Worship

Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?

Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?

OK, Catholic readers of GetReligion (and you know who you are), we have a solution to a journalism mystery that many noticed in the wave of coverage following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral.

The big question raised by The New York Times: What’s the difference between a “statue” of Jesus and a priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament”? Hold that thought.

Let’s start with Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade and one of the heroes of efforts to save what could be saved inside the iconic cathedral. Quite a few people are reporting stories about the actions that he took when it became clear that there was no way to stop the flames in the wooden structures holding up the cathedral roof.

Here’s the top of my “On Religion” column for this week, which led with this angle of the story:

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

So here is a basic religion-beat journalism challenge: How does one describe the “Blessed Sacrament” in a few phrases? Some journalists struggled with that.

For some reporters, the crucial issue was trying to turn “sacraments” and holy relics into “art” and “artifacts.”

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Notre Dame in flames: What was lost? What was saved? What was 'news'? What issues remain?

Notre Dame in flames: What was lost? What was saved? What was 'news'? What issues remain?

As it turns out, Paris firefighters — apparently drawing on centuries of tradition — know quite a bit about how to save a medieval cathedral, or how to save as much of one of these unique structures as can be saved. They know more about this subject than the president of the United States does, apparently.

It will take weeks to unpack all of the stunning details of the story that unfolded before the eyes of the world yesterday in the heart of Paris. Officials are saying that it is too early to begin an in-depth investigation of what happened, but also that they are sure the fire was not an act of vandalism or worse. That’s an interesting pair of statements, right there.

Watching several hours of television coverage, it became pretty apparent that it really mattered whether newsrooms had people involved in the coverage who knew anything about Catholicism and its sacraments. It was, to be blunt, the difference between news about a fire in a symbolic building, like a museum, that is important in French culture and coverage of the near total destruction of a Catholic holy place, a cathedral, at the start of Holy Week.

Case in point: Is an ancient relic — a crown of thorns venerated for centuries as part of the one worn by Jesus — really an “artwork” that was rescued from the flames? How about a container holding what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ? Is that “artwork”? Are people praying the Rosary and singing “Ave Maria” really “in shock,” and that is that?

I could go on. But to get a sense of what happened in much of the journalism yesterday, compare these two overtures from two very important American newspapers. Guess which material was written by a team that included a religion-beat professional.

The headline on case study No. 1: “The fire at Notre Dame, a Catholic icon, was made even more heartbreaking by the timing.” The overture:

PARIS — A symbol of Paris, a triumph of Gothic architecture and one of the most visited monuments in the world, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is a beloved icon for millions across the globe. But for many in this largely Catholic country, especially for the most faithful, the medieval masterpiece is a sacred space that serves as the spiritual, as well as the cultural, heart of France.

So as it burned Monday — during Holy Week, which precedes Easter — Parisians gathered on the other side of the Seine, embers blowing onto their heads, praying and crying as they sought fellowship in their shared disbelief. As night fell, people clutched flickering candles, still praying as ochre plumes of smoke billowed in a dimming sky. The sound of hymns filled the air.

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Some blunt Leon Podles comments on Benedict XVI's statement on sex-abuse crisis

Some blunt Leon Podles comments on Benedict XVI's statement on sex-abuse crisis

It isn’t everyday that you get to point readers toward a think piece written by a pope, even if we are talking about a retired pope, in this case.

It also helps that retired Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the hottest of hot-button topics in Catholic life — the ongoing scandal of Catholic priests sexually abusing children, with the vast majority of the victims being teen-aged males. That has created all kinds of hot topics to debate or to attempt to avoid debating.

Reactions to the letter have been predictable, to say the least, renewing discussions of the church of Pope Francis and the church of Pope Benedict XVI. The same has been true in the press, with this New York Times story being so predictable that, at times, it verges on self-parody. This Washington Post story hows evidence that reporters tried to gather cheers and boos that were linked to the crucial passages in the retired pope’s text. Here’s the Post overture:

ROME — Breaking years of silence on major church affairs, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written a lengthy letter devoted to clerical sex abuse in which he attributes the crisis to a breakdown of church and societal moral teaching and says he felt compelled to assist “in this difficult hour.”

The 6,000-word letter, written for a small German Catholic publication and published in translation by other outlets Thursday, laments the secularization of the West, decries the 1960s sexual revolution and describes seminaries that became filled during that period with “homosexual cliques.”

It helps, of course, to read the actual text of “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse.” Click here for an English translation, care of Catholic News Agency.

