Pope Francis showed great tact when receiving the ‘communist crucifix’

Bolivian President Evo Morales presents the crucifix to Pope Francis (CNS)

The Catholic media has been buzzing with the news that when Pope Francis was in Bolivia last week, its president, Evo Morales, handed him a rather controversial “gift”: a crucifix carved in the shape of a hammer and sickle. It seems that this crucifix had been made from a drawing by the late Fr Luis Espinal, a Spanish Jesuit killed by Bolivian paramilitary squads in 1980.

According to some reports the Pope was not amused by the gift and responded, “That’s not right.” Yet other reports say he commented, “I did not know that.” Actually, if you look at the YouTube clip from Rome Reports (see below), he is looking serious and reflective rather than affronted, as you would expect when being suddenly offered such a potent, if controversial, symbol. Fr Federico Lombardi, the papal press secretary, has also admitted that “it wasn’t known what the Pope said”.

It was earlier reported that before he left Bolivia that Pope Francis had laid the ambiguous gift at the foot of a statue of Our Lady. However, he later said that he brought it home with him and left two medals, which had also been presented to him, instead. Before he left Bolivia the Pope did pray to Our Lady of Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia, saying “You, Queen of Bolivia who…attend to the prayers and needs of your children, especially the most poor and abandoned, and protect them…” These words seem designed to show that whatever the political message behind the controversial crucifix it could be transformed into a higher purpose.

Matthew Young, in an article in First Things, makes the interesting comment that President Morales “no doubt intended his gift to represent the joinder of Communist and Roman Catholic values”, adding that the image “may seem to represent a new vision of communism: Christ as the deliverer of the poor?” Or “Christ killed on a symbol of supposed human progress?” I’m not sure the President is that subtle. My own immediate response to the image was to think: “Is that communism trying to show the Bolivian people that it’s really Christ-like at heart?” Still, however you interpret it, there is still something moving, with an element of pathos, about the symbols of murderous ideology being clumsily yoked to the supreme Christian image of sacrificial love.

It reminded me of a powerful illustration to an issue of Dorothy Day’s The Catholic Worker newspaper, which shows a breadline of unemployed and rejected men – and which includes a mysterious figure in a long gown and with a halo and beard: Christ among the poor.

I have just been reading a new biography of Svetlana, the daughter of Stalin by Rosemary Sullivan. The biographer does not make much of Svetlana’s spiritual searching – though she briefly joined both the Russian Orthodox Church before she defected to the West and then the Catholic Church when she lived for a couple of years in Cambridge in the early 1980s. Svetlana, who had a privileged yet neglected childhood, whose mother committed suicide when she was six and whose father, as Krushchev observed, loved his daughter “with the tenderness of a cat for a mouse”, was burdened all her days with the appalling legacy of her father’s name and the knowledge that his practical application of communism (always symbolised by the hammer and sickle) “had brought about a bloody terror, destroying millions of innocent people…”

At the time of her conversion to the Church Svetlana showed great insight, writing: “Only now I understand the wonderful grace that the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist produce… Before, I was unwilling to forgive and repent, and I was never able to love my enemies.”

She would have instantly understood the irony of the papal gift: the juxtaposition of the crucified Christ with the hated symbols of an atheist political creed which had cast its shadow over her own life.