[Note: this article has been updated with a new section entitled “The Pope weighs in”]
This Monday, October 20th, some people barged into the Church of Santa Maria in Transpontina, where the controversial statues were kept and displayed, stole them, and threw them into the Tiber river, while filming themselves doing the deed. This, of course, is no novelty. Anyone who has followed this controversy in recent weeks knows of this already. I will not link to or show the video in order to not give more publicity to these individuals, who have already received too much applause from like-minded supporters.
I have withheld my comments on this incident until now, because I hoped that the response to this regrettable action would provide some clarity to this entire mess. Since the beginning of this debate, I have always advised people to be prudent about the information they were given, and to avoid jumping to conclusions and making rash judgments. At this site, we strive not to react in a kneejerk way and try to provide information only from primary (or at least reliable) sources. The stunt performed this Monday was precisely the antithesis of this approach: a reckless and imprudent act by people who thought they were certain of what was going on, because they listened to sensationalistic and biased propaganda. For them, it was simple: they were right and others were wrong.
On the contrary, it is proper of a person who studies a matter in depth to eventually face the complexity of reality, with all its nuances and the multiplicity of factors at play. And the reality is this: since this controversy began, we have received contradictory information. This is not exclusively the fault of the biased media who wants to push the “paganism in the Vatican” narrative in order to score points against the Pope. So why? Why all the contradictions? Where do these contradictions come from? Likewise, where did the “Our Lady of the Amazon” claim come from? This is what I have tried to sift through over the past few days.
A representation of life
After the theft, there was a clarification from Dr. Paolo Ruffini, from the Vatican Dicastery of Communications:
“We have already repeated several times here that those statues represented life, fertility, mother earth. It was a gesture – I believe – that contradicts the spirit of dialogue that should always inspire us. I don’t know what else to say except that it was a theft, and perhaps that speaks for itself.”
Earlier today, it has been reported on Twitter that Ruffini issued a “definite answer”:
“No prostrations or rituals were performed. We must all be rigorous in telling things that have happened in front of the cameras.”
This is consistent with his previous reply to the same question, before the theft (see here, in the section “Answer to Ivereigh”.) At the time, he answered by giving his personal opinion, not in his oficial capacity as Vatican spokesperson. Also, he said that he was going to get more information from REPAM and the other organizers. Was this the case?
It seems like it, because this answer is also consistent with interventions from other REPAM members, that have since weighed in on this controversy. Inés San Martín from Crux was present at the Via Crucis this Sunday where the statue was present, and asked one of the organizers of the event about its meaning:
According to Father Fernando Lopez, a Jesuit, and a member of the “Itinerant Group,” composed of men and women, religious and lay, who travel around the Amazon preaching the Gospel in extremely remote areas, the image of the pregnant woman “represents life.” (…) The Jesuit priest was one of hundreds who attended Saturday’s Way of the Cross organized under the aegis of “Amazon: Common Home,” sponsored by several Catholic organizations, such as Caritas Internationalis, Misereor, the International Union of Superior Generals and the REPAM, the Pan Amazonian Ecclesial Network (…) Lopez said the wood carving is an image the Itinerant Group has been using for years, and it was bought at an artisan’s market in Manaus, a city in Brazil’s Amazon.
More recently, we discovered a video posted on the Facebook wall of someone involved with the REPAM group, named Afonso Murad (link). Here he says that the image is not religious, that it did not receive any kind of worship, and that it represents the earth and the indigenous peoples.
Here is the transcript of what he said (my translation from the original Brazilian Portuguese):
“I am Brother Afonso Murad, and I am here in Rome at the Synod for the Amazon and I want to clarify something that many people in Brazil asked me to address. This Monday morning, or what seems like it, a small group entered in the Transpontina Church of the Carmelites, where there have been a series of celebrations about the Amazon, happening in parallel with the Synod. Each day there are at least two moments of prayer, besides lectures and expositions. In that context there was a series of symbols which were used at this location. Among them, there were three female silhouettes of an indigenous pregnant woman that symbolized the Earth that takes care of us, and also the indigenous peoples. I want to clarify that contrary to what has been heard in Brazil, that is not a religious image, it was not the object of worship, it’s simply a symbol of the indigenous peoples that has been labeled as if it were an image of Pachamama, the Mother Earth. 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. Therefore, this act was an act of violence, of disrespect and therefore cannot be approved by any of us. Would you like it if someone went to your church and took any of your religious symbols, be it a candle, or a cloth, would you like it? Of course not. Therefore we are clearly against this violent act and we also do not give too much importance to it. Because what is more important is that our eyes, our minds and hearts are directed towards the Amazon, towards the Church in the Amazon and for your mission to announce the Gospel, in a dialogue with the Amazonian peoples.”
