Monks of Subiaco Abbey and the faithful gathered in silence Jan. 6 in the monastic refectory, spiritually preparing to mark the solemn occasion of "Public Prayer after the Desecration of a Church" at St. Benedict Church following the attack on the abbey's main altar the day before.
"Since this is understood as a 'penitential' ritual, many of our monks like myself chose to fast that day, and I began the day with confession," Abbot Elijah Owens, OSB, told Arkansas Catholic in an email. "After the opening prayer, we then processed with the chant of Psalm 130 to the church where we blessed holy water, chanted the litany of the saints at the altar and the entire Church was sprinkled. We then followed this with the Liturgy of the Word and Eucharist."
Suspect Jerrid Farnam was arrested Jan. 5 after allegedly using a sledgehammer/axe to destroy the top of the Italian Botticino marble altar and taking two reliquaries that were later recovered.
The Mass, which included the penitential rite, was offered for Farnam's healing and to find peace of mind.
Churches and religious sites have been targets for destruction, particularly in war-torn countries, but there have been upticks in the U.S. in recent years. A November 2022 Catholic News Service article stated that since May 2020, more than 100 U.S. Catholic sites have fallen victim to arson, vandalism and other types of destruction.
"This ritual is sadly being celebrated with increasing frequency not just around the world but in the U.S. as well," Abbot Elijah said. "We monastics certainly added our monastic touch to this liturgical prayer with the use of our chant and monastic vestments such as our cucullas," or a monk's scapular.
According to Arkansas Catholic archives and Deacon Matt Glover, chancellor for canonical affairs at the Diocese of Little Rock, the Subiaco desecration was the only instance in recent memory of a Diocese of Little Rock church vandalized to an extreme extent.
Statues were damaged Aug. 11, 2021, at St. Patrick Church in North Little Rock, including an Our Lady of Fatima statue shattered, the St. Patrick statue decapitated and Our Lady of Grace knocked off its base. It caused about $15,000 to $20,000 in damage.
Abbot Elijah said today's public prayer is less detailed than ritual prayers dating back more than 1,000 years. The "Roman Ritual" and the "Roman Pontifical," official liturgical books that contain rites and ceremonies performed by a bishop, priest or deacon, had liturgies split based on the location of a desecration — a church, cemetery or altar.
"These rituals involved the use of holy water and hyssop, along with salt, ashes and wine for reconsecrating an altar," Abbot Elijah said.
Today's version, "Public Prayer after the Desecration of a Church" is found in the "Ceremonial of Bishops,” containing liturgical ceremonies celebrated by a bishop. In the monastic community, the abbot typically presides over the rite. The guidelines are general, leaving the "ordinary" — a bishop, archbishop or abbot — to adapt it as needed for the type of desecration.
The penitential rite of reparation states it must be done as soon as possible following a desecration. The celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments are not allowed in a desecrated church until the rite is performed. The altar must be stripped bare, removing altar cloths and candles, along with any signs of joy, like flowers. The faithful are encouraged to go to confession.
The ordinary can choose to do the ritual with the celebration of the Eucharist or Liturgy of the Word. At Subiaco, the monks chose to celebrate the rite with Mass, as the rite states, "A new church is most properly dedicated through a celebration of the Eucharist, and a desecrated church should be restored to divine service in the same way."
Once the ordinary and faithful process in, the ordinary does not kiss the altar but goes directly to their chair. Baptismal water is sprinkled at the altar, walls of the church and the people for purification. Following the general intercessions — if they have not been omitted in place of singing the litany of the saints — the altar is prepared for Mass with the altar cloths and candles.
Abbot Elijah said many laypeople were still in town following Brother Gabriel Jannise's solemn profession Jan. 4, and participated in the procession, chant and Mass.
"They, too, experienced the horror of seeing the church desecrated so it was fitting they could join us monks in this ‘rite of reparation’ for our desecrated church and altar," he said. "When this ritual is celebrated in a diocesan parish by the local ordinary, the presence of the people in prayer is particularly integral to addressing the 'scandal to the faithful' as canon 1211 notes."
A church is set aside for divine worship, making the rite vital. According to canon No. 1212, a sacred place loses its "dedication or blessing if they have been destroyed in large part, or have been turned over permanently to profane use by decree of the competent ordinary or in fact."
The penitential rite states, "Crimes committed in a church affect and do injury to the entire Christian community, which the church building in a sense symbolizes and represents."
Father Greg Luyet, JCL, diocesan judicial vicar and pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock, said in an email that an ordinary uses certain criteria to determine if a sacred space has been violated to the point of requiring the rite. The act must be grave, occurring in a sacred space and be a source of scandal to the faithful so worship cannot continue until the harm is mended.
"In terms of gravity, a Catholic who desecrated the Eucharist would be subject to excommunication that could only be removed by the Holy Father," Father Luyet said. "The crime is considered so grave that a local bishop must forward the matter to Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. A desecrated altar would also be more serious than the destruction of a statue."
There are many traditions in both Judaism and Christianity of divine worship spaces and making sure those spaces are kept sacred. Father Luyet pointed to Hanukkah, the December eight-day Jewish celebration commemorating the temple's rededication.
"The pagan King Antiochus IV Epiphanes looted the temple and invaded Jerusalem approximately 167 B.C. He used the temple for pagan worship," he explained. "When the Maccabees rebelled and freed Israel from foreign occupation, the altar was taken away and stored in a place for a prophet to explain what to do in the future. The temple was rededicated, and for eight days, there was sufficient oil until new oil could be prepared."
Christians continued the tradition of objects and places dedicated to the worship of God. Because an altar is set aside for the consecration of the body and blood of Christ, it is sacred, Father Luyet said.
"An altar, for example, cannot be used for an ordinary supper. It represents the sacrifice of Jesus who gave himself for our salvation as he is the Paschal Lamb slain to take away the sins of the world," Father Luyet said. "The altar is a sacred table from which we Catholics believe that we receive from Jesus his body, blood, soul and divinity. When the altar, the church or the Eucharist are desecrated, the Church considers it so serious that the behavior for a Catholic would constitute a canonical crime."
Abbot Elijah said that while the rite has restored the abbey's church to its proper sacred space, prayers are still needed for the community and the perpetrator.
"Pray for our monastic community and pray for Jerrid Farnam that he may find healing and peace," Abbot Elijah said. "We Benedictine monks are men of prayer who seek to live out our baptismal calling in a contemplative life dedicated to Jesus Christ, just like the early Church in Jerusalem. No amount of vandalism or damage to our church will interrupt our continuous prayer to God on behalf of the Church and for the world."
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