Women

Old Time Religion -- Meeting the woman who could become St. Thea of Mississippi

Old Time Religion -- Meeting the woman who could become St. Thea of Mississippi

The whispers began before Sister Thea Bowman reached Colorado for one of the final mission trips she would make before dying in 1990 at the age of 52.

The only African-American in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Bowman was a charismatic teacher, singer and evangelist and her ministry continued after cancer put her in a wheel chair.

Behind the scenes, folks at Our Queen of Peace parish near Denver were asking this question: Would this woman someday be hailed as St. Thea of Mississippi?

After her arrival, a local priest watched as Sister Thea led an interracial youth choir, rehearsing a gospel hymn, "Give Me That Old Time Religion," as well as the children's song she included in each service -- "This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine)."

Yes, people were talking about Sister Thea and sainthood, said Father William Breslin, pastor of this Aurora parish in 1989.

"Sometimes you have that sneaking suspicion," he said. "It's neat to be able to meet a person and experience. … It's neat to be able to put your finger on that special quality we can only call 'holiness.' "

Three decades later the U.S. Catholic bishops paused in Baltimore for a "canonical consultation," considering requests for a Vatican tribunal to begin investigating whether to declare Sister Thea a saint. On Nov. 14 the bishops said, "yes."

"The faithful in, and well beyond, the Diocese of Jackson" have made this request, Bishop Joseph Kopacz told the bishops. "Well before I arrived in Jackson" in 2014, "the requests were coming in. …The church embraced Sister Thea from her early years, but there were times when she felt like a motherless child."

During her 1989 "Sharing the Good News" mission -- which I covered for The Rocky Mountain News -- Sister Thea smiled, but shook her head, when asked about the whispers. She would talk about the word "saint," as long as she could define the term.

"People who really know me, they know all about my struggles," said an exhausted Bowman, leaning on the arm of her wheelchair after one service.

"You see, I'm black," she added, with a quiet laugh. "I guess the word 'saint' has a different meaning for me. I was raised in a community where … we were always saying things like, 'The saints would be coming in to church today' or 'The saints will really be dancing and singing this Sunday.' "

Serving the 'sad sisterhood' of those who have lost unborn children

Serving the 'sad sisterhood' of those who have lost unborn children

Priests who scan their flocks on Mother's Day will see lots of women smiling during the many blessings, hugs and kind words.

 But if they look closer, they will also see women who are trying not to cry. Some may be embracing their children, while struggling with memories of loss.

"We have not prepared our priests to handle the complex emotions that come with losing an unborn child," said Kara Palladino, founder of A Mom's Peace, a support network located in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington (Va.). "This is something we need to talk about. Many priests have no idea the magnitude of this loss and the challenges that come with it."

Seminaries prepare pastors to deal with many kinds of grief. Often, clergy can focus on memories of life together, even after an accident or illness that takes a child.

"A miscarriage is something different. We are dealing with the loss of something unknown. … This can lead to a silent pain that many mothers try to keep to themselves. When a woman loses an unborn child she becomes part of what we call 'the sad sisterhood,' " said Palladino. 

A Mom's Peace is rooted in Catholic teachings, but its all-volunteer team helps people of all faiths. Palladino and the group's other leaders call this a "lay apostolate" -- as opposed to a church-based ministry -- since so much of their work occurs in the secular world of hospitals, mortuaries, cemeteries and other institutions linked to death and dying.

It's impossible for clergy to avoid this issue. After all, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriages, according to Mayo Clinic statistics. Deaths that take place 20 weeks or more after conception are less common, but affect about 1 percent of pregnancies.

Palladino walked this path after losing her seventh child, Francis, who died in utero and she has lost three additional unborn children. She was stunned by how complicated, and expensive, it was to seek dignified burials for unborn children.

Letter from Catholic women: Papal silence isn't going to lessen pain, anger in the church

Letter from Catholic women: Papal silence isn't going to lessen pain, anger in the church

After a week of headlines and dissent, Pope Francis delivered a sermon that -- once again -- offered silence as his strategic response to critics.

The "father of lies, the accuser, the devil" is trying to divide Catholics, said the pope. When faced with "people who do not have good will, with people who seek only scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within families" the proper response is "silence, and prayer."

This echoed earlier remarks when, asked about a scathing epistle by the Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, Pope Francis said, "I will not say a single word on this."

Silence isn't what the authors of a "Letter to Pope Francis from Catholic Women" want to hear, right now. They want the pope to answer Archbishop Carlo Vigano's key accusations -- especially claims that Francis ignored evidence of sexual abuse against children and seminarians by ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.

"Our hearts are broken, our faith tested, by the escalating crisis engulfing our beloved Church," said the online petition, with more than 30,000 signatures at midweek. "The pain and suffering of the victims never ends, as each news cycle brings more horrific revelations of sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, cover-ups, and deceit -- even at the Church's highest levels."

Several of the Vigano's charges "require neither lengthy investigations nor physical evidence. They require only YOUR direct response, Holy Father."

