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Editor’s note: Our Scotland-based reporter Dorothy Cummings McLean has been sent to Italy to join our Rome Correspondent, Diane Montagna, in covering the Synod for the Bishops of the Pan-Amazon region. A lifelong diarist, Dorothy has volunteered to give readers a glimpse into life off-camera as she carries out what she calls “a dream assignment.” Read all of her Amazon Synod diary posts HERE.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Stop the presses. The animal being breastfed by the Amazonian mother in the poster hanging in the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina is neither a weasel nor a rodent. It is a baby wild pig. The photograph of the woman, a member of the Awa, or Guajá, people, was taken by Pisco Del Gaiso in 1992. Apparently the image is well-known in Brazil, which may be why it never occurred to the curators of the Amazonian Spirituality exhibit that other cultures would find it offensive. (I am charitably assuming the curators did not mean to offend.) 

This morning I observed an entirely different publication. After Mass I was approached by an American woman who has been handing out her beautifully produced and illustrated 94-page book about the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Lisa Bergman’s book is called Treasure and Tradition: The Ultimate Guide to the Latin Mass, and it has been published by St. Augustine Academy Press. Lisa has already handed out thousands of copies in Rome, concentrating on English-speaking pilgrims here for the canonization of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman. I note that inside the cover is a plea not to throw it in the trash. 

“STOP! Do not dispose of this book in the garbage,” it pleads. “It contains the text of the Holy Mass …. Thank you for treating our Sacred Heritage with reverence.”

Well, indeed. 

Afterwards I downed my daily cappuccino and went home to write the news. At 1:00 p.m. I rushed off towards the Sala Stampa and was almost at St. Peter’s Square when I realized I wasn’t wearing my press pass. To the derisive cries of a beggar, I turned in my tracks and rushed back to my apartment again. 

This made me late for the daily press conference, but not too late for the questions. I noted that today there were at least three indigenous people among the synod participants: Leah Rose Casimero, a bilingual educator, from Guyana; Patricia Gualinga, a defender of the rights of the Kichwa peoples, from Ecuador; and Fr. Justino Sarmento Rezende, a Salesian priest from Brazil. There were also Dr. Felicio de Araujo Ponte, Jr., a Brazilian state prosecutor and specialist in the rights of indigenous peoples, and Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho, Brazil. 

The press corps has changed dramatically since last week: many more Latin American journalists and several missing faces among the anglophone set. The questions are still very interesting and, as usual, not all the answers are direct. 

Every day some questions pertain directly to the experiences of Amazonian peoples, including the indigenous presenters, and others hone in on controversies. Today, after requests for descriptions of what a “Church with an Amazonian face” would look like and of indigenous children’s bilingual education, Jules Gomes from St. Michael’s Media asked if inculturation was a means to an evangelical end or an end in itself, and Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register dropped a bomb. 

The bomb was that the Indigenous Missionary Council of the Brazilian Bishops Conference, otherwise known as CIMI, has received “significant funding” from the pro-abortion and gender ideologue Ford Foundation. Pentin asked Bishop Paloschi, the president of CIMI, why his organization accepted funding from “such an organization” and if any of that money was used “to fund REPAM and therefore the synod.” 

Paloschi didn’t answer these questions directly. Instead he insisted that both his and CIMI’s finances were transparent, as if Pentin had suggested some sort of financial corruption. Still, Pentin’s question provided many journalists their story for the day.  

But my story of the day was about Fr. Sarmento because although we had been told that Amazonian indigenous people don’t understand celibacy, there was a celibate Amazonian indigenous priest right before our eyes. 

In response to a question about his vocation, Sarmento said that it was born when he met some missionaries. He thought he could be like them and spread the message of Jesus among the indigenous people. He studied theology and underwent formation before he was ordained. After his ordination he continued his studies and discussed with other indigenous people how inculturation of the Church in the Amazon should take place. Regarding celibacy, Fr. Sarmento made it clear that every human culture can grasp the idea of celibacy, and that celibacy chosen freely is a virtue. 

Dr. Felicio de Araujo Ponte, Jr. made an interesting presentation about different models of development in the Amazon region: the predatory and the sustainable. The press corps have heard about this before, and I think it is worth underscoring. 

In short, the predatory model involves a single industry, like mining or soy farming, encroaching on the Amazonian forests, cutting down trees, polluting, and displacing or even murdering the indigenous people. The sustainable model treats the Amazonian forests as resources themselves. De Araujo mentioned the very nutritious Amazonian chestnut as an example of a sustainable yet lucrative crop. He also said that there is a research institute that discovers a new species in the Amazon every 15 days. De Araujo believes that nature itself has rights and that human beings don’t have the right to do away with ecosystems. 

At the beginning of the synod we were told that Pope Francis worried that there would be two synods: the synod of the hall and the synod of the media. My perception is that there are indeed two synods, but that they are the synod on the well-being of the indigenous people and the synod on the implementation of fashionable doctrinal/pastoral ideas. The latter has implications for the universal Church, so it is yet another scandal that so few bishops are involved in this “process of discernment.”

It should be clear to the synod by now that many Catholics are terrified that such basic doctrines as the First Commandment and such ancient Christian traditions as the male priesthood are under threat. If members aren’t reading the news, at least some of them will have heard the searching questions from Italian, British, and American journalists. 

Social media should be full of concern for the people of the Amazon, but instead it is melting down with outrage over mysterious wooden statues and offensive posters. This is because somebody, or many somebodies, have not carefully thought out which images will best convey the Amazonians’ concerns to the rest of the Catholic world. A naked woman breastfeeding a piglet is not one of them. 

My colleague Jim Hale and I want to convey the blessed fact that women have always had important roles in the Church, so after he filmed me expressing my sorrow about the poster, we went to visit St. Monica’s tomb in the Basilica of Saint Augustine of Hippo. As you may remember, St. Monica was a devout Christian who prayed without ceasing that her son Augustine would accept Christ. Augustine, who paid enormous tribute to his mother in his writings, did receive baptism and became one of the greatest Fathers of the Early Church.

On our way to dinner, we perceived a familiar face bobbing across the Piazza Navona, bound for a drink at his favorite restaurant. It was my husband Mark, whose phone does not work outside the UK and whose whereabouts were until then unknown to me. Thus, that was a lucky, as well as a lovely, surprise. 

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Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and novelist. She earned an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and an M.Div./S.T.B. from Toronto’s Regis College. She was a columnist for the Toronto Catholic Register for nine years and has contributed to Catholic World Report. Her first book, Seraphic Singles,  was published by Novalis (2010) in Canada, Liguori in the USA, and Homo Dei in Poland. Her second, Ceremony of Innocence, was published by Ignatius Press (2013). Dorothy lives near Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband.