A mother’s face bends with loving concern toward her belly, swollen below her heavy breasts. The fetus inside is cuddled in her body’s embrace.
Copies of this image carved in wood were arranged in a display along with wooden canoes, parrots and other items representing the Amazon region during the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon this month.
That is, until Monday, when thieves stole several of the wooden statues and knocked them off a bridge into the Tiber River in Rome.
The statues are symbols of motherhood and fertility — chosen by faithful Catholics of the Amazon. They call to mind our own Blessed Mother and the motherhood of all women who nurture the sacred life entrusted to their care.
But it was anathema to the thieves and their supporters who rejoiced when video footage of the drowned statues began circulating. The statues have been condemned by some as pagan symbols.
What a sad witness to our church’s present state.
Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, wrote in Vatican News that the statues were “thrown away with contempt in the name of tradition and doctrine.”
Tornielli suggests the statue’s detractors might benefit from an 1878 essay by the newly canonized St. John Henry Newman, who wrote about the use of so-called pagan elements in the church:
“The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees, incense, lamps and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water, asylums; holy days and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields, sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the east, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the church.”
The church has evidently struggled with these issues for a long time.
It’s been more than 50 years since Vatican II opened the church around the world to the use of the local language for liturgy. With that came permissions for local communities to include their cultural traditions — such as music and art — in their faith lives, as well.
The vandalized statues are an expression and representation of Amazonian art and sensibilities. They also represent in the most basic and realistic ways, the physical characteristics of its indigenous people and their lives. And they call us to see the people of the Amazon as holy vessels of sacred life.
These are inherently good things that should be welcomed, not vandalized.
If, as the Vatican communications official suggests, the theft and vandalism were committed “in the name of tradition and doctrine,” the church must confront such attitudes with prayer and education. And with urgency.
The synod on the Amazon is meant to create “new pathways for the church.” Acts and attitudes like those of the thieves build roadblocks where we need openness.
The preparatory document for the synod poses several questions in its introduction. Among them is this one:
“How can we work together toward the construction of a world which breaks with structures that take life and with colonizing mentalities, in order to build networks of solidarity and inter-culturality?”
Pray for Catholics — traditional and modern alike — to reject “colonizing attitudes,” have open hearts and embrace one another — and all Catholics — wherever they are.