Tensions have worsened in recent weeks, especially after a hellish grand-jury report about the crimes of 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses. Then came news coverage validating decades of rumors about McCarrick, including testimony about his seduction and abuse of seminarians. Then came Vigano's blast, including charges that Francis trumped efforts by Pope Benedict XVI to push McCarrick out of the spotlight.

The women's statement was triggered by a "wave of problems that has produced so much anguish, confusion, dismay and anger," said Mary Rice Hasson, a Catholic scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "It's not like there has been one problem that we could solve with a few reforms. … The problems just keep coming at us, one after another."

Time for #SBCToo: 'Wrath of God' has fallen on the Southern Baptist Convention

Time for #SBCToo: 'Wrath of God' has fallen on the Southern Baptist Convention

During her years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, April C. Armstrong kept a journal of her experiences as one of the few women earning a Master of Arts in Theology.

There were scary moments with a Master of Divinity student who was preparing for ordination as a youth minister. When she rebuffed his advances, he claimed that, as part of the security team, he had keys to all doors on the Fort Worth campus. He added, "I know where you live."

Armstrong was at Southwestern from 2004-2007 and, during that time, saw the last female professor exit the School of Theology. In one class, a male student quipped that "sophia" -- Greek for "wisdom" -- shouldn't be a feminine word because "no woman is wise." Then there was the chapel service in which a young woman sang a solo, inspiring President Paige Patterson to note that it was good that her skirt went to her ankles, since that would help men avoid the temptation of staring at her body.

"I was there to experience three years of unrelenting misogyny that it seemed NO ONE was willing to stop, because speaking out against it would realistically have drawn down the wrath of Paige Patterson, who could make or break your career," she wrote, at her #SBCToo website.

Armstrong, who later earned a Princeton University doctorate, added: "The best thing SWBTS did for me ... was to inspire a fierce, intensifying righteous anger."

Anger is timely, along with grief, as waves of #MeToo and #ChurchToo messages about sexual abuse and domestic violence have triggered a series of stunning headlines. Most have been linked to the work of Patterson, a hero on the right because of his leadership in the conservative blitz that took control of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Now, Patterson has been pushed into retirement, and beyond, after news about sermons in which he critiqued a teen-aged girl's body and, on another occasion, knocked female seminary students who weren't striving hard enough to be attractive. An old recording from 2000 -- when Patterson led Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary -- led to renewed debate about his advice to an abused wife to stay with her husband, offering prayer and submission rather than seeking legal help.

Finally, The Washington Post reported that a Southeastern student claimed she had been raped by a seminarian, but Patterson advised her not to report this to police.

Media storm about domestic violence stirs up old issues for Southern Baptists

Media storm about domestic violence stirs up old issues for Southern Baptists

It's a fact of life for clergy: They never know when ordinary conversations will turn into potentially tense encounters that some believers consider "counseling."

Many pastors have been trained, to some degree, in "pastoral counseling." Some may even have professional credentials. All of them face the challenge of handling tricky, dangerous moments when discussions of sin, repentance, forgiveness, prayer and healing turn into issues of safety and law.

Domestic violence is, of course, a bright red line. That often means there are complex faith issues linked to divorce looming in the background.

"Things have greatly improved in the past five to 10 years," said Denny Burk, leader of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College, on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Louisville, Ken. "Evangelical awareness has increased when it comes to mandatory reporting of domestic violence cases. I'm not sure many people were talking about that 20 years ago.

"We're not where we need to be, by any means. Lots of people in our pews, and even some leaders, still don't understand how important this is. ... At a seminary, we talk about these issues all the time."

There are cries for more change, as waves of #MeToo news have led to #ChurchToo debates. Then an anonymous source gave the Washington Post an audiotape from 2000 in which a revered Southern Baptist leader claimed that Christians must do everything they can to stop divorce, even if that means strategic silence about domestic violence. This recording had already caused debates in the past.

"It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree," said the Rev. Paige Patterson, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative revolution in the 1980s. He is currently president of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

"I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce, and that's always wrong counsel," he said.

When it comes to recruiting Catholic priests, doctrine often shapes demographics

When it comes to recruiting Catholic priests, doctrine often shapes demographics

The couples gathered for this Mass with Pope Francis knew a thing or two about marriage, since they were celebrating their 25th, 50th or 60th wedding anniversaries.

Still, the pope delivered a blunt homily on a painful family issue. The bottom line: Many Catholics do not want children.

"There are things that Jesus doesn't like," said Francis, in a 2014 service at the Vatican guesthouse he calls home. For example, there are parents who simply "want to be without fruitfulness."

Today's "culture of well-being," he said, has "convinced us that it's better to not have children! It's better. That way you can see the world, be on vacation. You can have a fancy home in the country. You'll be carefree." Apparently, many Catholics think it's easier to "have a puppy, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the puppy. … Have you seen this?"

