Maybe it's just a coincidence? Maybe not

1101790618_400.jpgThe mainstream media are now working their way out of the hands-clutching-rosaries stage of their coverage, after a marathon of anchorpersons trying to project nonstop sympathy for the pope and those who loved him. Now we are transitioning into the serious coverage that will resemble the New Hampshire primary with vestments and incense (more on that later). The faux-political polls ought to start coming out any minute now.

But there has been some interesting commentary on the cable channels — not much, but some.

Over on MSNBC, Chris “Hardball” Matthews had a long, detailed conversation with former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn about the role of Catholic faith and doctrine in the current canyon inside the Democratic Party, between the old-line FDR voters and the modern lifestyle left. Both were spunky, but treated each other with respect. Then Patrick Buchanan showed up and Matthews did a pretty decent job of helping him dissect the Catholic vs. Libertarian split, as well. I kept waiting for the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson to crash in and wreck things.

Toward the end of the evening, I heard a commentator — a priest, last name Morris — mention the symbolism of the pope dying on the eve of “Divine Mercy Sunday” and a link between this feast and Polish mysticism. That reminded me of some personal emails earlier in the day from Rod “Friend of this blog” Dreher of The Dallas Morning News. Hang on, this gets interesting:

As everybody knows, John Paul is a mystic. As he hovers near death, I’m thinking of another Polish mystic, St. Faustina Kowalska, who died in 1938, and was canonized by John Paul on April 30, 2000. During her short life, St. Faustina lived as a cloistered nun, and claimed to have had many visions and locutions of Jesus and Mary, which she recorded in a lengthy diary. The diary was published some years after her death, and is widely available in English under the title “Divine Mercy In My Soul.”

Anyway, Faustina’s diary records numerous apocalyptic messages, in which Jesus and Mary speak of chastisement coming upon mankind if it fails to repent, and encouraging Faustina to spread devotion to “Divine Mercy” to stay the hand of divine judgment. One of the messages is particularly interesting. In 1937, a year before her death, St. Faustina wrote:

As I was praying for Poland, I heard the words: I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming.

When he canonized St. Faustina in 2000, John Paul made the celebration of “Divine Mercy Sunday” a universal feast of the Catholic Church, as St. Faustina wrote that Christ requested. Divine Mercy Sunday is always the first Sunday after Easter. . . . Maybe it’s just a coincidence.

Later in the day, Dreher came back for another round. It seems that Krakow, Poland, was always the center of the Divine Mercy devotion. So here we have a future Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, a priest who said from the beginning that he felt very close to Sister Faustina, becoming pope, leading the effort to canonize Faustina and making Divine Mercy Sunday a feast of the worldwide church. And then this Polish priest-bishop-pope dies after sundown, as his church begins the Sunday celebration of the Divine Mercy feast, a feast linked to what some Catholics see as a mystical prophecy about a “spark” from Poland that is a sign of . . .

Wait a minute. Do the Left Behind guys know about all of this?

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Lame pope coverage at Slate

Slate‘s JPII lineup is less than ideal. First we get two articles that ran in 2003 — one moderately interesting explanation of how the voting will go for the next pope and a piece by Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman that makes a lot of jokes without really handicapping the race for the next pope. Then we have a short, bloodless exchange between the “Catholic Right vs. the Catholic Left on John Paul II’s Legacy.” The partners in dialogue are Michael McGough and Deal Hudson. And — yes — Hudson does use much of his space to flak for Republicans. Christopher Hitchens weighs in with his usual drunken bombast, but this denunciation doesn’t even rise to the level of his attempt to pour cold water on Ronald Reagan. Rounding out the coverage is a summary of today’s newspapers and a piece by television critic Dana Stevens, who complains that network coverage is turning the pope’s “death agony into a peepshow,” which is “accompanied by blow by blow by perky newscasters.” Better, please.

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The soul — Father Gushee knows it when he sees it

PopeJohnPaulII25th.jpgThis, dear readers, is what the editors of The Palm Beach Post think of the religion beat and any traditional Catholic and Christian readers who remain on their subscription lists.

Veteran religion writer, and Episcopal priest, Steve Gushee is back with another column on why this pope just does not get the postmodern world and its evolving view of life and death, truth and mystery.

The bottom line: The Terri Schiavo case proves that John Paul II is a heretic and an idol worshipper.

You need to read it all. Here is a glimpse.

A human being has that extraordinary, intangible presence we call life. Like love and beauty, life defies precise definition. Some call it spirit. Others label it soul. Whatever we call it, we know it when we see it. The human body is a shell, a temple in the words of St. Paul, that houses the spirit, the soul, the human being. Through modern medicine, a human body often can continue to function long after its spirit has left. . . .

People of faith routinely speak of the body and the soul as distinct entities. Paul wrote of his desire to cast off the body to enable his spirit to be closer to God. Those who define life as any biological function that enables the body simply to exist confuse the spirit and its temple and cause extraordinary moral confusion.

Should the Post continue to print Gushee? Of course it should. That is not the point.

Should the newspaper get itself one or more other columnists who can add balance and, every now and then, some facts and authoritative quotes from experts? Yes.

