“Is Pachamama a goddess, asked Monsignor Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, Bishop Emeritus of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, regular collaborator of Zenit’s Spanish edition.
Monsignor Arizmendi spoke from his own experience among indigenous populations. And he answered the question, giving the response of one who is baptized.
In fact, statuettes representing a pregnant woman and the child she is carrying were presented during the Synod on Amazonia, sparking accusations of idolatry. Five statuettes were thrown into the Tiber. Made of wood, they floated and the Italian police recovered three of them. Then, at the request of Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, they were entrusted to that Dicastery.
Here is a ZENIT translation of Monsignor Arizmendi Esquivel’s reflection on the matter.
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Images and figurines, which were used in the opening ceremonies, in the Vatican Gardens, of the Pan-Amazonian Synod, and in the initial procession from Saint Peter’s Basilica to the Synodal Hall, in which Pope Francis took part, and then <used> in other churches of Rome, caused a great stir. Some condemned these actions as if they were idolatry, adoration of “Mother Earth” and other “divinities.” Nothing of that happened. They aren’t goddesses; it was not an idolatrous worship. They are symbols of Amazonian realities and experiences, with motivation that are not only cultural but also religious, but not of adoration, as this is owed only to God. It’s very bold to condemn the Pope as an idolater, as he never has been or will be. At the end of the ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, he was asked to speak and he limited himself to praying the Our Father. There is no other God than our Father in Heaven.
Years ago, in a CELAM meeting, which I had to coordinate in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on the different names of God in the native cultures of the Southern Cone, I asked an Aymara Indian woman if, for them, Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Inti (Father Sun) are gods, and she answered me: Those who haven’t received evangelization consider them gods; for those of us who have been evangelized, they aren’t gods, but God’s best gifts. Wonderful answer! That’s what they are! They are manifestations of God’s love, not gods.
In my previous diocese, when I heard with much affection and respect talk of “Mother Earth,” I felt uncomfortable, as I said to myself: My only mothers are my mamma, the Virgin Mary, and the Church. And when I saw them prostrate themselves and kiss the earth, I was even more bothered. However, living with the Indians, I understood they didn’t adore her Mother Earth as a goddess, but they wanted to value her and acknowledge her as a true mother, as she is the one that gives us food to eat, the one that gives us water, air and all that we need to live. They didn’t consider her a goddess; they didn’t adore her; they only expressed their respect and prayed, thanking God for her.
I felt the same when I saw them going to the four corners of the universe, the cardinal points, they revered them, they prayed and they also addressed the sun with great respect. Before knowing them and sharing the faith with them, I was tempted to judge them and condemn them as idolaters. Then I appreciated their respect for these elements of nature that give us life, and I was convinced that they didn’t adore them as gods, but as God’s work, His gifts to humanity, and this is also the way they educate their children – not to destroy them, but to look after them and respect them. They aren’t idolaters. Those that affirm this don’t know them and judge them at a distance, from afar and from outside. The earth and the sun are creatures of God and Him alone do we adore.
The Bible says: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground” (Genesis 2:7). On Ash Wednesday we are reminded: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” This is the reality of all humans.
In the Document of Aparecida, we give the name “mother” to Sister Earth, following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who wasn’t an idolater. “With the native people of America, we praise the Lord who created the universe as a space for life and the coexistence of all His sons and daughters and He left it to us as a sign of His goodness and His beauty. Creation is also a manifestation of God’s provident love: it has been given to us to look after it and to transform it into a fitting source of life for all. Although today a greater valuation of nature is generalized, we perceive clearly in how many ways man threatens and destroys his ‘habitat.’ “Our Sister Mother Earth” (Canticle of Creatures, 9) is our common home and that place of God’s covenant with human beings and with the whole of creation. To disregard mutual relations and the balance that God Himself established among created realities, is an offense to the Creator, an attempt against biodiversity and, definitely, against life. The missionary disciple, to whom God entrusted creation, must contemplate it, look after it and use it always respecting the order God gave it” (DA 125).
And to remove all doubt about the Pope’s attitude, suffice it to recall what he wrote in Laudato Si’: “When we become aware of God’s reflection in all that exists, our heart feels the desire to adore the Lord for all His creatures and, together with them, as expressed in Saint Francis of Assisi’s beautiful hymn: ‘Be praised, my Lord, with all your creatures . . . ‘”(No. 87). “The creatures of this world cannot be considered a good without an owner: Thou sparest all things, for they are thine, O Lord who lovest the living” (Wisdom 11:26). This arouses the conviction that being created by the same Father, all beings of the universe are united by invisible ties and we make up a sort of universal family, a sublime communion that moves us to sacred, affectionate and humble respect” (No. 89). “This doesn’t mean making all living beings equal and taking away from the human being that peculiar value that implies at the same time a tremendous responsibility. Neither does it imply a divinization of the earth, which would deprive us of the call to collaborate with it and to protect its fragility” (No. 90).
As Jesus says, let us not judge as idolatry what is not so. Let us know in greater depth the native cultures. And it’s our task to share Jesus’ Gospel, which frees us from idolatries, wherever they might be.