young people

Fires raging in American church: Catholics face hard choices after McCarrick scandal

Fires raging in American church: Catholics face hard choices after McCarrick scandal

Priests know what it's like to enter the pulpit facing scriptures that appear to have been torn from the headlines.

That happened just the other day, with news that one of America's most powerful Catholics -- retired Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. -- had been accused of the sexual abuse of boys, as well as decades of seminarians.

Days later the Sunday Mass lectionary featured the Prophet Jeremiah, speaking for Jehovah: "Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture."

That reminded Father John Hollowell of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis of even stronger words from St. John Chrysostom, the early church's most celebrated orator: "The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts."

Priests who took their vows during the clergy sexual abuse scandals a decade or so ago thought that they had heard it all, said Hollowell.

Now, with hellish reports about McCarrick the "wound in the church continues to be infected and it oozes with fresh pus. … Everyone says the same stuff -- that everybody knew, and nobody knew what to do about it, and nobody knew who to tell and there's a fresh trail of people discovered to have been destroyed by his crimes and his actions," he said, in a sermon posted online.

What happens now? While many powerful voices in the American church remained silent, or offered public-relations talk, several bishops in smaller dioceses wrote urgent letters to their flocks.

Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth (.pdf here) focused on this stunning fact: One of the men accusing McCarrick of years of abuse had been the first child he baptized after his ordination as a priest.


That strange sermonette that Chris Pratt tricked MTV viewers into swallowing

That strange sermonette that Chris Pratt tricked MTV viewers into swallowing

Everyone knows what the angelic nanny Mary Poppins meant when she sang:  "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Hollywood superstar Chris Pratt put a different spin on that during the recent MTV Movie & TV Awards. After receiving the Generation Award, he told fans to "listen up," because he was speaking "as your elder." Then he recited what CNN called his "Nine Rules for Living."

It was a strange set of commandments -- part potty humor, part youth-pastor sermon. But Rule No. 4 said this: "When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger and they won't even know they're eating medicine."

That's what Pratt was doing. The megastar of Guardians of the Galaxy and the Jurassic Park reboots followed the MTV rules and used some mildly off-color humor -- like how to poop at a party without smelling up the bathroom. These MTV celebrity-fests are known for their racy fashion statements and crude language.

That humor was Pratt's "hamburger." What caused a tsunami of Internet clicks was his "medicine," speaking as an out-of-the-closet Hollywood Christian.

Rule No. 2 proclaimed: "You have a soul. Be careful with it."

Rule No. 6 was rather personal: "God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you. Believe that, I do."

Rule No. 8 was just as blunt: "Learn to pray. It's easy, and it's so good for your soul."

There was more to this drama than the rare chance to hear a "Hollywood A-lister tell people to pray," noted film critic Titus Techera of the Claremont Institute. Pratt was trying to turn celebrity worship upside down.

Remembering the real Mister Rogers -- as in the Rev. Fred Rogers

Remembering the real Mister Rogers -- as in the Rev. Fred Rogers

America was divided, tense and angry in 1969, when Fred Rogers faced a U.S. Senate Subcommittee poised to grant President Richard Nixon his requests for deep budget cuts for public broadcasting.

The news was full of assassinations, riots and images from Vietnam. The pain even soaked into the gentle, calm, safe world of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Rogers told the senators why he kept telling children they were unique and special. But he also talked about fear, anger and confusion -- because that's what children were feeling. 

Then he read the lyrics of one of his deceptively simple songs: "What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right?" 

The song stressed that kids can make good choices: "I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop anytime. And what a good feeling to feel like this. And know … that there's something deep inside that helps us become what we can."

The senators nixed the cuts, and the Rev. Fred Rogers -- an ordained Presbyterian minister -- continued with his complex blend of television, child development and subtle messages about faith. The Senate showdown is a pivotal moment in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", a Focus Features documentary just released to theaters nationwide.

"The bottom line for Fred Rogers was that the faith he had in God -- Christian tradition and his own beliefs -- infused everything that he did," said the Rev. George Wirth, a friend and pastor to Rogers for two decades. "He was not a grab you by the lapels man, obviously. He was more careful, and I would say prayerful, in terms of how he discussed faith."

In the documentary, Rogers summed up his approach: "Love is at the root of everything -- all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of what we become." The space created by a TV lens, between himself and a child, was "very holy ground," he said.

Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah look at European Catholicism and do the math

Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah look at European Catholicism and do the math

When it comes to Catholicism's future in Europe, it appears that Pope Francis has started to do the math.

In a recent speech to Italy's bishops, Francis offered a sobering sound bite: "How many seminaries, churches, monasteries and convents will be closed in the next few years? God only knows."

Europe is "hemorrhaging" priests and nuns, he added, because of a "crisis in vocations" in which few Catholics are willing to take vows and serve the church. Once, Europe was the heart of Christendom and sent waves of missionaries around the world. Now Europe is suffering from "vocational sterility," in part because of a "dictatorship of money" that is seducing the young, said the pope, in his May 21 remarks.

The demographic trends behind this anguish are familiar. In the most recent set of statistics, the number of Catholic priests continued to fall, while the worldwide Catholic population went up. Among priests, the rate of decline was greatest in Europe -- while in Africa and Asia, the number of priests is rising.

Demographic realities are clearly part of the problem, said Francis. Like what? A recent report from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies noted that -- with a birth rate of 1.88 and falling, below the 2.1 replacement rate -- France is the European Union's most fertile nation, with Ireland in second place. Irish voters just voted to repeal their nation's constitutional ban on abortion.