Why continue to allow one reporter/priest to bash away at traditional believers in this region? What’s the point? And why aren’t local Roman Catholic authorities up in arms about this?

UPDATED: An email from a reader notes that The Wall Street Journal published precisely the opposite″>point of view yesterday in Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart’s piece, “The Soul of a Controversy.” A sample, starting with the writer listening to some very American voices on talk radio:

What caught my attention was the unreflective dualism to which all three clearly subscribed: The soul, they assumed, is a kind of magical essence haunting the body, a ghost in a machine. This is in fact a peculiarly modern view of the matter, not much older than the 17th-century philosophy of Descartes. While it is now the model to which most of us habitually revert when talking about the soul — whether we believe in such things or not — it has scant basis in either Christian or Jewish tradition.

Thus, his final question in the Schiavo case is one that haunted much of the mainstream press coverage.

I do not understand exactly why those who wanted Terri Schiavo to die had become so resolute in their purposes by the end. If she was as “vegetative” as they believed, what harm would it have done, I wonder, to surrender her to the charity (however fruitless) of her parents? Of this I am certain, though: Christians who understand their faith are obliged to believe that she was, to the last, a living soul. It is true that, in some real sense, it was her soul that those who loved her could no longer reach, but it was also her soul that they touched with their hands and spoke to and grieved over and adored. And this also means that it was a living soul that we as a society chose to abandon to starvation and thirst. . . .

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St. Pete Times keeps covering Terri news

As one would expect, the best newspaper in Florida is continuing to cover the Terri Schiavo case, even as the national and global media focus on events at the Vatican. Here is a direct link to The St. Petersburg Times website dedicated to the life and death of Terri. The news for today is that the precise location of her body and its immediate fate remain unknown. There also is a roundup of clergy views on the case, most of which are pro-life, and, from recent coverage, a profile of the other woman in Michael Schiavo’s life. As the pope story grows, this link is the one to keep for the aftermath of the Schiavo drama.

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Another wrinkle in the Sunni story

For those following the post-Christian Science Monitor Iraq story, Robert F. Worth of The New York Times has a new wrinkle. There is another sign that the Sunni leaders are not united, and what a symbolic sign it is — a group of clerics have urged their followers to join the Iraqi police. The key: “The edict, signed by 64 imams and religious scholars, was a striking turnaround for the clerics, who have often lashed out in sermons at the fledgling army and police force and branded them collaborators. Prominently missing from the signers was Harith al-Dari, the leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars and one of the most influential Sunni Arab clerics in Iraq, who is said to have close ties to the insurgency. Still, the directive, which carried the signature of Ahmed Hassan al-Taha, an imam at an important Baghdad mosque who has been a strong critic of the occupation, seemed to represent a significant step.”

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Online journalism world gears up — again

JPII shield.jpgAs we continue to wait and watch, I wanted to note a few sites that are collecting online reporters’ resources linked to the life and work of Pope John Paul II.

Our friends over at have a special edition of Al’s Morning Meeting online, in which online researcher Al Tompkins pulls together a mountain of links and background resources. There is no way I can compete with that, so just click here.

Similar materials will continue to be updated at the ReligionLink site operated by the Religion Newswriters Association. (Here is a direct link to the RNA’s fast-developing collection of links on Pope John Paul II and the Vatican.

Those seeking materials from a traditionalist Catholic perspective can head to Catholic World News and its Off the Record blog. Christianity Today‘s team is hard at work, so click here.

This list will keep growing in the hours and days ahead. However, may I also be so bold as to point you toward a column that I wrote recently for the Scripps Howard News Service, at the time of the first real crisis in this threat to the life of the pope and the media panic that ensued.

I called it “Pope John Paul II: What’s the lead?” I really think that is the question many are facing right now. It featured input from a host of veteran pope-watchers, from papal biographer George Weigel to Godbeat legend Russell Chandler, from Beliefnet czar Steven Waldman to Baptist scholar Timothy George. Here is a quick bite from that column:

Reporters are trying to cover their bases. The panic also may have been fueled by another reality. This pope’s life is impossible to capture in a few dramatic images, a three-minute sound-bite blitz and a sentence or two about the length of his tenure (second longest ever) and the number of nations he has visited (125 so far). Journalists must ask: What is the lead on this story?

Please let us know of the best, and the worst, articles that you see in the mainstream press. Also, pass along good sites for research on the story. Once again, please know that we are interested in a wide range of materials, from a variety of viewpoints. I would also be interested in hearing from journalists evaluating the, well, doctrinal balance of some of these resource sites.

While we all face our personal reactions to this story, we must remember that people have work to do. It’s called journalism.

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Buckets of tears

WomanGrieving.jpgThe St. Petersburg Timesdetailed report on Terri Schiavo’s final hours is elegant and rigorously balanced. The article, which appears under a five-person byline, is a moving account of the grief felt by Michael Schiavo and his brother, by Terri’s siblings and parents and by the protesters who have demonstrated outside the Pinellas Park hospice.

