Orthodoxy

Weekend think piece: The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting

Weekend think piece: The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting

First things first: Click play on the above YouTube. Now begin reading.

As you would expect, I have received quite a bit of email during the past 24 hours linked to my GetReligion post -- "What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq" -- about the mainstream media coverage of the stunning announcement of a Feb. 12 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Orthodox Church of All Russia.

As you would expect, much of the press coverage has stressed what this all means, from a Roman Catholic and Western perspective.

This is understandable, since there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and Francis is the brightest star in the religion-news firmament at the moment. People who know their history, however, know that this meeting is also rooted in the life and work of Saint Pope John Paul II, who grew up in a Polish Catholic culture that shares so much with the churches of the East, spiritually and culturally.

I updated my piece yesterday to point readers toward a fine Crux think piece by the omnipresent (yes, I'll keep using that word) John L. Allen, Jr. Let me do that once again. Read it all, please. Near the end, there is this interesting comment concerning Pope Francis:

... His foreign policy priorities since his election have been largely congenial to Russia’s perceived interests. In September 2013, he joined forces with Vladimir Putin in successfully heading off a proposed Western military offensive in Syria to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, Francis and Putin have met in the Vatican and found common ground on several matters, including the protection of Christians in the Middle East and the growing reemergence of Cuba in the community of nations.

This morning, my email contained another essay by a Catholic scribe that I stress is essential reading for those starting a research folder to prepare to cover the meeting in Havana. This is from Inside the Vatican and it is another eLetter from commentator Robert Moynihan.

This piece is simply packed with amazing details about events -- some completely overlooked by the mainstream media -- that have almost certainly, one after another, contributed to the logic of the Cuba meeting between Francis and Kirill.

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What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq (updated)

What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq (updated)

It is certainly the most important story of the day for the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians. Yes, even bigger than the announcement -- with the lengthy fast (no meat, no dairy) of Great Lent approaching -- that Ben & Jerry's is poised to begin selling vegan ice cream.

I am referring to the announcement of a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Any meeting between the pope and the patriarch of all Russia would be historic, simply because the shepherds of Rome and Moscow have never met before. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

The big question, of course, is: Why are they meeting? What finally pushed the button to ease the tensions enough between these two churches for their leaders to meet?

In terms of the early news coverage, the answer depends on whether you are one of the few news consumers who will have a chance to read the Reuters report, being circulated by Religion News Service, or one of the many who see the Associated Press story that is, I believe, deeply flawed. Alas, the majority of news consumers will probably see a shortened version of the AP report and will be totally in the dark about the primary purpose of this historic meeting.

So here is the top of the Reuters report:

MOSCOW -- The patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox Church will take part in an historic first meeting with the Roman Catholic pontiff on Feb. 12 because of the need for a joint response to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the Orthodox Church said.
Senior Orthodox cleric Metropolitan Hilarion said that long-standing differences between the two churches remain, most notably a row over the status of the Uniate Church, in Ukraine. But he said these differences were being put aside so that Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis could come together over persecution of Christians.

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Hey Washington Post: Now it's time for Christmas rites in the Church of the Nativity

Hey Washington Post: Now it's time for Christmas rites in the Church of the Nativity

Now it's time to say "Merry Christmas!" to worshipers gathered in Bethlehem's ancient Church of the Nativity.

That really isn't big news. So why mention it? Let's back up a week or so.

The bottom line: I didn't hear about an international incident (or an ecumenical breakthrough, depending on one's point of view) at the Church of the Nativity back on the 25th of December. Did you?

You may recall that this was when The Washington Post said that a Catholic bishop -- the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem -- was going to be celebrating Mass at the Orthodox altar in the ancient Orthodox basilica.

Honest. That's what the story said and I wrote GetReligion posts about this error here and here. That Post story is still online, without a correction. The key error of fact is contained in this passage:

There will be a Christmas Eve Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the 1,700-year-old basilica built above the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born and visited by Bethlehem shepherds.

That Christmas midnight Mass, as I stressed, was actually held in the newer, in a Holy Land frame of reference, Catholic sanctuary -- the Church of St. Catherine -- that is located next to the much older Church of the Nativity. That's the Orthodox sanctuary that contains a high altar built directly over the grotto containing the traditional site of the birth of Jesus.

As I noted in my second post: "Catholic prelates lead Catholic rites at Catholic altars." In practice, that looks like this:

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A Christmas season think piece: Why pass on the beloved lie that is Santa Claus?

