Pope Francis touches the piece after overseeing its unveiling in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 29. CNS photo/Paolo Galosi, pool

Canadian sculptor builds message of love

By  Junno Arocho Esteves, Catholic News Service
  • October 9, 2019

VATICAN CITY -- Since his election, Pope Francis has made the care and welcoming of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy.

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 — with the help of a Canadian.

To the left of the 17th-century grand colonnade designed by Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini now stands a six-metre tall bronze sculpture created by Timothy Schmalz, who is based in St. Jacobs, Ont., about 120 kilometres west of Toronto. 

The sculpture 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 centre 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,” said Schmalz. 

In the front, a sombre 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.

Beside the native American man stands a couple that shares a personal connection with new Cardinal Michael Czerny, co-head of the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section. His parents, who immigrated to Canada from the former 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 said, 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; he used the King James translation, which says, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some 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 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.

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