A wave of recent attacks on Catholic statues around the country and fires at two churches prompted the chairmen of two U.S. bishops' committees to decry "the destruction of these holy symbols of selfless love and devotion."
"Whether those who committed these acts were troubled individuals crying out for help or agents of hate seeking to intimidate, the attacks are signs of a society in need of healing," said Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami and Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City in a joint statement late July 22.
"In those incidents where human actions are clear, the motives still are not. As we strain to understand the destruction of these holy symbols of selfless love and devotion, we pray for any who have caused it, and we remain vigilant against more of it," they said.
Archbishop Wenski is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Religious Liberty, and Archbishop Coakley is chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
Among incidents the two prelates pointed out were the beheading of a statue of Christ at a Catholic church in the Miami Archdiocese, the defacing of a statue of Mary outside a Catholic school in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. They also highlighted two church fires, one that severely damaged the interior of a church in the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, and one that gutted a 230-year-old mission church in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
"Our nation finds itself in an extraordinary hour of cultural conflict," Archbishops Wenski and Coakley said. "The path forward must be through the compassion and understanding practiced and taught by Jesus and his holy Mother.
"Let us contemplate, rather than destroy, images of these examples of God's love," they said. "Following the example of Our Lord, we respond to confusion with understanding and to hatred with love."
In recent weeks, angry mobs have toppled statues of figures such as St. Junípero Serra, a Franciscan priest from Spain who founded several missions in California. Statues of historical figures, like Christopher Columbus, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass, also have been knocked down and heavily damaged.
In the Miami Archdiocese, the beheaded statue of Christ was found July 15 at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Southwest Miami-Dade. The statue also was knocked from its pedestal.
"The statue, located outside the church, was on private and sacred property," said Mary Ross Agosta, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Miami. She told the local Fox News affiliate Archbishop Wenski requested investigators consider the vandalism "a hate crime."
The Department of Homeland Security is among the agencies investigating the case.
In a statement, parish officials said: "It is too soon to arrive to any conclusion, but we have seen other churches vandalized around the country. We totally 'condemn' this action. We invite our community to pray for peace."
In the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colorado, an unidentified person used red paint to deface a statue of Mary in front of St. Mary's Cathedral in downtown Colorado Springs July 15.
"It does look like a graffiti tag more than anything else," Father David Price, the cathedral's rector, told local reporters. "I'm not sure there was any sense or meaning behind it."
In the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, Father Manuel Perez, pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Chattanooga, found a statue of Mary on the parish grounds knocked over and beheaded. News reports said the 5-foot-tall statue was worth $2,000. The missing head has not been found.
As in Florida, the Department of Homeland Security is looking into the incident, which occurred over the July 11-12 weekend, as a possible hate crime.
"Anytime something like this happens it is disappointing and concerning," said Diocese of Knoxville diocesan spokesman Jim Wogan in a statement. "We don't know if this was the targeted desecration of a sacred statue, or some kind of misguided prank, but it hurts.
"For whatever reason we are living in a very chaotic time and anger seems to be the default setting for people," he added. "Our bishop has asked that we live by the example set in the Gospel of Matthew, to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated."
Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika tweeted about the incident July 13, saying "what a strange time" we live in. "Over the weekend, an outdoor statue of the Blessed Mother was beheaded at St. Stephen Parish in Chattanooga. This is occurring at various spots throughout the United States."
A statue of Mary was found defaced July 10 on the grounds of Cathedral Prep School and Seminary in the Brooklyn Diocese.
Father James Kuroly, Cathedral Prep's rector and president, called the incident "an act of hatred."
"Obviously, this tragedy saddens us deeply," he said in a statement, "but it also renews our hope and faith in the Lord as he has shown his goodness in the many people who have already reached out to us." He urged prayers "for those who committed this act of vandalism and hatred toward Our Lady and the church."
Police in Boston were likewise investigating a fire that damaged a statue of Mary outside St. Peter Church the evening of July 11. News reports said flowers in Mary's hands were set on fire, causing damage from her arms up to her face.
Fire also claimed much of two Catholic churches, one in Florida and one in California.
In the Orlando Diocese, a man crashed his van through the doors of Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Ocala early in the morning July 11. Once inside, he set the interior of the church ablaze. There were no injuries reported.
Police later apprehended the suspect who had fled the scene, identified as Anthony Steven Shields, 24, who was charged with several felonies, including attempted second-degree murder, arson to a structure and felony fleeing or attempting to elude.
In Los Angeles, a fire ravaged the church at Mission San Gabriel Arcangel in the predawn hours of July 11. Investigators have not yet determined what started the blaze that gutted the 230-year-old church.