Church Vandalism in Spain: Credit Where It’s Due

Who would have thought that, in the 21st century, one would be able to regularly blog about or even tweet regarding acts of church vandalism in Spain? From Madrid to Barcelona and beyond, it seems that every week there is a new story of uncivilized, sometimes politically motivated, acts of violence against the fabric of the Church. As appalling as these events are however, it is extremely important to stress that cooler heads must prevail when reporting on these events. Not every physical attack on a church building comes about as a result of political action.

Recently for example, I learnt of a new act of vandalism in the historically important city of Burgos, located in central Spain. Two 13th century statues on the main entrance portal of the church of San Esteban (i.e. St. Stephen) were decapitated sometime late on Holy Thursday or early in the morning of Good Friday by an unknown person or persons. San Esteban was built between the 13th and 14th centuries, and is considered by some architectural historians to be the most important example of Gothic church architecture in the city after the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Mayor. It was declared a National Monument of Spain in 1931, and at the present time it serves as the Altarpiece Museum for the Archdiocese of Burgos.

This morning Spanish authorities announced the capture and charging of an individual in connection with the case. The heads of the statues of St. Peter and St. Lawrence were recovered by the National Police from the individual, and these have been returned to the church for restoration. The defendant is a local man, who had been arrested and charged recently with antiquities theft in another matter, but was out on bond at the time of the San Esteban incident.

From the beginning the Archdiocese of Burgos has been very careful not to jump to the conclusion that this was an anticlerical act, and expressed its belief that this was probably an act of theft. Vandalism of ancient churches to feed the black market in looted antiquities is a problem throughout Europe, and Spain is no exception. When the incident was first reported, a spokesman for the Archdiocese noted the important detail that the heads were taken away, rather than left at the scene, as would normally be expected from leftist vandals. Nor was there any accompanying graffiti or other indications to suggest that the vandalism was a politically motivated act.

A similar, commendable restraint was shown by the Archdiocese of Barcelona and local authorities last week, when the sacristy of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia was torched by a mentally ill man. Neither the Archdiocese nor the police alleged that there was any connection between the individual and leftist anti-Catholic actions. By taking this cautionary approach in Burgos, Barcelona, and elsewhere, the Church is doing exactly what it needs to do, even if authorities are often powerless to prevent vandalism – politically motivated or not – against its property.

There is a trait in the Spanish character at all points along the socio-political spectrum to jump to conclusions about the cause or motivations behind an act, which at the moment the Church appears to be avoiding institutionally, unless there is undeniable proof of an anti-Catholic motivation. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years of the Spanish tendency to form an opinion with insufficient evidence occurred on March 11, 2004, when the Madrid subway system was bombed three days before national elections were scheduled. The conservative government and some elements of the media immediately blamed ETA, the Basque separatist group, which denied all involvement – and admittedly the charge against them seemed rather bizarre to outside observers at the time, including this writer, since attacks like these are not the usual m.o. for ETA.

Through subsequent investigation it quickly came to light that the Madrid subway attacks were carried out not by Basque separatists, but rather by Muslim terrorists. The public reaction against the conservatives for making ETA the scapegoat for 3/11, as the subway bombing has come to be known, was harsh and swift; the small lead which the conservatives had enjoyed as the election was drawing to a close completely evaporated. This catapulted Mr. Rodriguez Zapatero and the Spanish Socialist Party into office, where they remain at the present time.

There is without question a rising sentiment of anticlerical fervor in Spain, and this needs to be addressed both through engaging those who seek to harm the Church, and by insisting that civil authorities do their job to maintain law and order. However, the bishops, the media, and the laity need to act with restraint when assigning blame to acts of Church vandalism. Tarring with too a wide brush will only hurt the perception of the Church in the court of public opinion, creating a “boy who cried wolf” situation. And it is among the members of the law-abiding public, Catholic or not, where the real power to combat deliberate acts of anticlericalism resides.

