What incenses me the most about the theft of the icon of Our Lady of the Amazon from a Rome church this week is that the person who filmed themselves stealing it, and then throwing it in the River Tiber, genuflects on the way into the church.
It is a deep, confident knee-to-the-floor genuflection; the kind I remember trying to emulate as a teenager at the Oxford Oratory, that always ended in my flailing, off-balance, for a pew-end to right myself with. It comes with practice and devotion, and it tells me that whoever stole the statue – one of Amazon Synod’s many critics, I assume, although I expect we will never find out – understands the importance of symbols and gestures. Whoever stole Our Lady of the Amazon stopped before they did so to humble themselves before the Real Presence: symbolically, by genuflecting. Given what they went on to do next, I wonder if He might have told them not to bother.
Catholicism is a faith that is rich in symbols, as the wonderful Dawn Eden Goldstein pointed out, in the aftermath of the theft, in a Twitter thread dedicated to some of the ways the Church represented the persons of the Trinity throughout the ages: pelicans, a dove, a shepherd, bees (my favourite). Not to mention the representation of the Evangelists as a winged man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. Mary herself is represented in Christian art as, or alongside, flowers or fruit, symbols of her fertility: spiritual, as well as biological.
This is important, because Catholic commentators have complained loudly that the statue – of a kneeling, pregnant woman – recalls pagan fertility cults. Crisis Magazine was alarmed by an unnamed Vatican source saying it represents “Mother Earth, fertility, woman, life”. US priest and blogger Fr John Zuhlsdorf called it a “Pachamama demon idol” [Pachamama is a Peruvian goddess].
What do the indigenous Catholic who brought the icon with them to a Vatican synod say it represents? The woman who asked Pope Francis to bless it told him it was Our Lady of the Amazon. Commentators, then, who continue to insist that the statue it isn’t what the Amazon Catholics say, an icon of Our Lady, must think either that they are lying – perhaps part of a larger plot to infiltrate the Church with pagan demons? Or maybe they think they are ignorant, failing to realise that the real Mary, a first century Jewish teenager, was, in fact, a porcelain-white brunette who wore a lot of blue.
The Vatican hasn’t helped. One of the synod's organisers, Fr Giacomo Costa, told a press conference that the statue definitely doesn’t represent the Virgin Mary. Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Vatican communications dicastery, said only that it “represents life”. An Amazon bishop told our Rome Correspondent Christopher Lamb it is an image of life. “Everything that is human is Christian,” he said. Whatever it represents, what matters, I think, is whether God minds. A fear that he does was, perhaps, at the root of the theft: another thing that opening genuflection tells us is that the person who stole the statue has a devout faith.
So if the statue represents fertility and abundance of life, is it sacrilegious to house it in a church? No. Firstly because Amazon Catholics no more “worship” their icons than Western Catholics do. Second, because God, who is in all things, comes to us precisely where we are. A good example of this is Ignatian contemplation, where you compose a scene from the Gospels in your imagination and ask God to speak to you through what you experience in the meditation. It is my favourite way to pray but, try as I might, I can’t make Jesus look like anything other than Obi Wan Kenobi, the wise Jedi Master from the Star Wars franchise. During particularly woke phases I have tried to replace him with a Jesus who looks more like what archaeology tells me a first century man from Palestine would look like, but it never sticks. So I have stopped trying, and I don’t think God minds. What matters more to him, I believe, is that I continue to pray.
Symbols, saints, icons, statues, paintings, medallions, even Our Lady, are not God. They point us towards God and help us to communicate with him. Our Lady of the Amazon may not look like Our Lady of Lourdes, the Black Madonna, or Our Lady of Guadalupe, but she points the Catholics who brought her to Rome towards her son. I cannot imagine how it must feel for them, many thousands of miles from their homes in the Amazon basin, to discover that she was drowned in the Tiber, by the very people who claim to be their brothers and sisters.