Pope Endorses Returning Artifacts Held by Vatican

'If you steal something you have to give it back,' Francis says
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 30, 2023 4:50 PM CDT
Pope Endorses Returning Artifacts Held by Vatican
Pope Francis meets with journalists Sunday aboard the airplane returning him to Rome after his visit to Hungary.   (Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo Via AP)

Pope Francis said Sunday that talks were underway to return artifacts in the Vatican Museum that were acquired from Indigenous peoples in Canada and voiced a willingness to return other colonial-era objects in the Vatican's collection on a case-by-case basis. "The Seventh Commandment comes to mind: If you steal something you have to give it back," Francis said during an airborne press conference en route home from Hungary, the AP reports. Recently, Francis returned to Greece the three fragments of the Parthenon sculptures that had been in the Vatican Museums' collection for two centuries. The pope said Sunday the restitution was "the right gesture" and that when such returns are possible, museums should undertake them.

"In the cases where you can restitute, please do it. It's good for everyone, so you don't get used to putting your hands in someone else's pockets," Francis said. His comments were his first on the matter, as many museums in Europe and North America are rethinking their ethnographic and anthropological collections, amid a reckoning for the colonial conquests of Africa, the Americas, and Asia and demands for restitution of war loot by the countries and communities of origin. The Vatican has an extensive collection of artifacts and art made by Indigenous peoples from around the world, much of it sent to Rome by Catholic missionaries for a 1925 exhibition in the Vatican gardens.

The Vatican insists the artifacts, including ceremonial masks, wampum belts, and feathered headdresses, were gifts. But Indigenous scholars dispute whether Native peoples at the time could have freely offered their handicrafts given the power differentials at play in the colonial periods. Francis, the first Latin American pope, knows the history well. Last year, he traveled to Canada to apologize to Indigenous peoples for abuses they endured from Catholic missionaries at residential schools. In the run-up to the visit, Indigenous groups visited the Vatican's Anima Mundi museum, saw some of their ancestors' handiworks, and expressed interest in having greater access to the collection, as well as the return of some items. "The restitution of the Indigenous things is underway with Canada—at least we agreed to do it," Francis said Sunday.

(More artifacts stories.)

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