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'Pachamama' images neither idols nor 'Our Lady' says missionary

Filipe Avillez - The Tablet - Mon, Dec 9th 2019

The theft of the sculptures from the church shows how, 'even in wooden form, women continue to be disrespected'.'Pachamama' images neither idols nor 'Our Lady' says missionary

A wooden statue of a pregnant woman is pictured in the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina.
Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

The wooden sculptures that were stolen from a church in Rome and thrown into the Tiber are not considered idols by the Amazonians, says a Spanish missionary who has been living with indigenous tribes in the rainforest for over a decade. 

Genni Lloris is a consecrated member of the movement Verbum Dei and part of a team of missionaries that works with native tribes in the depths of the Amazon, in Brazil. It was this team that travelled to Rome to set up the display of Amazonian artefacts in the church of Santa Maria in Transpotina during the synod on the Amazon, in October. 

The display included five sculptures of a pregnant indigenous woman, labelled a pagan idol by traditionalists in the press and on social media. Although referred to as “Pachamama” since the incident, the fact is that “Pachamama” is a traditional deity of the Andean tribes and is not a name used by the Amazonians.

Genni Lloris rejects the idea that the Amazonians see the image as divine in any way. “That image represents Mother Earth, nothing more. Somebody interpreted it as representing a divinity, but it is only an icon of Mother Earth. These groups then started speaking of religious syncretism, but there was nothing of the sort, it was invented by them.”

Lloris goes on to explain, quoting the words of the native Amazonians themselves, what the image means to them. “The indigenous see the Earth as a mother, a large womb from which all life generates, Mother Earth. This image represents and evokes this image, this way of living, this spirituality which permeates life and care for nature”.

The sculpture is “of a pregnant indigenous woman who carries inside of her the fertility of Mother Earth, with all its power” and has deep meaning to the indigenous of the region, explains the missionary, noting that “even in wooden form, women continue to be disrespected”. 

Following the ceremony in Transpontina where the images first came to light and began to cause commotion, especially online, some defended the sculptures saying they represented Our Lady of the Amazon. However, Genni Lloris denies this also. “That is not the case, nobody says that. In the sense that she generates life, in the fact that it is a woman looking for a place to give birth, there could be a parallel, but we can’t say that and that is not the reason why it was placed there,” she insists. 

The display was present in Carmelite church of Santa Maria in Traspontina for the duration of the synod and during that time traditionalist groups also kept watch in the church. One morning an Austrian man removed the sculptures and threw them into the Tiber, from where they were later recovered. “We tried to talk to them, but unfortunately dialogue was impossible. This level of violence, however, was unacceptable”, says Lloris, who complained to the police about the theft. Pope Francis later apologised publicly to the Amazonians for any pain caused by the incident. 

Raised in Valencia, Spain, Genna Lloris decided to become a missionary aged 17 and joined Verbum Dei. She was sent to Brazil where she worked for many years with the bishops conference coordinating pastoral care for university students. She always felt a calling to the rainforest, however, and for the past 11 years she has been living amongst Amazonian tribes.  

“Nowadays, the further away I am, the happier I am. When I am in the communities where nobody wants to go, with brothers and sisters who have been forgotten by the government and the world, that’s when I am happiest”, she says. 

“After living for a year with the Tupinambas they told me ‘Genni, just the fact that you are with us, eating our fish, bathing with us in the Tapajós River and participating in our celebrations, shows us that God loves us and has not abandoned us’. This was the most gratifying thing that I could have heard”, the 50-year-old missionary recalls. 

Her religious community cares for 35 different settlements, many of which take up to a day to reach by boat. “Often we celebrate with them, but we don’t have the Eucharist. When that happens, we share what we do have, the Gospel and food. And that, of course, is precisely what happened with the first Christian communities.”

Despite this, she considers that the possibility of ordaining married priests in the more remote parishes, a measure approved by the synod, is not especially important. “What matters is that they recognise what we already do, because in our communities celebrations are often led by the laity. The synod encouraged us to speak openly about what already happens on the ground.”

Another accusation levelled at the synod by its critics was of a one-sided view of inculturation, as if the Church had much to learn from, but nothing to contribute to the way of life of the indigenous. Genni Lloris says this is a misconception. “There is a dialogue and a mutual enrichment. Perhaps so much focus was placed on listening because it has been lacking, but the people of the Amazon know that the Church can help them and that it respects them. If not, they could just ask us to leave.”

She gives the example of the tribes of the Xingu region, that used to practise infanticide when twins were born. “The women worked the land and they could only care for one child. From their point-of-view they were returning the other child to the Earth. But when the first missionaries arrived they began to show them alternatives, that there were other people who could care for the baby, and now the practice has been abandoned.”

Over all, says Genni Lloris, the Amazon Synod went well, but she insists that it is not over yet. “The synod was not only about discussing the Amazon, it was also about putting the Church on a new path, to move from a pyramidal Church to a circular church, with the periphery moving to the centre”.

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