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The Pachamama or the Virgin: which does the Synod revere?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 17, 2019

Questioned about the Pachamama icon that has become the most visible symbol of the Amazon Synod, Father Giacomo Costa told reporters that it was an image of “an indigenous woman who brings life.” The Synod spokesman added: “Nobody said it was the Virgin Mary.”

I beg to differ. Browsing the internet during the past week, I have seen dozens of people defending the use of this apparently pagan symbol—the Inca goddess of fertility—by saying that it was a representation of the Blessed Mother. The woman who presented the image to Pope Francis said that it was “Our Lady of the Amazon.”

To be fair, there were many different interpretations of this inscrutable image. Peruvian Bishop David Martinez told a Roman news conference that: “we all have our own interpretations… the Virgin Mary, the Mother Earth… wishes to reflect fertility, to women, to life…” Paolo Ruffini, the Vatican’s top spokesman, said that “it is a statue that represents life; that’s it.”

In short the Pachamama image is confusing. In that respect perhaps it is a fitting image for this Synod—and indeed for this pontificate.

Clearly, if this particular image is intended to represent the Virgin Mary, it is not a clear representation. Since the Vatican owns a vast collection of magnificent Marian art, it is inexplicable that his odd work would become the centerpiece for a worldwide gathering of bishops. And if it is not an image of the Virgin Mary, why not? Why would a synod of Catholic bishops give pride of place to a fertility goddess, rather than to the Immaculate Conception?

Has the Vatican embraced the Pachamama to show respect for the indigenous cultures of the Amazon? If so, I question the sincerity of the gesture. Because—let’s be honest—this image is not great art. Nor was the ceremony at which it was introduced an impressive ceremony. We do the people of the Amazon no honor if we believe that these are the best products of their culture. And we do them no favor if we fail to tell them that the Church offers something incalculably more valuable.

But then again, because the Pachamama image is appropriate for another reason. Bishop Erwin Kräutler, reportedly the principal author for the working document of this Synod, “has boasted that in thirty years working in the Amazon region, he’s never baptized an indigenous person.” Bishop Kräutler is determined to make the Catholic Church appreciate the riches of indigenous cultures; he seems much less determined that the indigenous peoples should grasp the truth of the Catholic faith.

This is not charity: to withhold the greatest gift that we can impart to the people of the Amazon. It is not truly Christian to show more concern for the material environment of the region than for the spiritual welfare of its inhabitants. The Church at her best always cares for those who are in need, but does so with their eternal salvation in focus. “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” [Acts 3:6]

In arguing for the ordination of married men—the most controversial proposal on the Synod’s agenda—proponents have observed that the severe shortage of priests makes it difficult to provide the Eucharist for the peoples of the Amazon. That is undoubtedly a legitimate concern. But if there is no instruction in the faith, there will be no demand for the Eucharist; and if the region is rich in faith, vocations to the priesthood will come, easing the shortage. The goal of the missionary Church must be to bring people to Christ, not simply to confirm their existing beliefs and practices.

Even the greatest of evangelists stumbled when he tried too hard to adapt his message to the preconceived notions of his audience. At the Areopagus, St. Paul delivered one of his most memorable addresses, yet won few converts. [Acts 17:32-33] Then he moved on to Corinth, where “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” [1 Cor 2:2] and had much greater success.

Yes, we should learn to understand and appreciate the cultures of the Amazon basin, and of every other missionary region. We should use the best elements of those cultures as the foundation for building up the local Church. But it is neither honest nor charitable to pretend that pagan cultures offer a true answer to man’s needs. The old faiths may offer flashes of wisdom, but we offer “the way and the truth and the life,” and the sure knowledge that “no one comes to the Father but by Me.” [Jn 14:6]

Throughout the world (but especially in Rome), Christian churches are built on the remains of ancient temples. There, in stone, are models for evangelization. But notice that the ancient faiths are no longer practiced in those buildings.

In Rome today, during the month of the Amazon Synod, crude symbols of the Amazon’s indigenous cultures have been prominently placed in the naves of magnificent old churches. One such display, at Santa Maria in Transpontina, shows a picture of a woman nursing a small furry animal. Defending the use of that image, a friend recalled the mythical image of Rome’s founding, with Romulus and Remus nursed by a wolf. But surely there is a crucial difference here. When an animal suckles a human child, a lower order nourishes a higher; not so when a woman suckles an animal. With that in mind, a comparison of the two images suggests that the Amazon Synod is heading in the wrong direction.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Retired01 - Oct. 20, 2019 3:19 PM ET USA

    I am not an expert in Church history, but I wonder whether there has ever been so much nonsense at the Vatican as we currently find under Pope Francis. To me, this business with Pachamama agrees with Pope Francis signing that document stating that God wished a diversity of religions. May God have mercy on his Church!

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Oct. 18, 2019 10:17 PM ET USA

    Neither, since it reveres the narcissistic atheistic notion of inevitable progress in accord with the ridiculous rejection of unchanging, immutable truth by the head of this pontificate. Since "Catholic truth" is now fungible, anything can be anything.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Oct. 18, 2019 11:27 AM ET USA

    "I beg to differ. Browsing the internet during the past week, I have seen dozens of people defending the use of this apparently pagan symbol—the Inca goddess of fertility—by saying that it was a representation of the Blessed Mother." It is disheartening to see how many commentators remain willfully blind to the nature of the "confusing" actions of our hierarchy, desperately seeking excuse for the non-ending stream of false teaching coming from them. Take the red pill!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 17, 2019 6:12 PM ET USA

    From Robert Royal's cited article: "Brazilian Bishop Carlo Verzeletti described his situation...the Pentecostals are violently 'invading' (his term)." Is Bp. Verzeletti out of touch with history? The Christian Broadcasting Network has been active in Brazil for years. In the 1980s-1990s the "700 Club" reported about the millions "won for Christ" from the Catholic Church in Central and South America. If Bishop Krautler can't find anyone to baptize, maybe he should take a lesson from Pat Robertson.