A new statue has been installed in St. Peter’s Square for the first time in 400 years ― and it’s a testament to Pope Francis’ enduring concern for the plight of refugees and migrants.
Francis dedicated the 20-foot tall bronze sculpture at the Vatican on Sunday to commemorate the Roman Catholic Church’s 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
The life-size sculpture, titled “Angels Unaware,” depicts a group of 140 migrants and refugees from various cultural backgrounds and time periods traveling together on a boat. There are figures representing Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, Irish people escaping the potato famine, Cherokee traveling the Trail of Tears, as well as modern-day Syrians fleeing war.
A pair of angels’ wings peek out from the crowd, suggesting the sacredness of migrants’ lives. The artwork was inspired by a biblical passage, Hebrew 13:2, that encourages Christians to show hospitality to strangers, since by doing so, “some have entertained angels unawares.”
In a message on Sunday, the pope decried economically advanced societies’ growing “indifference” toward migrants, refugees, displaced persons and victims of trafficking.
“In addition to the hardships that their condition entails, they are often looked down upon and considered the source of all society’s ills,” Francis said.
He said that the plight of migrants is an invitation for Catholics to reclaim “essential dimensions of our Christian existence and our humanity.”
“Our response to the challenges posed by contemporary migration can be summed up in four verbs: welcome, protect, promote and integrate,” the pope said.
“Angels Unaware” is the work of Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz, who is best known for his sculpture depicting Jesus as a homeless person wrapped in a heavy blanket and sleeping on a park bench.
Schmalz told HuffPost that the new installation was a “direct request from Pope Francis.” He said he hopes people who see the statue will be reminded of the pope’s scriptural message ― that “it is our spiritual duty to be welcoming to the stranger.”
“The hope is that by having this message in the center of Christianity that it will become central in people’s hearts,” Schmalz wrote in an email.
Francis has long been an advocate for refugees and has called for every country to take in as many refugees as their societies can reasonably accommodate. In 2015, he asked every parish, monastery and shrine in Europe to take in a family of refugees. The following year, he invited 21 Syrian refugees who had fled to the Greek island of Lesbos to return with him to the Vatican.
Schmalz received an official request for the sculpture from the Vatican’s Office of Migrants and Refugees in 2016. A smaller model of the statue was blessed by Pope Francis in April 2017.
As a baptized Catholic, Schmalz said that the chance to create a sculpture for St. Peter’s Square proves to him that “Christianity is a growing, living faith, and not a relic of our Western culture.”
“The ancient text, which I visually translated (Hebrew 13:2), is as relevant today as it was centuries ago,” he said.
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