At the beginning of Pope Francis’ three-day trip to Bolivia—the second stop on his three-country tour of Latin America—the Pontiff was given an odd gift by Evo Morales, the country’s president: a crucifix in the shape of the Communist hammer-and-sickle symbol.
The Holy Father’s discomfort with the gift is clear in the video below; he reportedly told Morales, “This is not OK,” before taking the crucifix and quickly handing it off to an aide:
Catholic News Agency has details on the controversial gift:
The cross with a hammer and sickle is a reproduction of another carved during the 1970s by Fr. Luis Espinal Camps, a Spanish Jesuit who was a missionary in Bolivia who was killed in 1980 during the Bolivian dictatorship.
At a July 9 press briefing the Holy See press officer, Fr. Federico Lombardi, noted the lack of clarity in the audio of the exchange, and remarked that Pope Francis had been unaware the crucifix was a replica of Fr. Espinal’s.
He also claimed that Fr. Espinal’s use of it was not ideological but expressed a hope for dialogue between communism and the Church, adding that Pope Francis’ remark likely expressed a sentiment of “I didn’t know”, rather than “This is not right.”
Morales’ gift has sparked a worldwide controversy, and reactions were not long in coming. The majority of them accuse Morales of trying to politicize the Pope’s visit.
Morales is head of Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism party, and his administration has focused on implementing leftist policies in the nation. Since coming to power in 2006, Morales has frequently sparred with the Bolivian bishops.
Catholics from various Hispanophone countries rejected Morales’ gesture, considering it offensive to the numerous victims of terrorist groups in Latin America and of the historical totalitarian communist regimes.
Bishop Jose Munilla Aguirre of San Sebastián, a Spaniard, tweeted: “The height of arrogance is to manipulate God in the service of atheistic ideologies … Today, once again: #ChristCrucified”.
Fr. Espinal – whose “communist crucifix” was the model for Morales’ gift to the Pope – was a journalist who advocated for human rights and democracy, continues to be a source of controversy in Bolivia.
UPDATE 7/13 During an in-flight press conference as he returned to Rome from Paraguay, Pope Francis discussed the hammer-and-sickle crucifix, which he said surprised him, but didn’t offend him, as well as the medal bearing the communist symbol that he was also given by President Morales during his Bolivia visit. From Catholic News Service’s Cindy Wooden:
Pope Francis was asked about his reaction to the crucifix on top of a hammer and sickle — the communist symbol — that Bolivian President Evo Morales gave him July 8. The crucifix was designed by Jesuit Father Luis Espinal, who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in Bolivia in 1980.
The pope said the crucifix surprised him. “I hadn’t known that Father Espinal was a sculptor and a poet, too. I just learned that these past few days,” he said.
Pope Francis said that he did know, however, that Father Espinal was among the Latin American theologians in the late 1970s who found Marxist political, social and economic analysis helpful for understanding their countries and their people’s struggles and that the Jesuit also used Marxist theories in his theology. It was four years after the Jesuit’s murder that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said plainly that Marxist theory had no place in a Catholic theology, the pope pointed out.
Father Espinal, he said, “was a special man with a great deal of geniality.”
The crucifix, the pope said, obviously fits into the category of “protest art,” which some people may find offensive, although he said he did not.
“I’m talking it home with me,” Pope Francis said.
In addition to the crucifix, Morales had given the pope two honors, one of which was making him part of the Order of Father Espinal, a designation that comes with a medal bearing a copy of the hammer-and-sickle crucifix.
Pope Francis said he’s never accepted such honors; “it’s just not for me,” he said. But Morales had given them to the pope with “such goodwill” and such obvious pleasure at doing something he thought would please the pope that the pope said he could not refuse.
“I prayed about this,” the pope told reporters. He said he did not want to offend Morales and he did not want the medals to end up in a Vatican museums storeroom. So he placed them at the feet of a statue of Mary and asked that they be transferred to the national shrine of Our Lady of Copacabana.
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