In my last article about the Our Lady of the Amazon / Pachamama controversy, I tried to reconcile the apparent contradictions between the various claims about the identity of the enigmatic wooden carved figure. I reached the conclusion, supported by interventions from official sources that the figure could be construed as either 1) a representation of life, fertility, Mother Earth (Vatican spokespeople and REPAM representatives); or 2) the Blessed Virgin Mary (the native woman who presented the statue to the Pope; the priest that organized the parallel activities in St. Maria Traspontina).
However, this does not answer a crucial question, which is important to be able to understand another locus of contradictions. I wrote, relative to the Marian hypothesis:
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?”
My last article sought to answer this question by solving all the contradictions between those two interpretations. Nevertheless, this task is not yet complete. A person who is indeed searching for the truth instead of pushing for a narrative will explore all the possible angles, and try to leave no loose threads. Of course, the less evidence that exists for a certain interpretation (such as the “Pachamama” interpretation), the more we must rely on speculation (rather than facts) to draw a coherent picture. Even so, in light of all that is going on, we should still ask the question, “If this is just a representation of life, or if it is a depiction of Our Lady of the Amazon, then what is the origin of the claim that this is Pachamama?”
As the narrative has unfolded, many biased media reports have spun the facts and give the impression that the statue was unquestionably Pachamama, a pagan goddess. In these reports, they give the impression that there’s no debate whether a pagan ritual took place on Vatican soil. They have done this in order to discredit the Synod on the Amazon–and ultimately the Pope himself. They have shown themselves to be utterly impervious to any rebuttal; their minds are already convinced that this was a pagan ritual. Now all they need to do is find the facts to corroborate their preordained conclusion.
However, even if the existence of these media claims explains why the Pachamama hypothesis persists–even after the repetitive and continuous denials that there was an idolatrous/pagan purpose for the statues by official sources–it does not explain where that hypothesis originated in the first place. Surely this idea didn’t originate from the multitude of papal critics who–as this story has progressed–have shown they know nothing about Pachamama beyond Google Image searches and the ability to repeat talking points, and who probably had not heard of Pachamama before all this happened. So where did it come from?
Evidence for the Pachamama hypothesis
Right now, those who believe the figure is an idol of the goddess Pachamama seem to hold this idea based on two sources: 1) reports of the Pope’s reference to the statues as pachamamas in a statement after their recovery from the Tiber; and 2) claims from biased websites and media outlets hostile to the Pope (including EWTN, LifeSiteNews, and Taylor Marshall). The Pope’s statements were subsequently clarified by a Vatican spokesperson: the reference to Pachamama was not meant to refer to the goddess, but was the nickname for the statues commonly used by Italian media. As for the biased news sites, they should always be taken with a grain of salt.
Still, there is another, earlier source: in the aftermath of the Vatican Gardens event, Getty Images published a picture where it identified the controversial figure as “Pachamama (Mother Earth).” Biased papal critics immediately seized upon this because it seemed to prove their point. From then on, associating the statue with the term “Pachamama” has become, for many of them, a non-falsifiable truth. True, Getty Images is not a site dedicated to advancing propaganda against the Pope. They are a secular visual media company that produces stock and editorial images for businesses and media outlets. We don’t know why they identified the figure as Pachamama, but we must acknowledge that it must have sprouted from somewhere.
What have we learned from the actual natives performing the ritual, or at least the official organizers of the ceremony? Since the first article I wrote about this kerfuffle, I urged journalists to reach out to these primary sources in search for information. Do we have any way to connect the Pachamama hypothesis to those primary sources?
During my research of this topic, I came across this article from the blog Abbaye de Saint-Cyran. It is a very good and thorough analysis, which I recommend in full. It explores virtually every possible explanation for the identity of the statue, and then shows how each can be reconciled with orthodoxy. The article validates everything I have written so far about the carved figures being representations of abstract realities (life, fertility) without religious significance, and also everything I have written about them being a depiction of Mary. But it goes on to explore also the Pachamama interpretation. The Abbey supports this interpretation using some evidence in ways I don’t agree with (such as the Pope having referred to the figures as Pachamama, which has already been officially refuted), but it also presents interesting additions. They say, for example, “A cursory search of REPAM’s website evinces a number of mentions of ‘Pachamama.'” (Note: REPAM was one of the organizers of the event).
