Blessed Francis, healer?

Does a saint’s intercession heal? Or are the faithful in the Roman Catholic Church praying with the saints to Jesus Christ?

That’s the big doctrinal question that is a wee bit mysterious in a well-researched, lengthy, and generally helpful article about the procedure for examining whether 19th-century Maryland priest Francis X. Seelos, should be declared a saint.

There are a few other, more minor problems with this generally thorough story. The most evident one is in the photo caption of the article in the Baltimore Sun. One GetReligion reader wrote us that the term “charm” (more reminscent of Shakespeare and witchcraft) to refer to the religious relic Mary Ellen Heibel wears around her neck was so “ignorant” that he couldn’t read the article.

The canonization process (Seelos was beatified by the Vatican in 2000) is a long one, and requires that those arguing for sainthood document a second event that fulfills the criteria for a miracle. The context for Arthur Hirsch’s article is the healing of Mary Ellen Heibel, a parishioner at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Annapolis, Maryland — which might or might not be the miracle that those campaigning for sainthood need to make their case.

Starting with a few paragraphs about the Maryland parishioner, Hirsch cuts back and forth between her story and the process that the Archdiocese of Baltimore is undergoing in evaluating whether it should ask the Vatican to canonize Seelos. This isn’t simple stuff, by any means. And generally, Hirsch does a pretty nice job explaining it. Heibel doesn’t pray “to” Seelos. She prays “with” him.

But these two paragraphs in particular seemed confusing.

For only the fifth time in its 200-year history, the archdiocese has launched a test of faith and science to help the Vatican determine whether one of its own was not only exemplary in virtue during life but now has the power in death to intercede with God. In the end, it will be up to the pope to rule on whether Seelos is to join the men and women held up by the church through the centuries as models of holiness.

“Did what happened come about by the intercession of Blessed Seelos? That’s what we have to discover,” said the Rev. Gilbert J. Seitz, the judicial vicar who heads the committee, emphasizing that its job is not to judge the case but to gather information in a process akin to taking a deposition.

As I understand the Roman Catholic doctrine of intercession, the saints can pray with and for believers, but it is not up to them as to whether the prayer is answered. It would be up to God.

I wish the author had asked Seitz how any earthly court would be able to figure out whether Seelos was responsible for the healing — and what that means..

Closer to the middle of the story, when discussing the “painstaking” canonization process, Hirsch quotes Seitz again. “Hundreds stall at the midpoint of beatification, either for lack of a verifiable miracle or the support neccesary to bring such information to the Vatican’s attention.”

Now that’s a fascinating sentence. Readers might want to know what makes a healing or other occurrence a “verifiable” miracle — and what kind of bureaucratic, financial ( for research and writing), or popular suppport is neccesary to get the attention of the Vatican.

I’m not thrilled with the use of the word “magical” a few paragraphs later to describe events in the lives of the saints. On the whole, however, Hirsch displays what seems to be a willingness to both understand and chronicle carefully the beliefs and language of the people he’s telling us about. Local readers probably appreciated that — and would eagerly wait for more chapters in the ongoing story of a homegrown pastor made very, very good.

I know you’ll know this, but that’s not the “real” Seelos in the YouTube video — it took me a minute to figure it out

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In the steps of St. Tikhon

One of concepts that causes my journalism students the most grief is finding the line between making statements of personal opinion and making statements that draw logical conclusions from facts that have been stated on the record or verified in a document. It’s the line between editorial writing and news, when you get right down to it.

As I tell my students, there are times when journalists are allowed to take the publicly stated equation 2+2 and make it add up to 6 — as long as the reporter can show, in the story, where the additional information is coming from. Here is a perfect example of how this works, in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lede written by the Godbeat veteran Ann Rodgers — who has enough experience to get away with this kind of thing. Brace yourselves for blunt language:

BEDFORD, Texas – The spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church in America offered to begin talks aimed at full communion with the new Anglican Church in North America, then named a series of obstacles whose removal could tear apart the hard-won unity among the 100,000 theological conservatives who broke from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.

