Pope apologises for theft of Amazon statue from Rome church

The Guardian

Incident at end of Francis’s Amazon synod blamed on conservatives and ‘racists’

Pope Francis meeting indigenous Amazonians in RomePope Francis meeting indigenous Amazonians in Rome during his synod on the region’s ministry and environmental protection. Photograph: EPA

Pope Francis has apologised to Amazonian bishops and tribal leaders after thieves stole indigenous statues from a church close to the Vatican and tossed them into the River Tiber in a show of conservative opposition to the first Latin American pope.

Speaking as “the bishop of Rome”, Francis dismissed allegations that the wooden statues of naked pregnant women were pagan symbols and said they had been placed in the church “without any intention of idolatry”.

The pope’s apology came as his three-week synod on the Amazon wraps up on Saturday, when more than 180 bishops and cardinals from nine Amazonian countries vote on a final document synthesising proposals to better protect the Amazon rainforest and minister to its indigenous peoples.

The most controversial proposals include allowing married men to be ordained priests to address the acute shortage of clergy in the Amazon region, where isolated communities can go months without having a proper mass.

Also debated was whether women could be ordained deacons in a new rite.

While those theological debates raged in the synod hall, the more significant debate concerned the videotaped theft on Monday of the indigenous statues from the Santa Maria in Traspontina church.

A wooden statuette of a pregnant woman during a procession of indigenous leaders at the Rome synodOne of the wooden statuettes of pregnant women brought to Rome, during a procession of indigenous leaders. Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

It has been the headquarters of parallel synod events featuring indigenous, environmental and Catholic groups from the region, and the statues were featured prominently in some of the indigenous services.

A video of the theft that was widely circulated on conservative and traditionalist Catholic media showed at least two men who entered the church before dawn, took the statues from the altar of a side chapel and threw them into the Tiber.

The statues were later recovered, but the theft was celebrated by conservative Catholics who consider the statues pagan idols. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who was sacked by Francis in 2017 as the Vatican’s doctrine chief, said the “great mistake” was to bring the “idols” into the church in the first place.

“To throw it out can be against human law, but to bring the idols into the church was a grave sin, a crime against divine law,” he told the conservative US Catholic broadcaster EWTN.

The Vatican has insisted the statues were symbols of life, fertility and Mother Earth, and denounced the theft as a hate-filled, “violent and intolerant gesture”.

“In the name of tradition and doctrine, they contemptuously threw away a symbol of maternity and sacredness of life,” said the Vatican’s editorial director Andrea Tornielli.

“We do not use the term ’racists’ lightly, but what else is it?” asked the National Catholic Reporter, a progressive Catholic magazine, in an editorial this week.

“Can you imagine the conservative outcry if someone tossed the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa into the Tiber?” it said, referring to the “black Madonna” icon that was particularly dear to Pope John Paul II, a hero to many conservatives.

Earlier this month the pope hit out at “offensive words” spoken against the Amazon’s indigenous people, noting that a feather headdress is no more ridiculous than hats worn at the Vatican.

The theft of the statues underscored the depth of conservative opposition to Francis and his agenda focusing on the poor, migrants and the environment.

Any decision to open up the priesthood to married men or to ordain women deacons is likely to fuel more anger and increase calls for a future pope who is more rooted in orthodox doctrine like John Paul II and Benedict XVI.


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