762 Messiahs or Why Slow News is good news

You’ve probably heard of some variation of the Slow Movement, a trend which advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace. There are subcultures devoted to Slow Food, Slow Gardening, Slow Travel — even Slow Church. But what we really need, especially in religion reporting, is Slow News.

While “slow news” day is generally something to be dreaded by news junkies, I think Slow News could help solve one of the media’s biggest problems: the diminishment of context. As the historian C. John Sommerville wrote in an article titled, “Why the News Makes Us Dumb”:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution.

In many ways, information technology has made it faster and easier for reporters put news story into a broader context. Yet the speed at which news is published by most media outlets makes it nearly impossible for journalists to do even the most basic of contextual research. Take, for example, the “Messiah” born in Tennessee story that Bobby Ross mentioned last week.

A judge in Tennessee changed a 7-month-old boy’s name to Martin from Messiah, saying the religious name was earned by one person and “that one person is Jesus Christ.” The AP was among the first to report on the story on August 12. That article was rather bare-boned, but later that day they put out a more in-depth feature.

A more detailed version, as Bobby pointed out, was produced by Godbeat pro Bob Smietana, who explained that baby Martin is just one of hundreds of Messiahs: 762 were born in 2012. Admittedly, the first AP story noted that “Messiah was No. 4 among the fastest-rising baby names in 2012.” But taking the time, as Smietana did, to actually nail down a number (762!) helps to put the story in a broader context. It also helps to show that the real story is not about unusual religion-themed baby names but about the religious freedom to give your baby such a name.

The New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer took an additional four days to weigh-in — an extensive delay in our second-by-second news culture — which seems to have given him the time not only to explore the religious freedom angle in more depth, but to provide some cultural context:
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The New York Times misses battle for Belarus

I would like to draw your attention to a 28 July 2013 piece in the New York Times entitled “Putin in Ukraine to Celebrate a Christian Anniversary”. The article reports on the interplay of religion, politics and culture in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Yet the mention of religion in a story does not necessarily mean the reporter “gets religion.”

The article opens by focusing on what the Times sees as the political significance of the event, and then moves to an appreciation of the interplay of religion with politics.

MOSCOW — In an apparent attempt to use shared history to make a case for closer ties, President Vladimir V. Putin attended religious ceremonies in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday to commemorate the 1,025th anniversary of events that brought Christianity to Ukraine and Russia. At a reception in Kiev, the capital, Mr. Putin spoke of the primacy of the two countries’ spiritual and historical bonds, regardless of political decisions that often divide them. Relations have been rocky in part because of attempts by Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, to formalize its political and economic ties with the European Union.

“We are all spiritual heirs of what happened here 1,025 years ago,” Mr. Putin told church hierarchs at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, one of the holiest sites of Orthodoxy, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “And in this sense we are, without a doubt, one people.”

Mr. Putin’s trip was also the latest sign of the deepening ties and common agenda of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. The events last week commemorated Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s decision to convert to Christianity and baptize his subjects in 988, an event known as the Baptism of Rus,  … The attention has also lent apparent endorsement to church criticism of Western democracy and secular culture, particularly homosexuality….

Patriarch Kirill invoked the concept of the Holy Rus, referring to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as a unified spiritual expanse united under the faith. … The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values. He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia.

The article then looks at the church’s illiberal teachings, pulling quotes from Cyril made outside the Kiev celebrations.

The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values. He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia.

“This is a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom, and we must do everything so that sin is never validated by the laws of the state in the lands of Holy Rus, because this would mean that the people are starting on the path of self-destruction,” he said at a Moscow cathedral, according to the Web site of the Moscow Patriarchate. He previously said that such “blasphemous laws” could prove as dangerous to believers as the executioners of the Great Terror during the government of Stalin.

