Blessed corpses — and holy ghosts — after typhoon

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Here’s my nominee for “Most Bland Headline of the Weekend.” It appeared atop an Associated Press report:

Church services held in typhoon-shattered city

On the other hand, the story’s lede is pretty compelling:

TACLOBAN, Philippines (AP) — Hours after the storm hit the Philippines, the Rev. Amadero Alvero was on the streets, sprinkling holy water over the dead and praying for them. By late afternoon, the 44-year-priest had blessed about 50 corpses in the remains of this shattered city.

He then returned to his half-destroyed Santo Nino church and led Mass. On Sunday, Alvero was again overseeing worship at the peach-colored building, leading services for hundreds of survivors of one of the worst storms on record.

“Despite what happened, we still believe in God,” he said. “The church may have been destroyed, but our faith is intact, as believers, as a people of God, our faith has not been destroyed.”

Before I get to my GetReligion-specific point, let me make a general journalistic observation: This story seems to lack strong editing.

The “44-year-priest” reference in the first sentence leaves me wondering if the reporter meant to say “44-year-old priest.” If the idea really is that the priest has served for 44 years, then no hyphen is needed between “year” and “priest.” In any case, the wording strikes me as awkward.

Meanwhile, that last quote (starting with “The church may have been destroyed”) needs a period, not a comma, after “intact.” Right now, two independent thoughts are joined into a single run-on sentence. (And yes, I’m fully aware that my pointing out such an error guarantees that someone will find a grammatical error in this post and comment on it. Thank you in advance.)

But here’s my bigger concern about this story: the lack of explanation on the practice of sprinkling holy water over the dead.

The story points out that more than 80 percent of the 90 million residents of the Philippines are Roman Catholic. However, this is the only additional information provided on Alvero’s blessing of the corpses:

Alvero carried on his work until the fifth day, blessing bodies wherever they lay — in smashed cars or floating in water. He stopped when the smell became too much for him, though he said other priests have continued doing so.

But why?

Why did Alvero sprinkle the bodies? Where did he get the “holy water?” What is the spiritual significance of the priest blessing corpses? Did he bless just Catholic corpses or all corpses? And what is the theological meaning of this practice?

These seem like logical questions for a major international news organization that serves a general readership. Right?

Unfortunately, the religious insight offered by the AP falls under the category of extremely shallow. For example, the story boils down God’s role in the typhoon to two paragraphs:

Asked why would God allow a storm so powerful and so deadly to obliterate the region, claiming the lives of so many innocents and causing immense suffering, Alvero used an argument familiar to followers of the Abrahamic faiths.

“We are being tested by God, to see how strong our faith is, to see if our faith is true,” he said. “He wants to know that we have faith in him in good times, as well as in bad.”

“An argument familiar to followers of the Abrahamic faiths.” Huh? Speaking of awkward wording …

I understand that for the AP, this is a routine, send-a-reporter-to-church-on-the-Sunday-after-the-big-tragedy report.

I just wish the wire service had taken the time — and space — to flesh out the story with a little more context and insight.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • FW Ken

    I agree: bland headline, bland story.

    My pick for odd wording was the guy who was praying “on” the statute (technically a crucifix). In the picture, he is sort of on the crucifix, but it’s still odd.

    In terms of context, I wonder about the diocese. Where is the see city? Is the bishop alive? Is the diocese functioning? I realize that focusing on one priest and parish gives an opportunity for depth, but I kept wondering what else is going on in a city of about 180,000 Catholics. Not to mention about 40,000 non-Catholics.

  • FW Ken

    Another approach to the same story:

    http://www.catholicregister.org/news/international/item/17191-spiritual-marines-head-to-tacloban-to-bless-bodies-after-typhoon

    They still don’t explain the significance of holy water, but have the excuse of addressing a Catholic audience. :-)

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for your comments, FW Ken! :-)


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