These are authoritative sources, since these clarifications issue from people who were actually involved in the organization of the parallel activities in the Synod. Since my first article, I have said these should be the ones we should turn to to find answers.
However, these informations do contradict what was said by two other participants, namely the native woman who presided over the service, and Fr. Roberto Rojas, the priest who was interviewed by Rome Reports and who was the organizer of the exhibit in the Church of Santa Maria in Transpontina. Both of them referred to the figures as “Our Lady of the Amazon.” Also, there are two contradictory accounts of the origin of the statue: Fr. Lopez said it was purchased in a market in Manaus and Fr. Rojas said it was carved by the indigenous Catholics of the Amazon.
It is important to note that REPAM is not a single organization, but a network of various different organizations working together towards a common objective. Also, there was more than one copy of the same figure, so they could have different origins.
Therefore, contrary to what some of our commenters have said in our comboxes, Dr. Ruffini was not at fault by ignoring these facts. He was likely repeating the explanation he received from the organizer he asked or who provided him with this information. We at Where Peter Is went with the information gathered from some organizers who said one thing and Dr. Ruffini and the other Vatican spokespeople probably received different informations from other organizers.
However, even with these discrepancies, everyone involved who has been interviewed about the figure agrees that the statue is not pagan:
- The native woman and Fr. Rojas say it’s Our Lady of the Amazon; They have not attributed a pagan meaning to the figure;
- Dr. Ruffini, from the Vatican Dicastery of Communications, said in his first answer to the topic (albeit not acting in his official capacity at the time): “I believe to try and see pagan symbols or to see… evil, it is not“
- Before him, Bishop David Guinea had also been asked about the meaning of the statue, and he replied: “we don’t need to create any connections with the Virgin Mary or with a pagan element“
- Fr. Lopez, interviewed by Inés San Martín: “Asked if it was part of a pagan ritual, the priest offered a flat “no.”“
- Br. Afonso Murad is clear that the figure is not a religious image and that it did not receive any kind of cult
In other words, the “it’s clearly pagan” hypothesis has been refuted every step of the way. The fact that this accusation was not abandoned, but rather was stubbornly clung to, demonstrates that those who revile this figure are not concerned with the truth, but with pushing a narrative. In the course of the last few days, many of these people would send us social media links to interventions that they believed refuted the Marian interpretations of the statues (glossing over how these links actually refuted their own claims of paganism), and would go on triumphalistic tirades along the lines of, “And now, watcha gonna say about that, huh? Huh? Watcha gonna do? Gotcha!” In the meantime, they would studiously ignore the organizers who actually said that it was Our Lady of the Amazon, as a kind of selective amnesia that made them forget these inconvenient pieces of evidence. The same kind of selective amnesia that conveniently forgot everything in their own links that debunked the paganism charges, and went only for that which denied Mary.
Of course, this is not a zero-sum game, in which two antagonistic perspectives compete for references, and the one who scores more points wins. That was the perspective of those who were desperate to validate their unsubstantiated Pachamama thesis. They would scavenge for links to bolster their position and then would throw them at us as if they somehow cancelled the organizers who said it was Our Lady.
However, a person who is indeed looking for the truth of the matter, instead of pushing for a narrative, will act differently. Such a person will ask himself: “If this is just a representation of life… then why are there people close to the event saying it’s Our Lady of the Amazon?”
Interestingly, I got a glimpse at a potential answer for this crucial question from two very unlikely sources…
The natives speak through the smokescreen
The two unlikely sources I am talking about are LifeSiteNews (LSN) and EWTN. To their credit, they did what I asked reporters (and the Vatican spokespeople) to do in my first article: gather information from the people on the ground. Of course, both of these media outlets are biased against the Pope, and LSN in particular has been actively trying to prove that the Vatican Gardens ceremony was a pagan ritual, and that the controversial figure is Pachamama. So we should be careful when accepting their explanations that it might be so. However, there is such a thing as criterion of embarassment. In other words, if sources biased against the “Our Lady of the Amazon” hypothesis come out and say something that proves this hypothesis right, then we should believe them, for they would not have said it if it was not true.
