Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Jesus the Homeless

Timothy Schmalz specializes in “religious sculpture,” however you define that -- I mean, is it a mother nursing a child or a dying naked man on a cross or is it Buddha or a totem pole, or something else?  He decided he would create a contemporary image of an all all-too-common human condition and link it to “christianity” -- reputed to be the main religion of the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, its name taken from the title of Jesus the Christ who theoretically came to change the world two millennia ago.  Well . . .  we have park benches now.  Much better for the homeless people than sleeping directly on the ground.  The two main religious institutions located for possible placement would not accept the statue.  They were Catholic and their new Pope had just chosen the name of Francis who was deliberately homeless.  That’s “Saint” Francis.

The Toronto Star newspaper says:
“Despite the message of the sculpture — Jesus identifying with the poorest among us — it was rejected by two prominent Catholic churches, St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

“Homeless Jesus had no home,” says the artist, Timothy Schmalz. “How ironic.”

“Rectors of both cathedrals were enthusiastic about the bronze piece and showed Schmalz possible locations, but higher-ups in the New York and Toronto archdiocese turned it down, he says.

“‘It was very upsetting because the rectors liked it, but when it got to the administration, people thought it might be too controversial or vague,’ he says. He was told ‘it was not an appropriate image.’”

“The Toronto archdiocese tried to help him find an alternative location, including St. Augustine’s Seminary in Scarborough. But Schmalz, who describes his work as a visual prayer, wanted to reach a wider, secular audience. “I wanted not only the converted to see it, but also the marginalized. I almost gave up trying to find a place.”

“Now the sculpture stands near Wellesley St. W., outside Regis College at the University of Toronto. It’s a Jesuit school of theology, where priests and lay people are trained, with an emphasis on social justice.”

Here’s a video of the sculptor himself discussing why he made this life-sized bronze.

These archdiocesan “higher-ups” should fire their public relations advisors, since they have now managed through their rejection to make Timothy Schmalz famous, far more than if they had just quietly accepted the monument.   They look like fools.  They should hire some new theologians while they’re at it.  And maybe the Pope, instead of harassing nuns, should turn his attention to men in red skullcaps with empty heads and hearts.

It’s always true that the people who are on the ground, on the street, doing front line work in engagement with the people who need help, are open to the Jesus of the Gospels.  It is the people at the top who become invested in covering up, whitewashing, etc.  They don’t mean it’s too controversial or vague.  They mean it’s not good marketing strategy for the institutional corporation that makes their lives prosperous.  They have been selling the idea that being virtuous will make you rich.  (It’s hard to sell Heaven these days, when a McMansion seems so much more accessible.)  Churches get people to give them money with the argument that the giver will look generous and thoughtful, which will help them make better (sharper) business deals.
by Saint-Gaudens

Statues with drapery always intrigue me and this one is no exception.  They suggest the human form in an ambiguous way, quite unlike the opposite practice of portraying the nude body.  And yet what this draped homeless person (genderless to appearances) reveals is the wounded vulnerability of the feet.  There is room on this park bench for a person to sit alongside the feet and it must be natural to caress those bare feet.  The Pope has washed a lot of feet, and not just in Rome, though they were all no doubt carefully pre-selected for him.  Can he get through the layers of snobbery, collusion, and gate-keeping around him?  We’re all wondering.  He has hired a Franciscan to help him.

By now I’ve watched maybe a half-dozen film versions of the story of Francis of Assissi and his progression from wealthy son to homeless monk.  I began because of the new Pope to see why he chose that name and I’m not finished.  Some of these movies are on YouTube, both the pious ones and the inscrutable ones.   The entire sumptuously seductive Zefferelli version, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” is at:  There are others.  I’ll post more reviews tomorrow.

As it turns out, being a Franciscan is not at all like being a priest.  It is a self-identification that only means living in the way the Francis did.  One can be male or female, not even Catholic, cloistered or not, recognized by a community or not.  Francis wrote out some rules -- which are basically from the Gospels, principles of living -- and unlike the Boy Scouts, that’s the whole thing -- whether or not a person is gay or believes in God or not.  It’s a Tao, a Way, a bare footprint.

The Catholic church in the 12th century had a problem:  their organization and protocols weren’t matching the experienced world very well.  Soon the Protestants would break away entirely, but in the meantime there were groups who diverged without the intention of being challengers.  Not quite heretical.  They were penitentes, humiliati, impoverati, mendicants, eremetical -- Franciscans.  Three hundred years later, they had their own internal schism in which Mateo de Bascio founded the Capuchins, the “hooded ones.”  (Mateo was not made a saint.) There were others, always trying to get back to origins and always challenging the formal Roman bureaucracy to think how to assign them to the realm of regulation and responsibility.   They must’ve had a helluva flow chart.   Some popes fought these groups and some popes engaged and certified them.  As the shrewd cardinal towards the end of “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” confides to his colleague, “This man will bring the poor back to us.”  But since penitent, self-humiliating, begging, poor hermits are hard to bribe or punish,  they always elude the system, butterflies that can’t be netted.  They exist in every religious context on the planet as well as the secular, because they are not institutionally-based but anchored in the mystical context of the Sacred.

It looks to me as though Timothy the Sculptor is also defining “religious sculpture” as art that inspires the same behavior and compassion as that of Saint Francis.  The only problem is that a life-sized bronze is an enduring but expensive undertaking.  Possibly it might better have been made of bread, so that the homeless could eat it.  Maybe someone will decide to bake bread in the shape of a homeless person under a blanket and hand it out to the poor.  Maybe I should try it myself.  I could make some little feet out of Sculpy polymer clay that could be re-used for the next baking . . .  What a communion!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mary, I just discovered you via google via CathNews service. Your comments, inspired by the incredibly inspiriting and inspiring sculpture. Shame on these elitist institutions who rejected this sculpture. I've taken classes at Regis. Except for the failure to receive a wider audience, this sculpture has a worthy "home" at Regis, a Jesuit community of teachers and students dedicated to a theology of justice and hope for those most in need.