Amid the tumult of Pope Francis blessing a lunch for the needy, a shrouded statue of Jesus lay off to the side, mostly unnoticed – pretty much the way its sculptor intended.
"Homeless Jesus" is a bronze statue located outside the offices of the Catholic Charities Association in Washington, D.C., where a figure slumbers on a bench almost entirely wrapped in a blanket. The only giveaway that the statue depicts Jesus is the telltale wounds on his feet.
The pope was originally scheduled to bless the statue, but the attention lay elsewhere as the faithful flocked Francis. He didn't reach "Homeless Jesus" during the lunch for 200 needy Washingtonians Thursday, NBC Washington learned.
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But hiding in plain sight is the point of the simple statue, according to sculptor Tim Schmalz.
"Initially you just think you're seeing another homeless person," Schmalz said in a phone interview Thursday from his art studio in Canada.
Its anonymity reflects how all human life is sacred, Schmalz said, and in that way, the statue and Francis are very much alike. Both are unornamented, Schmalz said; both address "the core issues of Christianity, which often times aren't showcased."
The artist explained that conversations about religion often revolve around negative issues and disputes. "The great thing about Pope Francis is he doesn't even get in those conversations, he gets into the core essence of Christianity, and that is 'love one another,'" Schmalz said.
Schmalz, a devout Catholic who has sculpted other monuments, including a statue of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, was unable to attend the blessing, but he has met Pope John Paul II before he died.
"He couldn't even speak, but there he was with his brilliant mind," Schmalz said, calling it a moment he'll he'd never forget.
"To have my sculpture blessed by him and given to him was one of the most amazing points of my life," Schmalz said.
Schmalz wasn't bothered that Francis didn't get over to his creation, but he was pretty happy with Francis' call for compassion toward the homeless. He said it echoed Matthew 25:35, the Bible passage that helped inspire "Homeless Jesus: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me."
Schmalz pointed out that another copy of the statue has already been blessed by Francis at the Vatican. Copies of the statue, which was originally built in Toronto, Canada, have been installed around the world – it turns out that its message, along with Francis', is fairly universal.
NBC Washington's Andrea Swalec contributed to this story.