Please bear in mind that we do not have a full transcript of LSN’s question, nor to the full answer of the volunteers save one (who then proceed to describe the figure more as a symbol than as a goddess): given LSN’s bias and unreliability, we should take this with a grain of salt.
However, the reason why I bring this up is this hidden gem buried in the middle of the LSN news article:
“Two gentleman we asked seconded Paolo Ruffini’s belief that the statue is merely a symbol of “life.” But when we mentioned to one of them that several other volunteers had identified the statue as the “Pachamama,” he paused and said that of course people have “different interpretations: some life, others the Pachamama and some even call it the Virgin Mary“
Who are these “some” who call it the Virgin Mary? Can we know? This brings us to a video from EWTN, in which Rafael Tavares, the Editor-in-Chief of the Portuguese-speaking branch of ACI Digital, is interviewed. Here is the video:
Rafael Tavares asked REPAM (03:21 mark of the video) about the origin of the statues, and received the following answer (03:46 mark onward):
“The image is art. Pure art. It does not have a pagan significance, neither a Christian significance (…) The story behind this statue is that an artist in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas… this artist, he crafted this image and a member of the spirituality team organizing the events at Transpontina, they have found the image and started to take it from tribe to tribe, from places to places, and the indians themselves have started to call that image – which you see – Our Lady of the Amazon“
From that point onward, Tavares immediately moves on to highlight the similarities with the pagan goddess Pachamama. But this is a gratuitous presentation of his personal opinion, based on similarities. It’s his interpretation as a non-indigenous man, playing according to the bias of both EWTN and ACI, that have advanced the pagan hypothesis since the beginning. So, again, this part should be taken with a grain of salt.
However, this EWTN video sheds a lot of light on the matter. First, it matches Crux’s version of the origin of the statue: it was bought in a market in Manaus. Secondly, it shows that there may be a disconnect between the significance attributed to the figures by the official organizers of REPAM and the indigenous peoples. The former view the image as a representation of life, devoid of religious significance (either pagan or Christian,) that they can use to illustrate their activities. The latter may view this image as a representation of the Virgin Mary. A grassroots movement from the Amazon itself, which may or may not be significative in term of size, has taken the initiative to “Christianize” this image. That’s consistent with everything that has transpired in the last weeks.
In other words, at least some of the natives look to this figure and attribute a Marian connotation to it. And we know that at least one of those natives was the woman who presided over the St. Francis Day activity in the Vatican Gardens. She called it “Our Lady of the Amazon” and used very Catholic terminology (she mentioned “the Church”) that seems to rule out a pagan mindset. Since this activity is what prompted the entire kerfuffle, I believe we should take her word for it and charitably assume she did not perform anything contrary to the faith. At best, they were venerating what they perceived as being a Marian image (even if that was a meaning they attributed to a statue that was not created specifically with that intent in first place.) At worst, they were performing a kind of symbolic dramatization before a representation of life and the Amazon, with no religious significance either way, since the paganism charge has been consistently refuted by the organizers and Vatican spokespeople and the Pope himself.
It’s all the same thing, it’s all Pachamama
One of the ways the critics have evaded the constant rebuttals of paganism, is by saying that hosting a representation of life (or Mother Earth, or fertility, or whatever) in a Church and bowing to it is paganism anyway. Of course, this ignores what paganism actually is. Ancient pagans did not create a religion out of symbols and mere representations. Pagan gods were not abstract entities, but concrete realities for their worshippers. Pagans believed that their idols did not just represent certain concepts (like nature, physical elements, love, war), but that these same idols contained the energy of the concepts they represented. The idolatry was, therefore, a way to manipulate those abstract realities, by making them tangible, palpable, visible. You would never see an ancient pagan saying: “This is just a symbol, a representation.” Saying so would make the act of idolatry meaningless, since the pagan worshipper did it to actually achieve some kind of favor from the gods.
Some critics postulate that when they say “Pachamama,” they are not referring to the actual goddess from the anthropology books, but to any abstract idea they can construe as paganism. Whether it was Pachamama or a representation of life, it’s all the same. In this case, what the critics are really saying is that “Pachamama” is a meaningless concept that they can fill with any definition they want. By labeling anything they don’t like “Pachamama,” they perform a sleight of hand whereby they can transform anything the Vatican says into a pagan goddess. This is the reason for the constant repetition of “Pachamama” as an established fact.