“What will it take for a true ecumenical reconciliation? Because that is what I am seeking by being here today,” Metropolitan Jonah said to a standing ovation from 900 people assembled in a tent on the grounds of St. Vincent Cathedral in Bedford, Texas.

Now there’s history behind those words and we’ll get back to them in a minute.

The key to that lede — with its claim that Metropolitan Jonah both praised the new conservative Anglican body in North America and, at the same time, attacked its foundations — is based on simply, clear statements of doctrine. There is no way to write a news story about this long and very complex speech without knowing a thing or two or three (or more) about church history and doctrine. Without that, the Orthodox leader was speaking in an unknown tongue.

Rodgers noted that, with a smile, Metropolitan Jonah openly admitted that he was coming to deliver bad news, as well as good news. This was an offensive speech, but not a hateful one.

The good news was that the Orthodox Church in America was no longer interested in ecumenical talks with the liberal hierarchy of the U.S. Episcopal Church. The bad news — sure to offend many in the room, but not others — was that Orthodoxy believes that it’s impossible to mix Protestantism and ancient forms of Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Them’s fighting words to people who accept the great “Anglican Compromise.”

Thus, we read:

Metropolitan Jonah named several issues that he said the two churches needed to “face head on” and resolve before they can achieve full communion. Among the most volatile on his list were the Calvinist theology taught by many evangelical Anglicans and the ordination of women as priests, which the new church allows each of its dioceses to accept or reject.

“Calvinism is a condemned heresy,” he said, to a smattering of applause from some Anglo-Catholics in the new church.

“For … intercommunion of the Anglican Church and the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination of women needs to be resolved,” he said, again to applause from many of the same people.

“I believe women have a critical role to play in the church, but I do not believe it is in the [priesthood or as bishops],” he said. “Forgive me if this offends you.” He called for an effort to “creatively come together to find the right context for women’s ministry in the church.”

Now, I understand that it’s hard to get a handle on who is and who is not applauding during a speech. However, playing “spot the Anglo-Catholics” is not the key element of this story.

Tikhon_1The key is that Rodgers was able to back up that bold lede.

If you reject Calvinism, then you reject almost everyone in the low-church, Morning Prayer, red-and-black vestments wing of the global Anglican Communion. You are saying that the Protestant Reformation was, in large part, a tragic mistake, at least from the perspective of the Christian East. That’s a landmine if there ever was one, in a Communion built on the claim that John Calvin and the likes of St. John Chrysostom can thrive in the same pew (actually, the issue of pews would be problematic for the Orthodox anyway).

But what about the “good news” in this speech? You see, there is history at work there, as well, history in which the roots of Orthodox in North American were — briefly — intertwined with those of Anglo-Catholics. There was a moment in time when Orthodoxy came very close to recognizing the validity of Anglican orders, in a manner similar to state that currently exists between Rome and the East. These ancient churches recognize each other’s orders, even while living in a tragic state of broken Communion. That’s a complicated matter and Metropolitan Jonah’s speech provided a short sketch of the history.

Journalism being what it is, Rodgers has to hit at all of this terrain in even fewer words. The St. Tikhon she mentions was Bishop Tikhon, who came to America to start a multi-ethnic Orthodox body on this continent. However, he was called home to Moscow to become Russia’s patriarch — leading to clashes with the rising tide of Marxism and, eventually, his martyrdom. But that’s another story.

(Metropolitan Jonah) spoke of St. Tikhon, a 19th-century Russian Orthodox missionary to the United States who initiated a close relationship with the Episcopal Church that later cooled.

“We need to pick up where they left off,” he said. “I occupy the throne St. Tikhon held as the leader of the Orthodox Church in America. Our arms are wide open.”

The Anglican Church in North America hopes to be recognized as a new province of the 80 million-member global Anglican Communion, of which the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. province. The new church believes the Episcopal Church failed to uphold biblical authority and classic doctrines about matters ranging from the divinity of Jesus to biblical morality, a criticism that the Orthodox share.

The Orthodox Church in America is a self-governing daughter of the Russian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Jonah, who was elected last year in Pittsburgh, is a convert who was raised as an Episcopalian. He spoke with humor about both traditions, warning, “I’m afraid my talk will have something to offend just about everybody.”

