Quite a lot of what is happening at the Synod on the Amazon right now in Rome is shrouded in mystery, since the press is not being allowed to see the texts of synod addresses — even those of Pope Francis. We are left to contemplate the outward spectacle, which started with a strange tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican gardens and continues with processions and displays in St Peter’s and elsewhere. At the ceremony, and in many of these displays, is a figurine of Pachamama, which in the tree-planting seemed to be what various participants were bowing before, while Pope Francis stood in the background.
Heroic efforts have been made to explain Pachamama away. Austen Ivereigh, the papal biographer, declared not only that she was a native representation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but that anyone expressing concern about the figurine was racist. It took the Vatican press officers to disabuse him. In a press conference, Bishop David Martínez de Aguirre Guinea of Peru suggested instead:
Probably those who used this symbol demonstrated, wishes to reflect fertility, to women, to life, the life presence among these Amazonian people … and Amazonia is meant to be full of life. I don’t think we need to create any connections with the Virgin Mary or with a pagan element.
On this line of thought, the figurine represents an abstraction, or perhaps a collection of them: ‘fertility’, ‘women’, ‘life’.
Suggesting that Pachamama is not a person, but the symbol of an abstract concept does not, however, solve the problem. When the apostles arrived in Rome, they found a form of paganism which spent a great deal of time propitiating abstractions, such as ‘Terminus’, symbol of Rome’s eternal borders, which had its own altars and sacrificial cult. The ancient Romans were somewhat literal in their religion, although their favored symbol of fertility was masculine, rather than feminine. Were the early Christians open-minded and relaxed about the worship of military standards, for example, the symbols of military might? Would they have been happy to bow down to them? Certainly not.
The gambit was a failure even in its own terms. A simple internet search reveals that, whatever the Vatican press office might hope, Pachamama is a pagan deity. Don’t believe me; believe the Encyclopedia Britannica. One enterprising Twitter-user (@thecrushedbones) found a very helpful web page describing how to worship Pachamama with her favorite food: llama embryos.
Not to be defeated, Ivereigh has adopted a new ploy. Perhaps Pachamama can combine the Blessed Virgin with a pagan fertility goddess? And isn’t this something that happens all the time in Catholic devotion?
The answer is ‘no’, and ‘no’. It is interesting that Ivereigh has decided that, having been slapped down once by the Vatican press office, he might as well adopt the direct opposite of their position, connecting Pachamama both with Our Lady and paganism (the spokesman had said, ‘I don’t think we need to create any connections with the Virgin Mary or with a pagan element’). This serves to emphasize that he is flying by the seat of his pants here, not delivering an official message.
Such a combination of Catholic and pagan elements is called ‘syncretism’, and it has been relentlessly condemned by the Church, from the earliest days right up to the magisterial documents about ‘inculturation’ from Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Certainly, elements of local cultures, and elements even of non-Christian spirituality, can be purified of anything contrary to the Gospel and incorporated into an authentic Christian life. But the worship of false deities — and this really should not need saying — is not an example of this.
It is precisely because things like local clothing (not to mention skin tone) have no intrinsic pagan connotations that they can be adopted so freely in Catholic devotional art. Where there is a danger of syncretism, however, Catholics have always gone to great trouble to keep a clear distinction between their devotional images and those of paganism, which may even involve the inversion of pagan symbols. Thus, Our Lady of Guadalupe does not embrace or incorporate paganism, but, as is suggested by her name (‘coatlaxopeuh’ in the local language), is the one who crushes the Aztec serpent-deity, on the site of whose temple she appeared.
I don’t doubt that the confusion displayed by the Vatican press team is widespread among other officials in Rome. The want to believe that nothing untoward is going on and do not intend their actions — such as carrying Pachamama in procession — as acts of worship directed towards a pagan deity. We cannot, in any case, judge their hearts. What we can do is protest that what is happening is, objectively, grossly inappropriate. Those who do understand the situation and are closer to the action, and with greater standing than I or most readers of this article, need to say something, or risk sharing in sacrilege by their silence.