The link to the Google search they provided confirms this to be true. Nevertheless, before we discuss those links, there we must make some distinctions.
The two pachamamas
The same Abbey article goes on to say (emphasis from now on is always mine):
At the Abbey, we believe it to be very likely that the ideas of “Mother Earth” and “Pachamama” are interchangeable in this context. A cursory search of REPAM’s website evinces a number of mentions of “Pachamama.” In most of the results, Pachamama is presented as a name of the Earth as symbolised by a mother, fulfilling the same function that the metaphor of “Mother Earth” fulfils in, for example, the Anglophone world. In a few, it is explicitly synonymous with the idea of “Mother Earth” itself.
I confirmed this. By looking at the links that were shown, it seems like every time REPAM says “Pachamama,” it is made in a direct connection to the concept of “Mother Earth.” In a scholarly paper which I will explore with more detail in a follow-up article, the author describes a dissection of the etymology of the word “Pachamama”:
Kechuwa is an agglutinative language, where each word has meaning as a nuclear base and a suffix (i.e. as an adverb). Therefore, pacha means time, space, nature, the world, and the universe, as well as excellence, completeness, uniqueness, safety, and truth, respectively, as a base and a suffix. Here we have one word that requires ten words in English and Spanish (Alabí 1996:52). By adding the suffix mama we have “the convergence of two fundamental entities condensed into a single word: the concept of mother that generates, nourishes, protects, guides, and provides affection, and the concept of universe with its own notions of a spatial-temporal order of the infinite” (1996:53).
In other words, “pacha” can mean earth, while “mama” means mother. A possible translation of the word “Pachamama” is simply “Mother Earth.” This is the meaning conveyed by all the REPAM’s mentions of Pachamama I have come across.
In sum, we can understand that the word “Pachamama” can be understood in two senses: there is Pachamama, the pagan goddess from the Andean pantheon, and there is Pachamama as a mere mention of Mother Earth, which can have no religious significance. Here, we can see the ambiguity that this word has created. Papal critics use Pachamama in the former meaning, in order to promote the “Vatican abomination” narrative. But REPAM, the actual organizers of the event, seem to use this word in the latter sense. Whenever REPAM uses the word, papal critics will use this as a vindication of their narrative (just as they used the Pope’s passing remark as proof, glossing over the part where the pontiff said there was no “idolatrous intent” and ignoring the Vatican spokesperson’s subsequent clarification). Facts, however, do not support that narrative. The disambiguation of this word may actually help clarify some of the inconsistencies that papal critics exploit in order to advance their objectives.
For one article, while the synod was going on, LifeSiteNews interviewed several volunteers at the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina who allegedly answered that the statue was Pachamama. LifeSiteNews’ followers, of course, immediately jumped to the conclusion that the paganism charge had been proven. However, if we look at the answers given by the volunteers, we get a different picture:
On our first visit, a volunteer (pictured below) said the carved image “represents the revelation of the feminine mother with mother nature, which gives us nourishment.”
Asked if it is the Pachamama, she said: “Yes, the mother, who cares for life, who gives nourishment to life, so it’s a very strong form of symbolism.”
“The indigenous see the presence of God in everything,” the guide explained. “So if they cut down a tree for some purpose, they cry, and ask for forgiveness from Mother Earth, because they have to cut down that tree.”
“That’s very beautiful — respect for nature, for everything,” she said. “But we, living in the modern world, have distanced ourselves from Mother Earth. …Those communities that disconnect themselves from Mother Earth become orphans, without a mother. So the Holy Father wants us to learn from the indigenous, to learn to connect with Mother Earth.”
“The [carved] mother that I brought from Brazil … that was in the procession, well, we brought it from Brazil. It was done by an indigenous artist, and we asked him for a piece of art that would symbolize all of that connection of Mother Earth, of women, the feminine aspect of God, that God is the one who protects and nourishes life,” she said.»
In other words, when asked if it was Pachamama, the volunteer answered in the affirmative, but then went on to describe, not a pagan goddess, but Mother Earth as a form of “symbolism,” that she then proceeds to connect with God.