Like I said, it’s hard to write about complex historical issues in public newspapers. This is an example of how you go about doing that. Amen.

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Obama chooses worship over spectacle (maybe)

National_Cathedral_Sanctuary.jpgWhen Amy Sullivan of Time wrote one of the finest articles about President Obama’s church options, she quoted a creative idea from Flo McAfee, former religious liaison for the Clinton White House. McAfee recommended worshiping in the chapel at the Army’s Fort Meyer, where security already is covered.

Now Sullivan, drawing on reporting by her colleague Elizabeth Dias, breaks the news that Obama will, like his predecessor George W. Bush, worship in Evergreen Chapel at Camp David, where Navy chaplains preside. The story offers some great details, not least that Obama can experience more decorum at an informal chapel than he did during an Easter visit to St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square: “Even at St. John’s, which is so accustomed to presidential visitors that it is known as the ‘Church of the Presidents,’ worshippers couldn’t help themselves from snapping photos of Obama on their camera phones as they walked down the aisle past him to take communion.”

My fellow Episcopalians are snapping cell-phone photos? On their way to Communion, no less? This needs to be a story in itself, under the tag “Signs of the Apocalypse.”

The Obamas will not worship alone at Camp David. “Each week, regardless of whether the President is on-site, Evergreen Chapel holds nondenominational Christian services open to the nearly 400 military personnel and staff at Camp David, as well as their families,” Time reports.

Another great detail: Obama’s new pastor is Lieut. Carey Cash, a Southern Baptist who has served as a chaplain in the Iraq War:

The 38-year-old Memphis native is a graduate of the Citadel and the great-nephew of Johnny Cash. He served a tour as chaplain with a Marine battalion in Iraq and baptized nearly 60 Marines during that time. Cash earned his theology degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth — and, yes, that means Obama’s new pastor is a Southern Baptist.

Cash and his wife also have five children, some of whom may find themselves acting opposite Sasha and Malia in the Christmas pageant. But if the experience of past Camp David chaplains is any guide, Cash won’t necessarily have the opportunity to form a pastoral relationship with Obama. “We used to tell people our job was to run like a five-star resort,” said Patrick McLaughlin, who was chaplain at Camp David from 2002 to 2005, in an interview with Religion News Service. “One of the things you value when you go on vacation is peace and quiet.” His contact with Bush outside worship services, McLaughlin said, was “very little.”

Sullivan does a solid job of explaining the security challenges and intrusions on a church’s weekly atmosphere involved in any presidential visit, especially since the 9/11 terrorist strikes. Obama’s choice is bound to be as disappointing for pundits as it is for any camera-weilding worshipers at St. John’s. I’m not sure there are many better options, unless Obama’s weekly worship choice becomes as chaotic and disruptive as his dropping in on Five Guys Burgers and Fries with Brian Williams.

Update: David Brody of CBN News quotes Jen Psaki, deputy White House press secretary, as disputing Time‘s report.

Photo: The choir at Washington National Cathedral, which — despite the lobbying efforts of Sally Quinn, may not claim Obama as a new member.

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Icons, idols and the Gloved One

michael_jackson_beat_itIf you run a Google News search for “Michael Jackson” and “idol,” you’ll get tens of thousands of hits. If you watched any news coverage of the death of MJ, “icon” was the go-to word for describing the King of Pop. Here’s Agence France-Presse, for instance:

Michael Jackson is dead after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in yesterday for the tortured music icon revered as the “King of Pop.”

Clearly the media use this term to mean someone who is the object of a lot of attention and devotion. But I can’t help but think, if that’s what they mean to say about Jackson, that “idol” would be a better term.

Both terms are religious or have religious overtones. Here’s how one Russian Orthodox web site describes icons:

In the Orthodox Church, icons are sacred images painted on wood, carved in stone, molded in metal, sewn on cloth, or made in any suitable material, which conform to a canonical non-naturalistic style, and which are venerated by the faithful with bows, kisses, incense and lights, with the understanding that the icon itself is not worshipped, but the honor given it is transferred to Christ, the Mother of God, or to whatever saint is depicted thereon.