Of course, this is not as straightforward as they want it to be. At one point during this controversy, I received a message from reader Eric Giunta. It is clear from his email that he is not biased in favor of Pope Francis in the least, but in the spirit of intellectual honesty, he graciously shared with me his excellent essay, which I highly recommend . He shows the rich and orthodox tradition, going back to medieval times, of representing Mother Earth / Nature in churches. In an addendum to his essay, he also mentions legitimate expressions of inculturation in South America, where the figures of Pachamama and the Virgin Mary are mingled. Unlike some armchair anthropologists who have weighed in on this issue by simply flaunting their credentials, Eric Giunta actually provides extensive quotes and scholarly bibliography to his article. I cannot recommend it enough.
I would also like to refer my readers to a fantastic book, called “Eternity in their Hearts.” It’s a small book, very easy to read. It was being recommended in orthodox Catholic circles before Pope Francis was elected (I know, that’s the reason why I bought it.) It was written by a Protestant missionary, but it does not contain anything contrary to the Catholic faith and shows no hostility towards Catholic missionaries. Drawing from Scriptural evidence (Melchizedek’s cooperation with Abraham; the altar to the Unknown God used by St. Paul) and from his heavy missionary experience (and the experiences of fellow missionaries), he clearly shows how some pagan expressions contain what the Second Vatican Council termed semina Verbi (“seeds of the Gospel”), which are in fact a materialization of the unevangelized Man’s yearning for God. We need to exert discernment and prudence, for in our eagerness to catalogue everything coming from other cultures as pagan, we may be actually stifling valuable resources that will help us in our evangelization process and closing the hearts of those who we want to bring to Christ.
For me, I cannot imagine how Monday’s act of disrespect for indigenous culture by people who proclaim themselves to be the mouthpieces of true Catholicism will open the hearts of the natives who brought that image as a symbol of their values (perhaps even as their representation of Mary). “You cannot see Mary in this, you have to see it in the molds I give you: you can use Our Lady of Guadalupe — she is depicted as a South-American native and it has my seal of approval.”
Or, in alternative: “You cannot have symbols that evoke your culture in our churches. These are our churches, and they should only reflect our understanding of what is permissible or not. Not even the hierarchy or the Pope can overrule us. If you don’t comply, we will see this as an aggression, an invasion, an infiltration, and will destroy your icons.”
All of this is burning bridges that would bring new souls to Christ.
It is my absolute conviction that Pope Francis’ approach of inviting people to his own backyeard, allowing them to express themselves in their own voice, and prayerfully listening to them before making a judgment is how we bring souls to Christ.
The Pope weighs in
In the meantime, the Pope has weighed in on this controversy. Today, Francis has made some remarks regarding the incident:
“Good afternoon. I want to say a word about the statues of the pachamama that were taken from the church of the Transpontina – which were there without idolatrous intentions – and were thrown into the Tiber.
First of all, this happened in Rome, and, as Bishop of the Diocese, I ask pardon of the persons who were offended by this act.
Then, I want to communicate to you that the statues which created such attention in the media, were retrieved from the Tiber. The statues were not damaged”
Please note, the Pope is very clear: the statues were there without idolatrous intentions. Again, the charges of paganism are refuted by none other than the Vicar of Christ and Bishop of Rome. Can’t get more oficial than that.
However, the usual suspects have taken the fact that the Pope referred to the statues as Pachamama as a validation of their point. Again, we can see the modus operandi: they pick and choose what validates their narrative and conveniently gloss over what does not interest them. They clung to one single word (“Pachamama”) and ignored the part about it not having an idolatrous intent.
“In his remarks, the pope used the phrase “the pachamama statues” but in the transcript the word pachamama was in italics.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the pope used the word as a means to identify the statues because that is the way they have become known in the Italian media and not as a reference to the goddess.”
It is interesting that people who, until a few days ago, were clinging desperately to Vatican spokespeople’s words (even if they were not acting in their official capacity at the time, but providing personal interpretations) are now eschewing the Vatican spokesperson’s clarification to cling to a literalist reading of the Pope’s words. Of course, they only believe the Pope on the “Pachamama” bit because they think this proves their point. If the Pope said otherwise, they would not believe him, as is made manifest by the fact that they do not agree when the Pope said the statues had no idolatrous intent.
At the end of the day, the Vatican has spoken about why the Pope used the word “Pachamama.” The idea that the statues were a pagan goddess, and that they received cult of latria in the Vatican Gardens, has been refuted once more, now at the higher echelons of the Church.