This is also consistent with the various clarifications from REPAM representatives and from the Vatican Press Office: eg. “We have already repeated several times here that those statues represented life, fertility, mother earth.“
The official voices of the synod did not attribute any religious significance to the carved figures. In fact, as I have documented extensively, they have invariably and repeatedly denied a pagan meaning to them. However, they have indeed identified the statues with “Mother Earth,” as a representation of life, nature and fertility. Therefore, their mentions of Pachamama should be interpreted in that sense.
How strong is the case for this? Does this mean the term “Pachamama” can be used in an orthodox way?
If the official sources from REPAM do not view Mother Earth as a pagan goddess, why do they mention Mother Earth at all? Why do they see “Mother Earth” as a worthwile concept to use in the first place?
From my research, the use of “Mother Earth” by REPAM stems from two major influences.
The first of such influence is St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, named in the original language as Laudato Si’ (from whence Pope Francis named his influential encyclical). In this Canticle, the saint sings:
“Praised be you, my Lord,
through our Sister, Mother Earth,
who sustains us and directs us
bringing forth all kinds of fruits
and colored flowers and herbs.”
This usage of Mother Earth is, of course, orthodox, or else St. Francis of Assisi would not have been canonized, but anathematized.
The second influence is the environmentalist movement. There have been major legal pushes in Latin America to establish juridical character under the law to Mother Earth as a collective subject of public interest. Starting with Ecuador in 2008, and most notably in Bolívia (which enshrined the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth into their legal framework,) there have been many similar legal initiatives in other countries, including some jurisdictions in the US. These initiatives use the natives’ sacred views on Mother Earth/Pachamama as a starting point, but its religious meaning has been “reduced in order to be used as a political and ecological tool to help save the environment.”
Noteworthy is also one of the key-concepts that is frequently associated with these environmentalist Pachamama initiatives: the indigenous ethos of “Living Well.”
This second influence may be more problematic, since some of the initiatives derive from left-wing eco-ideologies that are incompatible with Catholicism. However, even if they may be problematic, they are not necessarily so. Church Social Doctrine has been consistently concerned with environmental problems since at least St. John Paul II. And granting legal personhood to Mother Earth is no more troublesome from a Catholic point of view than granting it to corporations. So, it is not so much on whether these initiatives are inherently bad, but on whether they are rightly ordered towards Catholic principles.
Mind you, these two influences are not contradictory, since St. Francis of Assisi has been correctly labeled as the patron saint of Ecology.
Can we know whether these influences are behind REPAM’s mentions of Pachamama? I have perused them all and found that every single Pachamama mention in REPAM sites has some connection with environmental advocacy, not pagan or spiritual beliefs.
There is a single article where one assessor asks that pachamama [lower case] be considered a subject of legal rights. There is a bulletin about integral ecology, where pachamama [again lower case] is referred as having benefited mankind for centuries, until the destruction to the food chain by intensive agriculture. Another article says that “The principles of the Pachamama, in the perspective of Living Well, are based in the integral ecology and the care for the common home.” Another article explains the mode of life of the peoples of the Living Well ethos:
«Para os povos do Bem Viver, a Terra é Pachamama, Mãe da vida, nossa mãe. E nós somos nascido dela e dela precisamos para viver… O grande convite é este: viver e conviver com relações harmoniosas com a Terra, o que exige relações de cooperação entre nós: pessoas, comunidades, povos, humanidade… E viver nossas relações com Deus nestas relações de cooperação entre nós e nas relações harmoniosas com a Terra…
Tudo está interrelacionado, e Deus mesmo se fez um de nós para revelar que está presente em todas estas relações…
For the peoples of Living Well, the Earth is Pachamama, Mother of life, our mother. We are born of her and we need her to live. The big invitation is this: live and socialize in harmonious relations with the Earth, which demands relations of cooperation among us: persons, communities, peoples, mankind. And live our relations with God in these relations of cooperation between us and in the harmonious relations with the Earth.
