The Amazon Synod was remarkable for so many good things. Pope Francis showed genuine respect to the indigenous people of the Amazon, the bishops addressed the pastoral needs of the region with breakthrough recommendations to ordain married men and formally recognize the ministry of women, and participants raised up ecological degradation and predatory practices toward both the earth and the poor as urgent challenges of our time. It’s a shame that what many will remember from this synod instead is a two-foot-high wooden statue of a pregnant woman, which became the focus of ire, misunderstanding, fear, public controversy, and ultimately vandalism.
The small statue I am speaking of is, of course, the folk-art depiction of a pregnant woman that was placed on display, first at a tree-planting ceremony organized by Franciscans and later in a Roman church. At the tree planting a number of items representing life in the Amazon were arranged in a central position on the lawn of the Vatican gardens, with the assembly gathered around them in a circle: a canoe; a cloth covered with images of a river and plants; representations of birds and fish; a net; and several human figures, including martyrs to the faith and two pregnant native women, kneeling, in an introspective pose, with a child visible in the womb of each one. During the ceremony, an Amazonian woman picked up one of these folk-art pieces and presented it to Pope Francis, who blessed it. She called it “Our Lady of the Amazon” as she presented it to him (a video of the event shows this clearly, although not all of her words are audible). Some speculated that the two pregnant women together represented the Visitation, although this was never stated.
No one in the delegation who set up the display, nor those in the organizing committee of the synod who had experience in the region, seemed at all ruffled by the presence of the images of the pregnant women. Pope Francis, who has a great respect for popular piety, was the least disturbed of all. He received the woman kindly, and gave his blessing to the image. When asked about the provenance of the figure, Fr. Fernando Lopez, SJ, an itinerant preacher who travels to the remote regions of the Amazon with a missionary group, said they had been using this image for years. They bought it in an artisan’s market in Brazil.
He explained that it represents life—an explanation similar to those offered by Paolo Ruffini of the Vatican Dicastery of Communications, and by Bishop David Guinea, a missionary bishop in Peru, who pointed out that he had seen this image on other occasions. “We all have different interpretations: the Virgin Mary, Mother Earth…women, fertility, life; Amazonia is meant to be full of life,” he said. The bishop’s answer, although hardly satisfying to those who wished to pin down the meaning to one thing, offered a good example of how multivalent symbols work. The cross, to take a classic example, embraces both suffering and glory, redemption and solidarity—it is never just one thing. Fr. Lopez was also comfortable making reference to the allusive qualities of the image of the pregnant woman: “We were all born from a mother, and we all have a mother who was pregnant and delivered us to life…. It’s a mystery, life itself, that signifies in a way that God is also mother, he’s engendered us and cares for life.” All of these interpretations are, strictly speaking, Christian.
Afterwards the display was transferred to the Carmelite church of St. Mary Transpontina, down the street from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These figures and objects were intended to rest there as a sign of the living realities and theological perspectives that are part of the Amazonian region, realities that the synod wished to engage through their work and deliberations. The idea—familiar to anyone who has ever prepared a prayer corner or a focus table for a religious gathering—was that these tangible objects would bring to mind the spiritual realities we naturally associate with them, such as the sacredness of life, the beauty and fragility of the rainforest, the blessing of work, the necessity of witness, and so on, and so inspire people to pray for the synod. At least, that was what was supposed to happen.
What actually happened was a good deal less edifying. A flurry of outrage, prompted by the false idea that the statues and the ceremony itself were idolatrous, broke out in the right-wing press and across social media. Every explanation offered for the presence and meaning of the statuettes was subjected to a hermeneutic of suspicion, and the more reasonable interpretations were discarded in favor of the most damning ones. Self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, whipped into a frenzy of zealotry by the speculation that the figure actually represented Pachamama, an Andean female deity, stole the artworks from the church and threw them into the Tiber.