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The Cross, the life jacket, and the dangers of idolatry

The recently unveiled cross carrying the life jacket of an unknown migrant, now hanging in the Vatican, raises serious questions and concerns, as the Crucifix for Christians knows only one occupant: Jesus Christ.

(Image: Twitter @pontifex, December 20, 2019)

On December 19, 2019, Pope Francis met with 33 asylum-seekers from the Greek island of Lesbos, who were brought to Rome by Cardinal Konrad Krajewski. To mark the occasion, a cross was unveiled in the Belvedere Courtyard in the Vatican to pay tribute to the migrants who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. The cross is quite unusual, to put it mildly: the body of the cross is transparent, like water, and is encircled by an orange life jacket exactly at the place where Christ would be placed on the cross. The orange life jacket belonged to an unknown migrant who lost his or her life at sea in July 2019.

That nameless migrant, emphasized Pope Francis, was a victim of injustice. “It is injustice that rejects them and causes them to die at sea,” the pontiff said. The cross with the life jacket of the migrant, he stated,

Remind[s] us that we must keep our eyes open …, keep our hearts open …, to remind everyone of the indispensable commitment to save every human life, a moral duty that unites believers and non-believers… How can we remain indifferent to the abuses and violence of which they are innocent victims, leaving them at the mercy of unscrupulous traffickers? How can we go further, like the priest and the Levite of the parable of the Good Samaritan, making ourselves responsible for their death? Our ignorance is a sin.

It might appears as if the cross is “wearing” a migrant’s life jacket. In fact, the migrant’s life jacket occupies the place of Christ Crucified; the jacket is the substitute for Christ on the cross. The unusual cross is controversial, with some Italians wondering if this is Francis’s message for Christmas—making them feel guilty for not helping and caring enough for migrants. Is the unusual cross a tool to guilt the faithful, especially at Christmas?

It certainly raises serious questions and concerns, as the Crucifix for Christians knows only one occupant: Jesus Christ, who is the center and the summit of the Christian faith. “The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 618), and the Modern Catholic Encyclopedia (The Liturgical Press, 1994) explains that the cross is the “most solemn and significant symbol of the Christian faith…” In 2,000 years of Christian history, Christians have never had any Crucifix other than the Redemptive cross carrying the lifeless body of Christ crucified for humanity’s sins. Christ’s cross is indeed not replaceable or substitutable with any other image, because only one death on the cross is a Redemptive and Salvific Death—a death that cannot be compared to any other death or any other suffering, neither by metonymy (life jacket substituting for Christ) nor by a metaphor.

Only Christ’s suffering and only His death on the cross are saving and redemptive. Christ’s death was all-embracing and all-inclusive, but it was His death; the Crucifix embraces all suffering and all sufferers, including injustice suffered by all humans: the migrants drowned at sea, the unborn child who was murdered, the persecuted Christians in China or the Middle East, the family trying to make ends meet this Christmas, the sick, the leper, the unemployed, the elderly, the single parent, the abused woman, the unemployed, and many more. Every life is sacred in the eyes of God; He does not discriminate: “For God shows no partiality” (Rom 2:11).

Why not the life jackets of the firefighters, or the bullet-resistant vests worn by law enforcement men and women who die in the line of duty serving other people? One cannot call out one particular human suffering, that of the migrant, and replace it with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christ cannot be replaced. The migrant cannot become Christ, the new redeemer. It is truly unfortunate the migrant died in the sea in July 2019, trying to reach safety and a better life, giving himself/herself up for a better life—but not for redeeming humankind. The migrant—or any human, for that matter—is never capable of giving up himself/herself to save all. Only One is offered for Salvation of all, and that One is Jesus Christ. “And there is salvation in no one else,” declared the first pope, Saint Peter, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The life jacket is not the symbol of the Christian faith; it is not a symbol of all-inclusive human suffering, much less of universal salvation. Christ suffered to save all, the entirety of humankind. There is no comparison and no theology to back the substitution of Christ with a life jacket; the life jacket can save human lives, but it is a radically different “salvation.” The life jacket cannot save for life; it is temporal salvation from the sea, a salvation which is exclusive to a particular group of people: migrants and refugees. Instead, according to the doctrine of Christ’s Church, Christ Crucified is the only source and summit of Eternal Salvation for all those who follow and obey Him. Christ’s suffering and redemption was an all-inclusive Suffering and Redemption.

