A newsworthy Easter vigil

6seleniI hope readers who celebrated Easter yesterday had a beautiful day. I was most intrigued by coverage of the baptism of Magdi Allam, a prominent critic of radical Islam. Here’s how Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press began her story:

Italy’s most prominent Muslim commentator, a journalist with iconoclastic views such as support for Israel, converted to Roman Catholicism Saturday when the pope baptized him at an Easter service.

As a choir sang, Pope Benedict XVI poured holy water over Magdi Allam’s head and said a brief prayer in Latin.

“We no longer stand alongside or in opposition to one another,” Benedict said in a homily reflecting on the meaning of baptism. “Thus faith is a force for peace and reconciliation in the world: distances between people are overcome, in the Lord we have become close.”

I appreciated that the reporter used the actual text of Benedict’s sermon to provide context for the baptism. Reuters’ Philip Pullella, whose Vatican coverage I seem to be highlighting frequently, upped the ante a bit by emphasizing the personal risk involved in Allam’s conversion:

A prominent Muslim author and critic of Islamic fundamentalism who was baptized a Catholic by Pope Benedict said yesterday Islam is “physiologically violent” and he is now in great danger because of his conversion.

“I realize what I am going up against, but I will confront my fate with my head high, with my back straight and the interior strength of one who is certain about his faith,” Magdi Allam said.

In a surprise move on Saturday night, the Pope baptized the 55-year-old, Egyptian-born Mr. Allam at an Easter eve service in St. Peter’s Basilica that was broadcast around the world.

Mr. Allam took the name “Christian” for his baptism.

Pullella’s lede — assuming that it wasn’t changed by the paper I grabbed his report from — makes a common error that might not seem important but is. While baptism confers membership into a specific church body, people aren’t baptized a Lutheran, Presbyterian or Catholic. They’re baptized into the Christian faith. I was actually impressed at how many print publications handled the language well. On the radio and television, however, I and a few readers kept hearing this “baptized a Catholic” terminology. It takes a few more words but it’s important to be precise when dealing with sacraments.

Late in Holy Week, Osama bin Laden called Pope Benedict XVI the leader of “a new crusade” against Islam and vowed retribution against the European Union for publishing Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan had a fascinating look at the cluelessness of some in the media:

France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.

What does it say about some in the media that they might think this conversion was a last minute attempt to respond to bin Laden? Still, it is definitely worth noting that the Vatican didn’t back off from baptism plans to satisfy a bloodthirsty terrorist, as these stories, including this one that led with angle, did.

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  • Sharon D.

    I don’t see that it’s wrong to say “baptized a Catholic.” That’s how Catholics actually speak; and besides, despite the frequent claim that there’s no distinction of baptisms, in fact those who are “baptized Catholic” but never darken a church door again are received differently from those who are “baptized Protestant” and choose to become Catholic. I think the reporter’s phrasing was accurate as well as informative.

  • Colm

    A few things:

    I thought the clunky term was ‘Roman Catholicism’, not ‘baptized a Catholic’. Baptism in a Catholic Church does result in your name being added to 1.1 billion other names on the Catholic registry, so ‘baptized a Catholic’ does make sense, especially if a reader may not fully understand the divisions within Christianity. Roman Catholicism, rather than just Catholicism, has always bothered me. It’s an unneccessary distinction: People will always think of the Church of Rome when the term ‘Catholicism’ is used.

  • David Palmer

    I believe the baptism of Mr Allam by the Pope bodes well for the Christian Muslim talks later in November. We won’t be seeing a repetition of the craven response by 300 Church Leaders in the NYT to the call of the 138 Muslim Scholars to the Pope, 20 Orthodox Patriarchs and assorted Protestant chieftains entitled, “A Common Word between Us and You”.

    A Calvinist says thank God for the Pope!

  • Maureen

    Normally Catholics just say “baptized”. You might add “in the Catholic church”, but not meaning “into the Catholic Church”. You would say that someone was “received into the Catholic Church”, though.

    Confirmation and Communion, which Allam would also have received at Easter Vigil, are more the focus of “as a Catholic”.

  • Jimmy Mac

    I have always thought that being “received into the Catholic Church” applies to already-baptized Christians.

    Of course, if their baptismal formula was “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier,” then, of course, they first have to go through an exorcism followed by 40 days on Krispie Kreme doughnuts and diet Pepsi in the desert.

  • FW Ken

    Baptized persons are “received” into the Catholic Church, or, perhaps, “received into full communion with the Catholic Church” and Confirmed, unless they had an Orthodox Confirmation, which is considered valid. If there are questions about the baptism, the baptism is a “conditional baptism”, basically “if you have not been baptized, then I baptize you…etc. Two of our 3 adult baptisms this year were conditional, because they couldn’t remember where and when it happened.

  • Karla

    I think it’s important to include this from the article:

    The Union of Islamic Communities in Italy—which Allam has frequently criticized as having links to Hamas—said the baptism was his own decision.

    “He is an adult, free to make his personal choice,” the Apcom news agency quoted the group’s spokesman, Issedin El Zir, as saying.

    Yahya Pallavicini, vice president of Coreis, the Islamic religious community in Italy, said he respected Allam’s choice but said he was “perplexed” by the enormously symbolic and high-profile way in which he chose to convert.

    “If Allam truly was compelled by a strong spiritual inspiration, perhaps it would have been better to do it delicately, maybe with a priest from Viterbo where he lives,” the ANSA news agency quoted Pallavicini as saying.

    Was it tacky for the Vatican to publicize such a conversion especially with Benedict’s upcoming meeting with Muslims? Yes. But note that no Muslim in Italy called for his death. I suppose Muslims in America should start publicizing the Christians that convert to Islam on holidays as well… seeing that Islam still is the fastest growing religion in the West. (Conversions! Freely coming to Islam.)

  • FW Ken

    Given the history, I assumed the pope did the baptism, with such publicity, to protect Allam. Giving it higher visibility would make a murder more of an international cause.

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