I know that papal documents are not easy reading. I also know we all have lots on the go, and it is hard to find the time to sit down and read and think for a couple hours. But this is crucial: if you are Catholic and worried about paganism having infiltrated the Church through the Amazon synod, but have not yet read Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, please read it as soon as possible. Word On Fire has a lovely site devoted to it, at laudatosi.com. It contains a well-formatted PDF version of the text.
The opening passages of Laudato Si’ alone provide a key to understanding the ongoing debates surrounding the Amazon synod, including the “Our Lady of the Amazon” statues and the question of whether or not the concept of Mother Earth is irredeemably pagan:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord.” In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
Here, Pope Francis makes it very clear how we, as Catholics, should interpret the idea of Mother Earth. He describes her from a specifically Franciscan viewpoint (not surprising, for a pope named Francis) as a mother, and as a sister. Here, in plain sight, is the basis for the path of inculturation that we saw at the synod.
Some people are making much out of a prayer to Pachamama (an Incan fertility goddess, still worshipped by some in the Andes) that was found on a handout used in a church in Verona, for purposes unknown. On Twitter, I pointed out that this prayer was likely taken from a document created for the Amazon synod by the Missio Foundation, which is described on its website as a “pastoral body formed by the Italian Bishops’ Conference to support and promote, in collaboration with other organizations, the missionary dimension of the Church in Italy” (very rough translation). I suggested that the prayer be read in the context of the rest of the document, which provides a survey of the Indigenous cultures of the Amazon and issues affecting the Amazon region and its people, and places these within the framework of Laudato Si’. Providing this additional information does not seem to have helped, as the single page from the document with the prayer is now being shared as further proof of pagan infiltration, not just in that one church in Verona, but also within the Italian Bishops’ Conference.
But context and intent really do matter. Paying attention to context and intent is not a path to relativism; it is, in fact, how you can avoid mistaking your own private judgement for the unalterable truth. Read some sections of the Missio Foundation website (through whatever translation application you can find, if like me you don’t read Italian) in order to understand why they might have included that prayer in one of their documents. Read some of the document itself, which is located here (and the Pachamama prayer is on page 17, for those curious). At least do that, before judging.
After considering the context, which of the two following possibilities do you think is more likely?
- This Pachamama prayer was included as a means of introducing a demonic paganism into Catholicism, for the purpose of undermining and ultimately destroying the faith.
- This Pachamama prayer was included as an example of how Indigenous people in the Andes (and by extension, the Amazon) conceive of the natural world as Mother Earth, opening up a missionary path for inculturation in line with Laudato Si’.
I know my answer. If you still think the first possibility is more likely, I’ll say it again: read Laudato Si’.
Although it felt like a social-media sideshow, the Our Lady of the Amazon controversy and this latest Pachamama prayer controversy are all part of the messy and sometimes confusing process of inculturation. The concept of Mother Earth, which is part of many Indigenous traditions and, as Pope Francis has made clear, part of Christian tradition, is the link through which we can connect with Indigenous Catholics and also non-Catholic Indigenous cultures, in order to engage in a process of upbuilding and evangelization through dialogue. That is what the Amazon synod was all about.
Those now-famous Our Lady of the Amazon statues—inexpensive souvenir items brought to the synod as symbols of the Amazon—may have originally been produced to reflect a more generic concept of Mother Earth or even just womanhood for tourists in Brazil. But now they are more than that. They represent the Amazon, womanhood, generation, Mother Nature, and Our Lady all in one. Is this a form of illegitimate syncretism? No. To understand, we need only turn again to Laudato Si’, but this time the closing section. I will quote a long segment here. I hope that if you will not take the time to read all of Laudato Si’, you will at least take the time to read this:
The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways. The world was created by the three Persons acting as a single divine principle, but each one of them performed this common work in accordance with his own personal property. Consequently, “when we contemplate with wonder the universe in all its grandeur and beauty, we must praise the whole Trinity.”
For Christians, believing in one God who is trinitarian communion suggests that the Trinity has left its mark on all creation. Saint Bonaventure went so far as to say that human beings, before sin, were able to see how each creature “testifies that God is three.” The reflection of the Trinity was there to be recognized in nature “when that book was open to man and our eyes had not yet become darkened.” The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key.
The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.
Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power. Completely transfigured, she now lives with Jesus, and all creatures sing of her fairness. She is the Woman, “clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev 12:1). Carried up into heaven, she is the Mother and Queen of all creation. In her glorified body, together with the Risen Christ, part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty. She treasures the entire life of Jesus in her heart (cf. Lk 2:19,51), and now understands the meaning of all things. Hence, we can ask her to enable us to look at this world with eyes of wisdom.
Mother Earth, in this context, is no longer the Mother Earth of paganism. Those little statues no longer represent some touristy stereotype—they have a symbolic connection to Mary, the birth of Jesus, creation, and the Trinity. If we can’t see this, we must appeal to Mary to “enable us to look at this world with eyes of wisdom.” At the Angelus on October 27, after the close of the Amazon synod, Pope Francis proclaimed:
For the way ahead, let us invoke the Virgin Mary, venerated and loved as Queen of the Amazon. She became one not by conquering, but by “inculturating” herself: with a mother’s humble courage she became the protector of her children, the defence of the oppressed. Always going out to the culture of the peoples. There is not a standard culture, there is not a pure culture that purifies the others; there is the Gospel, pure, which is inculturated. To she who cared for Jesus in the poor house of Nazareth, we entrust the poorest children and our common home.
This is the path that the pope set for the Amazon synod, and for the Church. We should trust him as our Holy Father. Remember, EWTN is not in charge of the Church. OnePeterFive is not in charge. Where Peter Is is not in charge. The pope is in charge, aided by the Holy Spirit, and he asks us to invoke Mary, Queen of the Amazon, Queen of All Creation, as we move forward.
Image: Mangrove and woodland near the Amazon river, by Cesar Paes Barreto, Wikimedia Commons