St. Mary

Wait a minute: Catholics have a special 'version' of St. Mary who handles hurricanes?

Wait a minute: Catholics have a special 'version' of St. Mary who handles hurricanes?

I thought I had seen just about everything, in terms of strange news-media takes on ancient-church teachings on prayer and the saints. Apparently not.

Just the other day, I wrote a post praising a news report on this topic, in part because of a short, clear, explanation of the term “venerate,” as opposed to “worship,” when dealing with a relic of a Catholic saint. See this: “Facing the heart of Jean Vianney: Reporters should be careful when covering saints and prayer.”

Now we have this “Oh, no!” headline at CNN.com: “As hurricane season starts, coastal Catholics call on this holy go-between for protection from devastating storms.”

Let’s start with the basics: Do Catholics believe there is some form of divinity, other than the Holy Trinity — God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — who hears prayers and performs miracles?

In this headline the “holy go-between” is clearly St. Mary, the mother of Jesus. The term “go-between” is a bit brash, but does hint at the early church belief that is is proper to ask saints to join their prayers to God for a miracle or an answer to some other request. Are these believers claiming that the saint — St. Mary in this case — has the power to protect them or is that a God thing?

Truth be told, I have heard Catholics say things like “I prayed to St. Name Here and this or that happened.” In most cases, if you ask, “So you’re saying the saint performed this miracle?”, they will pause and acknowledge that it is God who hears prayers and responds, in one form or another.

So we need to see if this CNN.com report gets that right. But that isn’t the main reason a Catholic journalist sent me this CNN link. Check out this overture and see if you can spot the heresy in this news story:

(CNN) As Hurricane Matthew whipped up Florida's Atlantic coast in 2016, Beth Williby got scared.

"That hurricane, in particular, just got my back up," the Jacksonville mom of four recalled. "So, I did what any modern woman would do, and I Googled: Who do you pray to for protection from hurricanes?"

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A path-breaking treatment of Luke’s Gospel could provide your Christmas feature

A path-breaking treatment of Luke’s Gospel could provide your Christmas feature

Many television and print reporters will already be well along on preparing those annual Christmas features.

But in case you’ve yet to settle on something, there’s gold to be mined in a path-breaking commentary on the Gospel of Luke, which contains one of the two accounts of Jesus’ birth alongside the Gospel of Matthew. Or if you’re all set for Christmas, keep this book in mind for Holy Week and Easter features.

There’s a strong news hook. This is the first major commentary on a biblical book co-authored by a Christian and a Jew. Ben Witherington III of Kentucky’s Asbury Theological Seminary, and St. Andrews University in Scotland, is an evangelical Methodist. Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University is an agnostic feminist and well-known Jewish specialist on the New Testament.

The Levine-Witherington work, which includes the full New Revised Standard Version text, won high praise from the Christian Century, a key voice for “mainline” and liberal Protestantism. Its review said the combined viewpoints from the two religions add “enormous value” and are a “landmark” innovation for Bible commentaries.

Levine nicely represents the rather skeptical scholarship that dominates in today’s universities. What’s remarkable is Witherington’s co-authorship, because evangelicals can be wary of interfaith involvements. He naturally thinks Luke is a reliable historical account about his Lord and Savior, which is why the friendly interchanges with Levine are so fascinating. Also, Witherington considers Luke quite respectful toward Judaism and women. Levine dissents.

Here’s contact info to interview the two authors (perhaps alongside other New Testament experts). Levine: 615-343-3967 or amy-jill.levine@vanderbilt.edu. Witherington: benw333@hotmail.com or via this online link. Cambridge University Press U.S. office: 212-337-5000 or USBibles@cambridge.org.

The commentary’s treatment of Jesus’ birth spans 76 pages. Along with the big theme of how Christians and Jews regard the advent of Jesus, note some sample details in the familiar story that a reporter might pursue.

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Predator priests: CNN notes pope is silent on (a) secular holiday or (b) holy day celebrating purity?

