by Pedro Gabriel
Pray Tell is happy to make the Where Peter Is more widely known, and to publish this piece with their and the author’s permission. Gabriel addresses the controversy about allegedly pagan elements and unchristian religious syncretism in prayer services at the Vatican in conjunction with the Amazon Synod now taking place in Rome.
Since the publication of my article about the alleged pagan ritual hosted at the Vatican Gardens, new facts have emerged. This was bound to happen, as I myself admitted and wished for in the conclusion of the article. After all, there was still much that was not known about the ceremony at the time. This is why I was very cautious in drawing any conclusions from it. The only claims that I presented as solid were: 1) the alleged “phallic man” was not phallic at all and 2) one of the images of a seemingly naked pregnant woman represented Our Lady of the Amazon. The latter was mainly grounded on the words of the native woman who presented the image to the Pope: she said it was “Our Lady of the Amazon.”
I again refer you to the video of the whole ceremony here. The part where she calls it “Our Lady of the Amazon” can be heard at the 13:20 mark.
Since then, and as expected, those who hold to what I call the “hermeneutic of suspicion” have doubled down instead of recanting. They have found ways to try to disprove that the figure was indeed Our Lady of the Amazon, so that the narrative of the pagan ritual could still hold and they would have yet another accusation to hurl at the Holy Father. I will try to address these apparent counter-arguments and present some new information that strengthens my conviction that this is indeed Our Lady.
The “Our Lady of the Amazon” title
One of the reflexive responses from the critics was that there is no such thing as “Our Lady of the Amazon.” Of course, asserting such a definitive negative claim in a Church with a universal reach and a wide diversity of Marian expressions is always problematic. A simple Google search shows that there is at least one chapel called Our Lady of the Amazon (“Nossa Senhora da Amazônia”) in a missionary area in Manaus, Brazil. It is not implausible that there may be other expressions of this devotion in the Pan-Amazonian Area that, because of their remoteness, have no expression online.
The reason why I bring this up is because I noted a pattern in the critics who present these charges. First, the critic will make the outlandish claim that there is no such thing as Our Lady of the Amazon. When proven wrong, the critic will browse the website of that parish and produce this picture, which appears in the aforementioned chapel.
The critic will point out that this representation of Our Lady of the Amazon displays the Virgin as a native woman, as does the controversial figure. However, the critic will point out that the Virgin is fully clothed in the “official” version. Therefore, according to the critic, the statue in the Vatican Gardens, where the woman is depicted naked or semi-naked, is not Our Lady of the Amazon, but a fertility goddess.
This critical interpretation fails to take into account that manifestations of popular piety are not centrally designed, but emerge from the faithful on the ground. This means that they can be (and often are) heterogeneous.
The clothed image of Our Lady of the Amazon in the Manaus chapel was designed in 2011, in a contest approved by the Vatican. Unfortunately, it was not designed by a native person. You can see the 2011 news article here (in Portuguese).
The news article explains that the creator of this image did indeed do heavy research to make it as indigenous-like as possible. Still, it was an image of Our Lady designed to appear as a native Amazonian woman, but created by a non-indigenous artist. The designer was explicit in stating that, even though she tried to present the Virgin as an indigenous woman, she took care to clothe her, even introducing a non-Amazonian white veil.
In this context, it is not strange that an image of Our Lady of the Amazon, created by the Amazonian people themselves, was bound to emerge. Nor is it unexpected that this image would represent the Virgin as indigenous in the natives’ own terms. Doing so was also bound to challenge western ideas of how Mary should be represented, especially since the indigenous people of the Amazon have a different cultural view of nakedness which does not necessarily entail concupiscence or immodesty on their part.
The woman presiding over the Vatican Garden ritual referred to the statue as “Our Lady of the Amazon.” Even if this representation was created specifically for the purpose of this Synod, it was still produced to represent Our Lady of the Amazon. Therefore, it is Our Lady of the Amazon. Since the previous claim, before the goal post was moved, was that there was no such title for the Blessed Virgin, and since we already have some evidence that the title Our Lady of the Amazon preceded this ritual, and was even formally approved by the Vatican in 2011, then this argument does not hold.
