Last night, I came across a live YouTube discussion of the prayer service that took place in October 2019. Michael Lofton invited Father Deacon Anthony Dragani, an Eastern Catholic deacon and professor of Religious Studies at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pennsylvania, to join him on his Reason & Theology podcast to break down the video of the much-maligned prayer service.
Even though we have covered this topic extensively and repeatedly, this false narrative persists. So when I noticed a good number of people commenting on the video and saying that their minds were changed, I thought it might be a good idea to share it here.
The latest round of paganism accusations seems to have been sparked by the revelation that the late Cardinal George Pell was the author of the “Demos” memo. Originally published in March 2022, the memo provides a litany of accusations against Pope Francis, including, “Pachamama is idolatrous; perhaps it was not intended as such initially.”
Commentators of different stripes used this to once again promote the “Pachamama” falsehood. For example, Edward Pentin, writing about it in the National Catholic Register, states that in addition to promoting the “idolatry” narrative in his memo, “Cardinal Pell had often expressed revulsion at the veneration of the Pachamama statues in the Vatican during the Amazon Synod of 2019.”
Tracey Rowland gives a particularly offensive anecdote about Pell’s response to the controversy in a tribute to Pell in Catholic World Report. Rowland writes that when Pell met Alexander Tschugguel, the young Austrian who threw the figures (which Rowland describes as “black witches with engorged sagging breasts and a swollen belly”) into the Tiber, Pell “looked at him sternly and said words to the effect that he had done the wrong thing. After a comic pause of a couple of seconds the Cardinal changed his expression to a smile and said you should have burnt the things before you dumped them!”
It should also be noted that Cardinal Pell repeatedly expressed concerns about the Amazon Synod and about a re-emergence of paganism in his Prison Diaries. The idea that even highly-regarded Cardinal would fall for this error is very concerning, and it proves that this story continues to have legs. That is why we must continue to shed light on the truth.
One of the key moments in the video is when Deacon Dragani described the challenges he’s faced when trying to set the record straight on this controversy. He said:
I could see exactly what was taking place. It was very obvious to me. I recognized the event, and for me — as somebody who’s studied this stuff for years and teaches it — it was pretty simple what was going on. … They were praying for the Amazon and for the people of the Amazon. It was very clear to me, these people were Catholic. So when I heard [these accusations of idolatry], I thought I’d try and just calm people’s fears, and say, “Hey, wait a minute, I watched the video — it’s very clear that what’s going on here is a prayer service for the Amazon, in which these people are praying for the Amazon as a place and [for] the Amazonian people.
And I was met with a lot of very hostile opposition — people who were convinced of the narrative that it was idolatry and that Pope Francis sanctioned idolatry. Many of these people are are really good people — like really good, faithful, devout Catholics — including many priests and deacons that I know. Good, holy priests and deacons I respect were convinced that this was an act of idolatry. And when I tried to explain to them that it wasn’t … they didn’t want to hear it. They didn’t want to hear it. It’s almost like they wanted to believe that the pope was guilty of idolatry.
(Lightly cleaned up for clarity — Ed.)
Dragani notes two things that are important here. The first is that the people who took part in the service were Catholic. At another point in the interview, he says, “It wasn’t a ritual. It was a prayer service. And they’re being accused of being pagan idolaters, when these people were all actually devout Catholics. I feel bad for them. I think they were really slandered in this and that’s not fair to them at all.” This is the reason why this controversy — perhaps more than any other during this papacy — has been of central importance to the mission of Where Peter Is. It is one thing to attack this website, attack the pope, even to attack the Amazon Synod. It is another thing to slander and hurl falsehoods at a group of faithful, indigenous Catholic people whose land and livelihood are threatened by corporations, governments, and societal elites in order to score points against the pope.
Make no mistake. The enemies of the pope were lying in wait, looking for an opportunity to launch a media attack on the synod. In 2021, I recalled a Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) affiliated conference, held by an organization called Voice of the Family that included a lay panel featuring a who’s who of papal critics such as LifeSiteNews’s John Henry Westen, Italian traditionalist Roberto de Mattei, Taylor Marshall, Michael Matt, and Michael Voris. I wrote, “There is no question that they were setting the stage to pounce on something. And during that tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, they found their MacGuffin.”
Every time someone says “idolatry” or “paganism” took place in the Vatican Gardens in October 2019, they are accusing indigenous Catholics from the Amazon region — faithful Christians who have kept the faith alive in their remote tribes and villages despite shortages of priests, little access to the sacraments, and limited resources and financial means — of being pagans. This is shameful. And the lack of willingness to listen to the truth smacks of racism.
The second thing that Deacon Dragani mentions is the hostility with which so many otherwise holy, reasonable Catholics respond whenever it is suggested that the event was not idolatrous. In my 2021 article, I quoted Pedro Gabriel (who was at the forefront of trying to set the record straight), who was baffled by this intransigence. He said:
“What struck me most was how refractory people were to alternate explanations. As irrational as it may seem, many people are apparently more willing to entertain the idea that the pope hosted a pagan ceremony and streamed it on the internet for all to see than to believe the pope, the synod’s official spokespeople, or the people involved in the ceremony, all of whom stated clearly that there were no pagan intentions. Most of the people I have spoken to who succumbed to the Pachamama narrative have been unwilling to even listen to other explanations. In fact, they often become angry at the suggestion that the Pope actually may not have promoted idolatry in the Vatican. This is concerning, especially since as Catholics, we are invited to search for the truth.”
I would like to reiterate Pedro’s final point. The record doesn’t need to be set straight because it “helps” Pope Francis. As Deacon Dragani says in the video, “I’m not a Pope Francis apologist.” The reason why we need to correct the false Pachamama narrative is because we believe in the truth. If you are concerned with the truth, you will evaluate the facts and abandon the false narrative.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.