Pope Francis has received many gifts during his ongoing papal visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, but none drew as much attention as the one he received yesterday from Bolivian President Evo Morales: a crucifix in the likeness of the Communist hammer and sickle symbol. Already questionable because of the inherent opposition between Communism and religion, it is especially sensitive because Pope Francis himself has been wrongfully called a Communist by certain media. This should get them going again.
The crucifix in question highlights a rather Latin American problem (although not limited to that continent): the intertwining of Christian concern for the poor with Communist propaganda and politics. This crucifix was either the property of or a copy of the one made by Fr. Luís Espinal Camps (at right), a Spanish-born Jesuit tortured and killed by the Bolivian authorites in 1980. Fr. Espinal is today often considered to be a patron of justice among Bolivia’s poor. During his life he fought against the structural violence, violations of human rights and immunity from prosecution of the military government, and stood up for the rights of the poor, even going so far as to sharing their poverty. Fr. Espinal also advocated that the Church should work with other social groups and organisations when it comes to combatting poverty and injustice.
In many of these aspects the Church finds an ally in Communism, which also claims to work for the good of the poor and their rights. However, there always remains the looming spectre of Communism being inherently opposed to any form of religion, which Karl Marx famously considered “the opium of the people”, a drug that distracts the people from what it should really be focussed on and working towards. Of course, this philosophy remains visible in officially Communist countries such as China, where the Church is forced to remain underground.
We could see nothing more in President Morales’ gift of this crucifix than a reminder of Father Espinal, a Jesuit like Pope Francis, eminently concerned with the marginalised, again like Pope Francis. But why Fr. Espinal chose to make such a blatant Communist symbol in the first place remains anyone’s guess. Nor would President Morales be unaware of its meaning. It is a symbol with a bitter aftertaste, but one which, now it is being used in such a Catholic context, may be changed for the better: a better life for the poor and marginalised, absolutely, but always with Christ.
Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP