Elementary Pastoral Sense Absent From Amazonian Statue Controversy

COMMENTARY: Since symbols convey so much more than words, Vatican officials should have clarified exactly what the statue means, before allowing it to be deployed in a paraliturgical context.

A wooden carved sculpture is pictured during a procession of indigenous leaders, prelates and people participating in the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, on Oct. 19 between Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo and the Vatican's St. Peters Square.
A wooden carved sculpture is pictured during a procession of indigenous leaders, prelates and people participating in the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, on Oct. 19 between Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo and the Vatican's St. Peters Square. (photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images)

The disputed Amazonian statue might be dismissed as a small distraction, but it is an important thing made more significant by a lack of elementary pastoral sense.

As Catholics ought to know better than anyone else — all the more so Vatican officials — symbols convey much more than words. That’s why the liturgy is a ritual employing symbols rather than an essay employing syllogisms.

That provides the proper lens through which to see what will become a lasting image of the Amazon synod, the wooden statue of the naked pregnant Amazonian woman, first deployed in the curious tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican gardens, latterly resident at the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina and carried in procession during the Amazonian via Crucis, and now floating out to sea in the Tiber, where it was thrown by anonymous thieves who thought it had no place in a Catholic church.

The theft and throwing of the image into the river was wrong. But I don’t share the view of papal biographer Austen Ivereigh that it was the akin to ISIS terrorists destroying statues of the Blessed Mother, precisely because even at this late date, no one can say what exactly the statue is supposed to be or what religion, if any, it belongs to.

In light of the recent theft and aquatic disposal, Ivereigh has downgraded the Marian-theme to a “mother-nature effigy.” The same “effigy” theme was picked up by editorial director for all Vatican news, Andrea Tornielli, who spoke of it as an “effigy of motherhood and the sacredness of life” that is “a traditional symbol for the native people which represents their tie to what St. Francis called ‘mother earth.’”

Hence the confusion endures. St. Francis praised God “through our Sister Mother Earth.” The tie was to God, not to the earth. St. Francis himself would have insisted that an image used in prayer be a sacred one, the Blessed Mother, not motherhood in general nor mother earth.

Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — a simple parish priest’s experience might prove helpful at the Vatican. Parish priests are asked all the time — at weddings and funerals especially — to include some image, item or song dear to those attending. Even a young priest knows enough to ask, “What does this mean?” Depending on the answer, he knows to say that it might find a place elsewhere, but not in the church.

The excluded item need not be offensive to Catholic teaching. Consider a national flag, customary to drape over a coffin for soldiers and veterans. It is an honorable thing, even a kind of sacred symbol, but it is not Catholic. And so it is supposed to be removed upon arrival at the church and replaced with the pall for the funeral, which represents baptism. The flag is put back as the coffin leaves the church.

A similar example: A few years back I was asked whether it might be permissible to include native Canadian drumming in a liturgical service. I grew up in Alberta and had seen that indigenous drumming a thousand times, on occasion finding it quite welcome. It was not obviously contrary to the Catholic faith, but I did not know what it meant.

Was it a summoning of the people to a solemn occasion? Was it a hymn of thanksgiving to God? Was it intended to conjure the spirits of the dead? I didn’t know what it meant, so I asked. Depending on the answer, I said, we might be able to include it, or it be might be inadmissible. In this particular case, the person asking did not know what it meant, so we proceeded no farther.

The problem with the Amazonian statue was that no one could — or would — explain what it was. Ivereigh, offering some helpful spin doctoring, suggested that the Vatican should declare the two figures a depiction of the Visitation and be done with it.

That would have been fine, if it were true. It is quite possible to include bad or ambiguous art, if its meaning is clarified. Papal audiences in the Paul VI hall have taken place for decades in front of a massive, mystifying and, to me, quite horrible bronze installation. But everyone is informed that, no matter how off-putting it is, it is the Risen Christ. No controversy, and no one absconding with it in the early dawn to throw it in the river. (Though it would it take a crane and fleet of transport trucks.)

So when people asked about the statue meant, an answer should have been ready. The indigenous people of the Amazon have seen Catholic images of the Blessed Virgin Mary for centuries, so it’s possible that they expressed the same faith in their own artistic forms.  Was it an image of “Our Lady of the Amazon” or some other Catholic image?

“There is nothing to know. It is an indigenous woman who represents life,” said Father Giacomo Costa, part of the synod communications teams. “It is a feminine figure [which] is neither pagan nor sacred.”

That was not helpful. If it’s not sacred, why was it included in a prayer service to mark the feast of St. Francis of Assisi in the presence of the Holy Father? I might treasure a painting of my ancestors, but I wouldn’t use it a paraliturgical rite.

Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of Vatican communications dicastery, said that he sees the figure as “representing life,” which is basically saying that it is a fertility (life) symbol, in different words.

The Catholic press bent over backwards to offer various accounts of something apparently so mysterious that it could not be straightforwardly explained by the people who thought it important enough to bring it across the oceans. The secular press was not so accommodating, and said flat-out that it was an “indigenous fertility symbol,” in the words of The Associated Press.

That being clarified, what was it doing in a side chapel of Santa Maria in Traspontina? Generally, that would not be allowed. Even photographs of the deceased during a funeral are not to be put in the sanctuary or before the altar. Certainly an indigenous fertility symbol — which, if “not pagan” at least hints in that direction, with perhaps touches of the superstitious — has no place in the side chapel of a church.

It is true that the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina — on the days that I visited it during the synod — has been treated less like a church than a convention hall, with various booths set up along the perimeter of the nave. It’s not much of a defense to say that the church was being used in the manner of a social or environmental policy convention, but at least it is better than being used for purposes directly forbidden by the First Commandment.

The whole episode, from the beginning, has been deeply regrettable. Clarity would have avoided disturbing those who were legitimately disturbed, and also indicated to what purposes the effigy could have been used.

Instead, a deliberate ambiguity was promoted by those who were responsible for the information, allowing the impression to fester that something akin to idol worship was going on in the heart of Rome.

I don’t actually think that was the case. But it should not have been hard to say that clearly, directly and unambiguously.

The responsibility for the theft and disposal lies with those who recorded themselves in the act, but without the courage of showing their faces.

The responsibility for the enduring confusion about the effigy lies with those responsible for the official synod communications. The synod has not been served well.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ aired on EWTN on Good Friday 2023.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ 2023

This year’s meditations by Father Raymond J. de Souza honored the late Cardinal George Pell, including some of his meditations from his ‘Prison Journal.’