Before I move to an analysis of the distortions to the story caused by the particular worldview of the Times, let me say a word about nomenclature beginning with names. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is called Kirill in this article and in other outlets is named Kyrill and Cyril. They are all the same name, but coming as I do out of an older style of journalism that anglicizes everything because that is how God intended it to be, I use Cyril — just as I call the pope Francis. And some regions of the world and nations are prefaced by “the” — the Sahara, the Arctic, the Sudan, the Ukraine — less frequently the Lebanon and the Yemen. I am not making a political statement when I call the host nation “the Ukraine”, implying it is a region rather than a nation state, or a mystical idealized place like la France of Charles de Gaulle, rather it is the style in which I was educated. That having been said …

The word “apparent” in the first line is problematic. It begs the question “apparent to whom?” The Times states this is Putin’s political goal and offers extracts from his speeches to illustrate this point, but spends little time in offering other views.

I am not saying the Times was incorrect in stating the trip for Putin was an opportunity to bring the Ukraine closer to Moscow. This theme was noted in the Russian press also. Moskovsky Komsomolets a Moscow-based daily with a circulation of approximately one million, called Putin’s Ukrainian visit “the  second baptism of the Rus”, implying shared spiritual values make Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians “one people”.

The official text of Putin’s 27 July 2013 speech Putin makes this point clear.

The Baptism of Rus was a great event that defined Russia’s and Ukraine’s spiritual and cultural development for the centuries to come. We must remember this brotherhood and preserve our ancestors’ traditions. Together, they built a unique system of Orthodox values and strengthened themselves in their faith …

Putin then moves from spiritual unity to national economic solidarity, arguing the Ukraine’s strategic choice lies with the Eurasian and not the European integration project.

Competition on the global markets is very fierce today. Only by joining forces we can be competitive and stand a chance of winning in this tough environment. We have every reason too, to be confident that we should and can achieve this.

The stress placed on this point by the Times is not misplaced, but it is unbalanced. We are hearing only Putin and Cyril in this story — and what the New York Times thinks about them.

The article does not contrast Putin’s vision to the Ukrainian premier Viktor Yanukovych’s administration’s goal of Kiev assuming a leadership role in bringing not only the Ukraine, but also Russia and Belarus closer to Europe. It may well be the Moscow-based reporter’s job to write all-Putin all the time stories, yet the article’s emphasis on Putin clouds the issue.

The content of Putin’s speech is news as is the fact of the celebration of the anniversary of the Baptism of the East Slavs, but the significant event from a political and religious perspective is the boycott of the proceedings by the Premier of Belarus — a fact mentioned only by the omission of his name from the heads of state list given by the Times.

In other words, it is not new news the Russian Orthodox Church believes nationality, or Russianness is born from Orthodoxy. Nor is it news the Orthodox Church is opposed to gay marriage. Nor is it news that Putin is seeking to pull Kiev into Moscow’s orbit. Nor is the Times‘ comments about the rapprochement  between church and state new news. Putin has been moving the state closer to the church for over a decade — and as the article states Putin revealed he had been baptized as an infant in the Leningrad during the Stalinist era. By focusing on the familiar — of how the ceremony relates to Putin, the Times missed in its coverage is the significance of the boycott of the ceremony by the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka.

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New York Times on the death of an unborn child

You might recall that the New York Times told readers Kermit Gosnell was on trial for killing fetuses rather than newborns. There was a similar problem at USA Today. We noted when a reporter for a different outlet apologized for calling a newborn child a fetus.

So the problems with journalists using “fetus” to describe children even after they born make the old debates on whether it’s appropriate to use the term in stories about children prior to their birth seem quaint. But yesterday the New York Times came in for some criticism over stilted “fetal” language to describe a tragic death of a woman and her unborn child. From “Falling Tree Shatters Lives and Dreams of a Family“:

The Dikov family keeps an album of photos that document the love story of their son, Aleksander, and his wife, Yingyi Li-Dikov. On each page, they beam, always hugging. In one, Ms. Li-Dikov kneels over a heart drawn in the sand, the initials A and Y at its center.

And on another page is a black-and-white photo: the hazy sonogram of the daughter they were expecting in the fall.