The 13th century statues of St. Peter (L) and St. Lawrence (R)
on the entrance portal of San Esteban in Burgos, prior to last week’s vandalism

>Some Thoughts on the Papal Mass at La Sagrada Familia

>My regular readers know that all last week I wrote a series of articles dealing with various topics related to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Barcelona yesterday to dedicate the Basilica of the Holy Family. And yes, I did get up at 3:30 in the morning in order to live-tweet the coverage of the Papal Mass on Catalan television. The television coverage was excellent, particularly some of the swooping camera angles that TV3 Catalunya used via robotic cameras to try to capture the sheer size of the interior.

Although there was only one news feed to media outlets, i.e. the TV3 shots, I must say that whoever the English-language commentator was for EWTN, she made repeated errors. She kept referring to the Sagrada Familia as a “cathedral”, for example, and the Sagrada Familia is emphatically not the Cathedral of the Metropolitan See of Barcelona. It is an Expiatory Temple, and it is (now) a Minor Basilica, but Barcelona already has a beautiful Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia, primarily built during the 14th century. The commonplace error of referring to the Sagrada Familia as a “cathedral” might be expected among the secular media, but Catholics should know better.

I was also very disappointed with Twitter. Those of my readers who were awake and followed my tweets know that just about the point where the Holy Father blessed and distributed the incense, Twitter stopped me from live-tweeting, and I was not able to resume tweeting until nearly the end of mass, when the Pope came out to the Nativity Facade to address the crowds and pray the Angelus. I don’t have an explanation as to why this happened, though perhaps the unusual number of tweets and the strange time made Twitter think my account had been hijacked.

Here are a few other observations on the day:

– As I had predicted, Queen Sofia wore white, or in this case, technically a “winter white”, which is her royal prerogative as a Queen of Spain, granted by the Popes back in the 15th century.

– Yes there was some of the expected Leftist nonsense about pro-homosexual intercourse, pro-contraception, pro-female priests, pro-infanticide, on the streets, but not nearly anything to write home about. Most of that seems to have been from small groups looking for photographers, since none of that had any impact on the mass and was blissfully absent from the television coverage I saw. In fact I did not even see any images of this until later in the day.

– I was thrilled to see that the Benedictine Nuns of Sant Pere de les Puel.les were chosen to dress, and decorate the high altar after it had been consecrated. Historically they are of tremendous significance to the people of Barcelona. The Convent of Sant Pere de les Puel.les is the oldest continuously extant religious house for women in Barcelona, founded in 801 A.D., and then made a royal monastery by Princess Adelaida in 945 A.D., who had taken the veil and eventually became the abbess. When Dad and Mum are the rulers, you get some pull.

– The music was infinitely better than what I heard in Washington, New York, or Westminster, I must say. Was it accidental or deliberate that not only did the combined choir of some 800 voices sing Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” and adapt his “Alleluia” from the “Exsultate, jubilate” to use as the Alleluia for the Gospel, given that the Pope’s favorite composer is Mozart? I would say the latter, but either way these pieces, as well as the rest, were beautifully done.

– On a similar note – so to speak – there is an expression in Catalan, “If you pinch a stranger on the street and he does not cry out in perfect pitch, he’s not Catalan.” Like the Welsh in Britain, the various choirs and choral groups in Catalonia are considered by many classical musicians to be the best in the Iberian Peninsula. Those watching the coverage would have noticed the group of choir boys dressed in what look something like sleeveless white albs with long-sleeved black tunics underneath: these are the members of the Escolania de Montserrat, the boys choir of the Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat, which is the oldest boys’ choir in Europe.

– Don’t ask me why King Juan Carlos did not receive communion; I have seen him decline to receive, and I have seen him receive. I can tell you from experience that Catholic Spaniards – or at least, the ones I am familiar with in my family – very often refrain from receiving communion every time they go to mass, even if they go to mass every Sunday or even daily. Old-school Spanish Catholics take being properly disposed to receive very, VERY seriously, and certainly more so than in this country, where people seem to be receiving communion as if they were taking a bus ticket. This Spanish tendency is partially piety, but it also may be some leftover from the Middle Ages for, you may recall from your Church history books, people very often only took communion once or twice a year. Frequent reception of communion is something encouraged, but not demanded by the Church, after all.

