A lesson from Amazon synod

The recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the Amazon served not only to create a path for evangelization in the Amazonian region of South America. It also unintentionally stirred a buzz among some Catholics, especially those on social media, who found many things to criticize about the synod and those who participated.

One of the most debated aspects of the synod was the introduction of a carved wooden image representing an unclothed pregnant woman. The statue (more than one was actually present) made its first appearance at a prayer service at the Vatican Gardens on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. It was later included in an exhibit at the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina, not far from St. Peter’s Basilica.

On Oct. 21, two men with a video camera entered the church at night, stole copies of the statue and threw them into the Tiber River. They recorded their prank and posted it on YouTube.

The vandals, as well as others who criticized the statues being used at the prayer services, said the statues represented a pagan image called “Pachamama” and a source of idolatry. However, Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication and Vatican spokesman, told reporters that the statues were expressions of indigenous reverence for life and had no particular religious or spiritual significance.

“We know that some things in history can have many interpretations, and even in the church you can find things that come from the past, but the statue simply represents life,” said Ruffini, adding that people were “trying to see symbols of paganism … where it’s not there.”

The statues were recovered from the Tiber River by Italian military police and Pope Francis apologized “as bishop of the (Rome) diocese” to anyone who was offended by the theft. According to Catholic News Service, the pope said the statues had been displayed at the Church of St. Mary “without any idolatrous intention.”

The Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, perhaps more than any previous gathering at the Vatican, focused on people and issues not commonly addressed by the church. Many of the guests attending the synod ceremonies were indigenous people from the nine Amazonian countries in Latin America, dressed in their native attire and wearing feathered headdresses.

The sight of these people, with their strange customs and ways of praying, seemed to unnerve Catholics with a traditional view of worshipping and honoring God. How many times has this scenario played out over the centuries as Catholic missionaries brought the good news to people who did not know the Lord? Yet, these missionaries — albeit after some trials — were able to blend local customs with Catholic ritual to bring the Gospel alive.

Fear of the unknown, along with a dose of arrogance, seemed to turn otherwise faithful, loving defenders of the faith into the hypocrites that Jesus condemned in many of his parables.

Pope Francis addressed this double standard when he gave his homily at the closing synod Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica last Sunday.

Reflecting on the day’s Gospel about the self-righteous Pharisee and the tax collector, Pope Francis said the Pharisee’s attitude is apparent in “those who are prominent” and who see others to be “backward and of little worth, despise their traditions, erase their history, occupy their lands and usurp their goods.”

On the same day, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, offered similar words.

“The entire point of religion is to make us humble before God and to open us to the path of love,” he wrote in his Daily Gospel Reflection for Oct. 27. “Everything else is more or less a footnote. Liturgy, prayer, the precepts of the church, the commandments, sacraments, sacramentals — all of it — are finally meant to conform us to the way of love. When they instead turn us away from that path, they have been undermined.”

These are lessons we should consider the next time we are tempted to post comments on social media about the pope, a bishop or even an indigenous Amazonian.