Dear Friends in Christ,
On December 1, I returned from a weeklong trip to Rome, along with the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We had just completed our ad limina visit during which every bishop provides a report the Holy See on the state of the Diocese entrusted to his care, celebrates Mass in the four great basilicas of Rome and has the privilege of meeting with our Holy Father. Needless to say, our visit, highlighted by a two and a half hour conversation with Pope Francis, proved to be challenging, encouraging and hopeful, not only for us as bishops but also for our priests and the faithful people who make up the Church in the United States.
During our few days in Rome, like every visitor, I found myself walking across the great piazza in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica, at times overwhelmed by the splendor of that space and at others, simply rushing from one meeting to the next. Whenever I was fortunate enough to pause and reflect a bit on where I stood and why, I couldn’t help but focus upon a massive, new statue installed in the piazza by Pope Francis, entitled “Angels Unawares.”
The statue, the first to be installed in Saint Peter’s Square in over 400 years, is a 20-foot-long and 12-foot-high bronze and clay work of art depicting 140 immigrants of different cultures, faiths and ethnicities. The artist, Timothy Schmalz, took inspiration from pictures of refugees and immigrants throughout history — from persecuted Jews to Christians fleeing the Middle East, from Irish escaping the potato famine to Poles running from communism. Mary, Joseph and Jesus are also hidden among the figures. At the center of the crowd of 140 immigrants, the same number as the saintly figures topping the colonnade surrounding the piazza, are a pair of wings directed at the sky. The angel wings hearken to the title of the artwork, “Angels Unawares,” which is taken directly from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
In a very literal way, the artwork challenged me to appreciate all that was taking place in the bustling piazza that I crossed several times a day during my few days in Rome. I found myself walking side by side with religious sisters, cardinals, tourists, shopkeepers and workers. And interspersed among all of us were the poor – beggars looking for a few coins – immigrants seeking a place to rest – angels in our midst – of whom we all seemed to be unaware. God with us!
Therein, my friends, lies the heart of what we celebrate at Christmas. When our need for a savior was great, God broke through the heavens and sent his son, Jesus, into our midst to give us hope and a way forward in life.
It was hardly by accident that God chose to have his son born into poverty amid a broken and hostile world. For human nature being what it is, regardless of the technological and scientific advances that have consumed our lives over the past two millennia and in particular, in the last few decades, we need the presence of God in our lives more than ever. People continue to war one with another. Terrorism and the consequences of hatred are rampant in all corners of the globe, including our own. Self-centeredness and pride tear apart relationships with those we love. Our Church continues to deal with the tragic consequences of the behavior of some of its very own leaders who abused the most innocent among us. The treasured gift of life is increasingly disregarded, especially in the unborn, the poor, disabled and elderly. And immigrants and refugees seeking a better life are still so often forced to the margins of society by discrimination, bigotry and hatred.
Yet, in a world that seems to have gone awry due to a lack of respect for lives that are made in the very image of the Christ whose birth we celebrate, we have reason to hope. Through the wonder of the incarnation, God is in our midst and Jesus walks among us – especially in the poor. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us of this reality, “We are called to find Christ in the poor, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.”
When all is said and done, we are all poor in one way or another, aren’t we? Some of us are poor because of a lack of resources. Many of us are poor due to a lack of welcome, due to unfair judgment by others, and due to loneliness that comes from a lack of love and forgiveness. On our own, we will never be able to provide ourselves with the meaning, purpose and peace that each of us so desperately seeks in life.
Yet, when we are humble enough to open our hearts to the presence of God, to admit our need for a Savior and to, in turn, follow the pattern of Jesus’ life in service of our sisters and brothers, we discover just how rich we are. Through the grace of God, each of us is given the power to discover authentic love and a reason to hope. … And if we look carefully enough at our lives, we will surely recognize the presence of angels, even if the rest of our world is unaware of their presence.
Thank you for the privilege of walking with you in faith as your Bishop. Thank you as well for reflecting the presence of Christ within your lives and for respecting Christ’s presence in the lives of those whom God has entrusted to your care.
With prayers for a blessed Christmas, I am
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
Bishop of Scranton