’s entire career has been to teach, and now direct, programs that prepare people to transform conflicts nonviolently. Her work – to repair broken relationships and mobilize to build justice-based societies – is rooted in the Church’s social justice teachings.

I’ve collaborated with the second woman in her convictions about religious formation. The Vatican’s recently released Directory on Catechesis confirms her belief that the starting point for catechists is trust.

With a confidence that the Holy Spirit is already at work in the men and women of the Church, catechists serve parishes and dioceses as communities of learners and teachers of the faith.

All four of these people demonstrate that there’s no instant recipe to help people develop relationships with Jesus and each other. Instead, we must make repeated choices to stay engaged with patience and compassion.

Jesus guides us away from clericalism when he encourages us to keep on trying with those struggling to grow in faith. Even when many tries seem like too many, Jesus tells us to hang in — not just for seven tries — “but for seventy times seven” tries (Mt 18:22).

Father Pat has been a priest in our diocese for 44 years. Before retirement, he served as a pastor for 24 years and as “priest-for” at parishes without a local pastor. He served as priest secretary for the late Bishop Walter Sullivan and in several other positions on the diocesan staff.

Scroll to Top