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Pachamama on display in Santa Maria in Traspontina Carmelite Church just down from the Vatican, Rome. Diane Montagna of LifeSiteNews

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

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Chiaroscuro is an artist’s use of light and shade. The word seems particularly apropos to Rome today, for although it is a beautiful city of golden-hued walls and green parrots, it is also the place where my purse was stolen last night. 

Yes, I have joined the massive ranks of travelers robbed in Rome. My sad story begins on Saturday night when, dead tired, I walked around the corner to the grocery store with nothing but my small red purse in my shopping bag. After I had scanned my dinner ingredients through the new electronic cashier, I discovered it was gone. 

There followed a shriek and a rush around the store, into the street, and then to my apartment in case I had left the purse there. No, I hadn’t.  I ran back to the store and informed the security guard of the theft. He told me it hadn’t been stolen, and I must have lost it. He told me to make a report to the police, but instead I went back to the apartment to cry, cancel my bank cards, and cry some more. 

This morning I went to the police station and, to my amazement, discovered that my purse had been found in the store. I went straight there, collected my purse, and discovered that only the banknotes were gone. The thief hadn’t bothered with my cards or even the change. So that was “chiaroscuro” too. Light and dark, even in a theft.   

More chiaroscuro: yesterday I met up with an expat friend for lunch and then took him to Santa Maria in Traspontina to see the infamous “Amazon Spirituality” exhibit. This is a Carmelite Church, and sure enough there were nuns in habit standing around to explain the ramshackle display to visitors. They seemed so unaware that anything was amiss that my plan to confront them evaporated. 

“Am I crazy?” I asked my friend. “Is the wild piglet poster actually … okay?”

“I’ll explain something,” he said. “But first come and see this.” 

“This” was the magnificent main altar, a 17th-century symphony in colored marble designed by Carlo Fontana (1638-1714). I wish I knew who actually made it, for the altar frontal, which looked like heavy, slightly folded, hanging draperies, was actually made of stone. The craftsmanship would have been breathtaking even without the contrast to the Amazon exhibit, with its crudely fashioned Pachamamas and poster stuck to the marble wall with masking tape. 

Then my friend said that the reason why some people don’t see what is wrong with the breastfed pig poster in church is that they are nominalists. Instead of understanding that something is what it really is, they believe something is what they name it. For example, many believe a table is an altar just because they say it is an altar. An altar, however, is in itself different from a table. My friend didn’t spell it out, but I understood that he meant that people think the “Amazonian” display is devotional because someone called it devotional, or that the breastfed pig represents a rightly ordered relationship to the cosmos because the poster says it does.  

This reminds me of transgenderism and suggests why its adherents are so badly offended when non-adherents call a mutilated man in a dress “he” or a mutilated bearded woman “she”: transgenderists are nominalists, too. They think naming trumps reality, or even that naming determines reality. 

I hadn’t been to Mass that morning, which made me nervous about being around the exhibit, and I was happy when we left. Tonight a friend advised against going into Santa Maria in Traspontina at all until it is reconsecrated. Who will request this, I wonder? Or will some faithful bishop quietly take it upon himself to do it unasked?

Inside information: The spot in the Vatican Gardens where the pagan or (to give it the benefit of the charitable doubt) syncretic Pachamama ceremony took place on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi has already had prayers of exorcism read over it. 


Sunday, needless to say, was a much happier day than Saturday. My husband left for home early on Saturday morning, so I walked to Sunday Mass with my colleague Jim Hale and his family. On the way there we encountered another of my old expat friends and his beautiful children. All week long I’ve felt a need to be around babies and innocent children, so this was a wonderful treat. 

It was also lovely to be around men and women who dress in their Sunday best for Mass, and to hear an excellent choir sing traditional Mass settings in the beautiful marble church. The choir expressed praise for, and supplication to, God Almighty with some of the best music our fathers in faith have composed, being both the recipients and the teachers of over a thousand years of artistic patrimony. 

Do we still have stonemasons who can do what stonemasons did 300 years ago? Do we still have composers who can do what composers did 300 years ago? Even if we don’t, we can be grateful for what has been left to our decadent age, and I am. 

After Mass, I joined the knots of people talking about the Synod in front of the Church. I’m not the only one who is dismayed by the so-called “Amazonian spirituality” exhibit in a Christian church and wonders what ought to be done about it. Rumors about which German or German-Brazilian cardinals were furious about something were exchanged. But in the end, people drifted away to their lunches. Jim invited a young honeymooning American couple to join the rest of us for lunch, and we had a wonderful time telling conversion stories and discovering whom we knew in common. 

Then I went home for a nap and did a little Italian study. I returned to church for the rosary and to join friends for supper. We went to a restaurant specializing in Roman dishes and laughed when Jim was mistaken for a movie star. But now it is time for bed, for I have a heavy day of Synod reportage ahead.

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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.