By Hilary White

ROME, November 30, 2009 ( – Pope Benedict XVI told demonstrators at St. Peter's square this Sunday that the crucifix has a “religious, historical and cultural value.”

In a rare move, the pope directly addressed the demonstrators, saying, “I greet with affection the Italian-speaking pilgrims, especially those who took part in the march organized by the Movement of Family Love to express my deep love for the Crucified, recognizing the value of religious, historical and cultural heritage.”

The papal boost for the protesters came at the end of the Sunday Angelus, a weekly address by Pope Benedict to pilgrims in the piazza. Hundreds of demonstrators marched to the square to protest attempts by the European Court of Human Rights to ban the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools.

At the same time, the protests continue around the country against the Strassburg court ruling that came earlier this month saying that crucifixes should be removed for the sake of religious freedom. Town mayors around the country are ordering their schools to display crucifixes or face heavy fines, and newspapers are carrying articles detailing the history, cultural significance and artistic renditions of crucifixes through the centuries, calling it a “central icon” in western art.

This weekend, officials of the small town of Mariglianella in the Province of Naples have instituted a formal ceremony to “deliver the crucifixes” to the local schools. The event was held on Saturday at the Institute Comprehensive “Giosuè Carducci,” at which headmistress Joan Zarra said, “We must defend our history but at the same time we must defend the history of others, understand, respect and also be free to choose without being forced and without coercion.”

The Italian national paper Il Giornale ran an obituary today on the artist Ernesto Treccani who died at 84 years on Friday, noting the cycle of crucifixes he created in the summer of 2000.
“In the crucifix I see all of humanity,” Treccani said in a final interview. “Christ on the cross opens his arms in a gesture of universal love. Loneliness, misunderstanding and betrayal of the cross become a sharing touching, in an act of perfect love.”

“The crucifix is our time,” he said. “The crucifix is at the bottom of our existence, of every possible existence. Pain and love in the Crucified interpenetrate. Approach them, trying to fathom the mystery, beauty, symbolic meaning for me representing the sign of existential grace and aesthetics, that moves me every day and I am surprised.”