The “Homeless Jesus” statue and the New Evangelization

Timothy Schmalz’s acclaimed sculpture arrived at the Vatican at the beginning of Holy Week.

Occasionally an artist emerges who is very much of his time and whose art is yet somehow timeless. One such artist working today has met with wide acclaim, which is all the more surprising given that the art in question is overtly Christian. The artist’s name is Tim Schmalz.

One day, Schmalz was driving through the downtown streets of Toronto. It was a day like any other: busy people, shoppers, workers going about their business with their own concerns, their own preoccupations, their own lives. The young sculptor was doing the same, but this day was to change his professional life. In the middle of the hustle and bustle he saw something, which turned out to be someone. A homeless man lying on a bench, covered in a blanket as the world hurried past. Schmalz was transfixed by this scene. It sparked a conversion, but not of faith—that had already taken place, as the once-wayward Schmalz had by this time returned to the Catholic faith of his upbringing. This conversion was to be one of artistic direction.

This experience would be articulated years later in a statue known as Homeless Jesus, and with it Tim Schmalz’s life was changed forever.

The concept of the sculpture is a simple one. It is often the mark of a great work of art that its apparent simplicity is what allows an audience to access and connect with its hidden complexity. Homeless Jesus does just that.

It is important to remember that much of the sculpture’s prospective audience comes to it unawares; replicas of the work are often erected in busy public areas, and encountering one often takes people by surprise. In one North American city, someone reported “him” to the police as a vagrant. It seems many assume it is a real person until they are right next to the sculpture. Then, they see the marks: the feet that stick out from beneath the blanket represent those that 2,000 years ago were hammered with nails into a piece of wood.

Homeless Jesus is starting to appear in cities around the world. Its most recent installation is in Sant’Egidio’s courtyard in the Vatican, at the entrance to the Office of Papal Charities, where it was erected at the beginning of Holy Week. This is Christian art that is profound and is also proving popular. But, whereas in recent decades many artists have taken a perverse pleasure—often rewarded by secular prizes—in mocking and deriding traditional Christian iconography, this is an artistic installation that is respectful of that tradition.

Another sculpture by Schmalz will eventually reside at San Giovanni Rotondo, the former home of Padre Pio. It’s fitting that it should be exhibited there, as it features the saint.

It is called I Absolve You. One sees the saint sitting in the confessional—something he did day in, day out for years—but there is something else, something unexpected, if one looks closer. Look at the grill and one notices a hand: one that is pierced. Here we have a veritable catechesis on the sacrament of reconciliation, reminding all who care to look that it is to Christ that we confess our sins.

Each year millions visit the shrine dedicated to the stigmatic St. Pio of Pietrelcina. Many will come for confession; many will come to beg for the saint’s intercession. During this Year of Mercy, the sculpture is an artistic reminder of the unceasing invitation to forgiveness that calls to each human heart. This is the New Evangelization set in clay.

These two works of art seem particularly timely given some of the themes of the current pontificate: the poor and Divine Mercy. But then everything has its time when we believe there is a “hand”—in this case one marked in the same way as the limbs of the Homeless Jesus—guiding all, as indeed it continues to guide the hands of Tim Schmalz.

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.

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