Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family”, published by Ignatius Press. Follow him on Twitter @edwardpentin
Alexander Tschugguel, a 26-year-old Austrian Catholic convert from Lutheranism who has worked for the pro-life movement in his country, revealed himself Nov. 4 to be the person behind throwing the Pachamama idols into the Tiber River during the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region.
Tschugguel, who had been in Rome at the beginning of the Amazon Synod, was disturbed by seeing indigenous people bowing down to the statuettes in the Vatican Gardens. He flew to Rome to carry out what he saw as a correction of a grievous breach of the First Commandment that had upset many faithful Catholics.
According to CNA, the statues, which were identical carved images of a naked pregnant Amazonian woman, had been displayed in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, close to the Vatican, and used in several events, rituals, and expression of spirituality taking place during the Oct. 6-27 synod.
Pope Francis issued an apology Oct. 25 asking forgiveness from those who were offended by the “Pachamama” statues being thrown into the Tiber River, and said that they had been displayed in the church “without idolatrous intentions.”
In his latest YouTube video, Tschugguel appeals for people to subscribe to his channel, and includes a link to the “Boniface Institute,” a simple website with links to make donations via Paypal and Patreon. “We put up this institute to bring together all the people who want to support us” Tschugguel told the Register Nov. 5. “Many around the world asked how to give donations. I did not want these donations to go in my pocket, so I founded this institute to use the funds to spread Catholic culture.”
In this Nov. 4 interview with the Register, Tschugguel explains in more detail why he took what representations of what Pope Francis called “pachamama” out of a Rome church and threw them in the Tiber, why he has decided to come forward now, and whether he is concerned about repercussions. He also pays tribute to faithful U.S. Catholics whom he calls a “backbone for us European Catholics” for a modern Church that he sees as “not leading the way anymore, but following the world.”
Tell us about yourself. What’s your background?
I’m an Austrian, born in Vienna, I’m 26 years old, I converted 10 and a half years ago from Lutheranism to Catholicism, which is rare in Austria as most Austrians are Catholics. I converted back to the Catholic Church as my great grandfather was a Catholic convert from Protestantism. I try to work in the pro-family and pro-life movement, I try to do major projects there and am always trying to get in touch with all people in the Church. I got married this summer, and very happy with that. I have a fantastic life right now.
It’s our duty to show the Pope what is happening, because the synod is there to give advice to the Pope, but if the synod fathers only give advice to the Pope which doesn’t represent what the Catholic people believe the teaching of the Catholic Church says, then I think it’s our duty as laymen to stand up and tell the Pope: “We believe in what the Church has always taught us, why do we need to change that?” I got into that kind of fight when I fought for the pro-life, pro-family movement in a German-speaking area which was a very difficult task.
Why did you take the action to take the statues and throw them into the river?
It’s a very quick answer. When I walked into the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina — I was in Rome at the beginning of the Amazon synod — I saw in side chapels these statues and asked the volunteers what they depicted. They told me they were fertility goddesses and another told me they were symbols of “Mother Earth.” Then it all came together. I saw the rituals in the Vatican Gardens and then I saw the so-called “Way of the Cross.” At that point, I knew it really and clearly this is against the First Commandment. So [having left Rome soon after the beginning of the synod] I just went to the airport, booked the flight, came [back] to Rome in the morning, and then booked the flight back to Vienna.
The Vatican was criticized for not being clear about what the statues were. Was that also part of the motivation to take this action, that the Vatican wasn’t being straightforward about what the statues were?
Yes, of course, because I want the Vatican and I want our bishops and all the cardinals to be clear about everything. Being Catholic means being clear, and the problem is that even the high officials in the Vatican called them “Pachamamas.” It was an official term, and so if it can be official that you can have indigenous idols in your church, then that’s just wrong.
What do you say to critics have said these were harmless symbols of life and fertility, that indigenous culture should be respected, and that this was a racist and colonialist act?
Yes, I’m very sorry for this because it cannot be harmless if people bow down to them. They bowed down to them in the Vatican Gardens so it’s not just an image, a symbol. You don’t bow down to a symbol, you bow down to something which you think is higher than you, is more important than you. You can see in the videos of the Vatican Gardens ceremony and the Way of the Cross that it’s not just a symbol, and not to do anything would be to want the indigenous below me, but I want exactly the opposite. I want them to get the same grace from the Church that He has granted us, firstly baptism, which my so-called Austrian friend, Bishop Erwin Kräutler says, he has never done: baptized indigenous people. So I want them all to be baptized, I want them to go to heaven, and I really could never be a racist because I love human beings way too much to be one.
