Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

It was the feast of St. Mary, Mother of the Church, so writer Leah Libresco and some friends decided to have a traditional procession through their neighborhood, while praying the Rosary out loud.

"I live in New York City, where this was still not the weirdest thing that anyone would see that day," said Libresco, speaking earlier this winter at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The procession received some puzzled looks along Broadway, near Lincoln Center. Their images of St. Mary sure didn't match the vision of womanhood seen in advertisements they passed.

This wasn't a public statement. All these New Yorkers were doing was celebrating the feast together, creating a face-to-face community with faith, food and fellowship. There's more to life than sitting at home, firing tweets and text messages at the world.

Long ago, Libresco explained, ascetic monks called "stylites" believed they should spend their lives fasting and praying while living atop pillars. This kind of solitude, obviously, was not for the average believer.

Today, many Americans have become "accidental stylites," she said. They are isolated from one another by jammed schedules, job demands and all those digital devices that were supposed to aid communication.

"A lot of folks wind up living hermetic lives, living their faith alone -- nakedly before God -- without the assistance of a monastic superior, or a community or anything else," she said. While monks carefully choose lives of solitude, that path would be "a terrible idea for the rest of us."

Once known as a popular atheist blogger, Libresco began exploring spiritual disciplines after converting to Catholicism in 2012. Her new book is called "Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name." The title is a reference to journalist Rod Dreher's bestseller "The Benedict Option," which challenged modern believers to build local support networks -- involving education, the arts, even small businesses -- in an increasingly post-Christian America. Dreher (a friend of mine for 20 years) wrote the foreword for Libresco's book.

Building on Dreher's manifesto, Libresco wants to encourage Christian hospitality in settings more intense than young-adult gatherings offering shallow chitchat over wine and cheese.

"My goal, always, in building the Benedict Option, is not to turn away from the world," she wrote. "Feeling the need for the thicker community of the Benedict Option … isn't the same as rejecting the world or fearing it. … A claustrophobic feeling can creep into your spiritual life when you practice it alone."

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

Just over a century ago, a Methodist leader on the church's Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public morals noticed an empty lot facing the U.S. Capitol and thought it would be a fine place to do some lobbying.

The Methodist Building was finished in 1923 and 100 Maryland Ave., N.E., soon became an even more strategic address when the Supreme Court moved next door. The prohibition cause faded, however, and in recent decades the five-story limestone building has housed liberal Protestant activists of all kinds, as well as Kids 4 Peace, the Islamic Society of America, Creation Justice Ministries and others.

It's an unusual site for a March for Life prayer meeting. But, year after year, the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality meets there to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade.

Defending life means "walking in a way that is out of step with the world," said retired Bishop Timothy Whitaker, former president of the denomination's Board of Discipleship. While there are secular people who oppose abortion, he focused his Jan. 18 sermon on why this issue has become so crucial to modern Christians who strive to affirm ancient Christian doctrines.

"Unless a part of the church is compromised by being conformed to the world," said Whitaker, "becoming a Christian profoundly changes one's perception of reality and one's behavior. … That is why the church is loved by many, as well as hated by many."

When the March for Life makes headlines, it is almost always for political reasons, such as this year's remarks by Vice President Mike Pence and a video-chat from President Donald Trump.

The massive march also serves as a hub for dozens of smaller events, with groups ranging from Episcopalians for Life to Feminists for Life, from Pro-Life Humanists to the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. Almost all mainstream religious groups -- including progressive flocks -- include a pro-life caucus of some kind.

For decades, United Methodists were powerful supporters of the interfaith Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, ties that were cut by delegates at the denomination's 2016 General Conference. That same conference defeated a motion to retain an old affirmation of Roe v. Wade.

Separation of church and life: Many pastors struggle to handle issues of sex and technology

Separation of church and life: Many pastors struggle to handle issues of sex and technology

If Daniel Weiss has learned anything about the small towns of east-central Wisconsin, it's that folks in the region he calls home care about what they eat.

Say buzzwords like "organic," "natural" and "superfoods" and -- snap -- people will organize fairs, farmers markets, farm-to-table workshops and debates about whether local free-range chickens have healthy social lives.