Predator priests: CNN notes pope is silent on (a) secular holiday or (b) holy day celebrating purity?

Every reporter knows this truth: The typical news story -- even a longer feature -- doesn't have room for every single detail that you want to include.

Ah, but how do you decide which details make the cut? 

In my experience, reporters and editors think about the potential audience for a particular story. On the religion beat, I have always assumed that there is a good chance that people who read religion stories care about the religious details -- especially when they serve as symbols of major themes in the story. I also love details in liturgies, hymns, biblical texts, etc., that offer poignant or even ironic twists on the news.

This brings me to a rather angry note that I received from a reader -- a nationally known historian, who will remain anonymous -- about a symbolic detail in a CNN report linked to the stunning Pennsylvania grand-jury report covering seven decades of Catholic priestly sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses. The CNN.com headline: "Critics slam Vatican's 'disturbing' silence on abuse cover-ups."

The CNN report noted that Paloma Ovejero, deputy director of the Vatican's press office, simply said: "We have no comment at this time." Meanwhile, U.S. bishops of all stripes have urged Pope Francis to speak out. That led to this passage, with an expert academic voice offering commentary:

"The silence from the Vatican is disturbing," said Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. "I don't think the Pope necessarily has to say something today. He needs time to understand the situation. But someone from the Vatican should say something." 

Faggioli noted that Wednesday is a national holiday in Italy, and many church offices are closed. But he also noted that it was well-known that Pennsylvania's grand jury report, which was in the works since 2016, would be released on Tuesday. 

"I don't think they understand in Rome that this is not just a continuation of the sexual abuse crisis in the United States," Faggioli said. "This is a whole different chapter. There should be people in Rome telling the Pope this information, but they are not, and that is one of the biggest problems in this pontificate -- and it's getting worse."

Ah, what was this national holiday? 

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CNN clarifies a piece of Catholic dogma: Getting the Immaculate Conception details right

CNN clarifies a piece of Catholic dogma: Getting the Immaculate Conception details right

If you look up the word "conception" in a dictionary, it's not all that hard to understand.

At Dictionary.com, the first definition is: "the act of conceiving; the state of being conceived." The second meaning is, "fertilization; inception of pregnancy."

On the religion beat, this is -- #DUH -- a crucial thing to remember when covering anyone who makes a reference to the Catholic Church's doctrine known as the Immaculate Conception (click here for the Catechism explanation). The key Catechism concept:

Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, "full of grace" through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854

For some reason, many mainstream journalists -- those who are not skilled religion-beat pros -- tend to confuse the Immaculate Conception of Mary with the doctrine proclaiming the Virgin Birth of Jesus, which is affirmed by all creedal Christians. This can show up in all kinds of bizarre references in news coverage (click here for a classic M.Z. Hemingway GetReligion post from 2013).

This leads us to in interesting twist on this topic, a clip in which CNN's Chris Cuomo gets to read the doctrinal riot act to Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, who served up a strong early nominee for the most bizarre religion image of the year.

Things get weird as Gaetz offers a "Deep State" theory about professionals inside the U.S. government who are trying to take down Donald Trump. Yes, we are talking about those five months of missing text messages between two big-league Trump haters. The CNN piece notes that Gaetz said, on Fox News:

"It would be the greatest coincidence since the Immaculate Conception that it just happened to be the case that right after Obama sics the intelligence community on Trump, the text messages go dark, and they only reappear the day that Robert Mueller is hired to investigate the President. Come on, the American people won't believe that's a coincidence, and I don't believe it, either."

Then on "Cuomo Prime Time," there was the following.

Let us attend.

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Was Mary a teenager when she gave birth to Jesus?

Was Mary a teenager when she gave birth to Jesus?

And it came to pass that the weirdest religious quote of 2017 occurred when Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore was accused of sexual assault upon girls who were ages 14 and 16 when he was in his early 30s.

Moore denied this. But State Auditor Jim Ziegler leapt to his fellow Republican’s defense by offering the Washington Examiner this head-scratcher: “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here, maybe just a bit unusual."