There will be no pictures of mother and child. Ms. Li-Dikov, 30, was killed on Sunday when a giant tree toppled in Kissena Park in Queens, shattering the bench she was resting on and killing her. The 6-month-old fetus did not survive.

Emphasis mine. The caption to the accompanying photo reads:

Yingyi Li-Dikov, 30, and the fetus she was carrying died.

Fetus is a Latin term meaning “young one” but most people refer to their unborn children as unborn children or babies. Tmatt had a great post recently about the tension between the language that abortion rights activists and media types use and the language that people in the real world use when talking about pregnancy:

You see, back in the days just before and just after Roe vs. Wade, journalists found themselves caught between two forms of language. On one side, on the moral left, there were people who wanted to use the term “fetus” whenever possible, in order to avoid talking about the selective termination of “babies,” “unborn children,” etc. Since surveys show that most journalists, especially in elite newsrooms, are pro-abortion rights, this can affect coverage.

Meanwhile, real people in the real world tend — when dealing with pregnancies — to use baby language. I mean, surely it is rare for someone to come home from the doctor waving an early ultrasound image and say, “Hey! Look at the first picture of our fetus (or perhaps grandfetus)!”

The New York Times‘ use of fetal language for this young victim struck observers as odd. As RealClearPolitics editor Carl Cannon wrote on Twitter:

Can’t a newspaper be pro-choice without resorting to this? “The 6-month-old fetus did not survive.” http://nyti.ms/187Qeif

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Pope Francis’ 1st miracle: media coverage of mercy

A day after Popocalypse 2013 happened, we have the actual transcript of the remarks that got journalists worldwide going. And it’s safe to say that a quick read of it gives a different impression than the headlines or tweets that blasted out the news.

But, hey, we are a culture of tweets and headlines, not contextualized remarks, so does it even matter? If it matters to you, here’s the relevant discussion on the Vatican’s “gay lobby.” Actually, let’s go ahead and look at them here:

The question posed to Pope Francis was:

Ilse: I would like to ask permission to pose a rather delicate question.  Another image that went around the world is that of Monsignor Ricca and the news about his personal life.  I would like to know, your Holiness, what will be done about this question.  How should one deal with this question and how does your Holiness wish to deal with the whole question of the gay lobby?

Here is Pope Francis’ answer:

Regarding the matter of Monsignor Ricca, I did what Canon Law required and did the required investigation.  And from the investigation, we did not find anything corresponding to the accusations against him.  We found none of that.  That is the answer.  But I would like to add one more thing to this: I see that so many times in the Church, apart from this case and also in this case, one  looks for the “sins of youth,” for example, is it not thus?, And then these things are published.  These things are not crimes.  The crimes are something else: child abuse is a crime.  But sins, if a person, or secular priest or a nun, has committed a sin and then that person experienced conversion, the Lord forgives and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives.  When we go to confession and we truly say “I have sinned in this matter,” the Lord forgets and we do not have the right to not forget because we run the risk that the Lord will not forget our sins, eh?  This is a danger.  This is what is important: a theology of sin.  So many times I think of St. Peter: he committed one of the worst sins denying Christ.  And with this sin they made him Pope.  We must think about fact often.

But returning to your question more concretely: in this case [Ricca] I did the required investigation and we found nothing.  That is the first question.  Then you spoke of the gay lobby.  Agh… so much is written about the gay lobby.  I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word gay.  They say there are some gay people here.  I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good.  They are bad.  If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully but says, wait a moment, how does it say, it says, these persons must never be marginalized and “they must be integrated into society.”

The problem is not that one has this tendency; no, we must be brothers, this is the first matter.  There is another problem, another one: the problem is to form a lobby of those who have this tendency, a lobby of the greedy people, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of Masons, so many lobbies.  This is the most serious problem for me. And thank you so much for doing this question. Thank you very much!

