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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis is parroting revisionist history that alleges artifacts in the Vatican Museums may have been stolen from indigenous peoples.
"The Seventh Commandment comes to mind: If you steal something, you have to give it back," Francis told an airborne press conference on his return trip from Hungary on Sunday.
"In the case where you can return things, where it's necessary to make a gesture, better to do it," the pope said when asked about the possibility of returning artifacts from the Vatican's ethnological collections.
"Sometimes you can't if there are no possibilities — political, real or concrete possibilities. But in those cases where you can make restitution, please do it. It's good for everyone, so you don't get used to putting your hands in someone else's pockets," Francis emphasized.
"And if tomorrow the Egyptians come and ask for the obelisk, what will we do?" the pope asked rhetorically, referring to the 4,000-year-old monument at the center of St. Peter's Square.
"The restitution of indigenous things is underway with Canada. At least we agreed to do it," Francis said, noting that a meeting with indigenous groups was "very fruitful."
"There is not a shred of evidence that these works were stolen," a Roman historian told Church Militant. "In fact, indigenous peoples were delighted to showcase their culture to the world at the Pontifical Missionary Exhibition of 1924–6."
"Francis' off-the-cuff remarks will fuel the faux outrage of woke historians and activists who accuse Rome of stealing from indigenous peoples when the creators of these works would be thrilled to have their art displayed for perpetuity in Rome for millions to see," he added.
The historian also described the Vatican obelisk as "the oldest identifiable monument standing in Rome, symbolic of the collective West." He elaborated:
When the Romans brought it from Heliopolis, in 38 A.D. under Emperor Caligula, it was already 2,000 years old. So it is actually 4,000 years old. Caligula planted it in the center of his circus, which stood in the Vatican valley. It remained in that spot until April 6, 1586, when it was moved to its current location.
In that very same circus in 64 A.D., under Emperor Nero, many Christians in Rome, including Simon Peter, were executed. This obelisk is like two sides of the coin: the last thing that the martyrs saw before they died, and on the flip side, this obelisk saw them. We are not stealing from Egypt because it was already part of the Roman Empire — it had been for a century.
The Vatican's Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum houses over 80,000 artifacts from all continents — ranging from prehistoric objects to ceremonial masks, wampum belts and feathered headdresses made by indigenous peoples. It also includes collections from pre-Columbian and Islamic civilizations.
According to Vatican museologists, the history of the museum begins in 1691, with gifts sent from the Americas to Pope Innocent XII and enhanced with the addition of Cdl. Stefano Borgia's (1731–1804) collection of "exotic curiosities."
From 1804, many of the objects in the Borgia Museum of Propaganda Fide were sent by Catholic missions worldwide.
The bulk of the museum's artifacts come from a 1925 collection organized by Pope Pius XI "to make known the cultural, artistic and spiritual traditions of all peoples."
Vatican museologists Nicola Mapelli, Katherine Aigner and Nadia Fiussello record how Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt, the first director of the museum, chose 40,000 objects from the 100,000 artifacts sent to the PME "to remain as a gift from the peoples of the world to the pontiffs."
"The current fashion for de-colonising museum collections is one Pope Francis cannot resist, British artist, art historian and biblical scholar, Dr. Caroline Kaye told Church Militant. " This whole performance of wokery amounts to a distraction from some far more loathsome activities many would prefer to see addressed instead."
The re-framing of missionizing-as-colonising is dishonest and mischievous to the point of malevolence. Francis frames his grand gesture as though he were one who returns stolen goods from a smash and grab. He says: "If you steal something you have to give it back."
This is hardly fair. Francis is typically selective and fundamentally ungrateful. Pope Pius XI saw the many varied gifts of books, antiquities, paintings, sculpture given for the Pontifical Missionary Exhibition at the Vatican in 1925 as representing "light amidst darkness." This, for him, represented the achievement, and, yes, heroism of Catholic missionary endeavours.
Francis, by contrast wants us to believe that by eliminating the artefacts from the Vatican, some good is being done. Had he considered other courses of action? He could have commissioned today's indigenous communities to recontextualise the objects with their own words seizing the potential for the wider and deeper education that would result.
However, scholars like Gloria Jane Bell insist that the material for the exhibition "was framed as conquests of the Church, part of a long history of Roman triumphal culture" even though the artifacts "were described as 'gifts' to the pope."
Professor Bell notes that "the PME cannot be separated from its Roman environs," which "ties itself back to centuries, eons and epochs of the glories of ancient Rome, wherein the spoils (books, antiquities, paintings, sculpture and people) were paraded by Roman generals and troops through the streets of Rome for the ultimate glorification of the Roman Empire."
Writing in the Journal of Global Catholicism, Bell criticizes Pope Pius XI's exhibition as "sending a message of 'silent eloquence' of the heroism of missionary work" instead of considering the artifacts as "markers of indigenous cosmologies and understandings."
The exhibition materials "functioned as reminders of the triumph of missionary work and the suppression of alternative religious beliefs," Bell argues. They were viewed through "hierarchies of vision that also reinforced a hierarchy of race and the arts established by the organizers."
"From the moment visitors entered the exhibition, the Catholic white male heteronormative ordering of vision pulled them into the space," Bell notes.
The "'heathen' objects were presented en masse with the implicit message to visitors that indigenous cultures were lost and in need of guidance," according to anthropologist Alison Kahn. "Conversion to Christianity was portrayed as simultaneous with an enriched material."
A Vatican art historian told Church Militant that Francis' idea of art was limited to "social justice," which is the only reason he had personally invested himself in the Anima Mundi. The museum was refurbished under papal supervision over the period of the COVID-19 crisis.
In March, Francis agreed to return to Greece three ornately carved fragments that once adorned the Parthenon.
"This act by Pope Francis is of historical significance and has a positive impact on multiple levels," Archbishop Ieronymos II, head of Greece's Orthodox Church, told a gathering at the Acropolis Museum where the works will be displayed. "My personal wish is that others will imitate it."
"But the pope is only doing this to give the British a poke in the eye," the art historian told Church Militant. Francis' offer to return the Parthenon fragments came days after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak vowed to protect the Parthenon marbles from being returned to Greece. Sunak said that they remain a "huge asset" to the U.K.
In April, Francis gifted King Charles III two shards of wood from the "True Cross" to be included in the monarch's upcoming coronation ceremony. The shards will be incorporated into a new cross that will lead the coronation procession on May 6.
"A Catholic church, plundered of its history and mission, reduced to a hollowed-out shell resulting in a monocultural whisper is not one likely to survive for very long," Dr. Kaye concluded. "This whole performance of wokery amounts to a distraction from some far more loathsome activities many would prefer to see addressed instead."
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