(As a sidenote, it is interesting that the 2011 clothed Our Lady of the Amazon is placed in a canoe-shaped chapel, representing this aspect of the indigenous people culture. Therefore, there are some elements that are common to both depictions of Our Lady of the Amazon)
The answer to Ivereigh
On October 7th, the English journalist and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh asked Bishop David Guinea for clarification on the identity of the mysterious image. The bishop’s answer can be heard here.
This was immediately seized upon by papal critics to validate their spin. The Vatican had confirmed – they would say – that it was not the Virgin Mary after all. This is official confirmation that it was a pagan ritual.
There are some problems with this reasoning. First (assuming the English translation in real time is even accurate), the bishop says that he thinks there is no need to make a connection with the Virgin Mary or with a pagan element. How the critics have jumped from this to the conclusion that the Mary interpretation had been refuted, while the pagan interpretation still stood, just goes to show their partiality. Pachamama is as much refuted by these words as Mary.
Secondly, the bishop is not talking in his official capacity as “The Vatican” here. Granted, he is one of the Secretaries of the Synod, but this was a Q&A session that was not even related to this issue before Ivereigh brought it up. It was not an official clarification on this topic. To my knowledge, no official organ of the Vatican released any official statement on the Vatican Gardens ritual after it was carried out. Also, as the original story from Catholic News Agency makes clear, the Vatican was not involved in the organization of the event.
Finally, and more importantly, it is obvious that the bishop did not know for certain what was going on. He says that this is “his interpretation,” and that the image “probably” is a representation of life, earth, etc. It is not a definitive take, nor was it informed by the input of those involved in the ceremony. It is just his guess.
Bishop Guinea’s experience and knowledge on the Amazonian people is certainly respectable, given his background. However, his opinions do not trump the words of the native woman who presided over the ritual. She was there, she presided over it, she probably was involved in organizing it, she knows her own culture. She presents the image as “Our Lady of the Amazon.” No external element can tell her that she means something different than what she means it to be. No one can tell her: “you don’t know what that statue means, here is what it actually means.”
There were other voices trying to bypass the native woman’s interpretation of her own ritual, in order to advance their own.
One such person was a certain Brother Alexis Bugnolo, who presents himself as a having a B.A. in anthropology. In a text released online, he affirmed that the image was an idol of Pachamama, and that it received veneration of latria.
He does not explain how he arrived at this conclusion, nor does he cite any reference or evidence that may validate his claims. He simply flaunts his credentials and then goes on to gratuitously assert his conclusions. This is not a scholarly way to do things. Especially since we can plainly see that this is a biased source, and probably not reliable, since most of his article is spent not on proving that this image is Pachamama, but in explaining that, if he was a bishop, he would declare the Pope excommunicated.
Of course, no anthropologist, no matter how knowledgeable or scholarly, can pretend to lecture the cultures that he studies on what their rituals and practices actually mean. In other words, if the native woman who presided over the ritual says that the statue is Our Lady, then her interpretation is more authoritative than that of any academic.
LifeSiteNews, on their end, used a different type of sleight of hand. They interviewed an actual tribal leader, Jonas Marcolino Macuxi, who asserted that the ritual was pagan.
LifeSiteNews, of course, is not a reliable source. They have been instrumental in generating the very same “hermeneutic of suspicion” mentality that I warned against in my previous article. They are constantly spinning the acts and words of the Pope in an unfavorable way. To showcase their modus operandi (and how desperate they are to find excuses to criticize the Pope), it suffices to link to this article of theirs.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that this tribal leader was interviewed in the context of a conference sponsored by Tradition, Family and Property, a right-wing and traditionalist organization that has been at the forefront of the resistance to the Synod in the Amazon.
It is hardly surprising that Jonas describes the natives in this ceremony as being manipulated by left-wing Liberation Theology clerics, or that he would validate the narrative that LifeSiteNews wanted to promote. Still, there are more extremely important facts that cannot be ignored. First of all, this tribal leader is not Catholic, but evangelical. It would be interesting to ask him whether he views any kind of veneration to Our Lady (even uncontroversial Catholic expressions like Our Lady of Fatima) as idolatry. Secondly, contrary to what the translator in the video says, the leader does not say that the ritual was “pagan.” He never uses that expression. He may imply it, by saying that it is “primitive” and that certain elements (like using smoke to ward off spirits) are not practiced by his tribe anymore and are reminiscent of shamans of old. Nevertheless, expressions such as, “it’s 100% pagan,” are added by the translator, not uttered by the leader. Jonas’s main concern seems to be with the smoking objects, not with the image of Our Lady. Maybe as an evangelical, he may not believe there is any Christian way to use those ancient objects, but Catholics do have such things as incense-burners. I do not view those objects as unable to have a Christian ceremonial purpose once the natives convert to Catholicism.
