The disputed Amazonian statue might be dismissed as a small distraction, but it is an important thing made more significant by a lack of elementary pastoral sense.
As Catholics ought to know better than anyone else — all the more so Vatican officials — symbols convey much more than words. That’s why the liturgy is a ritual employing symbols rather than an essay employing syllogisms.
That provides the proper lens through which to see what will become a lasting image of the Amazon synod, the wooden statue of the naked pregnant Amazonian woman, first deployed in the curious tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican gardens, latterly resident at the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina and carried in procession during the Amazonian via Crucis, and now floating out to sea in the Tiber, where it was thrown by anonymous thieves who thought it had no place in a Catholic church.
The theft and throwing of the image into the river was wrong. But I don’t share the view of papal biographer Austen Ivereigh that it was the akin to ISIS terrorists destroying statues of the Blessed Mother, precisely because even at this late date, no one can say what exactly the statue is supposed to be or what religion, if any, it belongs to.
In light of the recent theft and aquatic disposal, Ivereigh has downgraded the Marian-theme to a “mother-nature effigy.” The same “effigy” theme was picked up by editorial director for all Vatican news, Andrea Tornielli, who spoke of it as an “effigy of motherhood and the sacredness of life” that is “a traditional symbol for the native people which represents their tie to what St. Francis called ‘mother earth.’”
Hence the confusion endures. St. Francis praised God “through our Sister Mother Earth.” The tie was to God, not to the earth. St. Francis himself would have insisted that an image used in prayer be a sacred one, the Blessed Mother, not motherhood in general nor mother earth.
Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — a simple parish priest’s experience might prove helpful at the Vatican. Parish priests are asked all the time — at weddings and funerals especially — to include some image, item or song dear to those attending. Even a young priest knows enough to ask, “What does this mean?” Depending on the answer, he knows to say that it might find a place elsewhere, but not in the church.
The excluded item need not be offensive to Catholic teaching. Consider a national flag, customary to drape over a coffin for soldiers and veterans. It is an honorable thing, even a kind of sacred symbol, but it is not Catholic. And so it is supposed to be removed upon arrival at the church and replaced with the pall for the funeral, which represents baptism. The flag is put back as the coffin leaves the church.
A similar example: A few years back I was asked whether it might be permissible to include native Canadian drumming in a liturgical service. I grew up in Alberta and had seen that indigenous drumming a thousand times, on occasion finding it quite welcome. It was not obviously contrary to the Catholic faith, but I did not know what it meant.
Was it a summoning of the people to a solemn occasion? Was it a hymn of thanksgiving to God? Was it intended to conjure the spirits of the dead? I didn’t know what it meant, so I asked. Depending on the answer, I said, we might be able to include it, or it be might be inadmissible. In this particular case, the person asking did not know what it meant, so we proceeded no farther.
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