"You can talk about fresh veggies and how important food issues are for their families," said Weiss, leader of the Brushfires Foundation, a sexual-integrity ministry based in Omro, Wisc. "People in a secular society will bond together to talk about food and good health. That's real. That's safe. …

"It's totally different -- even in our churches -- if you try to get people to talk about pornography, smartphones, videogame addiction and all the stuff that's filling up their hearts and minds."

When asked about these issues, many pastors say things like, "I don't want to be negative," "That's a parents thing," "Tech issues are so complex" or "I'm afraid to offend people and run them off." Many pastors think silence is the safest option.

That's a naive attitude in modern America, according to Barna Group research commissioned by Brushfires, and supported by 24 national and state groups, such as Focus on the Family and Enough is Enough. Researchers contacted 410 senior ministers in 29 evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations, along with non-denominational congregations. Pastors were asked about 18 issues, including marital infidelity, premarital sex, same-sex relationships, sexting, gender dysphoria and the use of pornography by husbands, wives, teens and young children. Among the findings:

* Eighty percent of these Protestant pastors said they had been approached during the past year by church members or staff dealing with infidelity issues and 73 percent had faced issues linked to pornography.

* Seventy percent of the pastors said they dealt with serious "sexual brokenness" issues in their flock several times a year, with 22 percent saying this took place once a month or more.

*Only a third of the pastors said they felt "very qualified" to address the sexual issues being raised by their staff and church members.

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Once again, Coptic Christians faced bloody bodies in the sands of Egypt, as terrorists killed seven pilgrims who had just prayed at the Monastery of St. Samuel.

No one was surprised when the Islamic State took credit for that November attack south of Cairo. After all, 28 pilgrims were massacred near the same spot in 2017.

In Syria, Orthodox believers marked the fifth anniversary of the kidnapping of Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church -- who were trying to negotiate the release of priests seized weeks earlier. Today, their followers know less about the identity of the attackers than they did in 2013.

In the Nineveh plains of Iraq, Christians slowly returned to communities in which their ancestors had worshipped since the first century after Christ. Zero Christians remained in Mosul after ISIS demanded that they convert to Islam or pay the jizya head tax, while living with brutal persecution.

But nothing remained of the 1400-year-old Dair Mar-Elia (Saint Elijah's Monastery), after invaders blew it up twice and then bulldozed the rubble.

Try to imagine the faith it requires for believers to carry on after all this has taken place, said the Prince of Wales, speaking at a Westminster Abbey service last month celebrating the lives of Christians who endure persecution in the Middle East.

"Time and again I have been deeply humbled and profoundly moved by the extraordinary grace and capacity for forgiveness that I have seen in those who have suffered so much," said Prince Charles, who has worked to build contacts in the ancient Christian East.

"Forgiveness, as many of you know far better than I, is not a passive act, or submission. Rather, it is an act of supreme courage, of a refusal to be defined by the sin against you. … It is one thing to believe in God who forgives. It is quite another to take that example to heart and actually to forgive, with the whole heart, 'those who trespass against you' so grievously."

The persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East was not one of 2018's big news stories. Instead, this parade of horrors became a kind of "old news" that rarely reached the prime headlines offered by elite newsrooms.

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Months after the end of World War II, leaders of Youth for Christ sent evangelists to work in the battered cities of Europe.

The rally teams were led by two of the new ministry's rising stars. The preacher in southern Europe was the Rev. Billy Graham of North Carolina and, in northern Europe, the Rev. Jess Moody of Texas filled that role.

That says something about the oratorical skills of Moody, whose life story was later turned into a Gospel Films feature called "Riding the Pulpit."

So it was no surprise that Moody later served as president of the Pastors' Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention and, in 1969, was asked to address tensions in the Vietnam War era. Moody's sermon -- "The Christian and War" -- left many pastors stunned and others infuriated.

"My country is sick and cannot seem to get well," he roared, offering what he called a "personal paraphrase" of the Prophet Jeremiah. "My countrymen have not been ashamed when they commit all kinds of hell-raising. … It has become impossible for them to blush. This means they are going to fall."

Then Moody veered into another life-and-death issue affecting those committed to ministry in urban America.

