The scene during the Vatican’s Christmas concert was simple and even childlike, as a young woman from Latin America instructed participants -- including smiling cardinals -- to fold their arms over their chests.
But this was a religious ritual, not a 1990s Macarena flashback.
”You will feel a strong vibration,” she said, according to translations of the online video. “That is the heart -- your heart, but also the heart of Mother Earth. And on the other side, where you feel the silence, there is the spirit -- the spirit that allows you to understand the message of the Mother.
”For us indigenous peoples ... Mother Earth, Hitchauaya, is everything. It is that Mother who provides food. She is the one who gives us the sacred water. She is the one who gives us medicinal plants and power and reminds us of our origin, the origin of our creation.”
The name “Hitchauaya” was new, but battles over “Pachamama” rites had already emerged as one of the strangest Vatican news stories of late 2019. For weeks, progressives and conservatives argued about the relevancy of the first of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Three events in Rome fueled the Earth Mother wars. For some Catholics, they became linked, theologically, to an early 2019 meeting in Abu Dhabi when Pope Francis signed an interfaith document that included this: “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom.”
First, early in the fall’s Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, there were rites that included wooden statues of a pregnant Amazonian woman. Some journalists reported that they represented “Our Lady of the Amazon” or were symbols of new life. Outraged Catholics then stole the statues and tossed them in the Tiber River.
Speaking as “bishop of this diocese,” Pope Francis apologized and sought “forgiveness from those who have been offended by this gesture.” He said the images were displayed “without idolatrous intentions.” A Vatican transcript indicated that Francis referred to the statues as “Pachamama,” a traditional name for an Andean fertility goddess, or “Mother Earth.”
Father Dwight Longenecker, a popular American commentator, outlined the ensuing confusion on Twitter: “It wasn’t Pachamama but the pope said it was but he didn’t really and it wasn’t idolatry because they don’t think she’s god but she’s a goddess sort of and they weren’t bowing down to her but just a little maybe but it wasn’t to her they were bowing down but to fertility and ...”
Rome buzzed with speculation that the Pachamama statues would reappear, in some way, during synod events. They didn’t, but that wasn’t the end of the story.
During the final synod Mass, a representative of the indigenous peoples of Brazil carried a black bowl -- containing green plants, with red flowers -- in the offertory procession. She presented this offering to Pope Francis, an act featured on page 1 of the Spanish edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. The pope gave the bowl to the master of ceremonies, who placed it on the altar near the candles. Videos showed that it remained there for the rest of the Mass, including the consecration prayers.
What was this offering? Conservatives circulated descriptions of traditional Pachamama rites, noting online guides to the use of pots containing plants, dirt, some kind of food and something red, a color frequently associated with Pachamama.
Conservative journalist Robert Moynihan wrote to the Vatican inquiring about the contents of the bowl and received a statement that there would be “no particular information about the plant. ... We only know that it was planted at the beginning of the Synod and delivered to the offertory to adorn the altar.”
A frequent critic of Pope Francis, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, argued that St. Peter’s Basilica should be cleansed with new consecration rites after these “appalling idolatrous profanations.” The synod, he told LifeSite News, was “a launching pad” for a “syncretistic, neo-pagan church, which is dedicated to the cult of Mother Earth.”
But Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn defended these images as “pro-life” symbols, telling Austrian newspaper Die Furche that the “controversial Pachamama statue is simply a heavily pregnant woman. ... As ‘mother earth’ and ‘mother of life,’ she is an archetype, which naturally has its place in Christianity.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)