Now, even if you just use a non-religious definition, I’m not sure it’s the right word. Here’s what Random House says:

-noun
1.a picture, image, or other representation.
2.Eastern Church. a representation of some sacred personage, as Christ or a saint or angel, painted usually on a wood surface and venerated itself as sacred.
3.a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.
4.Computers. a picture or symbol that appears on a monitor and is used to represent a command, as a file drawer to represent filing.
5.Semiotics. a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.

Which of those definitions covers the media’s use of the term?

National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg didn’t enjoy the media rush to sanctify Jackson with the use of the term:

An icon, technically speaking, is a religious symbol deserving of reverence and adoration. The networks may not have intended to use the word that way, but they certainly showed an unseemly amount of reverence and adoration for the man.

What do you think of the use of the term icon for anything other than a representation of an object or person?

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Calvin: he’s hot, hot, hot

453px-Calvin-coolidgeNo, not THAT Calvin — although maybe he has a birthday coming up, too.

The rock star of the moment is John Calvin, the stereotypically dour theological chaperone of Geneva (his 500th birthday is July 10). A balanced, nicely-done story by Religion News Service writer Daniel Burke maps the lawyer’s influence on American evangelicals, particularly Southern Baptists. But why is Calvin becoming so, er, trendy? Well, it isn’t because of his clothes, his beard, or even the way he wanted to govern Geneva. It is, as Burke astutely notes in his lede, Calvin’s doctrine that is undergoing, excuse the expression, a renaissance among conservative Christians:

Like most 24-year-old men, Stephen Jones is keenly interested in sin. But while many of his peers enjoy their youthful indiscretions, Jones takes a more, shall we say, Puritanical stand.

Last weekend (June 12-15), Jones and 4,000 other young Christians packed into a convention center in Palm Springs, Calif., to hear preachers tell them that they are totally depraved, incapable of doing the right thing without a mighty hand from God, and — most importantly — have absolutely no control over their eternal fate…

“His theology is the hottest, most explosive thing being discussed right now,” said Justin Taylor, 32, a self-described Calvinist, and an editorial director at Crossway, a Christian publisher in the evangelical heartland of Wheaton, Ill. “What he taught is extraordinarily influential right now.”

Absolute depravity? Double predestination? Full-scale refutation of the doctrine of free will? Who knew these would make such a comeback? Not only do Neo-Calvinist churches like Mars Hill, Seattle and Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City have large populations of young worshippers, but they are pastored by clergy, like Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller, who have become authors and media figures in their own rights.

Burke notes that this surge in influence has been expressed in some innovative ways, like Facebook fan clubs and Twitter feeds. But, as he also does a good job of clearly articulating why and how this shower of Calvin-related worship, books, and church plants has brought controversy with it — even among conservative Christians.

…former Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines said Calvinism inhibits evangelism and missionary work, which is the lifeblood of the SBC, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. If Jesus died only for the elect, then what’s the point of trying to reach others, said Vines, who co-organized a conference dedicated to debunking Calvinism last year.

“I do believe it is possible to be a five-point Calvinist and be evangelistic and missionary-minded,” Vines said. “But their evangelism and missionary work is in spite of their Calvinism, and not because of it. That’s going to make some of them mad, but I do believe it.”

Vine’s question is a very good one, and there are plenty of other ones that journalists could be asking the Neo-Calvinists. What the connection between the neo’s and the so-called “emerging churches?” What about Calvin’s strong anti-Catholic bias? Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Orthodox Church in America Metropolitan Jonah today as saying that Calvinism among some Anglican evangelicals was a “condemned heresy” posing a problem that needed to be resolved before full communion between the new Anglican Church in North America and OCA was possible.

Yes, indeed, he’s very hot at the moment.

As the media begins to dig deeper (hopefully), the controversy over what Calvin really believed and how these new Calvinists are expressing it needs to get more attention. Burke’s article is a great beginning. If you want a more secular perspective, with some interesting history thrown in, read the Associated Press story by Hanns Neurbourg here. In a story about one of the towering figures of the Reformation, there’s remarkably little analysis of Calvin’s theology. But there is a lot of data on his influence on the arts, democracy, and economics — much of it in revolt against the sage of Geneva, an apparently humble man who would probably not have guessed that 500 years after his birth, he would be making square so hip.

