Each November, the month of All Souls, the church asks us to pray for those who have gone before. As we continue to process the results of the Nov. 3 elections, we should also remember to pray for all those who came before us in building our nation.
As Thanksgiving nears, many pause to reflect on their ancestors: where they came from and why they came here. Most of us descend from immigrants, others from refugees and some from indigenous people. Yet, all these ancestors — our extended family — have stories and lessons that link us to each other in a nation that, at this time in history, seems so divided.
This is the message behind a sculpture Pope Francis commissioned from Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz. “Angels Unawares” was blessed in Vatican Square on World Day of Migrants and Refugees (Sept. 29) last year. A copy was unveiled in Washington, D.C., this Sept. 27 (World Day of Migrants and Refugees). The copy is touring the United States now and will reach its permanent home at The Catholic University of America in Washington next year. (Schmalz also sculpted “Homeless Jesus.”)
“Angels Unawares” consists of 140 bronze figures in one boat, overshadowed by angel wings. The 140 represent people forced to migrate. A boy reminds us of the Irish who fled the Potato Famine in the 1800s. A Jewish man stands for those fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s. Beside him, a modern Syrian woman clutches her scant belongings. Also included are Central Americans and Muslims, fleeing dictators, and Mother Cabrini, patron of immigrants, who herself left Italy in 1889. A Cherokee man represents the Native American tribes forcibly relocated.
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of immigrants into the U.S. has more than quadrupled since 1965. Immigrants account for 13.7% of our population, Pew noted. The United Nations Refugee Center reported that, in 2019, 79.5 million people were “forcibly displaced” worldwide.
Schmalz’ 140 figures include the Holy Family. “Joseph and Mary were refugees once, too,” he told Catholic News Service.
He added that his inspiration came from a Christmas homily by Pope Francis. In it, the pontiff said, “So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary. We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day. We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away but, driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones. In many cases, this departure is filled with hope, hope for the future; yet for many others this departure can only have one name: survival.”
Hope for survival is something most of us can relate to in this time of uncertainty, rancor and disease. Hope uplifts and redirects us.
The angel wings above the sculpture, Schmalz said, come from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it, some have unknowingly entertained angels” (13:2). As a Catholic, Schmaz said, he feels this reading tells us to “be kind to the stranger; you don’t know if they are angels unawares.”
This November, ask yourself: Are there angels you may have encountered without knowing? Some may have been in your past. Others may be with those soon to pass — older parish members, family and neighbors. Some may be with people you just can’t agree with.
Still others could be with those you have barely met: recent arrivals; those who speak other languages; the homeless, refugees or the newly hired at work. They may be on street corners, riding buses or entering urgent care clinics or hospitals.
All — even those whose names you do not know — are accompanied by angels. Our ancestors surely traveled with angels. We must become more aware of our ties to those around us and of the ways we can celebrate what brought us all together into this one boat. When we do, we may also see angel wings overhead