The day after Pope Francis faced the Italian bishops, a crucial African voice in Vatican debates -- Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea -- addressed the current state of Catholic faith in Europe.

Like the pope, Cardinal Sarah was blunt, as he addressed pilgrims gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.

"Pilgrims of France, look upon this cathedral! Your ancestors built it to proclaim their faith. Everything, in its architecture, its sculpture, its windows, proclaims the joy of being saved and loved by God," said Sarah, leader of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

"Your ancestors were not perfect, they were not without sins. But they wanted to let the light of faith illuminate their darkness! Today, you too, People of France, wake up! Choose the light! Renounce the darkness!"


Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

It's hard for anyone -- let alone a former president -- to visit Liberty University these days without mentioning President Donald Trump.

Sure enough, former President Jimmy Carter opened his recent Liberty commencement address with a quip linked to Trump's claims that his inauguration crowd was as large, or larger, than that of President Barack Obama.

The set-up: Trump addressed the school's 2017 graduates.

"This is a wonderful crowd," said Carter, after being introduced by Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr. "Jerry told me … that it's even bigger -- I hate to say this -- than it was last year." With a slight grin, he added: "I don't know if President Trump would admit that or not."

The crowd laughed, and some people cheered. Carter avoided any further Trump references -- at least by name.

The key to this day was that Carter and Falwell treated each other with respect, and even affection, setting the tone for an encounter between the evangelical left and right. In 2015, Falwell also made headlines by inviting Sen. Bernie Sanders to speak on campus.

Calling the 93-year-old Carter the "world's most famous Sunday school teacher," Falwell praised his declaration of born-again Christian faith while in public life and his legacy, as an ex-president, of serving others. Liberty's leader stressed that Carter showed political courage, and paid a high price among Democrats, when he signed the Hyde Amendment banning the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions.

"The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person, and to give my political support to a person," said Falwell. "Policies are important. But candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today."

Carter's visit, he added, was an example of Christians "uniting … on issues where they agree, rather than fighting about issues where they disagree."

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.

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

When Larry Norman died in 2008 there was one thing the critics -- secular and religious -- agreed on: The controversial singer and music maven helped create the "Contemporary Christian Music" industry.

For Norman, that was not good news.

"In China, if you become a Christian, you may be imprisoned," said Norman, offering a cynical aside during his last concert, in New York City. Seven months later, his fragile heart failed one last time.

"In India, your parents may disown you. In the Middle East, they might execute you. But in America, if you become a Christian, you just have a broader selection of Christian CDs to choose from."

Norman lived to see the fiery folk-rock style he pioneered in the early 1970s -- part "Jesus Movement" evangelism, part social-justice sermons -- evolve into a suburb-friendly genre in which "Christian" was attached to safe versions of old fads in mainstream music.

The album Norman considered his bravest -- "So Long Ago the Garden" -- infuriated many "CCM" consumers because of its symbolic, mysterious language. Then there was the semi-nude, Edenic cover image of the singer.

While writing his Norman biography, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music," philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury dug into the singer's papers and found an impassioned defense of that album, in a letter to angry fans.

"All of the songs I write are Christian songs, because I am a Christian," wrote Norman. "Is a man any less a Christian because he is a car mechanic instead of an evangelist? … Some people are so conditioned that if a song doesn't have some religious clues like 'blood of the lamb' or 'the cross,' they are unsure of its spiritual qualification."

Part of the problem, said Thornbury, is that Norman had "a glorious way of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He never wavered from his desire to write Jesus songs. …Yet at the same time, he was constantly blasting Christian music people about making music that was propaganda -- with no art, or poetry, or mystery at all. …

"Larry thought you could be very, very clear on Jesus and the Gospel and, at the same time, go way out there on the edge in terms of art."

Alas, it was hard to be a commercial, secular success while doing both those things.

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

When Larry Norman released "Upon This Rock" in 1969, its rock-star sizzle and blunt faith put the album in the soundtrack for millions of lives as the "Jesus Movement" revival surged onto the cover of Time magazine.

Music industry pros were used to hearing The Beatles on Capitol Records. Now there was a longhaired guy on the same label belting out: "Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation to every man and every nation. Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation and let the people know that Jesus cares."

Norman's work did more than shake up church youth meetings. His early success convinced some Gospel music executives to turn up the drums and guitar solos. Soon, "Contemporary Christian Music" grew into a billion-dollar industry with its own written and unwritten rules.

Now it was time for Norman to freak out Christians as much as he did secular-music people in the early years when he shared concert bills with Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Who and others. What were Christian radio stations supposed to do with "The Great American Novel," a song that addressed racism, war, poverty and other hot-button topics?

"You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter, then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water," sang Norman. "And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on, at every meal you say a prayer; you don't believe but still you keep on."

Norman "overloaded lots of people's circuits" and, eventually, even his own, according to philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury, author of a new biography named after one of Norman's most famous tunes -- "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" The subtitle hints at future darkness: "Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock." Norman died in 2008 at the age of 60.

Thornbury calls Norman the "Forrest Gump," a true "holy fool," of American evangelicalism. The scholar — and guitar player — doesn't hide Norman's struggles in business and his private life, adding a painful backstory to a career that put the singer shoulder to shoulder with everyone from the Rev. Billy Graham to President Jimmy Carter, and lots of colorful people in between. As a young man, Vice President Mike Pence was born again at a Christian rock festival -- headlined by Norman.

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.