The Catholic peace organization Pax Christi USA has announced that it will display Mama, a Christian devotional icon of Christ that evokes the late George Floyd, in the window of its main headquarters in Washington DC through the end of the year.
The move comes just months after two copies of the same icon were criticized and stolen at the Catholic University of America, the USCCB-run institution located across the street from the Pax Christi offices.
The university has yet to announce any progress on solving the crimes, and officials have not spoken on the topic since December—when they announced they would not be replacing the icon a second time.
Pax Christi announced their display in a statement released on Friday, March 4th.
“Icons and imagery reflecting African American spirituality declare who we are and whose we are,” said Pax Christi USA’s national council chair Charlene Howard, echoing the words of Servant of God Thea Bowman—a CUA alumna known for her advocacy for African-American art and acceptance within the Catholic Church.
“This sacred art acknowledges that God loves us and understands what we go through. Most importantly, it reminds all God’s people that people of African descent reflect the justice-seeking image and likeness of God.”
The icon, created by Episcopalian artist Kelly Latimore in June 2020, has been repeatedly said by the artist to represent both Christ and Floyd, but critics of the piece have accused it of being “sacrilegious” and “blasphemous”.
A conservative media campaign against its display in the CUA law school eventually fomented a criminal response, with it being stolen twice during the Fall 2021 semester. The CUA student government had also voted in favor of a campus-wide ban on the image.
University officials initially defended the icon on the grounds of outgoing President John Garvey’s philosophy against so-called ‘cancel culture’, but his position quickly changed after the second theft.
“There are many examples of artwork that reflect the cultural richness and diversity of the Catholic Church, and that do so without creating confusion for faithful Catholics,” he said in late December.
Pax Christi USA, in the statement on their new display of Mama, called the thefts “shameful acts of cowardice and racist intimidation” and noted their commitment to anti-racist solidarity.
“As we celebrate our 50th year of peacemaking, we offer this display, recognizing that words and images must be accompanied by deeds,” said Pax Christi USA executive director Johnny Zokovitch.
“Our movement remains committed to the material, tangible expressions of solidarity with people of color, both within Pax Christi USA and across the globe.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).