Pope Francis

A comic book attempt to get inside the head of Pope Francis

A comic book attempt to get inside the head of Pope Francis

The grand Basilica of San Jose de Flores usually inspires visitors to gaze up at its Corinthian pillars and soaring 19th century Italianate clock tower.

This landmark in Buenos Aires played a strategic role in the life of a young Argentinian named Jorge Bergoglio. In a new book entitled "The Life of Pope Francis," he is shown shielding his eyes as he stands, stunned, in front of the sanctuary in 1953. His simple exclamation: "Dios mio," or "My God!"

Since this is a comic book, readers are told what Bergoglio was thinking. If this one moment is worth two giant images in a 22-page book, then the author has to show why it's so important.

"My goal is to focus on a few key events that made a person who are, on the forces that shaped them, not just on what they accomplished in some adult role on world stage," said author Michael Frizell, a creative writer who works in adult education at Missouri State University.

"I prefer to write about the personal, quieter scenes in a person's life. … It's especially hard to capture that when you're trying to describe a religious experience."

This private "Dios mio!" moment matters because whatever happened drove Bergoglio inside the church and into a Confession booth. This revelation changed his life.

In comic-book language that sounds like this, framed in thought boxes: "I ... don't quite know what happened. I felt like someone grabbed me from inside … and took me to the confessional. It was on that day that I knew my destiny was preordained."

Year 28 -- The crux of religion-news coverage in a digital marketplace

No one is surprised when The Wall Street Journal covers Wall Street, Disney releases a princess movie or Apple creates another wonder framed in aluminum.

Some professionals just do what they do. Thus, anyone who follows religion news knew that The Boston Globe's Crux website, which debuted 18 months ago, was going to be bookmarked by legions of Catholic-news junkies. Reporter John L. Allen, Jr., was going to do that thing that he does.

Alas, as so often happens, an online journalism project that drew millions of computer-mouse clicks failed to generate the stream of advertising revenue Globe executives needed to keep the cyber-doors open. This has led to a partnership -- raising many Catholic eyebrows -- between Allen and the Knights of Columbus, producing a "Crux 2.0," which opened on April 1.

This kind of union is becoming increasingly common. The goal is to marry a commitment to real journalism with financial support from a cooperative nonprofit group.

For this to work, the "people on the other side of the deal have to believe in what you are doing and see the wisdom of becoming part of your brand," said Allen, reached by telephone in Rome. "Your partners also have to be smart enough to realize that a key part of your brand is that you are seen -- by your readers -- as being truly independent."

The Crux project is crucial to anyone who cares about the future of journalism and, especially, quality reporting on specialty news topics like religion. That certainly includes me, after decades of work in this field. That includes, as of this week, 28 years writing this syndicated "On Religion" column.

Those who follow Catholic news know that Crux is not Allen's first journalism rodeo.

Pope and patriarch point to the unity found among the modern martyrs

Metropolitan Hilarion of Russia left little room for doubt about his priorities when offered a few moments to speak during the Vatican's tense Synod on the Family.

"Militant secularism" was on the rise, he said last fall. Thus, Catholics and Orthodox Christians should stand united while defending the "traditional Christian understanding of the family," "marriage as a union between a man and a woman" and the "value of human life from conception till natural death."

But most of all, Moscow's top ecumenical diplomat wanted to talk about martyrs -- new martyrs.

Consider Iraq, home to 1.5 million Christians a few years ago. Today, 150,000 remain while the "others were either exterminated or expelled," he said. Then look at Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere.

"We are deeply concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe … unfolding in Syria, where militant Islamists are seeking political power," he said. Wherever jihadists "come to power, Christians are being persecuted or exterminated. Christian communities in Syria and other countries of the Middle East are crying for help, while the mass media in the West largely ignore their cries and the politicians prefer to close their eyes."

It was a foretaste of the historic "airport summit" declaration signed in Cuba by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Orthodox Church of Moscow and all Russia.

The passion that loomed over the historic meeting between Rome and Moscow

Like all veteran journalists who cover global religion news, Robert Moynihan of "Inside the Vatican" is used to getting interesting emails from sources in interesting places.

Normally, Moynihan asks the questions. But that wasn't the case in 2006 when he heard from Russian composer Hilarion Alfeyev, who was completing a new Passion According to St. Matthew, based on scripture and prayers from the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.

It's crucial to know that, in 2006, this composer was already a Russian Orthodox bishop. Today he is known as Metropolitan Hilarion and, as chair of his church's Department of External Church Relations, he has long been a key player in behind-the-scenes talks seeking a meeting between the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Moscow.

In that email, the composer said his goal was to premiere the work in Moscow in March of 2007 -- just before Easter in a year in which Catholics (using the Gregorian calendar) and the Orthodox (on the older Julian calendar) would celebrate the Paschal feast on the same day.

Hilarion wondered "if there might be a way for this work to then be performed in Rome and if I could help organize such a concert," said Moynihan. "We both knew this would be incredibly challenging. … But we did it and that night was like a miracle."

The Moscow premiere was on March 27 and, two nights later, the exhausted Russian choir and orchestra were in Rome for a performance attended by several Catholic Cardinals, as well as numerous students, scholars and dignitaries. One Orthodox participant was Metropolitan Kirill -- now the Russian patriarch.

Anyone probing the roots of the historic encounter between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis -- the first meeting of this kind between Rome and Moscow -- must study the years of cultural and musical contacts that built a bridge to this moment, said Moynihan, in an interview days before the Cuba summit. In the end, mutual concerns about the slaughter of Christians in Iraq and Syria made such a meeting an urgent necessity.

