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Pope criticizes cultural discrimination in new book of interviews from Amazon synod

Pope Francis waves during the Angelus noon prayer he delivers from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Nov. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In an interview book published Tuesday (Nov. 5), Pope Francis discussed his vision for a missionary church and criticized groups that discriminate against other cultures and view them as unworthy of receiving the gospel.

“There are circles and sectors that present themselves as ilustrados (enlightened) — they sequester the proclamation of the gospel through a distorted reasoning that divides the world between ‘civilized’ and ‘barbaric,'” Francis said in the interview.

“They consider a large part of the human family as a lower-class entity, unable to achieve decent levels in spiritual and intellectual life. On this basis, contempt can develop for people considered to be second rate,” he said, adding that “all this also emerged during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon.”

The book, called “Without Him We Can Do Nothing,” was written by the Italian author and journalist Gianni Valente and based on interviews done during the Amazon synod. The book is being released to coincide with the close of Extraordinary Missionary Month, created by the pope for October 2019.

The summit of bishops on the Amazon shone a spotlight on the tensions that still exist within the Catholic Church around bringing the gospel to isolated cultures and how to adapt the message to resonate with those cultures.

During the synod, opposition toward the church incorporating or welcoming Amazon culture ranged from outrage to retaliation. The two-week gathering began with a flood of negative media coverage, including accusations of infanticide in some Amazon cultures and a prolific use of the term “savages” to describe the indigenous peoples.

In a tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican gardens at the opening of the synod, the pope was gifted wooden reliefs depicting an Amazonian fertility deity. A video of the event was widely circulated and the carvings were later described as “Our Lady of the Amazon” or “Pachamama” and became the impetus for a climax of hostilities during the synod.

Members of Amazon indigenous populations pray at the end of a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession from St. Angelo Castle to the Vatican on Oct. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

On Oct. 21, a young man entered a church not far from the Vatican, stole the wooden carvings from a chapel and proceeded to dump them into Rome’s Tiber River. The act was recorded with a camera and published on social media.

On Monday, the young man released a video on YouTube confessing to the theft. “I am the guy who threw the Pachamama idols into the Tiber,” said the young man, speaking in English from his home in Austria and calling himself “Alexander” in the video.

“I was very upset,” he added.

Alexander goes on to say in the video that what upset him were people bowing before the reliefs at the Vatican, which he saw as a clear breach of the First Commandment. He described his act as “a great success,” having had a lasting impact on the Catholic church and the synod.

“There are some laymen, and we stand up because we don’t want things like that happening in the Catholic Church,” he said.

The interview with the pope, Valente said, “is an answer to all the closed- and narrow-minded points of view that we witnessed” during the synod.

“Certain circles manifest a hostility toward the pope,” Valente told Religion News Service in a phone interview on Monday. While these remain small realities, he said, “in the United States certain powerful ecclesiastical circles show this detachment.”

In the book, Francis refers to the debates surrounding the early colonization of the Americas, when Catholics were divided on whether indigenous peoples were “worthy” of receiving baptism based on their race, custom and beliefs.

“In the period we are living, it becomes even more urgent to bear in mind that the revealed message is not identified with a particular culture,” the pope said. “And when meeting new cultures, or cultures that have not accepted the Christian proclamation, we must try not to impose a determined cultural form together with the evangelical proposition.”

Unlike proselytism, which “is always violent by nature,” does not acknowledge grace and “cuts out Christ,” Francis said, evangelization is moved by the Holy Spirit. Without it, mission becomes nothing more than “a religious, or perhaps an ideological conquest, perhaps carried out even with good intentions,” he said.

Allowing oneself to be moved by the Holy Spirit, he continued, is what creates the “attraction” for others to want to follow in the same path — and is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be a missionary.

Missionaries, Francis said, have the role of “facilitating, making easy, without placing obstacles to Jesus’ desire to embrace everyone, to heal everyone, to save everyone.” It is not their role, he said, to be selective nor to impose “pastoral tariffs,” nor should they be “playing the part of the guard at the door controlling who has the right to enter.”

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