Cathedral's sculpture draws attention

Monsignor Heng believes the Homeless Jesus sculpture is an appropriate addition to the grounds of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. Although the artwork can be found in Catholic and Protestant churches in some 50 cities, the one in the cathedral here is the first to be sited in South-east Asia.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

A cloaked figure lies huddled on a bench at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, a picture of helplessness and poverty.

His face and hands are hidden under a blanket, but go nearer and you will realise that it is a sculpture of Jesus with crucifixion wounds on his feet.

Called Homeless Jesus, the bronze sculpture, which has made headlines around the world, was installed at Singapore's oldest Catholic church last November - in time for its reopening in the Civic District after a major restoration.

The sculpture is also the first to be sited in South-east Asia, though Homeless Jesus can be found in Catholic and Protestant churches in about 50 cities, including Madrid, Chennai and Washington, DC.

Created by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, the life-size sculpture and its accompanying bench were also installed in the Vatican last year, after Pope Francis had previously blessed a smaller model of it.

But it has stirred some controversy, with some saying it demeans their neighbourhoods, or that Jesus was never said to be homeless in the Bible.

But Cathedral of the Good Shepherd rector, Monsignor Philip Heng, said: "Of course, Jesus was not homeless nor a beggar, but he lived simply with his 12 disciples... and preached the gospel of compassion and mercy.

"This sculpture is an artistic impression and expression of how He is one with the poor."

Mr Schmalz had contacted the Catholic leader, Archbishop William Goh, in May last year, offering to send the sculpture.

An anonymous donor paid for the work and shipping. It was installed in one of the cathedral's six gardens, at the national monument's main entrance.

Mr Schmalz declined to reveal the cost of the sculpture to The Straits Times.

Monsignor Heng said Mr Schmalz's only request was that it be located in a place where it would be noticed.

The rector believes it is an appropriate addition to the grounds.

He said: "I think it's a rallying call for the cathedral because homelessness is part of the reality of Singapore."

Even in a prosperous country like Singapore, there are people who sleep on cardboard sheets at street corners and five-foot-ways in the city centre, he said. Sometimes, they approach the cathedral and worshippers for food or money.

After Monsignor Heng took over as rector in 2015, he appointed two volunteers to speak with the needy who came around, so as to assess their situation to determine how much financial help they needed.

The cathedral has documented the cases of at least 20 such people.

It also distributes about 150 boxes of food every Sunday at the cathedral to both the needy and migrant workers.

The programme is funded by donations from worshippers.

Feedback about the sculpture from worshippers and visitors has been positive so far, said Monsignor Heng, adding that some people think it is a real person.

"Just because we don't see the homeless and needy often, it doesn't mean they don't exist," he said.

"The sculpture reminds people that the Christian faith is not just about you and God alone, but also about the larger community."

Housewife Cecila Charmaine Chan, 60, who attends mass at the cathedral, agreed.

She said: "If we want to follow Christ, we also have to love the poor."

Mr Schmalz said over the phone from Florida: "Singapore is a major city in the world and there are a lot of rich as well as poor people living there. So the message, which is to challenge people to see God in the poor, has to be represented there."

Each sculpture takes about three to four months to create in his studio in Ontario, Canada.

Born Catholic, Mr Schmalz said he was inspired to create the sculpture after seeing a homeless person sleeping under a blanket on a busy street in Toronto, Canada, six years ago.

On the rejection he has faced, Mr Schmalz said: "It's a powerful message that some people don't want to talk about.

"Christianity is not meant to be cushy. It requires us to take a hard look at ourselves and treat everyone with love."

This article was first published on January 30, 2017.
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