Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

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Is it time for The New York Times to hire a liturgist as a copy editor?

Well, maybe the world’s most influential newspaper doesn’t need to hire someone with a degree in liturgical studies. It might be enough to hire a few people who are familiar with (a) traditional Christian language, (b) the contents of the Associated Press Stylebook or (c) both of the previous options.

Faithful news consumers may recall the problem Times editors had following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. I am referring to the news report in which Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, was quoted — a direct quote — as saying that he rushed into the flames to save a “statue” of Jesus. In a gesture that left Catholic readers bewildered, he was said to have used the statue to bless the cathedral before rushing to safety.

Apparently, someone thought the priest’s reference, in French, to the “Body of Christ” was a reference to a statue. That led to this correction:

An earlier version of this article misidentified one of two objects recovered from Notre-Dame by the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier. It was the Blessed Sacrament, not a statue of Jesus.

This brings me to a much less serious error — but one I am sure some readers found jarring — in a story following the racist massacre in El Paso. The headline: “In a Suffering City, an El Paso Priest Needed a Message of Hope.”

The content of that message? The Times team — to its credit — noted that the Rev. Fabian Marquez preached from a specific passage in the Gospel of Matthew:

“We need to follow the commandment of love — love God, love your neighbor,” the priest said. “This was a tragedy that came to break us and separate us, but God is inviting us to spread the love that only comes from him, and only with that are we going to be able to overcome this tragedy and this sadness.”

What inspired this sermon? What was the source of this inspiration?

That’s where the Times had trouble, once again, with basic Christian language and doctrine. Read this overture carefully:

EL PASO — The Rev. Fabian Marquez had not slept much. Whenever he closed his eyes, his mind filled with the faces he saw draining of hope as they learned their relatives had been killed. His week had been a string of vigils, rosaries, memorial services and funeral planning sessions.

Still, he had another community to attend to, his congregation at El Buen Pastor, a small mission church on the outskirts of El Paso, where every weekend he presides over three Masses in Spanish and one in English and Spanish.

He was in his office, his Bible cracked open and notes splayed on his desk, trying to come up with a sermon. He had to distill the horrors the community had endured in the past week, and somehow find meaning. El Paso had not been struck merely by an episode of random mass violence. The gunman who charged into a Walmart store had a manifesto that made clear that he had a specific target: Hispanic people and immigrants, the people sitting in his pews. Fear had been added to their anguish.

Father Marquez, a Mexican-American and native son of El Paso, wrestled with what to say. It was Friday, and he had not even read the Bible verses scheduled to be the week’s readings. “I haven’t had the time,” he said. He hoped that a message offering comfort would come to him. “I always follow what the spirit tells me, and we take it from there.”

After an exhausting week, he was relying on the spirit to come through.

Now, if one looks in the AP bible (that’s with a lower-case “b”), the “gods and goddesses” reference states (as noted many times here at GetReligion):

Capitalize God in references to the deity of all monotheistic religions. Capitalize all noun references to the deity: God the Father, Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, Allah, etc. Lowercase personal pronouns: he, him, thee, thou.

Thus, here is the crucial question. When discussing his preaching, was Father Marquez talking about a generic “spirit” — lower-case “s” — or was he making a logical reference to following the leading of the Holy Spirit, as in the third person of the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Thus, that quotation should be: “I always follow what the Spirit tells me. …”

The priest is making a very specific doctrinal claim, as to the inspiration of the sermon at the heart of this news report. You can see this same issue again, later in the same Times story:

In his office, Father Marquez has crosses, a small statue of Jesus and photos all over the walls, including images of him with Pope Benedict XVI and with Pope John Paul II, whom he met more than once. He constantly collects thoughts for homilies, sometimes pausing in conversation to jot something down. He holes up in his office to prepare, looking up the verses and sketching out the points he would like to make. That said, he likes to keep it extemporaneous.

“You have to just rely that the Lord will give you the wisdom, the knowledge to say the right thing,” he said. “It feels good. It makes sense. It flows nicely. It feels connected. That’s how I interpret the spirit saying, ‘Yeah, way to go, you’re doing a good job.’”

In this case, it’s even more clear — note the “Lord” reference — that this priest is talking about seeking inspiration from God, as he prepares to his sermons.

That’s a rather easy correction to make. All we need is a few changes to insert an AP-appropriate upper-case “S.” Just do it.

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