Rosary prayers and the hellish death of journalist James Foley

When a believer is immersed in the rosary, the familiar phrases of the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Doxology find a soft rhythm, as clicking beads mix with steady breaths and the human heart. 

While meditating on each great mystery of the faith, the final words of the Hail Mary prayers are particularly sobering: "Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen." 

The prayers are "like a pulse that sinks deep inside and goes on and on as you meditate on how these mysteries are connected to your life," said writer Elizabeth Scalia, known as "The Anchoress" among Catholic bloggers. 

"I think all the mysteries would have offered inspiration and consolation to James Foley" while in captivity, she said, as he "faced the fact that his life was truly in danger." 

Western elites still struggling to see the suffering Eastern Church

At first glance, there was a bizarre gap in the proclamation Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued as his forces rolled to victory after victory in their rush to rebuild a caliphate in Iraq, Syria and beyond. 

The modern world, he said, in a July 1 statement circulated on Twitter, has "been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy -- the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the Jews, the crusaders, their allies and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews." 

Missing from this list were key groups immediately impacted by the rise of the Islamic State -- the region's ancient churches. In one stunning blow, ISIS forces seized Mosul and other Nineveh Plain communities that have sheltered Christians since soon after the faith's birth. Jihadi militiamen burned churches, or turned them into mosques, and marked Christian homes with "n," for "Nisrani" or "Nazarene." 

Thus, believers with 2,000 years worth of local roots were declared foreigners -- Nazarenes.

Is there a dark side to all of those fun funerals?

For centuries, religious believers in many cultures have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that were often called "wakes." 

The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people rarely confused their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted blogger Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known as a poet and hymn composer. 

But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: Someone decided that it was a good idea to have fun funerals. 

"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems that the goal is to keep your head in the sand and not have to face what has happened to your loved one and to your family," said Bird, in a telephone interview. 

An update on Pope Francis, Rush Limbaugh and the poor

From day one in the Pope Francis era, the so-called insiders who do so much to shape public opinion have said "conservatives" -- inside the Vatican and outside -- were grumbling about this shepherd's unorthodox style.

That is certainly true in some corners of the church, noted Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a prominent voice on matters of doctrine and public life. However there is a bright side to all the jarring news reports about Pope Francis.

The famous Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once noted that "every age gets the saint it needs. Not the saint people want, but the saint they need -- the saint who's the medicine for their illness. The same may be true of popes," said Chaput, in a July 26 speech at the Napa Institute in California.

Don't ask, don't tell on cohabitation?

It's a hypothetical case, but one priests frequently face in an American culture transformed by the Sexual Revolution. 

On the other side of the desk is a couple seeking marriage-preparation sessions before a church wedding. At least one of these young people is from a parish family and, thus, has been receiving Holy Communion. Neither has been to Confession in years. 

 The pastor has every reason to suspect that, like millions of Americans, this couple is already "shacking up."

A Catholic priest knows that the catechism teaches that sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is "gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses." He knows that it teaches that anyone "conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion."

So a painful question looms over these encounters: Don't ask, don't tell?

Growing tensions on the Faith and Family Left

It was one of those symbolic questions that pollsters toss into the mix when probing fault lines inside political coalitions.

The Pew Research Center recently asked, as part of its "Beyond Red vs. Blue" political typology project, whether voters agreed or disagreed that it is "necessary to believe in God to be moral."

Among the voters called "Solid Liberals," one of three major Democratic Party camps, only 11 percent of those polled said "yes." People in the emerging "Next Generation Left" felt the same way, with only 7 percent affirming that statement.

However, things were radically different among the voters that Pew researchers labeled the "Faith and Family Left." In this crowd -- the survey's most racially and ethnically diverse camp -- an stunning 91 percent of those polled saw a connection between morality and belief in God.

"That number, the size of that gap, jumped out at me" in the results, said Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center.

Faith and Family Left voters are "pretty loyal Democrats, the kind that supported Bill Clinton and Al Gore. They voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and most of them voted for him again in 2012," he added. "But when it comes to moral and cultural and religious issues, they take a very different approach" from the Solid Liberals and those in the Next Generation Left.