Even amid the conflicts between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers, we see two families saying goodbye with universally familiar rites of touch, storytelling and prayer:

In an interview late Thursday, Brian Schiavo said he and Michael had stayed up all night, sitting with Terri the entire time except when the Schindlers came in. As the night wore on, Brian said, he and Michael talked to Terri and rubbed her arms and legs, which were cold and mottled. They also traded stories about the old days with the girl they used to know.

Brian told the one about the time when Michael and Terri were dating and Brian went into the dry cleaner where she worked. He took off his pants and handed them to her. Said he’d wait. Brian stood there in his white briefs while Terri ran to the back, screaming and cracking up.

They told the one about Brian and Michael spoofing a synchronized swimming routine in the pool, and Terri laughing her huge, infectious laugh.

. . . Outside the hospice, Bobby Schindler was pleading with the police officer for another visit. The request reached Michael Schiavo. An officer knocked on the door of Terri’s room and said Bobby wanted to see her. Michael and Brian, groggy, got themselves together and said okay, then went to another hospice room down the hall where they’d been living for days.

Just after 7:30 a.m., Bobby Schindler and his sister Suzanne — accompanied by a priest, Father Frank Pavone — were led to Terri’s bedside. They stayed in the room for approximately an hour and a half.

According to Pavone, Terri could not focus her eyes and was breathing with difficulty. The hospice workers, he said, told him and the Schindler siblings that Terri wouldn’t make it through another day.

Pavone said they prayed over Terri, held her hand, stroked her hair. He sang hymns in Latin, including Hail Holy Queen, a chanted version of Ave Maria and Veni Creator Spiritus. They recited the rosary and delivered the chaplet of divine mercy, a series of prayers asking God’s mercy.

“For the sake of his sorrowful passion,” they said, “have mercy on us and on the whole world.”

The Times‘ restrained description of Terri’s dying moments, and the grief that followed, shows us the shared humanity in these battling families:

Michael Schiavo went to his wife and cradled her. Terri lay on her left side, wearing a pale nightgown. The covers were pulled over her. She had stuffed animals under her arms. Four hospice workers in the room were crying.

Michael held his wife and talked to her. Brian stood next to Michael, massaging his back.

“Michael,” he said, “it’s going to be all right.”

Almost immediately, Terri stopped breathing.

“We were there about 60 seconds,” Brian said, “and she was gone.”

The lawyers and nurses left Michael and Brian alone with her after a while. Terri’s hands were still wrapped around pads to protect her palms; Michael removed the pads and tossed them into the trash. Her hands, curled tighter and tighter into fists over the years, had relaxed a little. Michael took a red rose from a vase by her bed and put it in her hands.

By now, Terri’s parents had arrived at the hospice. Knowing they were on their way, Michael and Brian Schiavo went back to the room down the hall. Both of them were crying. Brian told his brother that he was happy for Terri, relieved that she no longer was living in such a state.

Terri’s siblings, waiting across the street in a gift shop, learned of her death from the family’s attorney, David Gibbs III. They waited for Terri’s parents at the hospice entrance. Mary Schindler, Terri’s mother, was the first to enter. Gibbs had the sense she knew her daughter was gone, even before a hospice worker spoke.

“Terri’s passed this morning,” the worker said.

Mary Schindler wept and walked down the hall to Terri’s room. Bob Schindler, about 30 seconds behind his wife, heard the news as he entered.

The Schindler family — Mary, Bob, Suzanne and Bobby — gathered around Terri’s bed. Gibbs stood in the hall, but could hear the family’s sobs.

Here is an important reminder that people are more complicated than they appear when they’re locked in an entirely public clash of worldviews, surrounded by klieg lights and TV cameras. Both Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers have become the iconic faces of the right-to-die and right-to-life movements. For those of us who have followed this story as something more than distant observers, it’s been tempting to assume the worst about one family or the other.

The debate about Terri Schiavo’s life and death remains inescapable, and the questions it raises matter immensely to those on both sides who realize that crucial matters are at stake. But the tears shed by both families as Terri Schiavo died also ought to touch something in our souls, and to prompt us to pray — not only for the comfort and strength of our allies, but also for God to shower mercy and grace into the lives of our opponents.

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As he lay dying

heart2.jpg Bad news from Rome. The pope’s urinary tract infection produced a fever that was serious enough that he was administered the last rites. This was, of course not the first time that he had been administered the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, and I went to bed last night with the happy news that he had stabilized.

But then he took a dramatic turn for the worse. The AP is reporting that the Vatican is denying that the pope is in a coma. Given the curia’s recent record of playing it straight about the pope’s health, it makes sense to believe that there is no wool-pulling going on here. The gist of the report:

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a previous statement that the pope suffered septic shock and heart failure Thursday afternoon.

“This morning, the condition of the Holy Father is very serious,” he said.

However, he said the pope had participated in a 6 a.m. Mass Friday and that he was “conscious, lucid, and serene.”

Per John Paul II’s wishes, he is being attended to in the papal apartment by “his personal doctor, two intensive care doctors, a cardiologist, an ear, nose and throat specialist and two nurses.”

If the initial diagnosis of heart failure (as opposed to a heart attack) holds up, then the pope is living on borrowed time. But then, in a certain sense, so are we all.

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