After receiving inspiration from an aged crucifix, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, archbishop of Denver from 1986 to 1996 who now resides in Rome, commissioned it to be restored as a sign of compassion for Rome’s suffering poor and unemployed population.
Cardinal Stafford told CNA Jan. 9 the cross has been restored “out of a hermeneutics of compassion and to rediscover compassion, to help the poor rediscover the fact that there is a compassionate world (out) there.”
The restoration of the crucifix and the opening of the chapel in which it now sits for veneration are also a sign that “the Church can in some ways share that compassion with (the poor) by opening up this chapel in a way that was more accessible,” he said.
Originally from Baltimore, Cardinal Stafford is now retired, but previously served as Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary. In Rome since 1997, the cardinal lives in an apartment that sits beside the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome’s oldest churches. He explained that since the church sits so close to his residence, he would often go inside to pray. It is there that he discovered a side chapel that contained a large, worn crucifix dating back to the 1300s.
The crucifix was accompanied in its chapel by an image of Our Lady of Sorrows, which art restorers estimate came from the school of renowned Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 1600s.
“When I first came I went to the chapel and prayed before the crucifix … but as I looked upon it, even in the very dark color that it had assumed through centuries, it did not have the appeal that I felt was obvious beneath the color of black,” the cardinal recalled.
It was the body of Christ on the crucifix that first caught the cardinal’s attention, which he said was “so expressive in its beauty.”
“I was deeply moved when I looked upon it; even in the darkness of the paint that had covered it, there was a beauty to the body that spoke of love that came through giving of himself for others, on behalf of us.”
Cardinal Stafford recalled how he began to think of the poor people outside the church, and felt an immense desire to draw closer to the image and to show others “this truth, this goodness, and this beauty of Christ that was portrayed in his suffering body.” He then spoke to the priest in charge of the basilica, Father Don Marco Gnavi, about raising the funds to have the crucifix and the image of Our Lady of Sorrows restored.
Begun in 2013, the restoration of the crucifix and the image of Our Lady of Sorrows took roughly a year. Cardinal Stafford pointed out how visits to the small chapel have increased since the artwork was restored, uncovering the eyes, wounds, blood and facial expressions of Christ which were previously masked by the buildup of dust over the centuries. Cardinal Stafford said he stops by frequently, and that whenever he does, he pauses to pray in front of the newly restored crucifix and the image of Christ’s sorrowful mother.