Muslims praying in Catholic churches? For starters, journalists need to define 'pray'

Raise your hands, gentle readers, if you are familiar with this old saying: "There will always be prayer in public schools, as long as teachers keep giving math tests (or pop quizzes, etc.).

Actually, I don't know about you, but I did most of my public-school praying before Latin exams, and I was not praying in Latin. But I digress.

I shared that old saying simply to note that it only makes sense if the word "prayer" is defined as students sitting silently at their public-school desks praying for help. I would imagine that teachers would frown on a Catholic student getting out her rosary and reciting a Holy Mystery or two out loud. Ditto for students in a religious tradition that asks them to humble themselves with a few deep bows or prostrations. Burn some incense or light a few beeswax candles? I don't think so.

So what, precisely, does it mean to ask if it is acceptable to Muslims to pray in a Catholic church? I ask that question because of an interesting Religion New Service piece that ran the other day, with this headline: "Italian bishop tells priests not to let Muslims pray in churches." Here is the overture:

ROME (RNS) -- An Italian bishop has clashed with a pair of priests who want to invite Muslims to pray inside their churches in a bid to promote tolerance in a diocese in Tuscany.
“The deserved, necessary and respectful welcome of people who practice other faiths and religions does not mean offering them space for prayers inside churches designed for liturgy and the gathering of Christian communities,” Bishop Fausto Tardelli of Pistoia said in a statement. ... They can very well find other spaces and places,” Tardelli said.
The bishop was responding to pledges by two local priests, the Rev. Massimo Biancalani and the Rev. Alessandro Carmignani, to welcome 18 Muslim refugees by giving them space to pray inside their churches.

Note the emphasis on giving the Muslims "space to pray."

This raises all kinds of questions. Religion-beat pros, how many can you think of?

For example, what does this statement mean, precisely? Are we talking about an empty place -- perhaps near their workplaces -- in which believers can spread prayer rugs at appointed times of the day? Does this mean silent, or whispered, prayers by individuals? Are we talking about a larger group of Muslims sharing these prayers together? Here is a big one: Are we talking about space in, let's say, a religious-studies classroom?

Is there any chance that we are talking about a group prayer rite inside actual sanctuaries? Would that have implications, under Catholic canon law, for the status of a blessed space?

The story never offers specifics. This is about as close as we get:

“What is the problem?” said Biancalani who runs the parish of Vicofaro. “If we want to give them a proper welcome and integration it makes no sense to make them pray in a cellar.
“Whoever wants to can pray inside the church, whoever does not want to can do it in another space. They don’t need much; the important thing is that they can face Mecca.”

OK, so does this mean that the church is an alternative to praying in a cellar at a factory or a business? Does it mean that they will be offered a space that is nicer than an empty room in the cellar of the church? What?

The context for this story is, of course, (a) the calls by Pope Francis for Catholics to help make immigrants feel more welcome and (b) the rising tide of tension, if not hostility, greeting Muslim immigrants, in particular.

This is a fascinating topic and an important story. The priests even claim that their efforts to offer space for Muslim prayers have led to threats, although this short story does not document that in any way.

I guess what I am saying is that this subject is actually quite important, especially in Europe where Catholicism is, statistically, in decline and Islam is on the rise. At some point (see this recent GetReligion post, also focusing on Italy) will Catholic leaders face the issue of whether to SHARE facilities with Muslims for financial reasons or sell these properties to growing flocks of Muslims?

So this is a crucial topic. In this case, the RNS report needed at least one or two additional paragraphs to tell readers what was actually going on. What kinds of "prayer" are we talking about? In the church? Where in the church?

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