So many interesting things to reflect on, upon seeing a bit of context. For example, why did so many media outlets omit the few words between “If a person is gay” and “who am I to judge that person?” Or why was his appeal to the catechism elided or ignored? Not the biggest deal in the world, but interesting. My point, made yesterday, seems vindicated with Francis’ line “This is what is important: a theology of sin.  So many times I think of St. Peter: he committed one of the worst sins denying Christ.  And with this sin they made him Pope.  We must think about fact often.”

Very Christian stuff here. Breaking: Pope Catholic. So let’s look at how the New York Times views these remarks:

On Gay Priests, Pope Francis Asks, ‘Who Am I to Judge?’

ROME — For generations, homosexuality has largely been a taboo topic for the Vatican, ignored altogether or treated as “an intrinsic moral evil,” in the words of the previous pope.

In that context, brief remarks by Pope Francis suggesting that he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation, made aboard the papal airplane on the way back from his first foreign trip, to Brazil, resonated through the church. Never veering from church doctrine opposing homosexuality, Francis did strike a more compassionate tone than that of his predecessors, some of whom had largely avoided even saying the more colloquial “gay.”

For those readers paying attention at home, yes, Francis really used the English word “gay” while speaking otherwise in Italian. It’s an interesting lede, eh? More for what it says about the Times than what it says about Francis. The same story could have begun: “Condemning homosexuals acts as sinful, Pope Francis repeats the call of previous popes and the Catechism of the Catholic Church to treat homosexuals with dignity.” That it doesn’t say that tells us something interesting about journalists’ reaction to Francis.

Elizabeth Scalia had a really interesting take on that over at First Things where she praised the media coverage, in a way.

[N]othing Francis actually said about homosexuality was new. In fact, in these two quotes Francis is doing nothing more than pronouncing long-standing Catholic teaching on homosexuality, sin, and the mercy of God.

Let that sink in for a moment: A pope is teaching the Christian faith, and the press is accurately quoting him, in blazing headlines that everyone will read.

I completely agree with Scalia. It’s kind of cool that Francis is getting the media to report on Christian teaching of the forgiveness of sins. For that miracle alone, he should be canonized in a few decades. For just one example of this, check out this NBC News report.

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NYT front page discovers the most popular Bible app

Hey, guess what? If you want to read the Bible online, there’s an app for that.

I know this because I saw it on the front page of today’s New York Times.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist poking a little fun at the Old Gray Lady for discovering an e-trend that’s old news to millions of Bible readers.

The story caught my attention because it’s datelined Edmond, Okla. — my neck of the woods — and involves a church that I’ve written about for The Oklahoman and Religion News Service, including a 2005 feature on the spread of satellite churches.

My teasing aside, the Times story is actually quite informative and interesting.

Let’s start at the top:

EDMOND, Okla. — More than 500 years after Gutenberg, the Bible is having its i-moment.

For millions of readers around the world, a wildly successful free Bible app, YouVersion, is changing how, where and when they read the Bible.

Built by LifeChurch.tv, one of the nation’s largest and most technologically advanced evangelical churches, YouVersion is part of what the church calls its “digital missions.” They include a platform for online church services and prepackaged worship videos that the church distributes free. A digital tithing system and an interactive children’s Bible are in the works.

It’s all part of the church’s aspiration to be a kind of I.T. department for churches everywhere. YouVersion, with over 600 Bible translations in more than 400 languages, is by far the church’s biggest success. The app is nondenominational, including versions embraced by Catholics, Russian Orthodox and Messianic Jews. This month, the app reached 100 million downloads, placing it in the company of technology start-ups like Instagram and Dropbox.

“They have defined what it means to access God’s word on a mobile device,” said Geoff Dennis, an executive vice president of Crossway, one of many Bible publishers — from small presses to global Bible societies to News Corporation’s Thomas Nelson imprint — that have licensed their translations, free, to the church.

Alas, the story sputters in a few places and makes me think that maybe Mollie was right when she joked that the Times should hire someone who has been to Vacation Bible School.

The first sputter:

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Did mainline churches lead or follow the culture?