The key is that Benedict — returning to a theme voiced throughout his long public life — warns believers that they are living in an age in which the basics of Christian faith are under attack (even in seminaries). Thus, Christians in a smaller, embattled, church must be prepared to get back to the basics of doctrine and sacraments. Just going to Mass will not be enough. Note this passage:

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Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

A long, long time ago — the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion column” — I wrote a tribute to the trailblazing work of sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. How long ago was that? Well, today is the 31st anniversary of my first syndicated column hitting the wires.

Hunter is best known as the author of “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” This book, more than any other, has influenced my work as a religion-beat columnist.

The words “culture wars” are used all the time by people who clearly have never read Hunter’s book. His thesis is that the old doctrinal, horizontal, denomination divisions in American life have been replaced by a vertical fault line that is much more basic, cutting into almost all religious pews and pulpits.

Hang in there with me. I am working my way to the rapid emergence of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a White House candidate, in part because of his ability to unite Democrats on the religious and non-religious left. I wrote about that the other day (“Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg“) and “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I returned to that topic in this week’s podcast. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes and sign up.)

But back to Hunter and the religious schism in modern America’s foundation:

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

So, what was the big quote from Buttigieg that sent a Barack-Obama-style thrill up the legs of legions of journalists and inspired waves of news coverage?

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Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

For nearly three decades, I have taught journalism and mass media in colleges and institutions (even a seminary) linked to conservative forms of Protestantism.

As you would expect, I have heard lots of complaining about the state of journalism in America, especially mainstream media coverage of religion. That’s a topic, of course, that I have been studying since 1981, when I began work on my University of Illinois graduate project (click here to see “Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets,” the short version that ran in The Quill).

To cut to the chase: I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard a conservative of some stripe say that “journalists hate religion,” or words to that effect.

That is, of course, an inaccurate and simplistic statement. In my experience, many — perhaps most — journalists have no problem with forms of religion that support modernized forms of morality. Long ago, Harvard Law grad and former New York Daily News legal affairs reporter William Proctor put it this way, when I interviewed him about his book “The Gospel According to The New York Times”:

… Critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty."

"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

This brings me to this week’s blitz of coverage of the all-but-announced White House bid of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The USA Today headline that really started things rolling stated, “Buttigieg to Pence: If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator.” That USA Today piece, focusing on religious issues, followed a Washington Post reference to the gay politico’s open discussions of his faith.

Let me stress that this is a totally valid story and a quite important one, in part because Buttigieg is working hard to develop a more mainstream form of religious liberalism.

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Journalism question: If your child was attacked by a cougar, would you 'speak in tongues'?

Journalism question: If your child was attacked by a cougar, would you 'speak in tongues'?

Now here’s a story you don’t see every day, care of USA Today.

The headline on this one is totally faith-free, but it certainly is a grabber: “Woman fights off cougar attacking her son, prying its jaws open. 'Mom instinct,' she says.”

So what is the religion angle here? A reader spotted something really interesting in this story and raised a totally logical question.

First, let’s look at this journalism mystery in context. Here’s the whole overture:

A Canadian woman rushed to save her son after a cougar attacked him last week, prying the animal's jaws off her child, according to local news reports.

How did she do it? "Mom instinct" and prayer, she told CTV News.

Chelsea Lockhart's son was playing outside the family's Vancouver Island home Friday when she heard a fence rattle in the backyard. Then came sounds of a struggle. The mother bolted outside to see her son, Zachery, 7, on the ground with a young cougar attached to his arm, the network reported. She had no time to lose.

"I had a mom instinct, right?" Lockhart said. "I just leaped on it and tried to pry its mouth open."

With her fingers fish-hooked inside the cougar's mouth, Lockhart began "praying in tongues" and "crying out to the Lord," she told CTV News. "Three sentences into me praying, it released and it ran away," she told the network.

Sounds pretty basic, right?

Well, it does if you attend a Pentecostal Protestant congregation or a mainline church — Catholic, even — that has been touched by the charismatic renewal movement during the past three or four decades.

The reader’s question: How many readers would know the meaning of the phrase “praying in tongues” without a single word of background material?

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Beto O'Rourke and the eating-holy-dirt story is actually about a Catholic shrine in New Mexico

Beto O'Rourke and the eating-holy-dirt story is actually about a Catholic shrine in New Mexico

The story began to filter out a few weeks ago: How failed U.S. Senate (for Texas) and now U.S. presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke went off to find himself earlier this year and, in the process, imbibed “magical dirt” in New Mexico.

“Magical” dirt? Is that the right word?

Having lived a year in New Mexico as the city and entertainment editor for a small daily in Farmington, I knew of only one place where that could happen: The sanctuary of Chimayo, aka El Santuario de Chimayo, in a mountain village about 14 miles north of Santa Fe. The dirt there is said to have healing powers, like an American Lourdes.

