Chicago Catholic

June 29 - July 12, 2014

Homeless Jesus sculpture a ‘visual ambassador’

By Joyce Duriga

Editor

A life-sized bronze sculpture "Jesus the Homeless" sits in front of the Catholic Charities headquarters at 721 N. LaSalle St. It depicts Christ as a homeless man asleep on a park bench. (Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

The wounds of Christ can be seen in the feet of the sculpture. (Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

When people line up in front of Catholic Charities headquarters on 721 N. LaSalle St. for the agency’s free evening suppers they have some new company as they wait: the Jesus the Homeless sculpture created by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz.

The life-sized bronze sculpture features Jesus wrapped in a cloak lying on a bench. Only the feet, which bear the wounds of his crucifixion, are exposed.

There is a bit of space on the bench for someone to sit next to the figure and rest or meditate.

Since those who attend Catholic Charities’ dinners are in some state of need, some of them homeless themselves, it’s a fitting place for the sculpture, Schmalz told the Catholic New World.

“When the Son of Man looks a lot like themselves, they themselves will understand they have a sacred worth just like anybody else,” he said.

A donor paid for the sculpture that was installed outside Catholic Charities this spring.

In a statement, Msgr. Michael Boland, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, called the sculpture “thought-provoking.”

“At first, you may think it is an actual person on a bench and as you get closer you realize, by the nail holes in the feet, that it is Jesus. It can be an uncomfortable realization,” he said. “It’s a reminder that those whom we often view as on the margins of society are among us and deserve our care and help, just as Jesus cared for the least among us.”

Schmalz, who is Catholic, said he was inspired to create the sculpture three years ago, after seeing a homeless person wrapped in a blanket sleeping on a street in downtown Toronto, Ontario.

“The city was his bedroom at 2 in the afternoon. It stopped me spiritually,” he said. “When I first saw the figure I just saw Jesus.”

He took his inspiration from Mt 25:37- 40: “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?’”

The first statue was installed at Regis College in Toronto and others have since been installed around North America. The work has been embraced by both Catholics and Protestants, Schmalz said.

Last fall, Schmalz presented the sculpture to Pope Francis, who in turn stopped and prayed before it prior to blessing it. Some people in Rome are working to put one of the sculptures near the Vatican.

Christianity has a lot more challenges now than faith did a hundred years ago, Schmalz said, so the visual ambassadors of our faith have to be just as powerful as the Gospel.

“It’s no cookie-and-cream religion,” Schmalz said. “It’s a serious religion. It’s just as bold and only as bold as Jesus was himself when he was asked ‘When did we help you?’”

Since the sculpture is made out of solid bronze, it should remain a visual ambassador for hundreds of years, the artist said.

“At three in the morning you can drive by and he’ll still be sleeping on that bench,” Schmalz said.