That “took my breath away,” says Michigan State University’s Christopher Frilingos.

Sexual morality aside, Ziegler scuttled a prime tenet of biblical orthodoxy by indicating that the holy couple sired Jesus through normal sexual relations. The Bible’s two separate Nativity accounts specify that Mary was a virgin who conceived miraculously so that Jesus had no mortal father and Joseph was a stepfather or legally adoptive parent.

That brings to mind another attempted Bible rewrite by the late Jane Schaberg, an ex-nun and feminist “Goddess” devotee teaching at Catholicism’s University of Detroit. Her 1987 book “The Illegitimacy of Jesus” saw a New Testament cover-up in which Jesus’ biological father raped or seduced Mary while she was engaged to Joseph.

That harked back to an ancient Jewish tale, included in the Talmud, that Jesus was the “son of Panthera,” supposedly a Roman soldier. It’s possible Jesus’ opponents were leveling such an accusation when they told him “we are not illegitimate children” (John 8:41) as though Jesus was. Today’s skeptics post such stuff all across the Internet, hoping readers will ignore that the New Testament Gospels are our earliest, thus most reliable, sources.

Well, then, what about Ziegler’s claim that the pregnant Mary was “a teenager” and Joseph an older “adult”?

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The bizarre twist that pulled St. Joseph the Betrothed into Judge Roy Moore's media storm

The bizarre twist that pulled St. Joseph the Betrothed into Judge Roy Moore's media storm

To the left of my computer in my Oak Ridge office is an icon of the saint that the ancient churches of the East know as St. Joseph the Betrothed. In the West he is often called St. Joseph the Worker.

I found this icon (see photo at top of post) in a Greek church shop while visiting Thessaloniki more than a decade ago.

Now, St. Joseph is not my patron saint (that would be St. Brendan of Ireland). However, I grew closer to this saint and to this icon in particular when I became a grandfather. Along with millions of other Christians in ancient churches, I ask St. Joseph to join me in my daily prayers for my marriage, my children and, especially, my grandchildren.

Icons containing this specific image are important, in terms of church tradition, because St. Joseph is shown holding the Christ child, an honor customarily reserved for St. Mary the mother of Jesus. Also note that the saint is depicted as an elderly man, as shown by his gray hair and beard.

Believe it or not, details of this kind have become important in a ridiculous story currently making headlines in American politics. I jest not, as shown in this Religion News Service story that ran with the headline: "Conservatives defend Roy Moore -- invoking Joseph, Mary and the Ten Commandments."

(RNS) -- Conservative Christian supporters of Roy Moore are defending the U.S. Senate candidate against allegations of molesting a teenager decades ago -- and one of them used the biblical story of Mary and Joseph to rationalize an adult being sexually attracted to a minor.

OK, for starters, what is the meaning of the word "conservatives" -- plural -- in that headline? In terms of the Joseph and Mary part of this debate, it would appear that it would be more accurate to say "one evangelical Protestant," or something like that. I mean, is the assumption that there are no "conservative" Catholics or "conservative" Orthodox Christians? At this point, does "conservative Christian" automatically mean white evangelical Christians?

This bizarre side trip into church history is, of course, linked to that Washington Post blockbuster the other day that ran with this headline: "Woman says Roy Moore initiated sexual encounter when she was 14, he was 32."

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Baltimore Sun attempts to navigate complicated world of Orthodox iconography

Baltimore Sun attempts to navigate complicated world of Orthodox iconography

What we have here is a beautiful little feature story about a subject that is, literally, close to the heart and soul of any Orthodox Christian -- icons. The story ran in The Baltimore Sun, the newspaper that landed in my front yard for a decade, which means that it's about an Orthodox congregation that I have actually visited.

Iconography is a complicated subject on several levels, both in terms of the theology, the history and the craft itself. This story gets so many details right that I hesitate to note an error or, maybe, two -- one of mathematics (I think) and the other is, well, just a strange hole that would have been easy to fill.

First things first: Here is the overture.

