Since his election, Pope Francis has made the care and welcoming of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy.
Nearly four months after ascending to the chair of St. Peter, the Pope made his first trip as pontiff to the small Italian island of Lampedusa, just 70 miles from Tunisia, to remember tens of thousands of African immigrants who died trying to reach a new life in Europe near its shores.
His consistent message of welcoming those escaping war, poverty and persecution with open arms took on a more visible aspect in the heart of the Vatican: St. Peter’s Square.
To the left of the 17th-century grand colonnade designed by Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini now stands a 20-foot-tall bronze sculpture created by Canadian Timothy Schmalz. It depicts a boat carrying migrants and refugees from different eras in history.
Within the group, a pair of angel wings can be seen, which suggests “that within these people is the spiritual,” Schmalz told Catholic News Service Oct. 1.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for people to see at the center of the Church one of the central ideas of our faith, and that is to love one another,” he said.
Weighing in at over three tons, the sculpture’s 140 figures depicting migrants from various historical periods “really gave me an opportunity to be inclusive,” Schmalz told CNS.
In the front, a somber Jewish man holding two suitcases escaping Nazi Germany can be seen. On the right side, a child of African descent is seen reaching out to his father, seeking to be embraced. To the back, a Cherokee man who endured the forced migration known as the “Trail of Tears” weeps with his hand over his face.
Beside the native American man stands a couple that shares a personal connection with Cardinal-designate Michael Czerny, co-head of the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section. His parents, who immigrated to Canada from the former republic of Czechoslovakia, are depicted in the sculpture, standing together with hopeful smiles.
After learning about the couple’s escape from communism, Schmalz said he felt that their story “is a perfect example of the positive result from migration.”
Yet eagle-eyed observers will notice an all too familiar group of well-known migrants: the Holy Family. St. Joseph carrying his carpentry tools looks ahead over the horizon while Mary stands behind him cradling baby Jesus in her arms.
The idea to include the Holy Family, Schmalz told CNS, was inspired by a homily given by Pope Francis “four years ago at Christmas time” in which he said that “Joseph and Mary were refugees once too.”
Pope Francis unveiled the large statue, “Angels Unawares,” after celebrating an outdoor Mass Sept. 28 for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
The sculpture’s placement in St. Peter’s Square, Schmalz said, “adds another layer of symbolism” to both the statue and the famed square.
“When Pope Francis decided to place the sculpture here,” he said, “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to put 140 different figures within this piece,’ because there are 140 statues of saints surrounding it.”
Bernini’s colonnade flanking the left and right side of the square gives the appearance of outstretched arms in an area that was designed to be “a space of welcoming,” the Canadian sculptor noted.
“This was a massive place where people from all different cultures and all religions would come and visit. And to have this sculpture ‘sailing’ into St. Peter’s Basilica just reinforces what this space was really designed to do,” Schmalz told CNS.
Schmalz said the inspiration behind his design was a passage from Hebrews 13:2, which he said speaks of welcoming strangers, “many of whom have entertained angels unawares.”
“I thought it was one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, and I thought that if only I can give it visual form, it would be an amazing experience,” he said.
At its unveiling, Schmalz, accompanied by Cardinal-designate Czerny, explained to the Pope the symbolism behind his creation.
“One gesture that (Pope Francis) did do that was so touching to me is that after he looked at it, he was touching the piece, studying the different faces, he looked at me and put his hands on his heart and that just meant so much to me. I could tell that he was really, really happy with it,” he said.
The sculptor told CNS that Pope Francis’ stance on immigration and the plight of refugees is rooted in the Christian values of loving one’s neighbor. Economical concerns aside, he said, “We are all human beings and the priority is to be welcoming.”
“It’s either we’re going to be welcoming to the stranger, we’re going to be welcoming to the refugee or we’re going to kill them,” Schmalz said. “It’s a very powerful subject, and to have this piece that promotes it is really good.”