A while back, I wrote a piece for The Catholic Herald that said, in essence, “Everybody stay calm: things aren’t as bad as they seem; they’re worse.” That piece had as its analytical focus the ongoing talk of schism in the Church. It attempted an assessment of the real danger in those regards (against the perceived danger) and of the quarters from which threats to the unity of the Church really come.
I stand by the analysis and the summary prescription, and would say it might be useful applied to the circumstances of the Church more broadly.
As it happens, that piece was my regular analysis column for the weekly magazine. The editors titled it, “Pope Francis has the tools to reduce tensions: will he use them?” It published on October 3rd, the day before the strange and startling ceremony in the Vatican Gardens that has chewed up so many column inches and caused so much ink to be spilled.
To be perfectly frank, I always liked the image that has been at the center of the controversy. I wanted it to be an indigenous representation of Our Lady. Perhaps it will be someday. If Pope Francis creates the Blessed Mother “Our Lady of the Amazon” and makes the image her token, I will be happy to devote myself to her under that title and venerate the image in any church.
I also want — in the older sense of the word — an explanation for what I saw happening on video around the statue on October 4th. Indigenous participants in a tree-planting ceremony gathered around a mat — a mandala — representing the Amazon region and its “water, earth, seeds, and martyrs”, knelt, were led by a woman in native ceremonial dress in something that looked for all the world like prayer of some sort, and bowed low to the ground, facing the figures of two pregnant women in a boat at the center of the mat, on which the apparent leader of the ceremony and other participants had placed things that looked very much like a symbolic offering.
The leader took the bowl she had been carrying, and approached Pope Francis. She took a ring from the bowl and put it on his finger, then she made the Sign of the Cross and received Pope Francis’s blessing under the same Sign. Another participant offered Pope Francis the larger of the two images of pregnant women, as a voice can be heard declaring “Our Lady of the Amazon!” or “She is Our Lady of Amazonia!” Another fellow gave Pope Francis a necklace, and received his blessing, also under the Sign of the Cross.
A single sentence would have sufficed: one to say that the figures of the women represented Our Lady and her cousin, St Elizabeth, at the Visitation; and that the posture adopted, while admittedly unusual — very much so, and possibly shocking to Western sensibilities — is quite normal and very much a default attitude of veneration among the peoples of the Amazon. That sentence would have dealt with the perplexity and turned a tinderbox into a teachable moment. With a little advance notice and preparation, this whole business would have gone away before it started.
Apparently, it was impossible to put such a construction on either the figures or the ceremony.
If the figures were not sacred symbols of any kind, and the ceremony no sort of religious rite, then what were they? At risk of belaboring the obvious, denying that something is what it appears for all the world to be, is not the same as saying what the thing really is. Something in the way of an explanation ought to have been ready and fairly straightforward.
Instead, we were treated to weeks of evasion, equivocation, and recrimination, punctuated by a common room prank involving alienation and attempted destruction of property that was simultaneously hailed as the work of the 21st century’s St Boniface and decried as the work of latter-day crypto-Fascist neocolonialist dissident heretic iconoclasts — world gone mad — and culminating in a denial of the evidence of our senses.
During the press briefing on Friday — I was not there (sick child and transit strike) but watched on the feed provided by Vatican Media — L’Espresso’s veteran Vaticanologist, Sandro Magister posed a question to the Lutheran pastor on the Friday panel: he said he’d received reports from Brazil and the Philippines, claiming that video of the October 4th ceremony in the Vatican Gardens had “gone viral” and was being used “as a weapon” by Protestant sects, especially of the Pentecostal and evangelical persuasion, to claim that Catholics are idolaters. Magister asked the pastor for “his ‘considered opinion’ (in Italian, giudizio, which is literally “judgment”) on these ‘rites’ which were effectively performed (It. compiuti, literally “accomplished”), complete with prostrations before unidentified objects.”
Before the pastor could respond, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Communications, Dr. Paolo Ruffini, cut in to say, “I allow myself for just a moment to add to the question from Magister [regarding] ‘Effectively were performed’: It has been said in this place, and repeated, that there were performed neither prostrations nor rites.” Ruffini went on to say, “I believe we must all be rigorous regarding things that, in any case, happened in front of video cameras.” That’s right: there were; and, I saw what I saw. There are lots of explanations for what I saw, but, let me say again: I saw what I saw.
Some journalists applauded, and the deputy director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Christiane Murray, who was running the briefing, joined in the applause. The clapping subsided and the pastor, Rev. Nicolau Nascimento de Paiva, remarked the great respect of his ecclesial community for the beliefs of all persons of faith, the greatness of Mary’s witness as attested in Scripture and the need to focus on what unites us in pursuit of the common good and the upbuilding of society.
On Friday afternoon, Pope Francis had another opportunity to clear the air, but he kicked up more dust.
He called the figures “Pachamama” — the name of an Inca deity akin to Demeter/Ceres in the Greek/Roman pantheon, with which the ill-informed and ill-disposed have been abusing the figures since they appeared (and I have privately remonstrated with purveyors of the sobriquet, noting that the Inca Empire was located in the Andes Mountains, not the Amazon basin; but, so much for that) — when he told the Synod Fathers gathered in General Congregation that the Carabinieri — Italy’s national paramilitary police force — had recovered several of the figures from the Tiber, into which they’d been tossed at dawn on Monday after their furtive subtraction from the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina near St. Peter’s. He said the figures had been placed in the church “without idolatrous intent.” Press Office Director Matteo Bruni explained that Francis was using the deity’s name merely as a form of shorthand reference to the statues as they had come to be known in Italian media.
Right after announcing the statues’ retrieval from the river and explaining that their placement in the church had not been deliberately idolatrous, Pope Francis said, “First of all, this happened in Rome, and, as Bishop of the Diocese, I ask pardon of the persons who were offended by this act.”
Then, Pope Francis announced that the statues could make an appearance at the Synod Assembly’s closing Mass on Sunday. “The Commander of the Carabinieri,” Pope Francis told the Synod Fathers on Friday afternoon, “has expressed his desire to follow up on any indications that you would like to give concerning the manner of publication of the news, and any other initiative you may want to take in this regard.”
“[F]or example,” Pope Francis quoted the Commander as saying, “the exhibition of the statues during the Holy Mass for the closing of the Synod.” Pope Francis added: “We’ll see.” Then, he told the Synod Fathers he has delegated his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to handle the matter.
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