A wooden statue of a pregnant woman is pictured in the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina as part of exhibits on the Amazon region during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in Rome Oct. 18, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
A wooden statue of a pregnant woman is pictured in the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina as part of exhibits on the Amazon region during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in Rome Oct. 18, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Template for inculturation

Originally Appeared in : 9923-11/7/19

Two weeks ago, I mentioned “the puzzling optics of an informal interreligious prayer service held in the Vatican Gardens on the Memorial of Saint Francis of Assisi (also on Oct. 4),” which I thought distracted from the important theme of the Synod on the Amazon, that is, “inculturation.”


The distraction “snowballed” and ultimately overwhelmed Catholic social media, especially when some zealous Catholics took the carved wood sculpture apparently of a “Pachamama” from the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina on the Via della Conciliazione that leads to St. Peter’s—and pushed it into the Tiber River. The headline, “Pachamama sleeps with the fishes” went viral.


Father Raymond J. de Souza made some very good points in his subsequent commentary (“Elementary Pastoral Sense Absent from Amazonian Statue Controversy”) in the National Catholic Register. While he acknowledges that “the theft and throwing of the image into the river was wrong,” Father de Souza rightly expressed his disappointment with the Vatican Press office and the officials of the Synod of Bishops who turned a simple tree planting ceremony from a papal photo-op into an international brouhaha by publishing disconcerting photographs with little or no explanation of what the ceremony meant or what the sculpture represents: “Since symbols convey so much more than words, Vatican officials should have clarified exactly what the statue means, before allowing it to be deployed in a paraliturgical context.”


Some officials tried to interpret the “Pachamama” as an indigenous equivalent of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When that proved implausible (not to say shocking), Andrea Tornielli, the usually reliable Vatican editorial director, described it as an “effigy of motherhood and the sacredness of life” that is “a traditional symbol for the native people which represents their tie to what Saint Francis called ‘mother earth.’” But I think Father de Souza is correct in his critique: “Saint Francis praised God ‘through our Sister Mother Earth.’ The tie was to God, not to the earth. Saint Francis himself would have insisted that an image used in prayer be a sacred one, the Blessed Mother, not motherhood in general nor mother earth.” He adds, “The problem with the Amazonian statue was that no one could — or would — explain what it was... So, when people asked what the statue meant, an answer should have been ready.” Instead, officials like Father Giacomo Costa of the synod communications team appeared to improvise: “There is nothing to know. It is an indigenous woman who represents life. It is a feminine figure [which] is neither pagan nor sacred.” As Father de Souza notes, “That was not helpful. If it’s not sacred, why was it included in a prayer service to mark the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi in the presence of the Holy Father?” And if it is pagan…


Between this flap and the eventual publication of the pope’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which will have to deal with controversial suggestions adopted by the synod fathers for Pope Francis’ consideration, I would propose that Catholics undertake a calm reflection on what “inculturation” means, beginning with the most ancient precedent for it.


In the Acts of the Apostles 17:22-34, Saint Luke describes Saint Paul’s brilliant attempt to “inculturate” the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the most intellectually sophisticated community in the world: Athens. On a flat outcropping below the Acropolis known as the Areopagus, filled with wooden shrines, markets, and law courts, Paul addressed his hearers in their Greek language: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.” The Apostle did not begin by noting all the shrines to false gods but instead focused on the one altar that he saw as dedicated to the one true God, though his name was yet unknown to the Greeks: Yahweh.


Paul then proclaims a truth about the one God: “The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” Here Paul quotes, respectively, Epimenides of Knossos (6th century B.C.) and Aratus of Soli, a third-century B.C. poet from Cilicia. He did his homework.


Only now does he offer a critique of his hearers’ traditional religion: “Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination.” And he offers the Gospel as the alternative: “God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world with justice’ through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead.”


Indeed, this speech was not a resounding success in terms of numbers: “When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, ‘We should like to hear you on this some other time.’ And so, Paul left them. But some did join him and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the Court of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”


Saint Paul’s speech at the Areopagus offers us an inspired template for inculturation. It is important that the “baby” of inculturation not be thrown into the Tiber with the “bathwater” of the Pachamama.


Father Douglas K. Clark is the retired pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro.

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