Religious leaders struggle to reach 'emerging adults'

When leaders of traditional faith groups think about reaching out to Millennials, religious seekers, unaffiliated "Nones" and other postmodern young Americans, this is the voice that many keep hearing in their heads.

"Morality is how I feel too, because in my heart, I could feel it," said one person interviewed in the National Study of Youth and Religion. "You could feel what's right and wrong in your heart as well as your mind. Most of the time, I always felt, I feel it in my heart and it makes it easier for me to morally decide what's right and wrong. Because if I feel about doing something, I'm going to feel it in my heart, and if it feels good, I'm going to do it."

Seconds later, young people caught up in what experts now call "emerging adulthood" may stress that they are open to attending multigenerational congregations that offer roots, tradition and mentors. But how will they know when they have found the right spiritual home?

Right. When they feel it.

That's a hard target to hit, said Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of "Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back." Many religious leaders are struggling to find a "sweet spot between deep religious messages that sound cool" and faith that "seems like it comes from a sappy self-help book," she noted.

In light of current trends, it's also hard for clergy to take comfort in the trend seen in previous generations, which is that young people who abandon the pews usually return when they are married and have children. Trouble is, increasing numbers of Americans between 20 and 40 are delaying marriage, family and any community ties that bind. Some are opting out of marriage altogether.

This creates strong moral tensions.

Pain, hope and schisms in the long Anglican wars

Anglicans seem to be hopeful about their flocks in the United States, even if the warring factions in their Communion keep moving further and further apart.

That was a common theme in two upbeat recent sermons preached by leaders in the progressive and orthodox Anglican bodies now competing in the marketplace of American religion.

In the first sermon, Father Cameron Partridge became the first openly transgender priest to preach at Washington National Cathedral. The June 22 liturgy was part of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride month.

"To dream that one day this Episcopal Church family, in which I grew up, might join other traditions, and inspire still others, by embracing our gifts and leadership at all levels of its life. I am so grateful and proud to be in a church that is now living into this charge," said Partridge, who was born a woman, but now identifies as a "trans" man.

"As we behold one another in these days of celebration, may ... we give thanks for the unfolding mystery of our humanity and may we revel in our participation in God's ongoing project of revelation."

"Revelation" was the word for the day, said Partridge, a Harvard Divinity School faculty member and the Episcopal chaplain at Boston University. Modern churches must embrace the "project of revelation" that shapes an evolving faith, he said.

Partridge recalled a "circle of oppression" rite during an Episcopal retreat he attended 13 years ago, when the leader asked oppressed women to step forward.

Clergy, temptation, sex abuse and the law

Surely one of our world's most endangered species -- right up there with the Mountain Gorilla or the Sumatran Tiger -- is the church "ministerius youthii."

That was the conviction of the late Louis McBurney, a Mayo Clinic-trained psychiatrist who spent decades at his Colorado retreat center helping ministers crushed by the demands and temptations of their jobs. Youth ministers, for example, face stunning parental expectations, low pay, the loss of privacy and a nagging sense of powerlessness.

Plus, it's hard to work with adolescents in a sex-soaked culture. Many older teens think they are more mature than they really are, noted McBurney, in his 1986 volume "Counseling Christian Workers." Consider the case of "Joe," a newly married seminary graduate who was energetic, talented and driven. Then, there was this one girl.

"She was a beautiful 17-year-old who was more mature than her peers," wrote the psychiatrist. "They began to play tennis together, and she was frequently the last to leave group activities. Joe couldn't remember who made the first move to sexual intimacy, but once that happened it snowballed."

Many were hurt in the train wreck that followed, an all-to-common scenario that in the past often played out behind closed doors with parents and church leaders hiding the damage. Times have changed, to some degree, after years of public debate about the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, teachers, coaches and other trusted adults.

The respected evangelical publication Leadership Journal recently unleashed a firestorm of criticism by publishing an anonymous piece -- since taken offline -- entitled "My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon." One passage was particularly galling to Twitter critics who used #TakeDownThatPost and #HowOldWereYou as hashtags.