Everything is interconnected, and God has made himself as one of us to reveal that he is present in all these relations
It must be emphasized that most of that article talks about Jesus and the Canaanite woman who begs Him to help her daughter, even if she is not Jewish. And also about ecology and exploitation of resources that eventually destroy the homes of the native peoples. How should Catholics act towards them, in the context of Pope Francis’ call to go to the peripheries? That’s the overarching theme of the article where that quote comes from.
In this sense, I think that our contributor David Lafferty was very perceptive in trying to contextualize this controversy in light of the papal encyclical Laudato Si’. Some of the aforementioned REPAM references to Pachamama also try to make a connection with Laudato Si’ (see here and here). Also, it is noteworthy how the final document of the Synod is called “Amazonia: New Pathways for a Church and an Integral Ecology.” Introducing people to pagan rituals is not the focus, either of REPAM, or of the Synod. The focus (or rather, one of the focuses) is the proper relationship of Man and Nature in the context of widespread environmental destruction. The references to Mother Earth / Pachamama are to be understood in this context.
As far as the influence from St. Francis of Assisi goes, REPAM links to a master’s thesis in Theology about the Canticle of the Creatures, written by Fr. Manuel Reales and defended in the Pontifical Javerian University of Bogotá. The relevant passage relating to Pachamama is this:
«Algo muy particular en Francisco de Asís es no solo llamar hermana a la tierra sino que también le llama madre y esto significa que es ella la que sustenta la supervivencia del ser humano, lo cual significa que hombre no es autosuficiente, “nosotros podemos vivir si la tierra vive.” Se requiere volver a los brazos de la Pachamama con clara conciencia de nuestra trascendencia.
«Something very particular in Francis of Assisi is when he calls the earth, not only a sister, but also a mother. This means that it is the earth that sustains the survival of human beings, meaning that Man is not self-suficient: “we can only live if the earth lives”. We must come back to the arms of the Pachamama with a clear conscience of our transcendence»
This orders Pachamama / Mother Earth towards St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, but it also refutes those who simply call her a sister and not a mother. It is also consistent with what the volunteer of the Church of Sta. Maria in Traspontina answered to LifeSiteNews.
The native woman speaks again
After this contextualization, I come full circle to the controversial event on the Vatican Gardens. Since the beginning, I said that we should give a voice first and foremost to the organizers of the event, especially the natives. This is why I believed them (and still do), when they identified the carved figure with Our Lady of the Amazon. However, new revelations came precisely from those sources. To their credit, those revelations have been unearthed by LifeSiteNews, even if they tried to do it, once again, to prove the supposed pagan origin of the ritual.
It appears that the three organizers of the event (REPAM, the Global Catholic Climate Movement and the Order of Friars Minor) issued a statement, precisely on the day of the ceremony, explaining its meaning. Why this was not discovered and disseminated earlier by the media is absolutely unexplainable. Yet, here is the link to the statement. It delves into only the tree planting ceremony, which made up the bulk of the event. But there is also a link to a message by Ednamar de Oliveira Viana, the native woman who presided over the activity and who presented the controversial statue to the Pope as “Our Lady of the Amazon.” The message says:
To plant is to have hope. It is believing in a growing and fruitful life to satisfy the hunger of Mother Earth’s creation. This brings us to our origin by reconnecting divine energy and teaching us the way back to the Creator Father.
The Synod is to plant this tree, water and cultivate, so that the Amazonian peoples are heard and respected in their customs and traditions experiencing the mystery of the divinity present in the Amazonian ground.
Planting in the Vatican Garden is a symbol that invites the Church to be even more committed to the forest peoples and all of humanity. But also, it is the denunciation of those who destroy our common house by greed in search of their own profit.
Plantar é ter esperança. É acreditar numa vida a crescer e frutificar, para saciar a fome da criação da Mãe Terra. Isso nos leva a nossa origem religando a energia divina e nos ensina o caminho de volta ao Pai Criador.
O Sínodo é plantar esta árvore, regar e cultivar, para fazer com que os povos amazônicos sejam ouvidos e respeitados em seus costumes e tradições vivenciando o mistério da divindade presente no chão amazônico.
O ato de plantar no Jardim do Vaticano é um símbolo que convida à Igreja a se comprometer ainda mais com os povos da floresta e toda a humanidade. Mas também, é a denúncia de aqueles que destroem a nossa casa comum por ganancia, em busca do seu próprio lucro.»