The picture of President Coolidge is from Wikimedia Commons

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Why pagans party at Stonehenge on solstice

Solstice, it only happens twice a year.

This past weekend, as happens every summer solstice, something special reportedly happened at Stonehenge. As the Associated Press reported:

Thousands of neo-Druids, New Age followers and the merely curious flocked to Stonehenge on Sunday, beating drums, chanting and dancing in celebration of the longest day of the year.

The ancient stone circle at the prehistoric monument in southern England is the site of an annual night-long party — or religious ceremony, depending on perspective — marking the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.

“There has been a great atmosphere and where else would you want to be on midsummer’s day?” said Peter Carson of English Heritage, who is in charge of the monument.

Camera flashes bounced off the stones through the night until patchy rays of sunlight peaked through the clouds at 4:58 a.m. BST (0358GMT). A weak cheer went up as dawn broke and an estimated 35,000 people, some of them wrapped in blankets, greeted the sunrise.

Police arrested about 30 people on charges including drug offenses, assault and drunk and disorderly conduct, but said the event was largely peaceful.

“They come for a complete range of reasons,” said archaeologist Dave Batchelor of English Heritage, the site’s caretaker. “Some belong to the Druidic religion and think of it as a temple, others think of it as a place of their ancestors, or for tranquility and others come to see it as a way to celebrate the changing of the seasons.”

The AP reporter goes on to discuss the mystery surrounding Stonehenge. Is it an ancient burial ground or the temple of some sun-worshipping society? And how in the world did its creators ever relocate from up to 150 miles away those several-ton stones that dwarf the stage props in “This is Spinal Tap!”

But what the reporter makes no mention of is why Druids feel a religious connection to Stonehenge. Or, for that matter, what exactly a Druid is.

All I know about Druids comes from Spaceballs, but I’m pretty sure the troubles of the Druish Princess Vespa has little to do with what went on at Stonehenge Sunday. Those neo-Druids consider themselves the ancestors descendants of a group that figures heavily in Celtic mythology. The Druids were reportedly wiped out by the Roman Empire in the first century. But their pagan legacy lives on.

Peter Berresford Ellis writes in A Brief History of the Druids:

Many will remember being taught at school that the Romans saw the Druids as bizarre, barbaric priests who indulged in the most horrendous human sacrifices, searching for auguries in the entrails of their victims. According to others, they were simply ancient patriarchal religious mystics, generally portrayed in white robes and beards, who worshipped nature, particularly trees, and who gathered in stone circles to perform religious rites at the time of the solstice. To some they were powerful magicians and soothsayers.

Well, that explains why neo-Druids would congregate at Stonehenge every year, though I’m still not sure what solstice or stones have to do with this religion. And it would have been nice if the AP could have helped the reader out a bit with this one.

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Martyrdom and mourning cycles in Iran

050330-A-4783J-007I don’t know about you, but I’m getting much of my news about Iran from Twitter. This weekend, many of the Tehran-related items were about Neda, a protesting woman who was killed with a shot to the chest. I have chosen not to watch, but there are graphic videos of the death. As those of us outside Iran are struggling to understand all of the social, political and religious nuances at play there, I must comment Robin Wright’s article in Time about the death’s consequences to the struggle there:

Although it is not yet clear who shot “Neda” (a soldier? pro-government militant? an accidental misfiring?), her death may have changed everything. For the cycles of mourning in Shiite Islam actually provide a schedule for political combat — a way to generate or revive momentum. Shiite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh and 40th days after a death, and these commemorations are a pivotal part of Iran’s rich history. During the revolution, the pattern of confrontations between the shah’s security forces and the revolutionaries often played out in 40-day cycles.

We’re not told why the third, seventh and 40th days are significant, but it helps to know. Wright explains how the first clashes in January 1978 produced deaths that were commemorated with mass protests on the 40th day, resulting in new deaths and the 40-day period of mourning cycle eventually resulted in the shah’s ouster in January 1979.