In the end, nothing in this video disproves that the image was Our Lady of the Amazon. Also, Jonas’s concerns are based on similarities with ancient rituals, but he cannot assert with certainty that that was the intent of those practicing the ritual in the Vatican Gardens.
The words of the native woman
While these sources were spinning the narrative and being uncritically accepted by those who view what’s happening in the Church today through the lens of the hermeneutic of suspicion, I was receiving more and more confirmation that the image was indeed Our Lady of the Amazon.
The first happened during a Twitter exchange with another Portuguese-speaking source who, at the time, was advancing very forcefully the notion that this was a pagan ceremony. After a discussion with me, he conceded that the native woman really presented the statue to the Pope as “Our Lady of the Amazon.”
Though I admire Catholic Sat’s intellectual honesty, I do not agree with his translation in its entirety. First, it is necessary to highlight that the woman is not speaking in Portuguese, but in Spanish. This, of course, does not change anything, since the similarities between the two languages makes it possible for most Portuguese-speaking people to intuitively understand Spanish.
However, even so, there are some parts that are muffled by the clicks of the cameras. I cannot personally confirm that the other person said “Avé Maria,” or that the woman later said, “give it to the Pope, to the Church.”
On the other hand, I do not think the woman says, “the bride of the Church” (“noiva da Igreja” in Portuguese or “novia de la Iglesia” in Spanish). It simply does not match the syllables and vowels she is pronouncing. The only thing that is clear is that she said “… of the Church” (“… de la Iglesia“).
I listened to the clip several times, trying to make sense of the inaudible part. I tried to match it with the most probable words: queen (“reina“), patroness (“patrona“), mother (“madre“)… none seems to be correct. It could be “pray for the Church” (“ruega por la Iglesia“), but unfortunately, we already established that she says “… of the Church” (“… de la Iglesia“) and not “… for the Church” (“… por la Iglesia“). The phrase, “pray of the Church,” is clumsy wording.
After listening to it many times, the translation that seems more plausible (and which was confirmed by a Spanish-speaking friend) is that she says “Nuestra Señora de la Amazonia, con el huevo de la Iglesia.” Which translates as “Our Lady of the Amazon, with the egg of the Church.”
However, this translation is provisory. Maybe some other Spanish-speaking person may reach a more accurate wording. One thing, though, is certain: the woman presented the statue to the Pope as “Our Lady of the Amazon, [inaudible] of the Church.”
While the debate was raging, the figure at the center of the controversy did not sit quietly. In Oct 7th, it was once again sighted, this time inside St. Peter’s Basilica.
If inserting a pagan ritual into an otherwise Christian ceremony was already strange, then introducing a pagan idol in the Basilica would be even stranger. Of course, for the hermeneuts of suspicion, it just reinforced their suspicions on how bad things are. For a reasonable person, this just shows how much more plausible it that the image represents Our Lady and is not a pagan idol.
It also seems that the figure is now in the Church of Santa Maria in Transpontina. This is consistent with what Christopher Lamb had already reported in a tweet that I noted as strengthening the evidence in favor of this being Our Lady of the Amazon.
In this link, it is possible to see a video of a service being held in the Church of Santa Maria in Transpontina (It is worth noting that I am not the maker of this video, nor did I edit it): At the 28 second mark, it is possible to see the image. At the 49 second mark, we see many people holding hands around the image and praying Avé Maria.
We also can see that, like in the ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, this service is held in a profoundly Christian context, not pagan. At the 33 second mark, we see a young girl sitting in the same canoe where Our Lady was before. Besides her, a middle-aged woman (who is obviously conducting the activity) asks “Quem quer se arriscar agora?” (“Who wants to take the chance now?“). Later, at the 37 second mark, the girl is lifted up with the canoe, while the middle-aged woman says: “Olhe gente, Jesus está chamando. Está chamando forte. Agora há muita gente escutando o chamado de Jesus” (“Look guys, Jesus is calling. He is calling very strongly. Now, many people will hear the calling of Jesus“). It is a Christian activity, probably related to God’s calling. The young woman answers to Jesus’ call and sits in the same canoe where the image of Our Lady was before (Our Lady being the model of everyone who answers the call of God.)
