Remembering our sacred spaces
February 15 probably passed last week without anyone noticing that it was the 68th anniversary of one of the most regrettable and ignominious acts in all of World War II.
That was the day — Feb. 15, 1944 — that nearly 300 U.S. Army Air Corps B-17s, B-25s and B-26s dropped about 600 tons of high explosives and incendiary shells on the historic hilltop Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy.
As anyone would suspect, 600 tons of bombs destroyed the abbey over the course of a couple of hours. The decision to bomb the 15 centuries-old monastery had been made after weeks of discussions, and it’s improper to sit with the comfort of hindsight seven decades later and condemn those who made that call.
But it was, most military historians have admitted, a horrible error. Generals argued there were German snipers in the abbey, but there weren’t.
Pulitizer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson writes about this misguided moment of the Italian campaign (of which there were many, by the way) in his book The Day of Battle. The volume is the second in Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy” about World War II — the first was An Army at Dawn. It told the story of the war between the Allies and the Axis powers in northern Africa. The Day of Battle deals with the war in Sicily and Italy, and the final volume will examine the struggle for Western Europe from the time of the Normandy invasion through the fall of Berlin.
So why is the bombing of Monte Cassino of any significance to us today? Because it compels us to consider this simple, direct and significant notion — it calls us to be reminded of the beauty and holiness of sacred places. It calls us to hold them dearly and keep them safe.
Monte Cassino was certainly such a place. Atkinson notes that “great abbey … loomed on the pinnacle 1,500 feet above the valley floor, a trapezoidal and majestic seven acres of Travertino stone with a facade twice as long as that of Buckingham Palace.”
That it came to be there was the legacy of “a wondering hermit named Benedict,” he wrote, who arrived at the site in 529. The abbey itself was founded, and construction began shortly thereafter. As the years passed, this holy place had its share of tribulations.
It was demolished repeatedly, Atkinson wrote, “by Lombards, Saracens, earthquakes, and, in 1799, Napoleonic scoundrels — but it was always rebuilt in keeping with the motto “Succisa Virescit,” which means “Struck down, it comes to new life.”
And even after the pounding it took in 1944, the abbey came to life once again. It was rebuilt over the next dozen years or so in the image of the magnificent structure that was so thoroughly devastated on that long-ago February day.
No one knows how many people died in the bombing; the best guesses of war planners and historians who examined the ruins weeks later put the number at 400. A week after the bombing, the president of the Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia condemned the destruction, Atkinson wrote, as “an everlasting shame to our age and to our civilization.”
That the abbey has been rebuilt — again — is a testimony to the solid will of people of faith and the steadfastness of their commitment. The presence of Monte Cassino in 2012 is yet another example of the strength of the church and her followers.
All across the face of the globe, the people of Christ love their houses of worship. From that historic mountain in Italy to modest structures in Africa, South America and elsewhere, people find solace, comfort and grace each week as they come to the Houses of the Lord. Father Clyde Crews said it best in his book A Benediction of Place:
“Sacred places have ever exerted an immensely powerful pull on humanity, whether they be considered emotionally, psychologically, sociologically or spiritually. They can transform a peripheral and scattered people into a centered one. They can aid the process that leads a drifting community into a directional one. We shape places, but more profoundly, they shape us.”
It’s certainly true in the Archdiocese of Louisville, from our great cathedrals to our recently opened churches; from the centuries-old structures such as St. Boniface and St. Joseph churches in Butchertown to the smaller houses of worship such as Holy Rosary Church in Manton or Holy Cross Church in Marion County. Our churches share an inner beauty regardless of their age, their design or the nature of their aesthetic appeal.
Family histories are tied to them. They are the sites of blessings and burials, of christening services, First Communions and weddings. Pretty or plain, ornate or simple, our churches are dear to us, and we should never fall into the temptation of taking them for granted.
After all, it is within their walls that we are most easily and often reminded of God’s grace — and presence.