To young girls the dolphin appears as a handsome stranger, a foreigner, a white man. To everyone else he still looks like a dolphin.
Eventually, the mysterious stranger seduces a young woman from the village. In some tellings, she becomes pregnant. In other versions, she simply falls in love. But in every case, she finds herself compelled to the river. She has fallen under a spell. If the spell can’t be broken, sometimes by a local shaman, she will throw herself into the river, and there she will become a mermaid.
When she finished telling her story, the storyteller asked those gathered in the church to share what the story means to them.
“What does it mean to you?” is not the same question as “What does it mean?” Both questions have merit, of course. And mythical and folkloric tradition has a place in every culture, in which new meanings and ideas can emerge from old stories.
Still, the critics of the liturgies, ceremonies, and rituals surrounding the Amazon Synod say those events have been plagued by ambiguity, by a sort of postmodern subjectivism, and by an absence of the proclamation of the Gospel and reference to sacred revelation.
Some of that criticism is hyperbolic and overwrought. And, in fact, synod-connected events expressing Amazon spirituality, including the controversial Oct. 4 tree-planting attended by Pope Francis, have included readings from scripture, obviously Catholic prayers, and reflections or preaching on the saving mystery of Jesus Christ.
But the identifiably Christian aspects of the rituals have often taken place alongside unidentified images and sculptures, and with the incorporation of rituals of unclear origin. That has led to confusion.
Journalists asking “What does this mean?” have heard, in response, another question: “What does this mean to you?”
On Oct. 16, a journalist asked for clarity at a Vatican press conference about the carved image, first seen at the tree-planting ceremony, and featured at other events connected to the synod. The image had been described by at least one western Catholic journalist as the Virgin Mary and by Getty International as a pagan goddess.
Fr. Giacomo Costa, a synod spokesman, said the image is not the Virgin Mary, but a female figure representing life. Paolo Ruffini, a Vatican communications officially, said that in his personal view, the image seems like that of a tree, which is, he said, a kind of “sacred symbol.”
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Ruffini committed to learning more, but offered a qualifier that has become a familiar line at the Amazon synod: “We know that some things in history have many interpretations.”
A journalist asking bishops about the image Oct. 7 got a more nebulous answer.
“We all have our own interpretations: the Virgin Mary, the Mother Earth...probably those who used this symbol wished to refer to fertility, to women, to life, the life present among these Amazonian people and Amazonia is meant to be full of life. I don’t think we need to create any connections with the Virgin Mary or with a pagan element,” Bishop David Martínez De Aguirre Guinea of Peru said at a Vatican press conference.
Among the journalists, observers, and other interested parties watching the synod, there are clearly two perspectives on the carved image, and the controversy surrounding it.
One camp seems to say that this kind of ambiguity represents the ordinary process of inculturation. They see in the ambiguity the complicated reality of proclaiming the Gospel in an unfamiliar context, and they are eager to affirm points of similarity between Amazonian spirituality and Christianity. If a carved image highlights those points, they say, it should be celebrated, even if every question doesn’t have a clear answer. Being unduly dogmatic, they suggest, is a kind of hostility to the good will of the synod and its participants.
The other camp, those who would usually be classified as conservatives, are more skeptical. They have begun to ask whether the synod’s participants have thought through the limits of inculturation, or the consequences of ambiguity on issues that seem close to religious syncretism or even tacit consent to functional idolatry.