By substituting Christ on the cross with the migrant’s life jacket, Pope Francis risks becoming exclusive in choosing one human suffering over others. Even worse, the Church risks becoming no different from a non-governmental organization (NGO) located in Trastevere. Additionally, the installation of this new non-crucifix runs the risk of becoming blasphemous to the Christian faith and to Christians. In this recent display, the Church and the 2,000-year-old Christian faith have become ideology and the Crucifix is instrumentalized to serve politics.

As the saying goes, “Keep Christ in Christmas!” This year, it seems especially appropriate to add: “Keep Christ in the Crucifix!” They belong together and cannot be understood apart. “For I decided to know nothing among you,” wrote Saint Paul, “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”


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About Ines Angeli Murzaku 19 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku (http://academic.shu.edu/orientalia/) is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Director of Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. She earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. She is a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters. She has worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio (Vatican City), and EWTN (Rome). Dr. Murzaku is currently writing a book on St. Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece to be published by Paulist Press in 2020.

22 Comments

  1. All the questioning, doctrinal ambiguity followed by affirmation then subsequent repetition needs be considered an agenda rather than unintended accident. There is a discernible pattern. And there certainly are visible effects such as Curia restructure, appointments, admonitions that clergy be ecologically converted rather than engage in conversion trophyism – that support Angeli Muzarku’s perception of a Church likened toward becoming an NGO. “There is always the temptation to fall back on the past, also by employing new formulations because it is more reassuring, familiar, and, to be sure, less conflictual. Here, there is a need to be wary of the temptation to rigidity. A rigidity born of the fear of change, which ends up erecting fences and obstacles on the terrain of the common good, turning it into a minefield of incomprehension and hatred. Let us always remember that behind every form of rigidity lies some kind of imbalance. Rigidity and imbalance feed one another in a vicious circle. Cardinal Martini, in his last interview, a few days before his death, said something that should make us think: The Church is two hundred years behind the times. Why is she not shaken up? Are we afraid? Fear, instead of courage?” (Pope Francis talk to Curia 11. 21.19 in L’Espresso Sandro Magister) The Pontiff had compared his agenda to Lampedusa’s famous line in The Leopard in which the prince advised “That everything must change so that everything remains the same”. It all depends on what the same is. The Imbalanced Rigid desperately want to know.

  2. We read: “By substituting Christ on the Crucifix with the migrant’s life jacket, Pope Francis risks becoming exclusive in choosing one human suffering over others.”

    Can’t help a bit of humor here (and then some added thoughts)…The breasted life jacket reminds me of Navy training for survival in ocean waters. Navy life jackets are routinely referred to as “May West’s” in reverent honor for the obvious. Also, the “strip-ship” option meant to toss everything extraneous overboard, if necessary, to save a sinking ship.

    Misled by the fluid- and ambiguous-message—the life-jacket crucifix—perhaps many seekers of the Faith and of a well-grounded evangelization are being set adrift, instead—as toward the similar and ample endowments of Mother Earth and Pachamama.

    As it is said in papal documents, “everything is connected!” So let’s connect some other dots…The case might be made that the life jacket “crucifix” is at least an improvement over the Bolivian hammer-and-sickle crucifix accepted earlier, or the Wiccan stang that took the place of the shepherd’s staff at the Youth Synod.

    Pope Francis wants to connect the crucified Christ to a multitude of concrete, everyday expressions and circumstances that can befuddle and overwhelm us in a networked and shrunken world. But his ventriloquist handlers, especially, seem to tar the listing Barque of Peter as too “rigid”—and as extraneous baggage amidst the adopted flotsam and jetsam of a post-Christian world.

    With adequate imagination and fidelity, instead, might we still see and preserve the intact Magisterium as being the life jacket for a pilgrim and crucified Church, especially in these turbulent times?

  3. The cheap sentimentality wafting through the precincts of the Vatican is at best superficial and ephemeral. Notice how we seldom hear that glorious hymn of the 60’s Catholic church “Kumbaya” anymore? Notice how that catchy tune “Let There Be Peace On Earth” is only found in the dustbin of history? Cheap sentimentality has been trying to hijack the truth of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord for some time now. And every time it rears its ugly head it manages to find it’s way into the drink of the Tiber along with the Pachamama idols that stole the show at the most recent Synod from Hell.

  4. Thank you Dr. Murzaku.  This is well explained and well put.  
    Honestly, our Pope has no clue what he is doing.

    May God bless and again thank you.

  5. I want our churchmen to stop deifying the poor and marginalized. Christ is not the poor, and the poor are not Christ. His representatives, his ONLY representatives in this world are his disciples. We Christians are the face of Christ. No one else.