Pope Francis seeking a Year of Mercy, even in the online land of the trolls

Pope Francis has promoted the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in many symbolic ways, from spectacular liturgical rites to quiet gestures of forgiveness to sinners who have sought his help.

Now, the social-media star @Pontifex is saying that acts of grace, kindness and mercy should even be attempted by believers whose work and private affairs take them into one of modern life's harshest environments -- cyberspace.

"Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication. It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart," argued Francis, in a statement marking the 50th World Communications Day. It was released at the same time as a private meeting between the pope and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

"Social networks," wrote Francis, "can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division. … The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks. … Access to digital networks entails a responsibility for our neighbor whom we do not see but who is nonetheless real and has a dignity which must be respected."

Believers can stand firm in defending the faith, he said, but "even in those cases where they must firmly condemn evil" it's essential that they not resort to using words and arguments that "try to rupture relationships."

Alas, there's the rub, especially when "trolls" wreck havoc in online communities.

2015 and beyond: So much news about religious liberty battles at home and abroad

The goal of The Atlantic Monthly's recent LGBT Summit was to gather a flock of politicos, artists, activists and scribes to discuss the "Unfinished Business" of queer culture, after a historic win for gays at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The summit's final speaker was Andrew Sullivan, the British-born, HIV-positive, occasionally conservative, liberal Catholic whose trailblazing online journalism helped shape so many public debates.

Sullivan ranged from the genius of "South Park" to the impact of smartphone apps on dating, from the positive impact of gay porn to the lingering self-loathing that prevents some gays from embracing drugs that could end AIDS. He attacked Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, while yearning for another term for President Barack Obama.

Most of all, he stressed that it's time -- after a "tectonic" cultural shift on sexuality -- for professional LGBT activists to end the "whiny victimhood" in which they recite a "you're a bigot, we're oppressed, why do you hate us" litany to Americans who disagreed with them about anything.

Calling himself a "classical liberal," Sullivan stressed that gay leaders must accept that some believers will not surrender the ancient doctrines that define their faith. Thus, it's time for honest conversations between believers, gay and straight.

"The blanket … I would say, yes, bigotry towards large swaths of this country who may disagree with us right now … is not just morally wrong, it's politically counterproductive," he said, drawing screams of outrage on Twitter.

"Religious freedom is an incredibly important freedom. To my mind it is fundamental to this country and I am extremely queasy about any attempt to corral or coerce the religious faith of anybody."

Sullivan's comments captured one of the tensions that dominated the Religion Newswriters Association poll to select the Top 10 religion news events of 2015.

'Conscience' became a key fighting word at Vatican synod on family

Want to start a fight? Just ask this question: How many Protestant denominations are there in the world?

Estimates start as high as 40,000 and most sources put the number above 20,000, citing the United Nations, the World Christian Encyclopedia or some other authority. The key is that various Protestant groups have their own concepts of biblical authority and the role played by the conscience of each believer. Fights often cause splits and new flocks.

Meanwhile, the Church of Rome has the Throne of St. Peter and the Catechism. This is why eyebrows were raised when progressive theologian Daniel Maguire of Marquette, amid tense debates about marriage, divorce and gay rights, wrote to The New York Times to argue that Catholicism is "going the way of its parent, Judaism" and dividing into three streams.

"In Judaism there are Reform as well as Conservative and Orthodox communities. This arrangement is not yet formalized in Catholicism, but the outlines of a similar broadening are in place," said Maguire. While the Vatican may tweak some procedures, such as streamlining the annulment process, "reform Catholics don't need it. Theirconsciences are their Vatican."

The tricky word "conscience" crept into news about the 2015 Synod of Bishops in Rome -- focusing on marriage and family life -- when the leader of the giant Archdiocese of Chicago told reporters that he thought many Catholics who under current teachings cannot take Holy Communion should be able to do so, if guided by their consciences.

Pope, global conference see threats to family and 'human ecology'

Pope Francis has been preaching on marriage and family for a year, describing in increasingly vivid terms a global threat to what he has called "human ecology."

"We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable," he said last fall, at the Vatican's Humanum Conference on marriage.

"The crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection."

In his historic address to the U.S. Congress, the pope concluded with this same point: "I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family."

As a result, he warned, many young people are growing up "disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. … We might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family."

Ironically, while the world's attention was locked on Pope Francis during his U.S. visit, the event that brought him here -- The World Meeting of Families -- unfolded quietly in Philadelphia with 20,000 people in attendance, drawing little media attention.

Wheels up? Flights of papal candor are now becoming the norm

After avoiding "culture wars" quotes and fiery headlines during his historic U.S. visit, Pope Francis finally offered his blunt opinion about believers being asked to abandon their faith -- or else.

When doing so, he chose to talk about an epic Medieval poem that describes Muslims being forced to choose between Christian baptism and death. Or was that really what Francis was talking about on that flight to Rome?

Terry Moran of ABC News asked if Francis supported individuals "who say they cannot in good conscience … abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?"

Pope Francis said he could not address all such cases, thus avoiding a reference to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who secretly met with the pope in Washington, D.C.

"If a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right," said Francis. "Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying 'this right has merit, this one does not.' …

"If a government official is a human person, he has that right."

Rather than discuss current events, the pope added: "It always moved me when I read, and I read it many times, … the Chancon Roland, when the people were all in line and before them was the baptismal font -- the baptismal font or the sword. And, they had to choose. They weren't permitted conscientious objection. It is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights."

Flights of papal candor are becoming a tradition for reporters with the newsroom resources to pay business-class rates for seats on Shepherd One -- whatever plane is carrying the pope.