On the morning of Saturday May 16, the residents of the small town of Crediton woke up to find the statue of their beloved St Boniface had been defaced with graffiti.
A vandal had spray-painted the words “God is dead” and “pagan justice” on the statue, along with a pentacle and the word Geismar, a reference to a pagan oak tree felled by the saint. An adjoining information panel, telling the story of Boniface felling Thor’s oak, was also damaged.
The vandalism was keenly felt in the Devon town where Boniface was born. Even in these secular times, devotion to the saint is still strong in Devon, including among non-Catholics.
Last year, the local council voted to declare him the county’s patron saint, a move supported by Catholic and Anglican bishops. Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth remarked on the “groundswell of support” for the declaration.
The Crediton Courier reported on local “outrage” over the vandalism. In an example of English understatement, town councillor Michael Szabo said: “It’s extremely annoying when we are trying to keep everything neat and clean for the town.
“There are lots of people now in the park, especially as it comes into summer and they are finally able to go out, and we’ve got these anarchists defacing the statue and promoting their atheistic views,” the councillor added.
Boniface was born in Crediton some time around AD 675 or 680. As a young man he entered the monastery in Exeter before becoming a missionary in northern Europe, taking Christianity to Germany.
The incident in Crediton happened before the current fashion for destroying statues took hold, but it still fits a pattern of small-scale anti-Catholic attacks taking place across Europe.
Writing in the Catholic Herald last year, Matthew Schmitz noted the rise in desecration, and quoted the Polish archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, who lamented the “ever more frequent attacks of hatred against our believing people and priests”.
In 2018, it was reported that France had seen 129 thefts and 877 incidents of vandalism at Catholic sites, mostly churches and cemeteries.
As Britain and other countries in Europe throw off their religious identity while simultaneously trying to tolerate other faiths, many Western post-Christians try to reconcile this tension by despising their own heritage.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offered an alternative way forward. In 2011, he said: “May Europe rather be reconciled to its own Christian roots, which are fundamental for understanding its past, present and future role in history; in this way it will come to experience justice, concord and peace by cultivating a sincere dialogue with all peoples.”