A Christmas season think piece: Why pass on the beloved lie that is Santa Claus?

It happens almost every year during the week before Christmas.

Someone sends an email to a list of friends (usually veteran parents and grandparents), or posts an item on Facebook that raises this old question: Is anyone else getting uncomfortable with the whole Santa drama?

There is always a second question that flows naturally out of that: What is the purpose of this elaborate and dramatic lie? What are we trying to teach our children by doing this and what do we say to them once the charade is up? After all, in families with many children the old ones have to help sustain the lie for the little folks.

A confession from me: My wife and I, even before converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, decided -- primarily based on my work in mass-media studies, with a lot of reading about advertising -- to skip Santa Claus and tell our children that St. Nicholas of Myra -- as in the 4th-century bishop -- was a real person. The also noted that people have long honored him on his feast day (Dec. 6th on the Gregorian calendar) with gift-giving traditions that eventually, in culture after culture, morphed into something else. We told them not to play that game with other kids, but not to mock them or, well, tell them the truth, either. The key: In our faith, saints are real.

Journalists, if this subject interests you -- especially the secular, materialistic side of this equation -- then you should read and file an essay at The Atlantic by Megan Garber that ran with the loaded headline:

Spoiler: Santa Claus and the Invention of Childhood
How St. Nick went from “beloved icon” to “beloved lie”

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One more time: Which church is above the traditional site of the birth of Jesus?

One more time: Which church is above the traditional site of the birth of Jesus?

Trust me, I know that I just dealt with this issue in a pre-Christmas post about an error in a Bethlehem dateline story in The Washington Post.

It appears that there is still confusion, out there in major newsrooms, about which church is which on Manger Square in Bethlehem. That earlier Post advance report -- which has not been corrected -- stated:

There will be a Christmas Eve Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the 1,700-year-old basilica built above the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born and visited by Bethlehem shepherds.

Alas, the Associated Press story covering Christmas events in Bethlehem -- the story that will be read in the vast majority of American newspapers -- has repeated the same error that was in the Post report. Read carefully and see if you spot the overlap:

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal led a procession from his Jerusalem headquarters into Bethlehem, passing through a military checkpoint and past Israel's concrete separation barrier, which surrounds much of the town. ...
Twal led worshippers in a Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
In his homily, Twal expressed sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, Syrian refugees and "victims of all forms of terrorism everywhere," according to a transcript issued by his office. He wished "all inhabitants of the Holy Land" a happy and healthy new year.

Yes, the Post reference was more specific -- making the error more obvious.

Now, let's follow the logic here.

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Top 10 religion stories for 2015: How would Pope Francis have voted?

Top 10 religion stories for 2015: How would Pope Francis have voted?

No doubt about it, journalists really love Pope Francis. In many cases, they love the version of this pope that they have created through misquotes, partial quotes and by ignoring much of what he has to say. Hey, but who am I to judge?

Pope Francis had a lot to say during 2015 and, frankly, I thought that most of it was somewhat predictable, in terms of what we already knew about him. His sermons and addresses during the visit to Acela land in the media-rich American Northeast had lots of substance, but very few surprises.

So here is my question: Would Pope Francis think that he was the world's most important news story in 2015? I think not.

If you were looking for remarks by Francis that received little coverage, consider his steady stream of remarks about the persecution of religious minorities worldwide -- especially Christians in the Middle East. In the following quotes, drawn from a July sermon in a Mass with Eastern Catholics, he even comments on how the powerful have been ignoring this truly historic massacre:

“Dear brothers and sisters, there is no Christianity without persecution. Remember the last of the Beatitudes: when they bring you into the synagogues, and persecute you, revile you, this is the fate of a Christian. Today too, this happens before the whole world, with the complicit silence of many powerful leaders who could stop it. We are facing this Christian fate: go on the same path of Jesus.”
The Holy Father also remembered the broader persecution of Christians in the present day. “We now, in the newspapers, hear the horror of what some terrorist groups do, who slit the throats of people just because [their victims] are Christians. We think of the Egyptian martyrs, recently, on the Libyan coast, who were slaughtered while pronouncing the name of Jesus.”

During this week's "Crossroads" podcast, host Todd Wilken and I -- as is our end-of-the-year norm -- worked out way through the Religion Newswriters Association poll to pick the Top 10 religion-beat stories. Click here to tune that in.