But Austrian Bishop Kräutler has reportedly denied saying he ever said that about baptism.
I know, but in his book he writes it. In his book about Amazon life there’s this passage where he says: “I normally don’t baptize people,” and so I asked people within the church, the volunteers in Santa Maria in Traspontina, and they confirmed to me that they don’t want people to be baptized either.
The Vatican said it was theft, the Pope asked for forgiveness from those who were offended. What is your response to these reactions?
Firstly, it’s not theft because I didn’t enrich myself with it, I didn’t get the statues and sell them or anything. I just threw them into the Tiber. If it were something like that then it’s not theft. The second thing is if the Pope apologized to those who were offended, he can do this, he’s the Holy Father so of course, if he thinks people are offended, of course he can apologize and maybe he’s in the right to do that. But the point is that I released my video to tell all those people that I only had one reason to do it: to defend the glory of God, to defend God and His teaching, and Jesus’ teaching. That’s the only reason, and if people get offended, I’m very sorry, I cannot change that.
Another thing about people saying maybe it’s a theft, well I don’t think it is because from what I heard, it was not the private property of someone, they were on display to show Catholics Amazonian culture, and my whole purpose was to take them outside the church. If I had just taken them out of the church and placed them next to it, they would have just put them back in again, so I had to take them somewhere. I didn’t want to chop them down or burn them, I just wanted to bring them to the place where they cannot bring them back to the church. They managed to fish some out of the Tiber, but at least they didn’t bring them back to the church. So I was successful, it was good.
Some are saying that what happened over the Pachamama is symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the Church today, that the First Commandment — worshiping Christ and placing him at the center — isn’t honored and with this episode we saw this in a very visible way. What do you say to this view?
I agree, because the First Commandment says you shall not bow down to any graven image which is not God or his people, so it really is a clear sign. If you bow down to a graven image of wood of the Pachamamas, then clearly it unfortunately shows you what happens in the wider Church. For example, when the Amazon synod was finished, the first people who responded were bishops’ conferences who brought out the Pachamama and some German bishops were saying the Amazonian bishops had exactly the same problems we have here in Germany. But I’m Austrian, I live next to Germany, I lived in Germany for more than three years. I’m not aware of the jungles where the indigenous live, so you can clearly see it’s not about the indigenous, they are used as an excuse for bringing through this new, Catholic modernist, former Catholic world. It’s very Protestant, it’s very connected to the world, and I think very wrong.
It puts Christ aside and places man at the center?
Christ is a hippie, he’s not the Son of God who came down on earth to die on the Cross and take our sins with Him on the Cross. Now Christ only came to Earth and told them, “Yeah, I love you all.” But he gave us a very big Commandment, he gave us rules, he gave us explanations, he really tried to explain how God works and what His plan is, and He said no one can come to the Father except through me, so you have to go through Christ to get to heaven, you have to be baptized to go to heaven.
Why have you decided to come forward now and are you concerned about repercussions, possible legal action?
I decided to come forward now because the Amazon synod finished last week. I saw that those from the synod, the synod fathers, tried to push down every discussion about these problematic things. I thought that’s not good at all, so I just wanted to issue a reminder to them that there are millions of faithful Catholics who don’t want the synod and the Catholic Church to develop the way the synod fathers at least told us in interviews and in press conferences, and in the final document which on many points is problematic. There are theologians, bishops and cardinals who can point that out way better than I can. As for any legal action, I don’t care about that. If they do that, I just pray to God that people will support me so that I don’t have a big financial problem, but I think it will all work out.
Your action has been met with a powerful response among some Catholics, especially in the United States. Do you have a word for them?
I have a very important word for them: I’m really very happy that many American Catholics are so faithful. They really are — and maybe they don’t know this but I know — the backbone for us European Catholics. We’re really happy that we see there are possibilities in America to be publicly and openly Catholic and traditional without too many problems. In Europe we have a society that is always strongly connected with the Church, which was of course good, and has brought us a great amount of culture and teaching and knowledge, but right now I see the Church is not leading the way anymore, but following the world.
So in Europe we have some really good people left, and as long as American faithful are a backbone and help us get stronger again, then we can be a big group of faithful Catholics again.