LifeSiteNews followers quickly jumped to the conclusion that this somehow proves that the ceremony was pagan. How they reached this conclusion I don’t know. First of all, this had no direct connection to the carved wooden figure. It is an explanation of the planting ritual. Secondly, it is true that it mentions Mother Earth, but I see no indication that it does so as if she is a pagan goddess. There is no reference to Pachamama, unless we take the literal translation of it as Mother Earth (but, as I demonstrated above, does not mean it is seen as a pagan goddess, but is being used in the context of the same environmental advocacy as the other references to Mother Earth I shared).
Granted, some of the wording about “divine energies” might raise some eyebrows, but the sentence revolves around going back to the Creator Father. He is the Creator. There is a talk of Mother Earth’s creation, but it is unclear whether that creation comes from Mother Earth itself, or if it just seeks to make a connection between creation and the earth. It is also unclear whether it is not referring to an indirect form of creation since the living creation sprouts from the earth (as the Canticle of the Creatures also admits.) In the end, only the Father is called Creator, so we are not talking about a pagan person here.
This reference to Mother Earth does not occur in a vacuum. It was made in the context of an activity organized by REPAM, which has denied any pagan interpretation of the event, but has used “Mother Earth / Pachamama” consistently and coherently as a symbol of life and fertility in the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, of Laudato Si’, and of grassroots movements advocating an integral ecology. Ednamar’s statement also appears to mention Mother Earth in connection to environmental concerns, as does the rest of REPAM. This also explains the continuous clarifications of the Vatican Press Office, who also denied any pagan element, but referred to the statue as a symbol of life, fertility, Mother Earth.
While we’ve not been able to establish a direct connection between the controversial figure and the Pachamama hypothesis, we have seen that the organizers of the event have made some references to Pachamama. When they did so, they referred to Pachamama simply as Mother Earth, not as a pagan goddess. Their concept of Mother Earth does not contain any religious significance that could be construed as idolatrous. Rather, they use Mother Earth as many other eco-movements use it: as a way to promote environmental causes. In the specific case of REPAM, they add to this a layer of Catholicism, inspired by Pope Francis’ Laudato ‘Si, and by St. Francis of Assisi’s Laudato Si’. Whether they succeed at doing this in an orthodox way is something that should be discussed in a calm and unbiased way, without prejudiced conclusions. In the end, it will be the Pope who will decide on that, when he publishes his post-synodal apostolic exhortation.
In the meantime, this in no way contradicts any of the conclusions I made in my last article, namely:
- 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 Traspontina) have no specific religious significance, either pagan or Catholic;
- Nevertheless, it is clear that some indigenous people have conferred a Marian significance to the carved images;
- Among those people 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 Traspontina;
- The only ones peddling charges of paganism are media outlets hostile to the Synod and biased against the Pope;
It would be hypocritical to believe Ednamar Viana when she mentions Mother Earth in relation to the tree planting ceremony and not believe the same woman when she presents the statue as Our Lady of the Amazon. It would be even more damning to accuse her of paganism when she mentions Mother Earth, when she did not refer to Mother Earth as a goddess. Again, the most plausible explanation is that the carved figures did not have any religious significance when they were acquired, representing merely some abstract concepts like Mother Earth (not the goddess, but the symbolic reality), but that were later conferred with some Marian significance, namely by indigenous people such as Ednamar and Fr. Rojas.
There is not, at this moment, any evidence in favor of the “A pagan goddess was worshipped at the Vatican” hypothesis. There are, in fact, several official denials of this thesis, both by REPAM and the Vatican. I am reminded of the fundamentalist Protestant controversies around the usage of the word Lucifer in a certain Catholic hymn to refer to Jesus. In the same way, Pachamama is a loaded term that can be used in an orthodox way by those who actually wield it, and has been misconstrued to prove that something demonic was underfoot by people who had already reached that conclusion. And I think we now have a better grasp on what might be the possible (though not proven) provenance of the term “Pachamama,” as understood by Catholics in the Amazon region.
[Featured image taken from here]
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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.