    • I consider this comment contrary to Scripture. Jesus said that whatever we do to the least of us, we do to Him. Vincentians are taught to see the face of Christ in the poor.

      • In recent years it appears that some groups have become more “equal” or laudable than others. I think that’s what this commentator intended to mean when he suggested we stop “deifying the poor”. Helping the poor is what Jesus asked. I dont recall him suggesting we rubber stamp them breaking civil law which adds to the stability of nations.

    • St. Lawrence said the poor were the treasure of the Church. I think we can agree with that & still not endorse mass Muslim migration into Europe. Different issues.

  6. Francis’ GLOBALIST NWO agenda is obvious with his latest sacrilege of placing migrant life vests over Christ’s crucifix.

    • Yes exactly. He has an objective and that is to subvert the Catholic faith into the Masonic version that will render the Church impotent. He castigated a football star for making the sign of the cross on the football field. That says it all really – what Pope would discourage a visible affirmation of faith? Someone who does not want the faith to be proclaimed and affirmed.

  7. This too , in a sense a gift for the Holy Father , for the dialogue it can draw
    forth , to help more light into the stormy seas of our times ; hope many had the chance to read the linked article , that mentions the cross , as a symbol of suffering and redemption , like the good thief or even the unrepentant thief too , that was there near The Cross , a St.John and a Mother , likely praying for both as well .
    ‘ Bring them to Me ..’ – our Lord asks us all ..
    That cross , made from plastic that is from oil , a fossil fuel , thus from trees that died eons ago ..made transparent to shed light ..that life jacket too, from similar material ..and the mysterious connection to July 3rd – Feast of St.Thomas , who likely traveled the farthest ( along with his likely twin , St.Barthelomeo ) to
    The East ..from where too, has originated / pervaded the attitudes against the sacredness of life , idolization of carnal spirits and such as well , that has affected many other nations, esp. through the colonisations , which also included deceptive efforts for destruction of The Church there , by powers set for earthly glory .
    We are made to face the genealogies of our own ancestors , this time of the year ..and St.Joseph too, very likely would have done so often , asking for mercy , amidst
    a nation under Roman rule , a Rome said to have its origins under wolves ..
    and thinking of those ancestors , Adam on down , who were awaiting The Lord , to open the gates of heaven …thus , a powerful intercessor for our own debts of similar nature .
    Those 30 years he spent , with The Son , working on wood would have given plenty more occasions to do so …looking at The Son ,possibly with far more of unspeakable emotions than what Abraham had to go through , for Isaac ..
    That cross ,placed in a location easily seen by those in power , asking for each, to open the hearts to The Son and His light , to the truth of the ‘dignity of every human life ‘ – let us hope that it was meant to bring repentance , thus its
    fruits , a very precious gift for The Lord , that can bring good in ways that we may not even fathom ..such as by refraining from arms running , under the idol of greed , instead , for the peace of the family at Nazareth , such as for fathers to have decent enough jobs , in own home lands .
    May all such prayers too be answered , in a speedy enough manner , by our Lord , whose grace opened the heart of the good thief 🙂

  8. First of all, may God have mercy on the souls of those poor people who drowned.
    He knows each one by name & why they risked their lives to emigrate.
    I understand the sentiments behind the lifejacket on the cross but after seeing things like this in Anglican churches in the UK I just hope the Catholic Church doesn’t emulate the CE trend of using well meant but tacky modern artwork to draw attention to current issues.

  9. Just another day in the Francis papacy. There apparently is no Church teaching, tradition or symbol that Francis will not exploit and distort to advance his pet leftist causes, immigration being one at the top of the list.. Everything must be subordinated to the political agenda.

  10. Putting an “immigrant’s” jacket on a cross is just plain emotional-bribing-idolatry, where Francis’ hybridizing-of-good-and-evil narcissism must be worshipped bribing us into it with the blood of a dead “immigrant” as a despicable form of a human shield and demonic justification to his demand for blind idolatry to himself. There’s no more despicable form of abuse to these “immigrants” than that.

    Disrespect to human beings. Disrespect to God. Self-Idolatry. Hybridizing narcissism. Say no to the Cheap-Soap-Opera Sentimentalist Deceiver, that like Judas is basically saying, “[Instead of wasting that perfume (intended for WORSHIP) on Jesus] … it could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor”, (Matthew 26:9). The greatest question ever: Who do you worship? Just look carefully at Francis’ face as he “blesses” this Pachamama crucifix of Bottomless Hybridizing Hypocrisy.

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