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.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!