21 November 2020

When the beggar’s bowl and cup
become the chalice and the paten

‘I was ill and you visited me’ … see ‘I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’ (Matthew 25: 36) … a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz on the steps of Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican, in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Over the past few days, I have been putting the finishing touches to my sermon for tomorrow (22 November 2020), the Feast of Christ the King.

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 25: 31-46), Christ comes as again ‘in his glory, and will sit on the throne of his glory.’

But instead of coming as a despotic monarch, Christ comes with all the values of the Kingdom of God: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Those kingdom values are a stark contrast to the values of a president who behaves more like a tyrant, locking himself away, ignoring the rising toll in Covid-19 deaths, and investing all his energy in petulant struggles to frustrate a democratic transfer of power that is the democratic will of the people.

This is a president who has used his office in a vain-glorious, despotic and self-serving way, to the point of even humiliating and debasing those who were once close to him.

Those who were hungry were left without food, those who were thirsty were left without something to drink, the strangers were separated from their children and held in cages, women were treated as naked subjects for his misogynistic and lewd behaviour, those who were sick were told to blame the virus on China and mocked when they wore a facemask, and the statistics show that those who are in prison were disproportionately likely to be black and living in poverty.

In my mind’s eye, I was brought back to a recent visit to Rome, and how I found people from every age group begging on almost every street corner, and not just in the areas seen as tourist traps.

Homeless couples and individuals could be easily identified as they walk the streets. Clusters of homeless people gather on the steps of many churches.

It was interesting during that visit to see a large group of homeless men gathered on the steps of the Chiesa Nuova, off the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which is one of Rome’s main streets, running from the bridge over the Tiber to by Piazza Navona. The church and the oratory beside it were founded by Saint Philip Neri, whose work among the poor, the sick and the homeless earned him the title of ‘Apostle of Rome.’

Sunday’s Gospel reading inspired two works in Rome by the Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, who says many of his works are visual translations of the Bible. He quotes Saint Gregory the Great, who said that ‘art is for the illiterate,’ an effective way of educating the general population.

His first sculpture outside North America was installed on the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in 2015. Christ is shown as a man lying down on a park bench, his body almost entirely covered by a thin blanket, his face shrouded. The only indication that this is the Crucified Christ is the feet poking out under the blanket, bearing the marks of the crucifixion.

The artist decided to depict Christ like this after seeing a homeless person sleeping on a bench outside one Christmas. ‘That is Jesus. That is how we should perceive the least among us in our heart,’ Schmalz has written.

Since then, many similar sculptures have been installed in Australia, Cuba, India, and Spain. At the start of Holy Week last year, a bronze sculpture of the ‘Homeless Jesus’ was also placed in a courtyard in the Vatican, at the entrance to the Office of Papal Charities.

In Rome, there are two similar statues by Timothy Schmalz outside the entrance to the new wing of Santo Spirito Hospital on the banks of the River Tiber, close to the main entrance to the Vatican.

The Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia was first built by an English Saxon monarch, King Ine of Wessex, who died in Rome in the year 728. The hospital attached to the church is the oldest hospital in Rome and was founded after a nightmare experienced by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). In his dream, the Pope saw an angel who showed him the bodies of Rome’s unwanted babies dredged up from the River Tiber in fishing nets.

As a result, the Pope decided to build a hospital for paupers, and to this day the hospital continues to care for the poor and the homeless.

Timothy Schmalz believes ‘Christian sculpture acts for many as a gateway into the Gospels and the viewer’s own spirituality.’ The artist says: ‘I describe my sculptures as being visual prayers.’

One of his statues outside Santo Spirito Hospital depicts Christ as an impoverished patient lying on a makeshift bed on the steps of the hospital. The words beneath him are from tomorrow’s Gospel reading: ‘Ero malato e mi avete visitato. I was ill and you visited me’ (Matthew 25: 36).

In March 2016, he donated a second bronze statue on the same steps, showing ‘Christ the Beggar’ sitting nearby. Once again, the accompanying words are from tomorrow’s Gospel reading: ‘Ha avuto fame e mi avete dato da mangiare, ho avuto sete e mi avete dato da bere. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink ‘(Matthew 25: 35).

The bowl and cup in front of ‘Christ the Beggar’ could be a chalice and paten. As I prepare too to celebrate the Eucharist tomorrow morning, I am reminded that true Communion with Christ is giving food and drink to those who hunger and thirst.

‘Christ the Beggar’ … a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz on the steps of Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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