Finally, on October 10th, reporter Melissa Blutz, correspondent of Rome Reports, did what I suggested in my previous piece. She interviewed one of the organizers of the Vatican Garden ceremony: Fr. Carrasco Rojas, a missionary priest for indigenous people in Peru. He said:
“They carved in wood an image of a Blessed Mother, who is pregnant. She is the Virgin, and we have called her Our Lady of the Amazon. She represents the Amazon, because what is the Amazon? The Amazon is a woman, she is female, she has a female face. Why? Because the earth is a mother, the earth gives life. So that is the Amazon.”
Please note, that even if the figure represents the Amazon, it is the Virgin, the Blessed Mother. This is consistent with the original Spanish, where the Father uses the term in an unequivocal way, showing that it is not just any virgin, but the Virgin. Anyway, it is presented once again as Our Lady of the Amazon.
One week after the controversy, people are still scrapping for ways to try to portray the image as pagan. This should have all died as soon as it was established that the native woman who presented the statue to the Holy Father said it was Our Lady of the Amazon. She should know. However, this answer would not be consistent with the narrative set up by the hermeneuts of suspicion. They continue to cling to the opinions of other people: bishops, anthropologists, or tribal leaders at conferences held by right-wing organizations. They will not rest until they get the answer they want.
However, the closer we get to the actual sources, the clearer it becomes that the people involved in the Vatican Gardens ceremony view the image as Our Lady. Sure, it carries additional associated symbolic meanings (the Amazon, femininity, motherhood), but we cannot exclude the Marian meaning of the image, nor can we deny that it is the meaning that is most consistently associated with it. We certainly cannot claim that the image is Pachamama, when that name has not been uttered by them, even once.
The fact that so many people cover their ears and refuse to to hear what the actual organizers of the event have to say about the event that they organized is telling. The fact that many people refuse to believe the indigenous woman who presented the image to the pope as Our Lady of the Amazon–preferring instead ideologically-driven alternative explanations from other people who did not contribute to the ritual in any way–shows just how important and needed this Synod is. As Francis has said many times, one of the main purposes of the Synod is to listen to the Amazonian people. Ideologues are not listening to them, so self-assured they are that they are accurately grasping everything that is happening.
The indigenous people do not need to be told that their ritual was pagan, when they clearly do not view it as such. Nor would it be plausible to assume that they were invited to perform a pagan ritual before the Pope in the middle of an otherwise Christian ceremony, without so much as an explanation of what they were doing. They view themselves as Christians. We should believe them. And we should believe them when they tell us about their culture and rituals. They don’t need outsiders with absolutely no knowledge of their culture to tell them that the image is “clearly pagan.” If they say it’s Our Lady of the Amazon, it’s Our Lady of the Amazon. Period.
Unfortunately, at this moment, opinions are already crystalized and there is little that we can do about it. Those who, against all evidence, continue to believe that this was a pagan ritual, will continue to believe so, and will find more new ways to justify their preconceived notion. Because it’s not about the truth of the facts, it’s about having another reason to criticize Pope Francis.
Even if there was a shred of doubt, we should use the most charitable interpretation. In the absence of concrete proof that there is something wrong with what was performed in the Vatican Gardens, we should assume that it was a Christian ceremony, done with the accompaniment of the Church, and with no elements that are incompatible with the Catholic faith. Shouting “it’s clearly pagan” or “it’s clearly syncretic,” without any proof, simply does not cut it. It may be very convenient for a certain worldview, but in the end, it is not right. In accusing them of paganism, they are potentially (and most likely) bearing false witness against them.
Even more gravely, it is using these indigenous people as props in a Culture War. They should not be viewed as such, for they are not props: they are people, endowed by their Creator with human dignity. They are brothers and sisters in Christ and deserve our respect. And respect starts with listening. Pope Francis understands this. Let us follow on his footsteps and continue praying and working for the successful conclusion of this much-needed Synod.
Our Lady of the Amazon, pray for us.
[Featured picture credits: Christopher Lamb]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and humanity by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical or spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current church and world affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.