The Vatican tree ceremony: a self-made PR headache

A member of an indigenous community kneels in front of Pope Francis and Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes (CNS photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters)

Next time, if they want to plant a tree, maybe they should just plant the tree

So, the first full day of the special synod assembly for the Amazon region is come and gone. Pope Francis addressed the synod fathers yesterday morning, offering them encouragement couched in his signature homespun and warning against careless communication of the doings inside the synod hall.

“[A] process like that of a synod can be ruined a bit if I give out what I think, I say my piece, and then there is that characteristic that occurred in some synods: the synod within and the synod without,” Pope Francis said. “The synod inside, which follows a path of Mother Church: of care for processes; and the synod of the outside, which, by information given with legeresse, given with imprudence, moves those responsible for information ex officio to make mistakes.”

Later on, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, clarified that synod fathers are of course free and welcome to speak with whom they please, only he cautioned participants not to say who said what. “The Synod Fathers will be free to grant interviews outside the Synod Hall as well as generally to communicate with the media at their discretion and responsibility,” Baldisseri said in his prepared remarks, “obviously in a personal capacity, maintaining the necessary confidentiality regarding the names of the people who intervene in the debates in the chamber and in the circuli minores.”

Basically, he put the proceedings under the Chatham House Rule.

One piece of a story that was a major head-scratcher heading into the weekend has become clear, after the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Matteo Bruni, told The Catholic Herald that Pope Francis has, in fact, entrusted the work of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that opened Sunday, to St Francis of Assisi.

Some questions over whether Pope Francis had actually taken the step arose after Francis walked out of a tree-planting ceremony on Friday at which he was scheduled to entrust the assembly to his sainted namesake, without delivering his prepared remarks, and in fact without saying a word beyond those of the Our Father.

“The Holy Father entrusted the Synod to St Francis, that he might intercede before the Father, to whom he addressed himself with the Our Father prayer,” Bruni told the Herald in response to a request for clarification.

The ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, at which Pope Francis was scheduled to speak, caused something of an uproar on Saturday, when reports of the scene described what was in essence a ritual offering to an indigenous representation of Mother Earth. “After witnessing the ritual,” the Catholic News Agency reported, “Pope Francis set aside his prepared remarks, opting instead to offer the Our Father without comment.”

There’s been a good deal of very granular analysis of the ceremony’s particulars, with estimations of its broad scope ranging from Pagan ritual sacrifice to deeply inculturated Catholicism finally come home to the centre of the faith and the governance of the Church. It was the Traditionalist camp that debunked some of the worst rumours, including one about an alleged fertility totem that was actually a statuette of an indigenous man with right forearm raised at right angle. “Hysteria Alert,” tweeted Michael Voris of Church Militant on Saturday, “the little statue at the pagan ceremony who many are tweeting as ‘phallic’ is NOT. It’s the angle of the picture. Other angles reveal its an arm.”

“Do not give the Lefties any ammo to call you crazy,” Voris counselled his followers, “Check your facts FIRST. The pagan [sic] ceremony is bad enuf [sic] on its own.” It’s good advice, which not everyone followed. Robert Royal of The Catholic Thing gave the phallic line as good on Monday morning. The pseudonymous letter-writer, Xavier Rynne II, was a little more circumspect in a syndicated piece The Catholic Herald ran, also on Monday, but still made note of the impugned figurine’s “distinctively male, er, profile.”

On the other side, as it were, there was shock and indignation that anyone could be even mildly nonplussed, let alone scandalized by the business, which was highly unusual and designed to challenge, at least, our notions of what true religious cult — in the technical sense of the term — really is.

If the ceremony was an attempt to consternate certain elements in the Church, the episode may have ended up causing at least as much consternation to the papal camp as it did to others.

Whatever else it was, the ceremony was certainly a headache for the Vatican communications machine and for auxiliaries around the world. Suffice it to say: if you have to spill anything like the ink that has been spilt explaining what something wasn’t, maybe you misjudged the optics of the thing. Next time, if your great object is to plant a tree, maybe the thing to do is just plant the tree.