– I did think it was unfortunate for the Queen to take communion in the hand [shudder], rather than kneel at the prie-dieu in front of her to receive. Was this voluntary, though? There was no way she could come down from the riser she was on to be at the same elevation as the Pope in order to receive on the tongue, so perhaps the reception in the hand was an instant calculation based on the logistical difficulty of she and the Pope getting to each other and she did not think of the kneeler. The placement of the thrones – really just side chairs – for the King and Queen seemed rather awkward, quite frankly, and they should have been moved elsewhere.

– I could not believe how much chrism oil the Pope spread on the high altar during its dedication. I thought he was just going to mark the four corners, but instead he coated the entire top! Those more versed in liturgical matters than I can tell me whether this is the usual sort of thing or not.

– Didn’t the weather cooperate beautifully? I had been worried from weather reports that it might rain, but the sun shone and the interior of the basilica worked exactly as Gaudi intended. The ceiling is covered in occuli which work as skylights, and shafts of light beam down through into the nave as the sun moves across the sky which, along with the 52 columns, give the impression that one is in a forest of stone trees. It was interesting that on television, everything was bright white, but a number of the photos are dark. Gives you a sense of how tall the interior is, I suppose.

In any case, these are just some thoughts on the day; those readers who watched and have their own to share, please feel free to leave comments! I would be very interested in reading them. Now that the Sagrada Familia has been dedicated, those of us interested in the project can just sit back and enjoy the next couple of decades of construction, as the main facade and the still-to-be-built ginormous main bell towers are completed.

Papal Visit to Barcelona: This Sunday!!!

This is my last blog post before the Papal Visit to Barcelona this Sunday. For those of you who are interested, I will be live-tweeting EWTN’s televised coverage this Sunday morning beginning at 4:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Yes, this sounds very early, but keep in mind that here in the U.S. we are going to be setting our clocks back one hour on Saturday night before we go to bed, so we will be getting an extra hour’s sleep.

In any case, if you wish to follow my live tweets on Sunday morning, or just check in later and see what I thought of the event, bookmark my Twitter Profile at http://twitter.com/wbdnewton

If you wish to watch the Papal Mass live, EWTN will be providing live coverage on their cable channel, or you can watch online on their website by following this link.

Now, some bullet points on details to look out for this Sunday!

– Below is the official poster from the Archdiocese for the Papal Visit; banners imprinted with this image have been put on display on lightposts, in shop windows, on churches, etc. all over Barcelona. The sign reads, in Catalan, “With the Pope at the Sagrada Familia, November 7, 2010”, and in the lower right hand corner is the logo for the event: a silhouette of the Sagrada Familia with the arms of the Archdiocese superimposed:

– A lot of work is going to be continuing inside the Sagrada Familia until the last moment. Because this is still very much a construction site, there is not going to be a great deal of decoration, of course. Then again, the building itself is quite a decoration! Here are a couple of interior photos taken this week:


– The Pope will arrive at El Prat, Barcelona’s airport, from Santiago de Compostela at about 9:00 pm on Saturday. He will then be taken to the Episcopal Palace across from Barcelona’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia, where he will spend the night. Reports indicate that he did not ask for any special accommodation, food, etc., and that he has been given a very simple room, with a window facing onto an interior courtyard (for security reasons.)

– When the Pope arrives at the Sagrada Familia, he will be meeting with King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain in the museum of the basilica before mass. At this point I am not aware whether this is to be a private chat, or whether it will be televised. However it would stand to reason that Their Majesties will be attending the Papal Mass since it has been announced that they will also be at the airport that evening to see the Pope off back to Rome.