I love it when a good religion story gets people chatting. The New York Times has accomplished this with the publication of “A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered.” It’s a news story in the Books section of the paper and begins:

For decades the dominant story of postwar American religious history has been the triumph of evangelical Christians. Beginning in the 1940s, the story goes, a rising tide of evangelicals began asserting their power and identity, ultimately routing their more liberal mainline Protestant counterparts in the pews, on the offering plate and at the ballot box.

But now a growing cadre of historians of religion are reconsidering the legacy of those faded establishment Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, tracing their enduring influence on the movements for human rights and racial justice, the growing “spiritual but not religious” demographic and even the shaded moral realism of Barack Obama — a liberal Protestant par excellence, some of these academics say.

Remember, of course, that when the New York Times talks about human rights they are not including the youngest humans, a group that they and mainline Protestants tend to either ignore or dehumanize. But parsed through the newspeak code, you get the point. How could one say, when looking at the culture around us, that mainline Protestants have been anything other than wildly successful? If you look in their pews, it may look dire — but looking at the general academic, media, arts, and political culture, mainline liberal churches seem to have prevailed.

And isn’t this a great idea for a story? I love it. It’s based on the fact that a rash of books have come out with this “new look” on religious history. The story notes the dominant newspapers –  “The Christian Century, the de facto house magazine of mainline Protestantism” and “Christianity Today, the magazine founded in 1956 by the Rev. Billy Graham.”

We get a bit of the debate in question:

But other scholars take a markedly different view. In “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History,” published in April by Princeton University Press, Mr. Hollinger argues that the mainline won a broader cultural victory that historians have underestimated. Liberals, he maintains, may have lost Protestantism, but they won the country, establishing ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance as the dominant American creed.

We hear that Hollinger’s argument got people talking. But I’d like to know why.

Sadly, it’s not included in the story. Here’s why I think it should have been: Few people would argue that the doctrines that mainline Protestants espouse have cultural dominance. In fact, those critics of mainline denominations might be hollering that the loudest. The typical critique is that as mainline Protestants have chased the culture, they’ve lost both traditional Christian teachings and souls in the pews. That the culture shares their values is not as newsbreaking as it seems in this story. It’s kind of the point of much criticism leveled against mainliners.

Still, I greatly enjoyed the story. It gave a nice little look at one corner of academia. It quotes Leigh E. Schmidt, one of my favorite religion historians. It does get a bit clunky at the end of the piece, but in a way that makes me wish editors would have permitted more space for a fuller discussion.

For instance:

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NYT struggles to distinguish Voltaire, Spider-Man and Jesus

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says:

But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.

Let’s face it, folks, Luke 12:48 is not an uncommon verse.

President Barack Obama himself has cited it as inspirational. But it is, apparently, unknown to some folks who work as editors in elite desks in the bookish corners of the New York Times newsroom.

How do we know this?

An op-ed headlined “Why Men Need Women” argues that women encourage the men in their lives toward greater generosity. It includes this passage, concerning Bill Gates of the Microsoft empire:

Mr. Gates has reflected that two female family members — his mother, Mary, and his wife, Melinda — were major catalysts for his philanthropic surge. Mary “never stopped pressing me to do more for others,” Mr. Gates said in a Harvard commencement speech. The turning point came in 1993, shortly before he and Melinda married. At a wedding event, Mary read a letter aloud that she had written to Melinda about marriage. Her concluding message was reminiscent of the Voltaire (or Spiderman) mantra that great power implies great responsibility: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Ah, yes, this is a great quote from Spider-Man!

Or maybe Voltaire! They both predate Jesus Christ, right? Then again, it wasn’t even Spidey who riffed on the Gospel to produce that famous quote — it was his saintly Uncle Ben, right?

Thanks to GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey (and others) for sending in this latest funny biblical mis-step by the Times team. In all seriousness, the basic ignorance of Scriptures at the New York Times recently is getting worrisome, both on the op-ed pages and in the news pages.

