“At the Synod on Amazonia in Rome in October 2019 some groups in the Church and their media reported the presence of indigenous people through a continuously distorted lens. What was beautiful in that synod—the deep respect for indigenous culture and the presence of the native people in the prayer services—was twisted by hysterical accusations of paganism and syncretism.”
Pope Francis, Let Us Dream, p. 73
I have been giving Pope Francis’s new book, Let Us Dream, a close reading over the last few days. A few hours ago, I came across the above passage, where the pope offers his most frank assessment to date of the deranged media circus that surrounded the Synod on the Amazon in October 2019.
In many ways, the Amazon Synod controversy was the story that put Where Peter Is “on the map.” Even though we had been around for nearly two years at that point, it wasn’t until we began responding to the reactionary critics of the pope during that synod that Church leaders and other figures in Catholic media began looking to WPI for our perspective and analysis. That October, Catholic reactionary media outlets set their sights on the indigenous Catholics of the Amazon, and launched a campaign accusing them of “idolatry” (and charging Pope Francis with sanctioning their “pagan worship”) for their participation in an October 4 prayer service in the Vatican Gardens.
For the most part, mainstream Catholic and secular media outlets viewed the right-wing outrage over the indigenous ceremony as a sideshow or distraction from more important issues. In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis acknowledges that the synod participants weren’t paying attention to the frenzy happening simultaneously. He recounts, “Although we were barely aware of it inside the synod hall, there was no shortage of disturbances outside.” While there is something to be said for ignoring a ridiculous manufactured controversy, it was clear (to us, anyway) that the “paganism” narrative was growing out of control.
We wanted to get to the bottom of the questions, and to try to dispel some of the misinformation that was being spread. We were also genuinely curious about the practices, rituals, and symbols of the Amazonian Catholics, and wanted to share our findings with our readers. Pedro Gabriel took the lead in our investigation. His knowledge of Portuguese and Spanish, as well as the curiosity of his scientific mind (he’s a doctor, remember), situated him perfectly to research and gather information on this subject. Pedro and I discussed his investigation into the issue this summer in a podcast. You can listen to our discussion, or you can go back into our archives on the subject and read the excellent work done by Pedro and others.
Throughout the synod, there was a strange juxtaposition in the media. On one side, the mainstream media reported on the discussions and issues of importance to the participants in the synod. The reactionary media, meanwhile, all but ignored the actual synod in favor of fueling their sensational idolatry narrative. We sensed the dangers of simply ignoring the controversy, and—as one of the few outlets covering the controversy from a non-reactionary perspective—received a good deal of attention (and ire). We were also told by a several figures supportive of the pope not to “give oxygen” to what they believed was the lunatic fringe.
It is true that the attention during the synod was misdirected. Ideally, the entire press corps would have been respectful and covered the stories worth covering. Unfortunately, the polarization in the Church has become so extreme that it would have been irresponsible for us to ignore this campaign that was being waged.
It is clear where Pope Francis stands on the subject. In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis expresses great trust in the leaders of the Amazonian Church. Even with the shortage of clerics and religious in this mostly-lay Church, it is clear that he perceives great holiness in the Church in the Amazon. In other words, he believes that they need our support, not our derision or criticism. “I believe it is crucial to trust the lay people,” he remarks, “Especially the women who run so many of the communities in the area, to bring forth a distinctively Amazonian holiness that will bear many future fruits” (p. 91).
Recently, Pedro Gabriel made a guest appearance on the “Reason and Theology” podcast to discuss the synod controversy. The hosts of the podcast are critics of Pope Francis, but the conversation was respectful. You can watch the episode below:
Sadly, it doesn’t appear that the “Pachamama” controversy has faded in the minds of many Catholics. Some prominent priests, bishops, and cardinals have bought into this narrative, and the episode appears to be etched into their growing list of “grievances” against Pope Francis and his papacy.
All that said, I realize that I’m growing increasingly agitated with the false perception of reality held by Francis’s critics. And I shouldn’t be. So I am grateful for Pedro’s upbeat and good-natured exchange with Erick and Michael from Reason and Theology. We need more discussions like this. As Francis puts it in Let Us Dream (p. 93):
“We need a respectful, mutual listening, free of ideology and predetermined agendas. The aim is not to reach agreement by means of a contest between opposing positions, but to journey together to seek God’s will, allowing differences to harmonize. Most important of all is the synodal spirit: to meet each other with respect and trust, to believe in our shared unity, and to receive the new thing that the Spirit wishes to reveal to us.”
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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.