At this moment in time, I think we can draw the following conclusions from all this saga:
- The statues were acquired and used by REPAM as a representation of life, mother earth and the indigenous peoples, not pagan goddesses;
- The official stance of the Vatican and REPAM is that these representations (either in the Vatican Gardens activity or in the Church of Santa Maria in Transpontina) have no religious significance, either pagan or Catholic;
- Nevertheless, some indigenous people have conferred a Marian significance to the carved images;
- Among those is the native woman who presided over the activity at the Vatican Gardens and who presented the figure to the Pope; This has also been validated by the priest in charge of organizing the events in the Church of Santa Maria in Transpontina;
- The only ones peddling charges of paganism are media outlets hostile to the Synod and biased against the Pope;
- The charges of paganism have been officially, continuously and repeatedly denied by REPAM members, by Vatican spokespeople and by the Pope himself;
- Symbolic acts of reverence to representations of abstract concepts do not amount to idolatry or paganism;
- There is a tradition of orthodox representations of Mother Earth in the Church, and also of orthodox inculturated expressions of Pachamama, that are not pagan or idolatry;
- Therefore, the acts of theft, vandalism and disrespect for indigenous culture that happened on October 20th were unwarranted, and resulted from ideas surrounding the figures that do not conform with the reality of the facts;
In the end, nothing that could be said by the Vatican or by REPAM or by Where Peter Is could’ve stopped the regrettable events that took place on Monday. The narrative of the pagan ritual had already been set in motion and could not be stopped, because those who believe this narrative have given their submission of mind and will to the outlets that fed them this propaganda. It had to be believed, because it had an ulterior motive: to undermine the Synod, by depicting it as a den of heterodoxy, liberalism and syncretism. This, in turn, served the supreme motive: to undermine Francis’ pontificate. That is the sole reason why this figure had to be Pachamama, and why this claim was not falsifiable in their minds.
In the end, this act of vandalism was nothing more than the physical manifestation of what transpired on social media in the past weeks, the embodiment of the hermeneutic of suspicion, that Fr. Jorge Bergoglio, future Pope Francis, would accurately describe in his essay Silencio y Palabra:
“Suspicion is an old bug. It creates in the heart a certain uneasiness toward any behavior of my brother that I do not fully understand. This uneasiness grows in intensity and ends by seeing as a menace everything that it doesn’t understand and control (…) The suspicious man sins against the light, he has enamored himself of this attitude of wanting everything clarified, because his life consists in confusing the conspiracy for reality. There is always, in the suspicious man, an area that resists God’s light. If such light would come, he could not have suspicions any longer. (…) Suspicion is the clinging to an area of penumbra, feeding the man who has opted for the partiality of the [internal institutional conflict] over the totality of the institution as a body.”
We at Where Peter Is preferred, as Paul Fahey and David Lafferty wrote recently, to “trust in the orthodoxy and good will of the pope, the synod, and the Indigenous Catholic participants.” We oppose the hermeneutic of suspicion, by advancing a hermeneutic of faith and charity instead. Some people have decried us for having believed the native woman who presented the statue to the Pope at face value. However, we have no reason to doubt her, or her sincerity. If her representation of Our Lady is imperfect, let us build from there, instead of taking it away from her and destroying it.
We tried to take the Synod of the Amazon to our heart, and learn from it. And one of the things that the Synod has asked us to do since its very inception is to talk less and listen more. Those who spiraled into suspicion and vandalism were the ones who refused to listen to anyone or anything, because they thought they had everything figured out: the ritual was “clearly pagan”, “even a 5-year old could understand that” and those who said otherwise were “spinning.”
We have given our ear to the indigenous people instead, for we understood that we didn’t know much and needed to gather more information. Even when relying solely on primary sources, we had to acknowledge that the reality of the facts was more ample, nuanced and complex than what we thought at first. We were not wrong, but neither did we have the full picture (something that we still don’t have.) As the pieces of the puzzle fall in place, we need to integrate the new findings with the ones we previously found, even if in the surface they seem irreconcilable. We keep learning and listening and finding out new things as we keep going. As we do, we find less and less reasons to be scandalized and afraid.
Let us not fear learning from those who act in ways incomprehensible to us. Let us be moved by their thirst for the Blessed Mother, so strong that they extrapolated Our Lady from a mere representation of life, and let us direct this seed of the Gospel, instead of aborting it. While they were joyfully expressing their faith in their own way, others in the West were more occupied with accusing, condemning and destroying, even without taking the time to understand. Just by contrasting these two attitudes, we can see how much we can learn from them if we just listen.
[Photo credit: Austen Ivereigh]
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.