Last week, TMatt wrote “it’s about time for people in our big newsrooms to start writing about the religious tensions that surround President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and that are helping to fuel those marches in Tehran (and, maybe, elsewhere in Iran).” This story provides some of that context. We learn that Neda is already being hailed as a martyr and that martyrdom is central to politics in the Shiite tradition:

The first Shiite martyr was Hussein, the prophet Mohammed’s grandson. He believed it was better to die fighting injustice than to live with injustice under what he believed was illegitimate rule.

In the seventh century, Hussein and a band of fewer than 100 people, including women and children, took on the mighty Umayyad dynasty in Karbala, an ancient city in Mesopotamia now in modern-day Iraq. They knew they would be massacred. . . .

Because of Hussein, revolt against tyranny became part of Shiite tradition. Indeed, protest and martyrdom are widely considered duties to God. And nowhere is the practice more honored than in Iran, the world’s largest Shiite country.

This story has gotten a lot of play throughout the media. But no one’s covered it as well as this piece in Time.

Photo of the shrine of Husayn Ibn Ali.

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Bringing Luther to … Wittenberg?

luther_wittenberg_1517Every time I read a story from the Washington Post Foreign Service, it makes me sad that newspapers can’t afford to have correspondents throughout the globe. The latest exceptional piece was filed by Craig Whitlock and headlined “In German Birthplace of Reformation, a Revival of Interest.” Here’s how it begins:

WITTENBERG, Germany – Martin Luther, a renegade monk, triggered the Reformation here five centuries ago by nailing a long list of grievances to the door of the Castle Church. But as Wittenberg celebrates the founding of Protestantism, it is finding one thing in short supply: Lutherans.

Generations of secularism and communism have exacted a severe toll on church membership in this eastern German city. Today, fewer than one in five people identify themselves as Christian, one of the lowest percentages in the country. Most worshipers who fill the pews in local churches are tourists longing for a glimpse of the holy sites frequented by Luther when he lived here between 1508 and 1546.

The story explains that east Germany is so atheistic that both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (my church body) have significant outreach efforts there. The LCMS bought a Reformation-era school building in Wittenberg right next to the old Town Church, where Luther used to preach, and is refurbishing it to house a bookstore, a visitors center, and a new confessional congregation in that city.

“In east Germany, you actually have to go up to people and tell them who Jesus was,” said Wilhelm Torgerson, a German Lutheran pastor who serves as the Missouri Synod’s representative in Wittenberg. “They say, ‘Oh yes, Christ. Didn’t he have something to do with Luther?’ ” . . .

Some Missouri Synod leaders have declared that their congregation would be the only true Lutheran church in Wittenberg — an assertion that irritated members of the Evangelical Church in Germany, the largest Protestant body in the country. The Evangelical Church comprises Lutherans, Calvinists and other denominations.

“It was strange for them to come here and say, ‘We are the first real Lutherans,’ ” said Siegfried T. Kasparick, the Evangelical Church’s bishop for Wittenberg. “We’ve had a Lutheran congregation here since Luther.”

I know a few of the people involved with this project and it’s true that there’s been some conflict with the state church. I was impressed that this detail would be included and briefly described. To be sure, my Lutheran church body in America arose precisely because the state was forcing Lutherans to worship with other denominations, and there’s much more to that story than could be included here. But I’m not sure how into the weeds any reporter should get on an issue such as that.

But it’s a great story with tons of information about the demographics of Germany and the history of Luther and Lutheranism. The Communists suppressed Lutheranism for decades, we’re told. Apparently the strong interest from American groups is causing some of the east Germans to reconsider their heritage.

There was this bit:

One public-television series a few years ago ranked Luther as the second-most admired figure in German history, behind post-World War II Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. But many Germans are unfamiliar with Luther’s theological achievements. He is primarily known as a father of the modern German language, the first person to translate the Bible from Latin into German.

While Luther’s translation is notable for being the first person to translate into the vernacular, he did that by translating from Greek and Hebrew, not Latin.

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