Perhaps they should do some targeted hiring of an individual or two with a humanities degree or something. Maybe even someone who has been to Vacation Bible School.

NY Times gets religion … in Rome!

The New York Times published a lengthy travel piece with tons of religion in it. It’s written by David Laskin, and nicely weaves religion, history and travel together. A reader complained about one portion, incorrectly, but before we get to that, let’s look at the top of the story.

For half a millennium, the Portico d’Ottavia has been the heart of Rome’s Jewish ghetto, four cramped blocks wedged between the Tiber, the Turtle Fountain, the Theater of Marcellus and the Palazzo Cenci. Amid today’s celebration of earthly pleasures, I had trouble finding the small wall plaque that commemorates “la spietata caccia agli ebrei” — the merciless hunting down of the Jews — that took place here on Oct. 16, 1943.

Seventy years ago, the world was at war, Rome was occupied by the Nazis, and the ghetto was a virtual prison for a large part of the city’s Jewish community. On the morning of Oct. 16, 1943, SS Captain Theodor Dannecker ordered that the prison be emptied.

Trucks pulled up on the cobblestoned piazza beside the Portico d’Ottavia, the neighborhood was sealed, and 365 German soldiers fanned out through the narrow streets and courtyards. Families hid at the backs of their shuttered shops. The able-bodied and quick-witted jumped from their windows or fled along the rooftops. The unlucky were hounded from their homes at gunpoint and herded into the idling trucks. Of the more than 1,000 Roman Jews seized that day and later transported to Auschwitz, only 16 survived.

On a balmy night in April, I sat pondering that dark time with my wife and two of our daughters on the terrace of Ba” Ghetto, a lively restaurant near the Portico d’Ottavia. All around us, waiters were bearing platters of grilled meat and assuring tourists that their fried artichokes alla giudia were the best in Rome. Deep into the night, a sparkler ignited atop a slice of cake and everyone sang “tanti auguri a te” (happy birthday to you) to a 20-something beauty.

It was impossible not to be stunned by the contrast between the festive present and the somber past. Even a dozen years ago, when we first visited the ghetto, the neighborhood felt forlorn and insular. Old, suspicious eyes sized us up as we made our way past kosher butchers and shabby tailor shops. Jews had been confined to these flood-prone riverside streets in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, and in 2001, an aura of melancholy still lingered.

I had irreligious friends who lived near Portico d’Ottavio 15 years ago and they never described the neighborhood as forlorn or insular — far from it. Always good to remember that different people’s perspectives of a given neighborhood might vary quite a bit. This is just one (very good) travel writer’s perspective. And I’m thankful for a religion writer who understands the role religion plays in the character of a place.

The piece is long, and I want to quote extensively from it, but it’s best if you just read it. The writer acknowledges that the nine-month occupation by German forces was just a blip on what he calls “this city’s 2,000 years of glorious and inglorious history.” Of course, if we’re going to include all of its history, might it be better to refer to its 3,000 years? In any case, there’s some great World War II history, a mention of the Protestant cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, and various other tidbits. He visits “San Lorenzo’s mellow 12th-century brick campanile” and learns how American bombs caved in the roof of the basilica’s roof and shattered parts of the mosaic floor, one of the most beautiful in Rome (since set back into place). There:

As my guidebook instructed, I descended a short flight of steps at the end of the nave to find the tomb of St. Lawrence, who was martyred over hot coals in the year 258.

But the moment that will stay with me came in the 12th-century cloister. Amid the dainty paired columns and drifts of myrtle and herbs, I stumbled upon a fragment of a bomb’s casing that was pried out of the rubble in 1943 — a shard of American steel displayed incongruously in a sacred Roman garden.

St. Lawrence’s story is one of my favorites, and it’s nice to see a mention. The next paragraph is poignant as well. He asks locals if they have any bitterness over what the United States armed forces did to San Lorenzo. They explain that they are grateful to Americans for liberating them from the Nazis.

Here’s the part for which we received a reader complaint:

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