The following comes from a July 9 Catholic News Agency article by Alvaro de Juana and Elise Harris:
When leftist Bolivian president Evo Morales on Thursday presented Pope Francis with a “communist crucifix” – a carving of Christ crucified on the hammer of a hammer and sickle – the Pope appeared to say, “This is not ok,” while shaking his head.
However, at a July 9 press briefing the Holy See press officer, Father Federico Lombardi, said that Pope Francis’ remark likely expresed a sentiment of “I didnt’ know”, rather than “This is not right.”
Father Lombardi noted the lack of clarity in the audio of the exchange, and remarked that Pope Francis had been unaware the crucifix was a replica of a Spanish Jesuit.
Shortly after his July 8 arrival at the Bolivian administrative capital of La Paz, Pope Francis made a courtesy visit to Morales at the Palace of Government. At such meetings, the leaders customarily exchange gifts; Pope Francis gave the Bolivian president a mosaic of the Marian icon of the “Salus Populus Romani,” her role as patroness of Rome.
Morales explained what his gift to the Pope was as he gave it to him. In the video, filmed by the Vatican Television Center and transmitted throughout the world, the Pope appears to be saying “No está bien eso” – “This is not ok” – while shaking his head.
The audio is a bit marred by the clicking of journalists’ cameras, leading to some debate over what the Pope actually said.
The cross with a hammer and sickle is a reproduction of another carved during the 1970s by Fr. Luis Espinal Camps, a Spanish Jesuit who was a missionary in Bolivia who was killed in 1980 during the Bolivian dictatorship.
Father Lombardi claimed that Father Espinal’s use of it was not ideological but expressed a hope for dialogue between communism and the Church.
Morales’ gift has sparked a worldwide controversy, and reactions were not long in coming. The majority of them accuse Morales of trying to politicize the Pope’s visit.
Morales is head of Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism party, and his adminstration has focused on implementing leftist policies in the nation. Since coming to power in 2006, Morales has frequently sparred with the Bolivian bishops.
Catholics from various Hispanophone countries rejected Morales’ gesture, considering it offensive to the numerous victims of terrorist groups in Latin America and of the historical totalitarian communist regimes.
Bishop Jose Munilla Aguirre of San Sebastián, a Spaniard, tweeted: “The height of arrogance is to manipulate God in the service of atheistic ideologies … Today, once again: #ChristCrucified”.
Father Espinal – whose “communist crucifix” was the model for Morales’ gift to the Pope – was a journalist who advocated for human rights and democracy, continues to be a source of controversy in Bolivia.
While en route from the La Paz airport to the presidential palace, Pope Francis stopped to pray at the location where Father Espinal’s corpse was found after his March 21, 1980 kidnapping and murder.