Over the past two months, we’ve witnessed papal detractors create and exploit a controversy based upon actions done during a prayer service led by indigenous Catholics from the Amazon region on the eve of the Synod of Bishops. They’ve used it to propel a narrative seeking to undermine the Synod (and, by definition, the Pope himself). According to their narrative, there is no question that what happened in the Vatican Gardens that day was a pagan ritual, performed by a shaman. Their narrative has been impervious to refutation, since it serves an ulterior purpose.
One of the ways the critics will defend themselves against facts and evidence that debunks their narrative is the crushing argument that, “It was clearly idolatry!” Why? Because the natives performing the ceremony (and even a friar accompanying them) were seen prostrating in front of a controversial statue. Although the indigenous have called the statue “Our Lady of the Amazon” when presenting it to the Pope doesn’t matter, because the papal detractors have dogmatically dubbed it Pachamama, a pagan goddess. Even if we point out the clear Marian connotations of the figure, they will say that it doesn’t matter, since it is inappropriate to prostrate to a statue of Mary anyway. That would be an act of latria, adoration due only to God.
As I have demonstrated in previous articles, the evidence points out a multiplicity of possible interpretations of the statue, none of which are pagan. According to the organizers of the event (REPAM) and Vatican spokespeople, it was an representation of the Amazonian people, fertility, and Mother Earth (not the pagan goddess, but an abstract concept involving Christian and ecological principles). For the indigenous, it had an additional meaning: Our Lady of the Amazon.
Does this prostration mean the action was “clearly idolatrous,” even if the figure was not an idol? The words of the ceremony were Catholic through and through, but critics want us to believe that, during a 5-minute segment of the service, without any warning, the people involved suddenly switched into “pagan mode” before returning back to Catholic mode, again without warning. Especially since there was a friar involved. It does not make any sense, except for those who are already predisposed to accept the paganism hypothesis at the outset.
Is it “clearly paganism” just because there was prostration involved? Eric Giunta (with no personal bias in favor of Pope Francis–he says that he believes Pope Francis is a heretic) intervened to show this is not necessarily the case. In his second article on this topic, he provided a possible (and plausible) explanation for the prostration that does not involve idolatry at all:
“The neo-traditionalists had a field day with Vatican spokesman Paolo Ruffini’s assertion that “[n]o prostration took place” with respect to these images, juxtaposing that denial with this still-shot from video taken at the Vatican Gardens prayer service:
A pretty damning contradiction of the Vatican’s denial, right? Only if you’re an intellectually lazy hack out to author a hit-piece and cannot be bothered to watch the original video for crucial context. And what is that context, beginning at the 11:20 mark of the video? Amazonian Catholics, directing prayer to God, their arms raised in the traditional orans and their gaze directed heavenward — symbolic gestures practiced by Christians all across the denominational spectrum, and one, incidentally, having its roots in ancient Near Eastern paganism, when people believed their gods really did dwell in “heaven,” i.e., Sky-Vault; during this prayer the participants briefly prostrate themselves in worship, before quickly rising again and continuing to pray gazing heavenward. No fair observer would construe this as prayer or any other form of worship directed toward the images the worshipers are circling.
But if these images are not being worshiped, why are they being displayed and encircled in the first place? That one’s easy. As anyone can see for himself, there are many images and artifacts from the Amazon displayed during this service, evidently representing the people of the Amazon rainforest: iconic representations of indigenous Amazonian men and women, musical instruments, what appears to be a walking stick, miniature canoes, etc. These are not idols; this is an elaborate diorama representing the people being prayed for.”
I rewatched the video of the activity (as can anyone, by clicking the link provided by Eric) and concluded this to be true. Here is a charitable (and orthodox Catholic) interpretation of what happened in the Vatican Gardens that day. We know those indigenous people are Catholic, as the woman who presided over it used the words “Our Lady of the Amazon” and “Church”, a very Catholic terminology.
As Monsignor Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, Bishop Emeritus of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, said in an article for Zenit:
“Some condemned these actions as if they were idolatry, adoration of “Mother Earth” and other “divinities.” Nothing of that happened. They aren’t goddesses; it was not an idolatrous worship. They are symbols of Amazonian realities and experiences, with motivation that are not only cultural but also religious, but not of adoration, as this is owed only to God. It’s very bold to condemn the Pope as an idolater, as he never has been or will be. At the end of the ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, he was asked to speak and he limited himself to praying the Our Father. There is no other God than our Father in Heaven.”
The good bishop continued speaking from his experience about the sense of discomfort that some indigenous gestures might provoke (as they did in the Vatican Gardens) in those from outside their cultural context:
“In my previous diocese, when I heard with much affection and respect talk of “Mother Earth,” I felt uncomfortable, as I said to myself: My only mothers are my mamma, the Virgin Mary, and the Church. And when I saw them prostrate themselves and kiss the earth, I was even more bothered. However, living with the Indians, I understood they didn’t adore her Mother Earth as a goddess, but they wanted to value her and acknowledge her as a true mother, as she is the one that gives us food to eat, the one that gives us water, air and all that we need to live. They didn’t consider her a goddess; they didn’t adore her; they only expressed their respect and prayed, thanking God for her.
I felt the same when I saw them going to the four corners of the universe, the cardinal points, they revered them, they prayed and they also addressed the sun with great respect. Before knowing them and sharing the faith with them, I was tempted to judge them and condemn them as idolaters. Then I appreciated their respect for these elements of nature that give us life, and I was convinced that they didn’t adore them as gods, but as God’s work, His gifts to humanity, and this is also the way they educate their children – not to destroy them, but to look after them and respect them. They aren’t idolaters. Those that affirm this don’t know them and judge them at a distance, from afar and from outside. The earth and the sun are creatures of God and Him alone do we adore”
This is consistent with the explanation given by Br. Murrad from REPAM (as I linked and translated in this article), who said: “The indigenous peoples do not worship images of Mother Earth as we do with an image of Our Lady or the Blessed Sacrament. Therefore it was simply a religious symbol among many that are present in that church for those who want to see it.” It is also consistent with the several explanations given by the Vatican spokespeople and the Pope himself.
In other words, those who have eschewed any attempt to contextualize what happened, by sticking their heads in the sand and giving talking points like, “We don’t need an anthropology degree to know what happened! It was clearly idolatry! Even a five-year old could see that! Stop asking me to believe in you instead of my own eyes!” have, in fact, isolated themselves in echo chambers, and walled away any information beyond their shallow opinions. They’ve reached their conclusions based on mere snapshots produced by biased media sources. By rejecting any alternative explanation as “spin,” and responding to evidence-based attempts to explain the truth with, “it was clearly idolatry,” they have turned this idolatry hypothesis into a non-falsifiable claim. This is tragic, because this claim is based on ignorance. It assumes we can draw informed conclusions from what things “clearly” look like to “a five-year old.” They then think these conclusions are solid enough to justify destructive acts (like the stunt performed by the Austrian vandal) against cultures they don’t understand, nor make any effort to understand. This just shows how prescient the Pope was in convoking a Synod on the Amazon, urging us to “listen” the Amazonian people and learn from them.
[Photo credits: Vatican News]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.