"This is my blood I'm spilling in this sermon," he said. "I've been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God's free air will be a Baptist breath, but you listen. … It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner! And you can't do it without both.

"We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next 10 years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the 21st century."

Moody died last month at the age of 93, after several decades out of the spotlight. He lived to see Southern Baptists slowly, but surely, denounce the sin of racism. In 1995 the SBC repudiated "historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past." America's largest Protestant flock apologized to African-Americans for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."

Tensions lingered, and in 2017 the SBC made headlines by repudiating "white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil" that continues to attack America, while urging advocates of "racist ideologies" to repent.

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

It was in 1983 that parents told leaders of the Diocese of Lafayette, west of New Orleans, that Father Gilbert Gauthe had molested their son.

Dominos started falling. The bishop offered secret settlements to nine families -- but one refused to remain silent.

The rest is a long, long story. Scandals about priests abusing children -- the vast majority of cases involve teen-aged males -- have been making news ever since, including the firestorm unleashed by The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" series that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

This old, tragic story flared up again in 2018, and Religion News Association members selected the release of a sweeping Pennsylvania grand-jury report -- with 301 Catholic priests, in six dioceses, accused of abusing at least 1,000 minors over seven decades -- as the year's top religion story.

"The allegations contained in this report are horrific and there are important lessons to take away from it," said Michael Plachy, a partner at Lewis, Roca, Rothgerber, Christie, a national law firm that emphasizes religious liberty cases. However, "to be candid, much of what's in this report has been known for years. … It's important, but it's mostly old news."

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia -- a diocese not included in the grand-jury report -- requested an analysis of the 884-page document focusing on the impact of the church's 2002Charter for the Protection Children and Young People. Among the law firm's findings: Of 680 victims whose claims mentioned specific years, 23 cited abuse after the charter -- 3 percent of claims in the grand-jury report. The average year of each alleged incident was 1979.

Much of the year's crucial news about clergy sexual abuse focused on efforts to hold bishops accountable when they were accused of abuse or of hiding abuse cases -- including sexual abuse of adult victims.

Thus, this was a year in which my views clashed with the RNA poll. For me, the No. 1 story was the fall of retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, for decades one of America's most influential Catholics. In public remarks, he even claimed to have assisted in efforts to elect Pope Francis. McCarrick was removed from ministry and exited the College of Cardinals because of evidence that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old altar boy in 1971 and, for decades, sexually harassed and abused seminarians.

My No. 2 story -- the pope's decision to cooperate with China officials when selecting bishops -- didn't make the RNA Top 10.

The RNA Religion Newsmaker of the Year was Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, after his stem-winding sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. McCarrick was not included on the ballot.

Funerals for Bush 41 pulled strong images of heaven into America's public square

Funerals for Bush 41 pulled strong images of heaven into America's public square

During 60 years of friendship, George H.W. Bush went on countless trips with James Baker III, his secretary of state and a confidant so close that America's 41st president liked to call him his "little brother."

On the last day of Bush's life, Baker checked on his friend. The result was an exchange Baker shared several times, including on CNN's "State of the Union."

"Hey, Bake, where are we going today?", asked Bush, alert after days of struggle.

"Well, Jefe, we're going to heaven," Baker replied.

"Good. That's where I want to go," said Bush.

Bush died about 12 hours later, surrounded by family and friends, including his pastor, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. It was a time for prayers and good-byes, and the priest shared some details in sermons during both the state funeral in Washington, D.C., and the final rites at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, the Bush family's home parish for 50 years.

"It was a beautiful end. It was a beautiful beginning. … The president so loved his church -- he loved the Episcopal Church. He so loved our great nation. He so loved you, his friends. He so loved every member of his family," said Levenson, at Washington National Cathedral.

"But he was so ready to go to heaven. … My hunch is heaven, as perfect as it must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler." The priest turned and addressed the coffin, blending faith with language from Bush's days as a Navy pilot: "Mr. President, mission complete. Well done, good and faithful servant. Welcome to your eternal home, where ceiling and visibility are unlimited and life goes on forever."

