Statues in the Tiber

Like many other Catholics I have been praying for the Amazon Synod taking place in Rome. I read the Instrumentum Laboris (preliminary document detailing what would be under discussion) and have tried to keep up with the working group reports, knowing full well that the final synod document will probably be very different from any of them. I have also read — how could I not — numerous reports and comments, coming mainly from the U.S.A. and Europe, that have made a battleground of the subject. Has the Vatican been welcoming paganism into the very heart of Christian Rome; or has it simply been doing its pastoral duty in trying to meet the needs of the Amazonian region? Are we to take the renewed Pact of the Catacombs as a sign of the Church’s commitment to follow the poor Christ, or are we to interpret the statues variously regarded as fertility images/indigenous interpretations of Christian figures as idols? Are we dealing with Pachamama or Our Lady of the Amazon? Clearly, those who stole into Santa Maria in Traspontina, removed five statues they regarded as pagan and threw them into the Tiber, had no doubts. But I wonder if they were right? I am uneasy about the actions of those who threw the statues into the Tiber, just as I was uneasy about their being set up in the first place.

The Catholic Church has a long history of accommodating local cultures and Christianinzing them. Think of all the pagan shrines that were turned into places of worship, the symbols and customs subsequently incorporated into religious practice, or the advice given by men of such irreproachable orthodoxy as Gregory the Great in the matter of missionary endeavour.* On that basis, I can see why Rome would wish to acknowledge the uniqueness of Amazonian cultures. For far too long we have been Eurocentric and Western in our vision of the Church. But in an age of video and social media, it was always going to be difficult to distinguish between acknowledging the uniqueness of the Amazonian region and seeming to endorse beliefs inconsistent with Christianity. Add to that the desire of some to use anything to question the orthodoxy of the pope and bishops and we have a rather piquant mix. The artist responsible for one of the images that has attracted much hostility maintains that it represents Our Lady of the Amazon, not Pachamama; but portraying Our Lady with elements drawn from Pachamama has inevitably caused confusion; and should the Church cause confusion in an age when so many are ignorant of the Church’s teaching and tradition?

No doubt those who removed the statues from Santa Maria in Traspontina thought they were doing a good deed, but I wonder whether they reflected on another aspect of the matter. To take such action without, as far as I know, consulting the pastor of the church, to film themselves and to publicize the video afterwards, is not, to my way of thinking, an example of holy zeal. It is rather an instance of preferring private judgement, always a doubtful proposition in Catholic terms, and casting a slur on those whose way of thinking and acting differs from their own. Moreover, such actions tend to distract from the main business of the synod which is how to meet the pastoral needs of the people of the Amazon region. Here in Britain we tend to grumble about priest shortages and the closure of parishes and religious institutions. It is nonsense, really, when one considers how few priests and religious serve the needs of those who live in South America. I have no doubt that we should be praying more fervently for labourers for the harvest, but I think we need to pray also for the gift of understanding, for seeing the Church as God sees her — being honest about the needs of the Amazon region and being ready to change our ways in order to meet them.

When we stand before God on Judgement Day, I doubt whether he will be asking us whether we allowed a statue to remain in a church for a few weeks, a statue we did not worship nor ascribe any power to. I think he may ask us instead whether we loved him with all our heart and mind and soul and our brethren for his sake — and what we did to prove our love.

*To be fair, the lives of saints are also full of instances of pagan shrines being torn down in an ecstasy of religious purity — but the lives of saints tend to be written after the events they commemorate, when it is easier to adopt a more rigorous view of the matter.

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6 thoughts on “Statues in the Tiber”

  1. Hmmm a difficult topic, with so many loaded interpretations in our current climate. I am a dyed in the wool catholic, but also I exercise my divine gift of reason. This leads me to court traditional catholic beliefs and as well as interpretations for our time, which I trust through prayer are in some way promptings of the holy spirit.

    Dame Catherine, once again you tread with more confidence where I only dip my toe! Thank you for your ongoing sharing of your insights. We build our communal faith as Catholics through revisiting the teachings of our forbears, and through dialogue. Our Church is facing a significant decision which each of us has to engage with and fall one side of the choice or the other. That is whether the reforms of Pope Francis are of God or of man. I suggest the more prayerful and dignified camp will reflect the will of the Holy Spirit more clearly. My inclination is to listen to the clearer and calmer voice of Francis.

  2. Thank you, dear Sister Catherine, for your welcome discourse on the need for understanding of diverse sources of spirituality and for the protection of indigenous peoples less able to withstand commercial and political pressures on their habitat and way of life.
    Who knows the background of those who threw the Amazon statutes into the River, be they Catholic fundamentalists or agents of the current Brazilian government or supporters. That this has happened demonstrates a lack of tolerance on the part of the perpetrators and of the nature of human existence. We are all God’s children and loved by Him. All that He asks is that we love one another. Doing so includes respecting others customs, creeds and way of life in at least that these do not harm, suppress, maim or kill people.

  3. They were pagan idols. They had no business being in a Catholic Church. First commandment. Hello?? Would someone put a statue of a pig inside a muslim mosque and just expect muslims to deal with it? How disrespectful..and the woman nursing a weasal placed in the Holy Sanctuary with Mary and Baby Jesus?? Comment not even necessary.

  4. My inbox has sizzled with outraged comments regarding this post, mainly from those who failed to register the last sentence of my first paragraph. I am not an idolator. I don’t worship blocks of wood or stone; I ascribe no power to them. If I visit Stonehenge or Amesbury, I marvel at the beauty of the setting and the brilliance of the engineering, but I don’t worship whatever gods they were designed to celebrate. If I go to the Vatican Museum, I delight in the statues of Apollo and Venus, but I don’t worship them. If I find a re-purposed statue or mosaic in a Christian church (and there are a lot in Rome, for example), I worship God not the pagan original. At Christmas, please God, I shall celebrate the Incarnation, not Saturnalia; and so with the many feasts and customs we have adopted from non-Christian sources. I hope that is clear.

  5. Dame Catherine you certainly stimulate debate but I hope it has not stimulated vitriol against you. The truth of the matter regarding the act of disposing off the statues in the Tiber is unknown to me, I was not there, I have not seen them I do not know their nature nor their purpose, either Christian or pagan.

    For me the value of your post lies in another direction all together and that is regarding our direction of travel as a church. What is it Pope Francis is doing, is it of God or of man? Why is he focussing here in this most primitive of places yet so valuable a place to humanity. The Amazon is not called the lungs of the world for nothing.

    Truth is revealed to us by God through the incarnation, through the scriptures and revealed over time through the church. But that revelation is not static, but dynamic. It grows through dialogue, discussion and debate but only if fed by prayer. As that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

    Where is it then, that Pope Francis is taking us, is it ever more towards God or away? Your blogs Dame Catherine are presented in straightforward way, informed by prayer and lectio divina, opening discussion expanding the truth. Keep up the challenge. May God speak through you as well as through others, if only we take time to listen.

    • Thank you. Debate is valuable but one must remember that not everyone moves at the same pace or understands words or concepts in the same way; nor are we all given the same graces. I may have read a lot of theology, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve understood it aright. I may be quite intelligent, but that doesn’t mean I am more intelligent than someone who takes a different view. I may pray perseveringly, but that doesn’t guarantee I have interpreted God’s will more accurately than another. I do not always personally like what Pope Francis says or does, for example, but I believe that the Church will not fail and that, as our Supreme Pastor, the pope is entitled to my respect and prayer at all times. Those who attack the pope or speak rudely or dismissively of him presumably believe that they are in a better position to judge than others are. I’m not keen to be of their number.

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