Weekly Musings

Angels Unawares

Angels Unawares

Even though many of us do not see ourselves as migrants, humans seem to have migration in their blood. Over many millennia, our ancient ancestors migrated from the cradle of humanity in the horn of Africa to every corner of the world. And even today, millions of humans are on the move. 

Sometimes migrations happen by choice as people are looking for adventure, are driven by curiosity or are responding to opportunity. Sometimes migrations happen out of necessity as people flee war, persecution, hunger and certain death. Sometimes migrations happen by force as people are removed from their homesteads or homelands and sent into endless misery or even are sold into slavery.

The bible is full of stories of migration. Adam and Eve were forced to leave Paradise. Abraham was told by God to leave his homeland to create a new nation. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. His descendants migrated from Egypt and ended up in the Promised Land after 40 years in the desert. Even the Holy Family fled their home out of fear that Jesus might be killed by Herod. 

Pre-existing communities have not always welcomed migrants with open arms. Sometimes weariness and suspicion about these new arrivals was warranted as they used force to stake claim to the land driving those who already lived there out. Just look at what happened in Biblical times; or look at what happened to the First Nations of the Americas when Europeans arrived; or look at what is happening around the world today. 

And yet, sometimes the reception of newcomers has been less than welcoming due to xenophobia or fear of strangers. And yet, the Bible makes it very clear that we are to treat strangers with dignity and respect. The letter to the Hebrews 13:2 admonishes Christians to “show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

As we know, Pope Francis is very concerned with the plight of migrants and refugees. On September 29, 2019, the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees Pope Francis dedicated a new monumental sculpture in St. Peter’s Square entitled Angels Unawares. Of note is that this sculpture was the first in some 400 years to be added to this iconic square. The sculpture was commissioned by Michael Cardinal Czerny who is the Under-secretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Angels Unawares was created by Timothy Schmalz, a Canadian Catholic sculptor who has dedicated much of his work to the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Our Homeless Jesus is one of his well known works.

Angels Unawares depicts 140 almost life size people on a boat. They represent migrants from all times and all places. Some of them have experienced migration by choice, others by necessity or force. Among them are a Jewish man fleeing Nazi Germany; an Irish boy fleeing the potato famine; an African family being forced into slavery; a Syrian man escaping the civil war in his home country; a Cherokee man on the trail of tears; a Protestant man escaping the Counter-Reformation. The ship even includes the Holy Family. 

As he sculpted each one of these 140 people, the artist used old photographs to represent historic migrants. Some of them he found in the Ellis Island archives. He also had recent immigrants come to his studio to model for this sculpture. Thus each one of the characters on the boat represents an actual person who migrated. In their faces one can see fear or anticipation, relief or dread depending on the reason for the migration.

At the center of this tightly packed boat are two large angel’s wings referencing the Letter to the Hebrews admonishment that any one of these sisters and brothers of ours might be “angels unawares.”

Catholic University in Washington D.C. was given a second cast of the sculpture. Before its permanent installation this fall, Angels Unawares has been traveling to several cities in the United States at the request of the artist. Minneapolis and the Basilica of Saint Mary will be the last but one stop on its way back to D.C. We will host the sculpture throughout the month of August. It will sit on the plaza in front of The Basilica.

On Sunday, August 1 we will have a welcome ceremony and we will bid goodbye to the sculpture on Thursday, August 26. There will be lots of programming around Angels Unawares between those to dates. More details are to follow.

In the same way as the Homeless Jesus calls us to solidarity with people who are experiencing homelessness, Angels Unawares calls us to solidarity with people who had to leave their homes and found refuge here. As we care for them, we may be caring for angels unawares.

Visit mary.org/angelsunawares for more details. 


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As Christians, the season of Easter is a time to celebrate new life. We recognize a call to embrace reconciling, forgiving and healing love—in our own hearts and in our interactions with others. This love transforms our individual lives, as well as our community and society.
This is our call, yet we fall short: as individuals and as a community, we fail. 
One of the ways our failure is manifested is racial injustice. The shocking public murder of George Floyd focused a light on Minnesota, exposing the realities of racial inequity so often ignored or hidden. National and international media told the story: 
  • While Minnesota is often ranked one of the best places to live, it has some of the highest racial disparities in the nation: income inequality, education achievement, poverty rate, home ownership, unemployment and incarceration rates—all tragic gaps between white and black Minnesotans. (NPR, June 2, 2020)
These facts represent systems that are complicaed. But this Easter, we have another story to hear—a story of racial injustice right here at The Basilica. Just as ignored and hidden, it eats away at the dignity of our brothers and sisters.
A few days after Easter I received a call from a Basilica parishioner who is a black woman. She shared a painful experience she had on Easter Sunday. She gave me permission to share it, as it is an important teachable moment—a chance to shine the light on racial realities within our own Basilica community. 
  • With an opportunity to celebrate Easter Sunday Liturgy in-person, our sister followed pandemic protocols and pre-registered. Sitting in her assigned seat, she was quietly praying before the Liturgy began—excited to be at The Basilica for the first time in over a year. An usher came down the aisle and proceeded to seat a white woman in the same pew—socially distanced. The white woman looked at the black woman, and refused to sit down. She demanded a different seat. This white woman would not sit near the black woman. 
The parishioner who shared this experience was hurt, disappointed, and angry.  This was not The Basilica she longed for. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated experience. After many conversations with people of color in our Basilica community, I have come to learn that many have personal stories of being called out, kept out, excluded or omitted at The Basilica, at some point. While they all share their love for The Basilica and the Basilica community, this is their reality. 
It is important for us—especially those of us who are white Basilica parishioners—to know these experiences happen. They are not just in the past, not just isolated, not just happening “out there.” 
When we hear these stories, we get uncomfortable. We are invited to embrace this discomfort, acknowledge the hurt and pain, and work together so we can always respond with compassion and clarity, when faced with racial injustice. We are called to be Easter people; people of reconciling, forgiving and healing love
On Pentecost Sunday, The Basilica will share a parish-wide Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity (EDI) Position Statement. This Statement will guide the work of The Basilica community in the area of equity, diversity and inclusivity over the next few years.
Look for ways to get involved in The Basilica Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity initiative. Together, with guidance and strength from the Holy Spirit, we will work to eliminate racism within the parish and the broader community—choosing not to be neutral in the face of injustice.  Contact Janice for ways to get involved or for more information. 

For more information visit mary.org/edi.