“Angels Unawares” in America: a clarion call to view migration from a Christian perspective – Vatican News

By Linda Bordoni

The 140 raft-borne men, women and children from different times in history, different religions and different homelands – sculpted by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz – are a stark reminder of the reality of so many of our brothers and sisters on the move.

At a time in which many other rafts, rubber dinghies and old boats don’t even complete their journey, resulting in innumerable tragic deaths at sea, that bronze raft is afloat and will be crossing the United States for the year to come, awakening awareness and empathy in those who come across it, and helping us all look at immigration in a more Christian way. 

The sculpture is entitled “Angels Unawares” and it is the exact replica of the work installed in St. Peter’s Square in September 2019 to mark the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees.

For the month of November, the artwork that gets its name from the New Testament’s Hebrews 13:2 “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”, is on show in the grounds of Boston College.

As Jesuit Father James Keenan, a moral theologian, bioethicist, writer, and the Canisius Professor of theology at the College told Vatican Radio, it’s getting a great reception:

Listen to the interview with James Keenan, SJ

“It’s terrific. It’s a wonderful experience,” Fr Keenan said, explaining that it is located in a lovely plaza between the old Boston College hall and the library, a place of passage.

It invites people to stop in their tracks, he said, as they encounter it on their way: “You see people constantly walking around and taking pictures of it, trying to identify different people. The 140 figures… the Holy Family, the Rabbi, the slave… there is a real sense of people on the move, and as an artwork, it’s getting a great reception.”

It has also, he added, created great interest and appreciation for the work of Timothy Schmalz.

Programme of events dedicated to migration issues

Fr Keenan said the presence of the sculpture on the grounds of Boston College goes hand-in-hand with an intense November programme of lectures and events on topics related to immigration.

“This is a 3.6-ton statue that with the angels’ wings hits 14 feet and has 140 figures on the boat,” he notes, so its large and compelling, and at the heart of it “we have a robust programme.”

Among the speakers on Boston College’s panel is Cardinal Michael Czerny, President of the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section, and incidentally, the person who commissioned the work.

Fr Keenan went on to list other members of the panel and of the series of multidisciplinary events, including prayer requests and worship ceremonies, all of which, he said, aim to offer the opportunity for discussion and engagement on topics related to immigration, refugees, migrants and call to action.


Recalling that November is also the month in which Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States, Fr Keenan said, “we’re wrapping it into being thankful and praying for blessings as well,” and Angels Unawares is serving “as a clarion call for our University to acknowledge and recognize immigration,” as well “as tapping us as a University.”

Noting that the two of the figures on the raft represent Cardinal Michael Czerny’s parents – migrants from Czechoslovakia – Fr Keenan said when Angels Unawares arrived in Boston he wrote to the Cardinal to tell him. “Good,” Czerny said, “And my parents are on it…!”

The month of Thanksgiving

“There is a certain way in which Thanksgiving calls us all to faith,” he said, explaining that throughout the month the College has programmed events to celebrate Thanksgiving and the diversity that is at the foundation of the country. Like the one entitled “Agape Latte” with Fr Quang Tran SJ, who will share his story of faith, family and gratitude that began with his family’s journey from Vietnam.

What’s more, he added, every week on Wednesday evenings, the College organizes a Candlelight Mass in which “people will be offering for a celebration of immigration itself.”

“I hope, in light of our election, it will be a way of maybe looking at immigration in a more Christian way, then perhaps the discussion has been in my country for the past couple of years,” he said, adding that “2020 has been a rough year, but maybe for us, November is turning out to be a good month.” 

A journey throughout the country

Fr Keenan said Angels Unawares has about a year’s run in the United States: “It eventually will settle at the Catholic University of America, where will be installed permanently.”

Its itinerary, he added, is still in the making, but it will definitely be shown at Notre Dame University, at the Catholic University in San Antonio, in Washington and at other stops in between.

Fr Keenan concluded recalling another work by Timothy Schmalz, which is installed near the Community of Saint Egidio in Rome. It is entitled Homeless Jesus and he said “it portrays a covered Jesus sleeping on a bench, and you can see that it is Jesus by the wounds on His feet”.

It is clear, he said that “Schmaltz’s works of mercy, are very much beloved by Pope Francis and by the Church, and it’s really wonderful to see how his work is developing and how deeply connected it is to the papacy of Pope Francis.”


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