There is nothing unusual about priests discussing heaven during funerals. After all, the Pew Research Center's massive "religious landscape" study a few years ago indicated that 72 percent of Americans believe in a place "where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded," and the number is 82 percent for those affiliated with a religious tradition.

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

It's a statistic tourists in Rome often hear while gazing at centuries of glorious architecture: The eternal city contains more than 900 churches.

Other statistics will affect those holy sites in the future.

For example, a record-low 458,151 births occurred last year in Italy. The fertility rate -- currently 1.32, far below a 2.1 replacement rate -- is expected to decline again this year. Meanwhile, the number of marriages fell 6 percent, between 2016 and 2017, and religious marriages plunged 10.5 percent.

"Currently we are at a roughly terminal stage. It would not be bad if the Church, the first to pay the price, would understand this and get moving," noted demographer Roberto Volpi, quoted in the newspaper Il Foglio.

Thus, lots of Rome's 900-plus churches will be empty in the next generation or so.

That was the context of remarks by Pope Francis during a recent Pontifical Council for Culture conference, a gathering with this sobering title: "Doesn't God dwell here any more? Decommissioning places of worship and integrated management of ecclesiastical cultural heritage."

Francis stressed: "The observation that many churches, which until a few years ago were necessary, are now no longer thus, due to a lack of faithful and clergy, or a different distribution of the population between cities and rural areas, should be welcomed in the Church not with anxiety, but as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt."

The church has problems, but there are "virtuous" ways to deal with them, he said. Bishops in Europe, North America and elsewhere are learning to cope.

"Decommissioning must not be first and only solution … nor must it be carried out with the scandal of the faithful. Should it become necessary, it should be inserted in the time of ordinary pastoral planning, be proceded by adequate information and be a shared decision" involving civic and church leaders, he said.

Pope Francis appears to be advising Catholics not to worry too much as "For sale" or even "Property condemned" signs appear on lots of sanctuaries in some parts of the world, said Phil Lawler, a conservative journalist with 35 years of experience in diocesan and independent Catholic publications.

"The sentence that triggered me was when the pope said we shouldn't be ANXIOUS about all of this," he said.

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

In the last decade or two, cable television's holiday-movie season has expanded to the point that it starts soon after Labor Day and weeks before Thanksgiving arrives.

Many titles are classics: "White Christmas," "A Christmas Story," "Miracle on 34th Street," "Home Alone" and the grandfather of them all, near the end of the season, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Alas, then there's "Bad Santa," "The 12 Dogs of Christmas," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Silent Night, Deadly Night," "Jingle All the Way" and way, way too many others to count.

Occasionally, TV executives add something strange -- like "The Nativity Story."

Consumers who pay attention may note an intriguing gap in this "holiday" entertainment blitz. To be blunt: Where are the Hanukkah movies?

Yes, there is comedian Adam Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights," which critic Michael Arbeiter once called "a travesty." Writing at Bustle.com, Arbeiter stretched to create a holidays essentials list for Jewish viewers with titles such as "The Producers," "Barton Fink," "Annie Hall," "An American Tail" or even -- "bite the bullet," he said -- "Scrooged," "Muppet Christmas Carol" or another take on "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

Part of the problem is that many American Jews -- secular and religious -- have a complex relationship with Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights" which this year begins at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 2. For starters, many are offended by all efforts to turn this relatively minor holiday into a "Jewish Christmas." Is it really necessary to create copycat "carols" like "On the First Day of Hanukkah," "I'm Dreaming of a Bright Menorah" and "Maccabees are Coming to Town"?

Meanwhile, some rabbis are not all that comfortable with some "militaristic" themes woven into the Hanukkah story, said veteran religion writer Mark Pinsky of Orlando, Fla., author of "The Gospel According to The Simpsons" and "A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed." Hanukkah isn't a season that leads to easy sermons, he said.

Hanukkah centers on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels led by a family known as the Maccabees defeated their Greek and Syrian rulers. The familiar rite of lighting menorah candles – one on the first night, increasing to eight – is based on a miracle linked with this victory. According to tradition, when the defiled temple was recaptured it contained only one container of pure lamp oil. This one-day supply is said to have burned for eight days.

A December dilemma: Why turn this holiday into a big deal?