The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Public Crosses

What exactly is a public cross? Well, first, I don't include the crosses one encounters on churches or in churchyards and cemeteries. After all, one expects to find crosses atop steeples and on church property. The crosses I refer to are those unexpected ones, those crosses (or crucifixes) that have been purposely placed where they can be seen and approached by the public. Whether they're on public or private land matters not. The reality is, they are there; they can be seen by all who pass by.

I suppose the first public cross I remember seeing was in post-war Germany. In 1951 my family lived in Heidelberg where my father was stationed for nearly a year. During that time we took many short trips around the country, including several to the mountains of Bavaria. On one of these trips, around Christmastime, we stayed at a small ski lodge for about a week. Each morning, if the weather permitted it, Dad would take my older brother and me on a hike along one of the many trails that wound through the nearby forest. As a seven-year-old boy with a new pair of leather alpine boots that Mom and Dad had just bought for me, I couldn't have been happier and considered these hikes to be true adventures. It was really all very Hansel and Gretel-ish and I expected we might well come upon a spooky forest cabin, complete with a wicked witch, or maybe even a troll. Instead we encountered a cross.

We saw it on our first hike. After only a few hundred yards, we were confronted by a wayside shrine perched on a small hill right above the path. The shrine was actually a crucifix not unlike the one pictured above. Jeff and I followed our dad up the few steps leading to a stone bench at the foot of the shrine. This beautiful spot had obviously been designed as a place for prayer and meditation and that's exactly what we did. I remember the three of us saying the Our Father together and then, after Dad brushed the snow off the bench, we sat down for a while and enjoyed the view of the nearby mountains. 

After this experience I began to notice these shrines (called Bildstöcke in German) wherever we went during those wonderful months in Germany. Almost all were skillfully made, and many are hundreds of years old. Not all of them, however, were crucifixes. Some were Marian shrines displaying either a statue or picture of the Virgin Mary. And some, like the shrine pictured at left, include both a crucifix and a statue of Mary. 

Those beautifully crafted shrines I encountered in Germany 60 years ago were erected simply to remind us of the goodness of God. Almost always located in a place of beauty, they point to the glory of God's creation. It's as if those who built the shrines were telling future generations to take a moment to thank God for all His wondrous gifts, for the gifts of our world, our salvation, and our very being. But whatever their theme, these wayside shrines were so very different from anything I had seen in the United States. One certainly didn't come across such things in our 1950s suburban New York town.

Today, of course,we encounter an increasing number of roadside shrines along our American highways and streets, but unlike those in Bavaria, these seemingly makeshift shrines are memorials to people who have lost their lives, usually in car accidents or as a result of some other tragedy. I can certainly sympathize with those who suffer from the sudden and tragic death of a family member or a close friend, but to me there's something slightly grotesque about these shrines which are often littered with a collection of personal items or other mementos. Although they are usually centered around a cross, they seem designed less for the worship of God and more as odd memorials to the person who died. It's almost as if those who constructed them are afraid that without the shrine the deceased person might be forgotten. There's just seems to be something tragically unfaithful about this. But then, I suppose I should avoid attributing motives to others.

The Germans, of course, are not alone in their construction of shrines designed for all to see. On our recent trip to Ireland Dear Diane and I visited the ancient site at Clonmacnoise in County Offaly where we found several of the old high stone Celtic crosses. The earliest of these crosses, dating from early medieval times, were decorated with geometric designs, while the later crosses were carved with Biblical scenes.There are over three hundred of these magnificent old high crosses scattered throughout Ireland.

The photo at left shows one of these ancient crosses, complete with its carved scenes from Scripture. I suspect that, like the stained-glass windows that later graced the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, these carvings were excellent reminders of those Bible stories the people heard proclaimed and preached at Mass. The cross in the photo was moved inside  to protect it from further erosion from wind and rain. A full-sized replica was placed outside where the original once stood.

I find it interesting that in Ireland these crosses are celebrated as an important part of the nation's heritage, while in the United States groups like the ACLU, and too often the government itself, seem to find any display of our own religious heritage unacceptable.

One recent news story involves a cross erected in California's Mohave desert in 1934 as a memorial to World War I veterans. The cross was a centerpiece of the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial, the only World War I Memorial designated by Congress as a National Memorial. The ACLU, of course, thinks the cross is a disgraceful and egregious violation of the principle of separation of church and state (a principle, by the way, which does not exist in our Constitution). Ultimately, a lower court finding against the veterans was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court in a close (5-4) decision. Justice Kennedy, who sided with the majority, wisely stated: "The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement [of religion] does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm".

But that's not the end of the story. Not long after the Supreme Court's favorable ruling, someone decided to steal the seven-foot cross. When the veterans replaced it with a new and virtually identical cross, the National Park Service took it down and claimed that only the original cross approved by Congress could be erected on the site. A subsequent lawsuit by the veterans against the Obama administration resulted in a land swap in which the veterans gained ownership to the small piece of land on which the memorial is located. Since then the veterans have erected a new cross which still stands today. The entire legal battle to keep the cross took almost 13 years.

More on public crosses in my next post...

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