The Vatican is known its complex rituals, rich in ancient symbols and mysterious details. Take, for example, the funeral of Pope John Paul II, as described by the International Herald Tribune.
"The 84-year-old John Paul was laid out in Clementine Hall, dressed in white and red vestments, his head covered with a white bishop's miter and propped up on three dark gold pillows," wrote Ian Fisher of the New York Times. "Tucked under his left arm was the silver staff, called the crow's ear, that he had carried in public."
Get the joke?
You see, that ornate silver shepherd's crook is actually called a crosier (or "crozier"), not a "crow's ear."
This is the kind of error that believers love to cite as evidence that too many journalists don't know which way is up when it comes to religion. Believe me, I receive more than my share of emails offering other examples. Did a BBC producer really write a subtitle saying that "Karma Light" nuns had gathered to mourn the pope?
Part of the problem is that religious people often speak in unknown tongues and it's hard for journalists to tell what they're saying. Thus, mistakes happen. It's a bad thing to mess up the words when many of the words are sacred.
Sometimes, it helps to laugh.
Once a year, I mark this column's anniversary -- this is No. 18 -- by collecting some of the strange words and events from the previous 12 months that just didn't fit anywhere in particular. Obviously, I know that journalists make mistakes on the "God beat." But, believe me, the folks in the pulpits and pews can get pretty strange, too.
* Pope John Paul II made headlines in 1986 when he visited a synagogue. Thus, a BBC writer said that the new Pope Benedict XVI's "visit to the Cologne synagogue ? will mark only the second time in history that a head of the Catholic Church has entered a Jewish place of worship." A reader sent me that item with this postscript: "Not counting the apostle Peter, obviously."
* I thought this was a hoax. But it does appear that South Bronx Episcopalians have created a hip-hop Book of Common Prayer. Thus saith Bishop Catherine Roskam: "If Jesus were alive today, he would have been a rapper."
I also love that the Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare is selling its own barbecue apron. Grill on.
* Anyone seeking information on the year's hottest musical trend should visit www.hasidicreggae.com. Yes, you read that right.
* Back to Pope Benedict XVI. It seems that someone at the Associated Press needs to bone up on church history. A story from Vatican City on Nov. 27 began this way: "Pope Benedict XVI ushered in the Christmas season Sunday, calling it a time for joy when Christians should find it within themselves to hope that they can change the world." Actually, the pope was marking the start of Advent, the penitential season that precedes Christmas. The 12-day Christmas season begins on Dec. 25.
* Speaking of the Christmas wars, a journalist sent me this rather understated headline from Miami Beach: "Blindfolded Santa Hanging From Noose At Home Upsets Neighborhood." I can understand that. What I cannot understand is why some schools allow students to sing "Feliz Navidad (happy Christmas)," but not "White Christmas" and other songs that contain the C-word.
* You knew this was coming. The truly devoted can now buy an "iBelieve" device that clicks on to the top of an Apple iPod Shuffle and turns it -- yes -- into a large white cross that can be worn around the neck.
I believe that has a bit more class than those gym shorts with the words "Left Behind" printed, well, you can imagine where.
* The publication of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad upset many readers. However, other readers were just as upset when newspapers declined to publish them, with editors saying -- to a chorus of snickers in many pews -- that they did not want to offend religious believers.
Thus, one Bob Flavell wrote to the Boston Globe and said: "I find all of your editorial cartoons deeply offensive, morally, religiously, philosophically and spiritually. In fact, I don't like your editorials, either. And the editorializing in your news coverage is annoying as well. In keeping with your cowardly policy not to offend anyone, kindly cease publication at once."