Catholic Values Column: Pachamama



ElishaIf people are surprised, or even frustrated, that I’m dedicating yet another column to current events in the Vatican, it’s okay. So am I.  

I wanted to spend this column reflecting on cheerier Catholic topics, like what I’ve learned this semester about the absolute primacy of Christ or, my personal favorite, literally anything about the liturgy. And when I sat down to start writing this column, I planned on choosing one of those topics.  

But then, in a bout of procrastination, I made the stupid decision to go on Twitter, where I saw the news that the wooden statues, or rather idols, known as Pachamamas, had been recovered and returned to the Vatican. At this juncture, I decided to change my focus.  

Much has been said about these statues since they first appeared in an outdoor indigenous ceremony attended by the pope Oct. 4, just before the Amazon synod opened. Much is still unclear, but even more is in a worse state  that of ambiguity. Not that it should surprise us, but the ambiguous responses given by the Vatican as to the nature of these statues has done nothing but make a bad situation worse.  

To recap, the subjects at hand are wooden images, roughly a foot and a half tall, that depict a naked pregnant woman. They were used by indigenous people in that outdoor ceremony, which left even Pope Francis uncomfortable enough that he chose not to offer his prepared remarks, instead choosing to pray the Our Father. 

Then, the images were part of a procession from St. Peter’s Basilica to the Vatican’s Synod Hall. Later, they were brought to the Church of Santa Maria, a Catholic church near the Vatican. Bishops would come here to celebrate liturgies after the synod’s work is over each day. 

And while the reverential treatment of the statues caused enough strife, things came to a head when two men were recorded as walking into the church, taking the idols and throwing them into the Tiber.  

A couple days later, a man known for presenting himself as a cleric despite no records of his ordination existing and for publicly defending fascism took responsibility for removing the idols, saying they represented satanism.  

Pope Francis apologized for the taking of the idols and said the commander of the Italian military police suggested displaying the icons during the synod’s closing Mass. Instead of refusing to put the indigenous icons at the same location as the Sacred Liturgy, Pope Francis left the door open, opting to let his secretary of state make the call. 

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? There’s a great deal going on here, and there is much to be said, but I’ll try to be succinct.  

Some people have claimed that these images are images of the Virgin Mary, of Our Lady of the Amazon. That has been debunked by the Vatican. At the same time, the Vatican said the statues were not pagan idols but merely represent “life through a woman.” It’s hard for me to see how something that “represents life” and is used in indigenous worship is not an idol, especially as it bears a striking resemblance to the Andean fertility goddess Pachamama. Pope Francis even referred to the statues explicitly with this name, Pachamama, in his apology. It most certainly cannot be a sacred image for Catholics. 

Then what were the images doing in a Catholic church, where successors of the apostles celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass daily? Are there no better storage units in all of Rome and the Vatican? The statues clearly, since they clearly resemble the Andean goddess, have no place in a Catholic church. 

This brings us to the idols’ removal from the church. Obviously, these idols are considered sacred but not by Catholics. Therefore, they should not be in a Catholic place of worship. First Commandment, anyone? I wholeheartedly agree with the people who removed them from the church.  

Now, should they have thrown them in the Tiber? I don’t believe so, and the reason why goes back to my last column. In order to evangelize to the indigenous, we must be tactful: firm in our belief of the Truth but mindfully respectful of their customs. Of course, we do not change our faith to fit their customs, but I don’t believe that the best way to convert the indigenous is by failing to dialogue tactfully. 

Perhaps the intentions of the Vatican and the pope by permitting the presence of the Pachamama were to show this respect and signal an openness to dialogue, but I would say that how they chose to do so was misguided. 

Maybe this seems contradictory, but I think we can both respectfully dialogue with the indigenous while keeping their paganism far, far from our sanctuaries.