Yes, Catholic leaders can see that reality in their pews and they know falling birth rates are linked to many sobering trends, from parochial-school closings to once-thriving parishes needing sell their sanctuaries.

Then there is the annual survey from Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reporting the number of men poised to be ordained as Catholic priests in the United States.

The class of 2018 is expected to be 430, and 25 percent of those men were foreign-born.

It's an often quoted fact: The number of men ordained each year is about a third of what's needed to replace priests who are retiring, dying or simply leaving. Two decades ago it was common to see between 800 and 900 ordinations a year.

Birth rates are the "overlooked factor in all of this," said sociologist Anne Hendershott, who leads the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. "It's kind of difficult to talk about this, because Catholic families used to be huge, which meant parents were willing to give up a son who wanted to enter the priesthood. Things have changed, obviously."

Catholic families in America are shrinking.

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

When her children were young, author Madeleine L'Engle used to take them on nighttime visits to the top of Mohawk Mountain, not far from the family's 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse.

The goal was to glimpse the mystery of God.

"If you need one image of God, then go outside on a clear night and look straight up at the stars. That's about as good as I can do," L'Engle told me, in 1989 during a two-hour interview before some Denver lectures.

The wonders of science and heavenly light are at the heart of her classic novel "A Wrinkle In Time." However, she said she knew that she needed to include some specifics to clarify her central message -- without clubbing young readers over the head.

"It's a work of fiction, not theology. I didn't write it expecting to get challenged on every last detail," she said.

However, she was willing to state one fact for the record, offering a variation on a quote she repeated through the years. Yes, she loved stargazing, she said, but ultimately, "I can understand God only as he is revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth.”

L'Engle died in 2007 at the age of 88, after publishing 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers. Her work is back in the news because of debates about Disney's $103-million version of "A Wrinkle In Time," which removed the book's religious images and biblical quotes.

At the time of the 1989 interview, L'Engle was already involved in talks about bringing "A Wrinkle In Time" to movie theaters -- a process that led to a low-budget, made-for-TV flop in 2004. That film downplayed her Christian imagery, as well.

It would be hard, explained L'Engle, to grasp this book's cosmic war between life and death, good and evil, darkness and light without two crucial passages.

Evangelicals For Life: Taking a more complex view of 'life issues' in tense times

Evangelicals For Life: Taking a more complex view of 'life issues' in tense times

Back in his days as a youth pastor, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma spent lots of time begging church members to teach Sunday school.

After hearing this plea over and over, one woman pulled him aside and quietly shared her painful reason for declining, said Lankford, at last week's Evangelicals For Life conference, which coincided with the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.

The woman told him: "James, I had an abortion years ago. I cannot be used by God." After apologizing for "pounding on her" to volunteer, Lankford said he responded: "Is there any action that God cannot forgive?"

Lankford said the woman's response was unforgettable: "I'm not sure yet."

Debates about the dignity of human life take place in all kinds of settings, from Capitol Hill and the U.S. Supreme Court to church fellowship halls and streets packed with marchers. Arguments about abortion create headlines, fuel fundraising letters and rattle politicos on left and right.

Just before this year's march -- marking the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade -- the U.S. House of Representatives voted 241-183 to pass the Born-alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which protects children that survive abortion procedures.

What happens in courts and legislatures is important, said Lankford, echoing a theme heard during many sessions at the conference hosted by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Focus on the Family. However, he said the most important discussions of right-to-life issues occur during personal encounters with ordinary people wrestling with hard questions in real life.

And now a word from Oprah, the pope (and president?) of America's 'nones'

And now a word from Oprah, the pope (and president?) of America's 'nones'

No one has to tell Marcia Nelson about America's rising number of "nones" -- people claiming zero ties to a religious tradition -- because she meets them day after day while working as a hospital chaplain in Chicago.

"Lots of people want you to pray with them, but they'll also make comments that let you know they really don't like the institutional church," said Nelson. "They want you to pray, but they don't want traditional religious language. ... When you're in that situation, what you have to do is try to pray like Oprah."

America had another Oprah Winfrey moment the other day, when the 63-year-old billionaire media maven delivered a Golden Globes sermon that created rapture in Hollywood and a heady buzz among journalists and politicos.

NBC gushed on Twitter: "Nothing but respect for OUR future president."

During her remarks, Winfrey pushed many buttons that have defined her career, noted Nelson, author of the 2005 book, "The Gospel According to Oprah." Surrounded by a media storm about sexual abuse of women, Winfrey also offered praise for journalists, appeals for social justice and criticism of corrupt tyrants. She didn't need to mention the former talk-show host in the White House.

It was a secular speech, noted Nelson, but had the "pastoral touch" that the young Winfrey displayed in services at the Faith United Mississippi Baptist Church, where other girls called her "Miss Jesus."

"Oprah has always had a gift for reading what's on people's minds and this was one of those times," said Nelson.

Winfrey raced from the birth of the Civil Rights Moment to today's headlines, while focusing on the pains and triumphs of abused women.