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.