By JD Flynn
Last week, Vatican Media interviewed Fr. Paulo Suess, a German priest who has served for decades among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Fr. Suess is in Rome as an official of the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, and is regarded there as an expert on the region.
The priest was asked about a ceremony held in St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 7, which seemed to use both traditional Christian symbols and unexplained symbols of indigenous Amazonian culture.
“It is definitely the case that there is a noticeable sentiment against the synod on the part of certain media here….Someone wrote that it was a pagan rite,” Fr. Suess responded.
“Even if that had been a pagan rite, what took place was still a worship service. A rite always has something to do with worship. Paganism cannot be dismissed as nothing. What is pagan? In our big cities we are no less pagan than in the jungle. That’s something to think about,” he said
Vatican Media eventually removed those comments from its interview with the priest, with no note or indication of the redaction.
Anyone who wants to understand how the Vatican’s synod of bishops on the Amazon has become such a flashpoint for controversy, or why five carved statues were removed from a Roman church and tossed into the Tiber River, should think carefully about Fr. Suess’ comments, and their publication by the official media organ of the Holy See.
On Oct. 21, five statues were taken, apparently quite early in the morning, from the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, four blocks from St. Peter’s Basilica. They were thrown off a nearby bridge into the Tiber River.
On Friday the pope announced that they had been recovered, apologized to anyone offended by their submersion in the Tiber’s waters, and said they might make an appearance at Sunday’s closing Mass for the synod.
The statues had become recognizable to Catholics around the world. They were featured prominently in an Oct. 4 tree-planting ceremony that kicked off the Amazon synod. They have been a part of daily “moments of spirituality” at the Carmelite church. They have been inside St. Peter’s Basilica, at an Amazonian Stations of the Cross, and at many other events surrounding the Amazon synod.
They have been alternatively described as symbols of the Blessed Virgin, the Andean pagan idol Pachamama, and ambiguous symbols of “life.”
At the synod, they are symbols of controversy.
Figures used prominently in unexplained and unfamiliar rituals or spiritual expressions, even with persons prostrating themselves in front of the statues, led journalists to ask what connections the figures have to indigenous religious rituals. In short, to ask whether they have a pagan provenance, and, if so, what it means for them to be used in a Catholic context, and most especially in the sacred space of a Church.
The Church’s long-considered and nuanced views on inculturation are complex, and the Gospel is always expressed in the context of some culture. Missionaries, dating back to St. Paul himself, have taken up the symbols of particular cultures to proclaim the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, there might have been clear and reasonable answers to the questions that surfaced as soon as the tree-planting ceremony was concluded.
But at least three times, Vatican officials or synod participants were asked about the statues, and the events in which they were involved. Questions went mostly unanswered. Vatican officials pointed to organizers of synod events, who pointed back to Vatican officials. The few nebulous answers that were offered made clear that, although the statues were present at official synod events, the Vatican seemed to have no idea what they were, and little interest in finding out.
While the statues were the subject of almost no discussion inside the press room, they went instantly viral on social media. They were featured prominently in memes, were the subject of fierce social media debate among Catholics, and from their first appearance, speculation about their significance ran rampant.
Some of that speculation was uninformed and reactionary.
Ultraconservative commentators insisted that the figures were specific pagan idols, with very little evidence. Some went so far as to accuse the pope himself of a kind of paganism, to support their broader narrative of calumnious criticism of the pope.
With the same enthusiasm, ultramontane writers claimed first that the statutes were definitively the Blessed Virgin Mary. When that viewpoint was dismissed by Vatican officials, the same commentators began to claim that the figures were indigenous symbols about which asking questions was somehow an expression of prejudice, or even racism.
Even in the Vatican press room, one journalist said during a press conference that other reporters, presumably those who had asked questions about the statues, had committed lamentable acts of racism against indigenous persons. Vatican officials did not refute that charge.
The truth is that no one has provided a definitive answer about the statues’ provenance, and few seem able to do so.
But in the absence of information, the figures became totemic rallying cries for all parties in the fractious debate over the present and future of the Catholic Church.
For their part, Vatican officials seemed not to understand just how seriously the entire affair was being taken by many Catholics, or not to take seriously the Catholics themselves who were concerned about it.
For many Catholics, concern about the statue was borne of genuine concern to understand how unfamiliar figures and rituals fit into the proclamation of the faith, and what they might mean about the Church’s vision of evangelization. Such concerns can hardly be called irrational.