As  Dionysios Bouloubassis picks up his paint brush at Saint Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church early one morning, the large canvas before him is blank but for the outlines of an angel he has sketched in pencil.
Swirling on reddish-brown pigment, he brings its wings to life. He fleshes out a Bible, then two hands to hold it. By nightfall, the cherub seems alive, its eyes gazing down from heaven.
The angel, a figure from the Book of Revelation, is one of 16 that Bouloubassis, a master iconographer from Greece, plans to paint and affix to the 60-foot dome inside Saint Mary, part of a years-long project in art and worship the Hunt Valley congregation launched in 2013.

So far so good. However, the very next paragraph contains a crucial error of history.

If all goes as planned, Bouloubassis will leave the interior of the year-old church covered in icons -- mural-sized renderings of Christ, the saints, angels and other religious images that have been part of the Orthodox Christian worship tradition for more than 1,200 years.

Where did that reference to 1,200 years come from?

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Wait a minute, NPR: Catholics are the only Christians who seek the help of the saints?

Wait a minute, NPR: Catholics are the only Christians who seek the help of the saints?

The other day I received a note from a GetReligion reader who clearly knows some theology.

The email concerned a passage in a National Public Radio story about St. Teresa of Kolkata that our reader knew, since I am an Eastern Orthodox layman, would punch my buttons. The reader was right. There is a good chance that NPR producers know little or nothing about Orthodox Christianity. Hold that thought.

The key to this case study is a very, very fine point of theology that is going to be hard to explain. It's possible that the story may have just barely missed the mark. However, it's more likely that it contains a spew-your-caffeinated beverage error that needs to be corrected.

Let's carefully tip-toe into this minefield. The passage in question focuses on the miracles, documented by church officials, that led to the canonization of the famous Albanian nun known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

A key quote comes from Bishop Robert Barron, the auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Read carefully and, well, pay attention to details about theology and church history:

Humanitarian work alone, however, is not sufficient for canonization in the Catholic Church. Normally, a candidate must be associated with at least two miracles. The idea is that a person worthy of sainthood must demonstrably be in heaven, actually interceding with God on behalf of those in need of healing.

Let me pause and note the presence of the word "interceding."

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Haunted house Olympics: How many of the faith-driven stories did you see in Rio coverage?

Haunted house Olympics: How many of the faith-driven stories did you see in Rio coverage?

For many Rio 2016 viewers, it was the emotional peak of the entire Olympics.

I am referring to what happened -- far from the finish line -- during a preliminary heat for the women’s 5,000-meter run. That was when Abbey D’Agostino of team USA collided with Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand.

Both went down. D’Agostino didn't know it, but she had a torn ACL. Nevertheless, she stopped and helped Hamblin. Together -- with the American runner clearly injured -- they finished the race. D’Agostino left the track in a wheelchair and, later, was not able to accept an offer by Olympic judges allowing both runners to run in the final because of their fine sportsmanship.

That's the story that everyone knows about, the drama that left viewers coping with tears. But why did D’Agostino stay behind to help, as the pack ran off into the distance? Catholic News Service looked for that angle, which was not hard to find:

“Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way. This whole time here he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance – and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”
She had previously recounted how her reliance on God helped calm her anxiety before a big race. “Whatever the outcome of the race is, I’m going to accept it. ... I was so thankful and just drawn to what I felt like was a real manifestation of God’s work in my life.” She told Hanlon that previous injuries forced her “to depend on God in a way that I’ve never been open to before.”

Did anyone see that angle in mainstream coverage? Actually, one or two major newsrooms saw that religion ghost and ran with it, including Sports Illustrated online. But not many.

I was exchanging emails with a media professional the other day and mentioned that there was no way GetReligion could have done posts on all of the valid, and often crucial, religion-angle stories that received little, if any, news coverage during Rio 2016. I have never received so many contacts from readers about a subject, pointing me toward more and more URLs with other Olympics religion angles worthy of note. It was like one giant haunted house of religion-ghost stories.

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