– Speaking of the Catholic monarchs, keep an eye out for what color Queen Sofia will be wearing. Historically, it has always been the prerogative of a Queen of Spain to wear white (rather than black) in the presence of the Pope, if she so chooses; she is one of the few women in the world permitted to do so. Below is a picture of her, for example, at the mass for Pope Benedict XVI’s installation at St. Peter’s. She dressed completely in white and wore the full mantilla and peineta, the large ornamental comb used in Spain to hold up and keep the mantilla in place:

– With the presence of the Pope, the King and Queen, the Prime Minister, the Spanish hierarchy, diplomats, politicians, military officers, celebrities, and so on, in addition to the thousands of ordinary parishioners unaccustomed to tight security measures who received tickets, the task of keeping everyone safe at the basilica is going to be an absolute nightmare. Eleven square blocks around the church are to be closed to traffic with checkpoints. Threats are more likely to come from Moslem extremists – with which Barcelona, sadly, is rather full these days – rather than Basque separatists. There will also be Leftist anti-clerical and anarchist elements that are going to try and disrupt the proceedings, as unfortunately Barcelona has also been the center for that sort of nonsense inside of Spain over the past century and a half.

– The Pope is going to be presented with a giant “mona” in honor of his visit by the Barcelona Trade Academies’ School of Pastry. Catalans take their pastries and their chocolates very, VERY seriously, having had a huge influence from France as a result of their geographic, cultural, and political ties over the years. The “mona” is an uniquely Catalan chocolate confection that is often very elaborate; it is usually given out at Easter, though sometimes also on special occasions. It can appear either in a round, cake shape or can be formed in the shape of some object holding meaning for the recipient.

In this case, four of the pastry chef professors at the academy and two of their senior pupils made a “mona” in the shape of the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia, where the Pope will be reciting the Angelus with the faithful at noon on Sunday. This mona is just about 4 feet high, and weighs about 110 pounds! It will be eaten at the luncheon for the Pope hosted by Cardinal Sistach, Archbishop of Barcelona, at the Episcopal Palace after the mass:

– Finally, here are some numbers for your consideration:

+ Of the approximately 6,500 people attending the mass, 2,100 will be from the Barcelona Archdiocese’s parishes. Each parish was distributed 10 Papal Mass tickets to divvy up. Each of the other Catalan dioceses, such as Lleida, Vic, and Girona, were given 20 tickets to distribute for parishioners willing to come the distance to Barcelona.

+ There will be approximately 1,100 bishops and priests in attendance inside the Basilica.

+ The choir at the Papal Mass will number 800 singers, including the Orfeó Català (the chorus from the Palau de la Musica, Barcelona’s Carnegie Hall), and the Escolanía from the Abbey of Montserrat, the oldest boys’ choir in Europe.

+ There will be 36,000 outdoor seats provided at the Sagrada Familia for those unable to enter the church. There will also be a cordoned-off standing room only area for 1,000 people close to the entrance.

+ Because the interior of the nave has 52 columns – 52! – some of the seats along the four side aisles inside the basilica will have blocked views. To address this, there will be 45 smaller monitors located throughout the interior of the church so that people can see what is going on. There will be around 25 large screens spread around the exterior of the church, and another 30 giant screens spread throughout Barcelona in city squares, parks, etc., where people can watch the Papal Mass as it unfolds. Many of the basilicas, churches, and chapels of the religious houses in Barcelona will also be hosting large screens for those wanting to follow the mass.

+ There will be nearly 2,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 18 from different Catholic Youth organizations wearing blue jackets emblazoned with the logo designed for the visit, stationed around the site to help out as needed.

I would ask your prayers, gentle reader, that the Papal Visit goes smoothly and, most of all, safely. There are many friends and relations I have spoken to in Barcelona who are worried that someone is going to try something, though let us hope that this is mere speculation. If all comes off well, this will be a very significant moment for the Church in Catalonia, as the Pope consecrates its most famous church building. Visca el Papa!!!