The customs surrounding this site are explained here, and I’ve visited the place twice myself. Yes, visitors do collect small amounts of the dirt to take with them, as Lourdes pilgrims collect vials of water, but I’d never heard of anyone eating the dirt. This 2008 New York Times story says people occasionally do so, but it’s still rare.

Mentions of Beto eating the dirt first appeared in this March 19 Washington Post story, which categorized Beto as a modern-day Odysseus; a ‘bro-philosopher’ who drove north from El Paso into New Mexico to clear his head on whether a 2020 presidential run has his name on it. (His eldest son is named Ulysses, by the way.) Reporter Ben Terris tossed in one paragraph about the Chimayo visit:

Whatever post-defeat sadness Amy felt, she was able to kick quickly; she’s always been the stable one. Beto, on the other hand, more prone to higher highs and lower lows, was in a “funk.” In January, Beto hit the road, much as his father had done before him, and drew energy from the people he met, and — on one stop in New Mexico he didn’t write about in his blog — by eating New Mexican dirt said to have regenerative powers. (He brought some home for the family to eat, too.)

Odd that the writer didn’t figure out that Beto was in Chimayo. Or did Beto say more about the visit and Terris simply didn’t include it? Talk about a religion ghost which, if you’re not a regular reader of this column, means a religion angle to a story that a reporter completely misses.

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Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

If you know anything about the lives of pastors and priests, you know that — when it comes time to help hurting people — they really want to be able to pull aside, slow things down, look into someone’s face and talk things over.

Life does not always allow this, I know.

But my father was a pastor and, at the end of his ministry life, a hospital chaplain who spent most of his time with the parents of children who were fighting cancer.

On the few times I was with him during those hospital shifts, I saw him — over and over — sit in silence with someone, just being there, waiting until they were ready to talk. He was there to help, but mainly he was there to talk, to pray and to wait — for good news or bad news.

It would be hard to imagine a form of human communication that is more different than today’s world of social media apps on smartphones.

That’s why an article that I ran into the other day — via the progressive Baptist News Global website — stopped me dead in my tracks. The headline: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” I posted the article as a think piece here at GetReligion and then decided that I really need to talk to the author, the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, the lead pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, Calif.

That led to an “On Religion” column this week for the Universal syndicate and, now, to a “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why did this topic intrigue me so much?

Well, first of all, it would be hard to name a more powerful trend in human communication today than social media and our omnipresent smartphones. That’s news. And Alvaro is convinced that these social-media programs are seriously warping the work of pastors. That’s a claim that would affect thousands of pastors and millions of people. So, yes, I think this topic is a news subject in and of itself.

Here is a large chunk of my column:

His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

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Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Way back in the 1980s, as the sex wars in the Episcopal Church really began to heat up, I heard a conservative priest tell a joke that gently mocked many of his Anglo-Catholic colleagues on the doctrinal right.

The whole point of the joke is that it is really hard to cut the ties that bind, when people have invested decades of their lives in religious institutions and traditions. And then there are the all-too human, practical details that come into play. In the end, it may be easier to edit the Apostles Creed and modernize the prayer book than it is to split the clergy pension play or divide a denomination’s trust funds.

Which brings us back to that joke that I have shared once or twice in the past. I have left the time-element in the first line intact. Like I said, it’s an old joke.

The year is 2012 … and two Anglo-Catholic priests in the back of National Cathedral are watching the Episcopal presiding bishop and her incense-bearing lover process down the aisle behind a statue of the Buddha, while the faithful sing a hymn to Mother Earth.

"You know," one traditionalist whispers, "ONE more thing and I'm out the door."

Right now, in the multi-decade United Methodist Church civil war, things may be close to reaching that point for LGBTQ clergy and their supporters on the denomination’s doctrinal left. What will it take for these believers — who are sincerely convinced that 2,000 years of Christian doctrines on marriage and sex should be changed — to decide that enough is enough?

That’s the key question that I asked during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. (Click here to tune that in, or head over the iTunes.) What would this old “ONE more thing” joke look like today, if you turned it around — doctrinally speaking — and looked at it from the point of view of United Methodists on the left?

Maybe you would have two United Methodist pastors from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver — long a safe haven for the left — standing at the back of a global General Conference that is being held in a United Methodist stronghold in Africa. They are watching an African bishop walk down the aisle with his wife with his hands in the air singing an evangelical praise song. The service ends with the Rev. Franklin Graham giving an altar call.

One more thing and I’m out the door?

Then what? That was the other half of the equation in this podcast. Follow me through a few “ifs” here.

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