In San Bernardino as in Chile, the Church is facing hostile times.
A priest shot with a paintball gun, stained glass windows smashed, an arson attack against one Catholic parish church, and hate slogans painted on the walls of another … Are we talking about events in the Horn of Africa? Or maybe in Aleppo (in Syria), or in Pakistan? Or maybe Chile or Mexico, where attacks against Catholic property and/or clergy have made the news recently?
No: we’re talking about the wave of violence surging against the Catholic Church in the diocese of San Bernardino, California. The targets of these attack have been the Catholic churches of this diocese—headed by Bishop Gerald Barnes—and the diocese’s personnel.
Inland Catholic Byte (ICB), the official news outlet of the San Bernardino diocese, denounced the situation in an article published on September 11, 2017. It reports that, during the past three months, at least four parishes and one priest have suffered violent attacks, reflecting a world-wide trend of attacking the Catholic Church.
I thought they were gunshots
The case that has caused greatest outrage in San Bernardino was the paintball attack suffered by Fr. Zhaojun “Jerome” Bai, S.V.D. in Riverside last August 2. Fr. Bai, describing the moment of the attack, told ICB, “I felt hurt. I saw blood,” as read in the original article published by BYTE.
The attack took place while the priest was headed back to his car, parked near Queen of Angels Church, just moments after celebrating Mass in celebration of a fellow priest’s anniversary of ordination.
A car pulled up behind him. “I heard four or five sounds. I thought it was gunshots,” Fr. Bai told BYTE’s Natalie Romano. Fortunately, they weren’t bullets, but paintball pellets; they shattered his glasses, and the shards of glass from the lenses cut his face. Six other people were shot by the same attackers as they “rampaged across Riverside,” the article reports. Nonetheless, no arrests have yet been made.
A hostile environment for the Catholic Church
This level of violence “is not surprising,” Ann Marie Gallant, Director of the Emergency Operations Collaborative for the Diocese, told ICB. She went on to say that Catholics are “living in hostile times.”
“There’s so much pent up anger today and we’ve developed into a society that doesn’t have civility and restraint,” Gallant said. “The political environment that we’re in now does not provide good leadership or examples on either side. As a society, I think we’re losing a moral compass,” she added.
Towards the end of August, vandals threw a large rock through a stained glass window of St. Bernardine Church; and as if that were not enough, they painted anti-Catholic slogans on the church’s front sign. In June, Queen of Angels Church (where Fr. Bai was later attacked) was painted with anti-Catholic graffiti.
The pastor of Queen of Angels, Fr. Beni Leu, S.V.D., discovered the vandalism. “I was afraid, because maybe the people who did the vandalism were still there,” he explained to the diocesan newspaper. Fr. Leu got help as quickly as possible, but not before parishioners saw the damage. He described the attack as having marked the church “both physically and emotionally.”
Why do they hate us?
Romano’s report for BYTE follows: “Some of the parishioners were very sad. They asked ‘Why did they do this? Why did this happen? Why do they hate us?’”
The parishioners of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, also in San Bernardino, expressed similar feelings when an arsonist set one of the side doors of their church on fire in the early hours of July 17.
Crime and poverty in San Bernardino
“The people were surprised. They couldn’t believe someone would attempt to do this,” Fr. Rogelio González told BYTE: “I don’t think I have any enemies that followed me here,” he said, with a laugh. “Well you know, San Bernardino is a hard place,” he said in a more serious tone; crime and poverty have become serious problems in the area.
What could be the cause of all this? According to Gallant, it’s because the Church speaks out loud and clear about subjects like abortion and immigration; this “can cause anger all across the political spectrum, and could be a motivating factor in some attacks that have occurred,” according to Ms. Gallant.
“People knew we had these views and opinions but in the last decade or so we’ve become active in putting it out there, not just talking among our own,” Gallant concludes. “Pope Francis is encouraging that kind of leadership.”
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