Still, one synod participant told CNA that behind closed doors, some Vatican officials dismissed concerns as either propaganda from “anti-Francis Americans” or overt racism. That concerns might be borne of genuine religious conviction has not been acknowledged by Vatican and synod spokesmen.
With no intervention, and no official explanation of the symbols and rituals in question, the debate roiled, and then boiled over completely on Oct. 21, when the statues were taken from the Church and thrown into the river.
Whether it was right or wrong to take the statues is beyond the scope of this analysis. But the factors that led to the act are worth considering, as is what the entire incident might portend for the next years in the future of the Church.
It seems there are three things that led to the point at which “Pachamama” swam the Tiber.
The first is the failure of Vatican officials to take seriously the concerns of Catholics and journalists about the religious rituals and symbols surrounding the synod. Even veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister was dismissed curtly Oct. 25 when he presented basic facts – facts available for review on video – in the Vatican press office.
Failure to understand, or take seriously, why Catholics were asking questions seems to have prevented spokesman from providing reasonable answers when first the issue surfaced. As the situation heated up, the questions compounded, but answers were not forthcoming.
Of course, it is possible that officials didn’t answer questions because they didn’t know the answers. Had spokespersons said that Oct. 4, and actually followed through on finding out the answers, at least some of the scandal likely would have been quelled. Instead, journalists who asked questions were sent from one spokesperson to another, with each person pointing the finger in a different direction.
The second factor is the silence of Pope Francis on the matter. Whatever the pope thought of the events transpiring around the synod, they were transpiring in his front yard, and it was evident they were becoming a source of controversy. But the pope did not speak until Oct. 25, when the statues had been recovered from the river, and then he gave a very short statement.
At that time, Pope Francis referred to the statues as “Pachamama,” which, predictably, has intensified debate about their provenance. He apologized to those offended that they had been tossed into the river, and noted that they had been placed in the Church without “idolatrous intentions.”
Even that statement was apparently not intended to be public. It was given before the bishops participating in the synod, and only became publicly known when some journalists heard the pope’s remarks as they were being ushered from the room. The Vatican only provided a transcript of the pope’s remarks after they had been widely reported.
“Jesus was a person of dialogue and encounter,” the synod’s working document proclaims. Indeed, the document mentions dialogue 68 times, pointing to dialogue as “the method that must always be applied to achieve the good life.”
But on this issue, which became important to a notable number of Catholics, dialogue was forthcoming from neither the pope nor his communications staff.
The third factor, which ought not be ignored, is the hyper-escalating tendency of a culture in which social media battles and YouTube commentaries have a considerable effect on the faith lives of a sizable number of practicing Catholics.
A media figure raised in the era of cable news said recently to CNA that “Twitter isn’t real life.” In fact, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, et al are influential aspects of real life for an entire generation. President Donald Trump understood that well enough to get elected through the social media personality he built for himself. Other political figures have followed suit.
But social media is the Wild West, for better or worse. There are real benefits to the wide-open space of social media, especially for the Church. But the culture is one in which there are no rules about decorum, in which incendiary figures can build a following quickly, in which personal conflict escalates quickly into partisan flamethrowing, and in which the most sensational account is usually the most likely to gain traction.
The Amazon synod, with all its conflicts and deficiencies, is taking place in the era of the “hot take.” During the Amazon synod, figures from both the left and the right intensified and escalated the debate by their online comportment. An example, again, is how quickly some figures diluted attempts at reasonable conversation with identity politics and unrelenting accusations of racism.
Questions and concerns about the statues are valid and fair. But the speed and vitriol with which debate about them became entrenched has had a polarizing effect, and made a less dramatic conclusion to the affair far less likely.
The effects of the debate should demonstrate that even if only a
small number of actually practicing Catholics occupy space in the world
of “Catholic Twitter,” that number has an outsize influence on how some
events in the Church will unfold.
Until a more humane online culture emerges, if that is even possible, and especially until Church leaders begin to understand how quickly online narratives can bleed into “irl” action, division in the Church will be amplified and hastened by the culture of social media. Whether Vatican officials will consider that a lesson worth learning is yet to be determined.
The Amazon synod has been billed as a sign of the Church’s closeness to real people. There may be ways in which it is that. But it is also evidence of the widening gap in understanding between Church leaders and a large cadre of practicing Catholics, on a broad range of issues.
“The opposite of dialogue is the lack of listening and the imposition that prevent us from meeting, communicating and, therefore, living together,” the synod’s Instrumentum laboris says.
The “Pachamama” splash heard ‘round the world is evidence that among some Vatican leaders, a commitment to ‘dialogue’ is still needed, far beyond the pan-Amazonian region.