VATICAN (ChurchMilitant.com) - Indigenous rituals and political protest merged with the popular devotion of the Stations of the Cross Saturday morning in Rome.
Over 250 delegates at the Amazon Synod took part in the procession, with banners and signs marking what they deem the pain and injustice felt by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.
Bishops, priests, indigenous leaders and Catholic laity began a pilgrimage through Rome to "pray with their feet" and show support for the synod, beginning at the foot of Castel Sant'Angelo and processing toward St. Peter's Square, singing hymns and stopping for each of the 14 Stations of the Cross.
Participants in colorful native robes, feathered headgear and even smoking a "peace pipe" prayed through notes of pain and hope — with each station representing a region of the Amazon.
The pilgrimage began with a Native American from the Lakota tribe "incensing" the congregation with a bowl of burning sage — an originally pagan practice adopted and "inculturated" into Catholic liturgy.
The inculturation was officially allowed in 1999 in the diocese of Rapid City in South Dakota, through the Lakota Inculturation Task Force.
Another Lakota native used an eagle feather to fan the smoke in the direction of the worshipper, while onlookers — including bishops, priests and nuns — "received the smoke" by waving it with their hands towards their face.
A member of the Lakota tribe told Church Militant that the Azilya ritual of incensing with sage is a common practice at Catholic Masses among Native Americans, although there are a number who frown on the practice. He said it represents "positive vibrations" and is a rite of purification.
But authorities in the Native American Catholic Church explain the smoke from burning sage represents a prayer of cleansing that is used to purify and bless people and objects in ceremonies.
The carved pregnant female figure — dubbed "Pachamama" by critics, whom Vatican spokesmen have denied represents the Virgin Mary but fail to explain what she symbolizes — was carried in procession, placed in the familiar canoe and taken in procession along with the cross.
Both were surrounded by the rainbow-colored fishing net carried in procession on the first working day of the synod, surrounded by indigenous paintings and other signs, and were placed at the center of the circle of pilgrims at every station.
Strumming a guitar and accompanied by tribal drum and stringed instruments, the pilgrims carried a large map of the Amazonian region and a number of banners portraying martyred priests, nuns and laymen — including Brazilian indigenous activist Marçal de Souza Tupã'i, Bl. Oscar Romero and Fr. Ezechiele Ramin.
Father Ramin worked as a marxist Comboni missionary promoting liberation theology until he was killed in 1985. Church Militant reported that 200 Brazilian bishops signed a letter on the eve of the synod petitioning Pope Francis to declare him "patron saint" of the Amazon Synod.
A high point of the Via Crucis was the fourth station at the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina. Church Militant reported how communist and socialist politicians from Brazil have used fringe meetings at the church to promote their own political and anti-Bolsonaro agenda at the synod.
"The pilgrimage is a way to refresh our spirits, lift the spirits of the synodal fathers, and witness to the world that Catholics want to protect the Amazon and its people," a statement said.
Church Militant was informed that Native Americans from the United States and Canada are attending the synod to demonstrate solidarity with their compatriots from the Amazonian region, as before the arrival of Columbus the Americas were united and indigenous peoples could freely migrate from South to North.
A document of the Lakota Inculturation Task Force, which allowed pagan symbolism to be incorporated into Catholic liturgy in the diocese of Rapid City, recognizes the problematic nature of the indigenous symbols and admits that "missionaries of the past, being people of their time, did not approve of Lakota religious traditions and in fact forced people to abandon their traditions if they became Catholic."
More problematic, however, is the exclusive nature involving the performance of some of the rituals. The task force document affirms "that the religious symbols and traditions of the Lakota have been entrusted to the Lakota people alone" and so "it is only the Catholic Lakota people who have the right to advise Church leadership on the use of these symbols."
"It would be inappropriate for a non-Indian priest, deacon, religious or lay person to use Lakota religious symbols or ceremonies, e.g., Sacred Pipe, Feather, or incensing," the statement reads. "We ask non-Native bishops, priests and deacons to refrain from using these symbols for these important pastoral reasons."