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Washington Post covers first of Bethlehem's two (yes, two) Christmas celebrations

Washington Post covers first of Bethlehem's two (yes, two) Christmas celebrations

Let's settle one issue first. I am well aware that for most of the world's Christians, Christmas is celebrated on the 25th day of December. The season then continues for the next 12 days, but that's another story (as the one and only M.Z. Hemingway reminds us).

However, there are millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians located in strategic places -- think Egypt, Russia, the Slavic countries -- who celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January. Click here to see a helpful map at The Telegraph offering the details. (Clarification from a reader: Most parishes in Greece now use the 25th of December, but there are old-calendar parishes there, too. The map is inaccurate on that point.)

Why is this? Well churches in the West use the calendar proposed by Pope Gregory in 1582. Most of the world's Orthodox churches remain on the Julian calendar, which dates back to 45 B.C. (It does confuse things a bit that, in the United States, most Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 -- but stay on the old calendar for Pascha, which is the Orthodox name for Easter).

I needed to remind readers about these basic facts -- which are known to all experienced religion-beat writers -- because this is the time when news organizations start covering one of the season's basic stories, which is the sad state of Christmas in the city of Bethlehem itself, located on the tense West Bank.

The headline on the Washington Post piece is typical: "Violence makes for a somber Christmas in Bethlehem this year." Tragically, you could use that headline almost every year and it would be accurate.

The story gets the politics of this story right, of course. The problem -- surprise -- is that key religious facts are missing or are messed up. Here is how the story starts out:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- The city celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus is usually filled with parades and parties this time of year. There are fireworks, carolers, feasts. Revelers drink a little wine. They dance.
This year? It’s not exactly like Christmas was canceled, but it is a somber, dutiful affair.

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Their blood still cries out: Crux opens series investigating global presecution of Christians

Their blood still cries out: Crux opens series investigating global presecution of Christians

If you follow religion news carefully, and you have been on Twitter over the weekend, you are probably aware that John L. Allen, Jr., and the team at Crux -- a Catholic-oriented news site operated by The Boston Globe -- have published the first in what will be a series of occasional stories about the persecution of Christians around the world.

This is not surprising, in light of the fact that Allen (surely one of the most productive reporters working on the religion-beat these days) has produced a book entitled "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution."

It is also significant that a recent Pew Research Center study found, as Allen noted in his opening report in this series, that Christians were harassed either by the government or social groups (think militias or mobs) in 102 of 198 countries -- more than any other religious group. Under normal circumstances, Pew surveys on this kind of news topic tend to lead to bumps in mainstream coverage.

However, talking about the persecution of Christians is not your normal subject, for a variety of reasons. There are people on the cultural left who simply cannot see Christians as anything other than oppressors. For two decades, powerful forces in Washington, D.C., have fought attempts to promote religious liberty at the global level.

Meanwhile, there are also people on the cultural right who -- when looking at the Middle East in particular -- struggle to identify with the groups being persecuted and slaughtered because these ancient flocks are not the right kinds of Christians. (For more information on that topic, see this "On Religion" column that I wrote nearly two decades ago.) Focusing on human rights can also be bad for business, you know.

In light of this deep and diverse skepticism, it's crucial that Allen's main story -- The New Christian Martyrs: Globally, religious persecution is Christian persecution -- includes the following:

Christians are, of course, hardly the only community facing savagery and oppression.

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Final questions: Who wrote the New Testament's Book of Revelation?

Final questions: Who wrote the New Testament's Book of Revelation?

JOHN (the perfect name for this question) ASKS

I thought the John of Revelation was the Beloved Disciple. The sermon today tried to disabuse me of that notion. What do we know about this?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER: 

One cherished Christmas tradition is dramatic presentation of the story of Jesus via Handel’s “Messiah,” the most-beloved, most-performed musical setting of Bible verses ever composed.  This 1742 oratorio concludes with a stirring chorus taken from the Book of Revelation 5:9,12-14 in the King James Version:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing…. Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever…. Amen.”

Who received this book’s elaborate vision and wrote it down? That’s among many mysteries about Revelation, a.k.a. the Apocalypse, along with what its many lurid symbols mean, and whether it addresses 1st Century persecution, church struggles throughout history, future culmination in the end times, or some combination. The early church, especially in the East, was reluctant and late in deciding this unusual book belonged in the New Testament.

The text names the writer as a “John” who lived on the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) due to “tribulation” and testimony to Jesus Christ, indicating he was in forced exile. There is early and strong tradition that this was John, the “beloved” apostle among the Twelve chosen by Jesus, though the text doesn’t say so.

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