By Paul Fahey and D.W. Lafferty

Those little statues brought to the Amazon synod by the REPAM group, so callously stolen and thrown in the Tiber, have functioned as a sort of Rorschach Test for the Church.

Some Catholics view the image the way the Indigenous Catholics presented it to the pope, as “Our Lady of the Amazon.” This is clear to them because they trust in the orthodoxy and good will of the pope, the synod, and the Indigenous Catholic participants. Those who lack that trust view it as a symbol of pagan infiltration. The Vatican communications office has tried to avoid the controversy by assuring us that it’s not either, but that it simply represents “life, fertility, mother earth.”

In the end, it is simply a piece of art, as this new EWTN interview with Rafael Tavares makes clear. Its symbolic connotations depend upon context and interpretation. However, given the context and what the Indiginous Catholic leaders have said about it, the Marian interpretation is the more accurate one, even if there are echoes of traditional Indigenous Mother Earth imagery. But even that Mother Earth imagery is transformed in this new context. Consider that Pope Francis is about to release a new book called Our Mother Earth! And we can’t forget the famous canticle by St. Francis which says, “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth.” So even if there are some pagan echoes in the imagery, there is no reason to think it’s not still Christian through-and-through.

Much of the animosity towards this image, the synod, and the pope is driven by fear. Fear of a Church bigger than what we are comfortable with. And the spirit that hides behind fear is doubt. Doubt in God’s sovereignty. Doubt in the Holy Spirit’s promise to guide and protect the Church. Doubt in Christ’s promise to Peter.

Fear and doubt lead to a conception of church as a fortress: an isolated community concerned primarily with protecting it’s members from the onslaught of the enemy. But this does not describe the Kingdom of God. The Catholic Church is the great missionary who goes out to all people. She is the one pounding at the gates of the fortress of Hell to rescue all of creation from the clutches of sin and death. The gates of Hell are those that Christ promised will fall before a Church led by Peter.

During his general audience today the pope described the true nature of the Church in his reflection on the early missionary journeys of St. Paul:

The nature of the Church emerges from the Book of Acts, which is not a fortress, but a tent capable of widening its space and giving access to all. […] The Church is called to always be the open house of the Father. Thus, if someone wants to follow a movement of the Holy Spirit and approach, seeking God, he will not meet with the coldness of a closed door. […] But the novelty is for whom are the doors open? To the pagans, because the Apostles preached to the Jews, but the pagans also came to knock on the door of the Church; and this newness of the doors open to the pagans triggers a very lively controversy.  (Trans. Catholic News Agency)

As it was then, so it is now.

Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us for a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit that drives out fear, that fills us with faith in the Father’s goodness, and that renews our trust in Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell will never prevail against His Church.

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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.

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