worship

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.

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

When newcomers arrive at a megachurch these days, they face an obstacle course of challenges -- from deciding how much to tip the parking-lot guy to tricking their normal children into looking like cherubs.

Finally, loaded with visitor swag -- donuts, coffee, official church water bottles, snappy Christian t-shirts, the pastor's new book -- they head into the flashing lights, dry-ice fog and pounding pop music inside the auditorium.

Now what? The bottom line: Look spiritual.

"On the powerful choruses, lift your hands high with abandon. On the subtler verses, tone it down a touch," advises the snarky narrator in the new book "How to Be a Perfect Christian," by the duo behind The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website.

After the guitar solo, there will be a "bridge" that worshippers sing over and over and over: "Go for it with both hands and a feigned expression of emotion on your face. Sway side to side like a tree in the wind. If you open one eye at this point, you'll probably notice that people … are staring at you in awe that they're in the presence of one so holy."

The book's goal isn't to mock Christianity, but to help believers understand that many churches have evolved into self-help supermarkets defined by trends in mass culture, said Bee founder Adam Ford. Often, faith turns into another "niche" product.

"We push back against the commercialization and 'celebritization' of so many aspects of the church," noted Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. "Get a famous pastor with a lot of Twitter followers, host the most carnival-like 'church services,' make sure everyone is as comfortable and entertained as possible, preach a Zig Ziglar-style message, and you'll get more people to come to your church. Like churches are circus franchises or something, with the ultimate goal being more butts in seats."

Ford wanted to become a pastor, but veered into the more private world of digital publishing (Adam4d.com). He founded the Bee in 2016 and recently sold the site, in part because of the hot spotlight caused by its success and a run-in with Facebook over content.

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!"


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.

Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's future: New data about fading faith in Christendom's old heart

Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's future: New data about fading faith in Christendom's old heart

After years of worrying about Europe's future, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany put his hopes and fears on the record during a 2001 interview.

There had been hints. German journalist Peter Seewald noted an old quote in which Ratzinger said the church would be "reduced in its dimensions, it will be necessary to start again." Had the leader of Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith changed his views?

"Statistical data shows irrefutable tendencies," replied Ratzinger. "The mass Church may be something lovely, but it is not necessarily the Church's only way of being.

"The Church of the first three centuries was small, without being, by this fact, a sectarian community. On the contrary, it was not closed in on itself, but felt a great responsibility in regard to the poor, the sick."

Four years later, this bookish cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI, serving until his stunning resignation in 2013 -- the first pope to resign in 600 years. Meanwhile, waves of change have continued to rock Eastern and Western Europe.

Now, the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion in Society, based at St. Mary's University in London, has released a study showing that Christianity is no longer Europe's default religion, especially among the 16- to 29-year-olds who are its future. "Europe's Young Adults and Religion," was produced with the Institut Catholique de Paris, analyzing data from 22 countries, drawn from the 2014-2016 European Social Survey.

In 18 of these countries "fewer than 10 percent of all 16-29 year-olds attend religious services at least weekly. And in 12 of them, over half say that they have 'no religion,' " noted Stephen Bullivant, the report's author and director of the Benedict XVI Centre, in email exchanges with Rod Dreher of The American Conservative.

"These are all countries in Europe, the very heart of Christendom, where Christianity (albeit in several forms) has been reliably passed on from generation-to-generation for the best part of 2000 years. And now, in the space of just a couple of generations, that's largely stopped in many places."

The key, he said is that "nominal" or "cultural" faith doesn't pass from one generation to another.

Life after Sexual Revolution: United Methodists still waiting for final shoe to drop

Life after Sexual Revolution: United Methodists still waiting for final shoe to drop

After decades of fighting about sex and marriage, the world's 12.5 million United Methodists are still waiting for a final shoe to drop.

Now, it's less than a year until a special General Conference that has been empowered to choose a model for United Methodist life after the Sexual Revolution -- some path to unity, rather than schism.

As the faithful watch and wait, Boston-area Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar composed a prayer for use among United Methodists in New England, on of the church's most liberal regions.

"God help us! Help us … to take the next faithful step forward not based on doctrine, tradition or theology; judgments, fears or convictions; notions of who are the righteous and unrighteous," wrote Devadhar. "God help us! Help us … to take the next small faithful step forward that is neither … right or wrong; good or bad; for or against; left or right; pro or con."

The problem is that ongoing battles among United Methodists have demonstrated that any realistic unity plan has to address this global church's doctrinal fractures, said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of the conservative Good News organization. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward that will make recommendations to the historic Feb. 23-26, 2019, General Conference in St. Louis.

If United Methodists had a "quick and easy way" forward that managed to ignore "doctrine, tradition and theology" they would have tried it already, he added. Meanwhile, many of the church's leaders still have "a dream that there are millions of evangelicals who are willing to live in a United Methodist Church that doesn't defend the authority of scripture and our church's own teachings."

Meanwhile, on the left, many United Methodists fear the growing flocks of evangelicals in their denomination -- especially overseas.

The family takes the pulpit: Billy Graham's children say their good-byes

The family takes the pulpit: Billy Graham's children say their good-byes

A few years before World War II, a 13-year-old girl in China wrote a prayer for her future husband.

The girl was Ruth Bell, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, and her five children have often shared that poem with others. So that's what Virginia "Gigi" Graham did, once again, at the March 2 funeral of the man her mother married in 1943 -- the Rev. Billy Graham.

"Dear God, I pray all unafraid/ as we're inclined to do.

"I do not want a handsome man/ But, oh God, let him be like you.

"I do not need one big and strong/ nor yet so very tall.

"Nor need he be a genius/ or wealthy, Lord, at all.

"But let his head be high, dear God/ and let his eye be clear,

"His shoulders straight, whate'er his fate/ whate'er his earthly sphere.

"And, oh God, let his face have character/ and a ruggedness of soul,

"And let his whole life show, dear God/ a singleness of goal.

"And when he comes/ as he will come,

"With those quiet eyes aglow/ I'll understand that he's the man,

"I prayed for long ago."

One by one, Billy and Ruth Graham's children -- Gigi, Anne, Ruth, Franklin and Ned -- took the pulpit in a 28,000-square-foot tent erected at the Billy Graham Library, in Charlotte, N.C. They praised their famous father, of course, but also their mother who died in 2007. The family's patriarch died with 19 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.