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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."

Jordan Peterson's secular approach to the soul and the sacred (Part II)

Jordan Peterson's secular approach to the soul and the sacred (Part II)

It isn't every day that a University of Toronto psychology professor is asked to perform a wedding.

Then again, Jordan Peterson has outgrown the role of bookish academic, evolving into a digital-culture guru whose fame is measured in millions of online clicks.

The logical thing to do was hit the Internet and get ordained. Within minutes, the author of the bestseller "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos" was the "metropolitan" of his own church -- with a one-doctrine creed.

"If you are a member of my church, you cannot follow stupid rules. That's a good rule, because it's an anti-rule rule," said Peterson, during an Orthodox School of Theology forum at Toronto's Trinity College.

This 2017 event -- "Resurrection of Logos: The Divine, the Individual and Finding Our Bearings in a Postmodern World" -- offered the scholar's unusual mix of science, art and theology. What matters to online seekers is that it's on YouTube, where debates about ultimate issues never end.

Not all rules are stupid, stressed Peterson. Consider this one: Don't tell lies.

"You certainly know when you lie, and you know how to stop doing that. So, I would say … stop lying. Try it for a year and see what happens," he said. "It also means that you have to not act in a way that you wouldn't speak truthfully about it."

Attempting to live a good life, he stressed, will force many people to realize that they are not inherently good.

"You cannot conceive of how good a human being might be until you can conceive how evil a human being can and will be," he said. "The pathway to Paradise is through hell. … If you don't go there voluntarily, you'll go there accidentally. So, it's better to go there voluntarily, because you can go with hope."

Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates (Part I)

Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates (Part I)

The YouTube seekers are out there, hundreds of thousands of them, clicking on links to philosophical and even theological debates that would shock those who believe cyberspace is about Donald Trump, cat videos and that's that.

These videos feature real people -- some famous and some only Internet-famous. The superstars can sell out civic auditoriums while discussing theism and atheism, the search for absolute truth and what it means to be a mature person living in a world awash in information, opinion, beauty and noise.

At the center of lots of these debates sits University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, whose career built on hundreds of academic papers has veered into the digital marketplace of ideas. That happens when a professor's latest book, "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos" sells 2 million copies, while he has 922,000 Twitter followers and 1.5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel.

Critics are sure to ask faith questions when a professor constantly discusses how troubled souls -- especially Millennial generation men -- can make decisions that change their lives, noted Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and a popular Catholic online apologist.

Peterson is a "depth psychologist," not a theologian, stressed Barron, and he has sent complex, mixed signals about the Bible and Christianity.

Nevertheless, it's impossible to avoid the moral content of his work. Consider this pithy Peterson advice: "Start to stop doing, right now, what you know to be wrong."

"He is, somewhat, assuming the mantle of spiritual father and he's speaking, especially, to younger people about -- you know -- rules. Life is not just a matter of self-expression and I make it up as I go along," said Barron, in an online video commentary about Peterson's work. "There are these rules that are grounded in our psychological and physical structure that you can see, up and down the centuries of tradition. Peterson kind of moves boldly into that space of spiritual teacher."

Ties that bind: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Russia and Fatima

Ties that bind: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Russia and Fatima

The world was buzzing with rumors about U.S.-Soviet talks as President Ronald Reagan flew to Italy for a global economic summit in the summer of 1987.

There were only two events on Reagan's schedule before the Group of Seven sessions -- a June 6 meeting with Pope John Paul II and a hush-hush briefing beforehand by U.S. Vatican Ambassador Frank Shakespeare.

The secret topic, at Reagan's request: The visions of Our Lady of Fatima to three children in Portugal in 1917, including prophecies linking St. Mary, Russia and, the world would later learn, the shooting of a "bishop in white." This was crucial information about John Paul II.

The pope believed Mary intervened to save his life on May 13, 1981, when an assassin tied to Bulgarian spies and Soviet military intelligence gunned him down in St. Peter's Square -- on the 64th anniversary of the first Fatima vision.

The pope needed six pints of blood to survive. Reagan required eight pints during surgery after he was shot six weeks earlier, on March 30th. He was convinced his survival was part of a divine plan, which Reagan called the "DP."

Reagan met John Paul II for the first time a year after the shootings. He told the pope: "Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened."

Clearly, the Soviet plans "backfired," said author Paul Kengor, in an Oct. 22 lecture at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.

"The Soviets were worried about an alliance. Right? So they wanted to end this alliance -- especially by getting rid of the pope," he said, speaking on the feast day of St. John Paul II.

Instead, these men went on to hold five strategic meetings, backed by an unknown number of back-channel contacts. Kengor's book about their friendship, "A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and the Extraordinary Story of the 20th Century," was published in 2017.

"Well, you really screwed this up," said Kengor, who teaches at Grove City College. "Now, these two -- they've got the world's most exclusive, mutual prayer society. They've got a bond that no pope and president may ever have."

There was no translator present in the 1987 Vatican meeting between Reagan and the multilingual John Paul II. The president told aides that they discussed U.S.-Soviet relations, nuclear arms control and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But in his public statement afterwards Reagan also included strong words about the future of Poland. John Paul II was days away from another trip to his homeland.

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

One of the most famous tales of World War I began when a fantasy fiction writer wrote a story in 1914 about British soldiers crying for help while facing overwhelming German forces near Mons, in France.

Their prayers summoned heavenly hosts of archers attacking the "heathen horde."

Soon, veterans started claiming that they saw these "angels" with their own eyes. Images of the Angel of Mons began appearing -- as fact -- in posters, paintings and popular songs.

It's hard to imagine a world in which nations led by rational, scientific elites could embrace these claims, said historian Philip Jenkins, in recent lectures at King University in Bristol, Tenn. That world is impossible to imagine because it was swept away a century ago by waves of change that few saw coming.

"What happened in the victory? 'Oh, angels appeared. The dead arose to fight for us.' When the Germans launched their great offensive in 1918, of course, what else could it be called? It's Operation Michael, after the leading archangel -- who by this point has become something like a German war god," said Jenkins, a distinguished professor at Baylor University and author of 27 books.

"If you look at the propaganda of the time, the assumption is that Christ is absolutely with US -- whoever WE are, the Germans, the Americans, whatever."

Before World War I, most global leaders followed a radically different set of assumptions, with ironclad ties between their governments and major religious institutions, he said. Many soldiers believed that St. Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary, even Joan of Arc, would fight by their side. As the war began, Germany experienced fervor many called a "New Pentecost," with Martin Luther as a messianic figure.

While it's common to believe that religion evolves slowly over time, in a linear manner, the evidence suggests that history lurches through periods of "extreme, rapid, revolutionary change, when everything is shaken and thrown up into the air," said Jenkins. Ever 50 years or so, new patterns and cultural norms seem to appear that never could have been predicted.

Satan, the pope, bishops and a spiritual 9/11 for Catholics around the world

Satan, the pope, bishops and a spiritual 9/11 for Catholics around the world

As point man for the inner ring of cardinals advising Pope Francis, Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras is sure that he knows a partisan political attack when he sees one.

Take, for example, the firestorm of controversy surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, once the church's media-friendly voice in Washington, D.C. In press reports, and a fiery testimony by the Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, McCarrick has been accused of decades of sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians, as well as sex acts with male minors.

"It does not seem correct to me to transform something that is of the private order into bombshell headlines exploding all over the world and whose shrapnel is hurting the faith of many," said Cardinal Maradiaga, in a Religion Digital interview. "I think this case of an administrative nature should have been made public in accordance with more serene and objective criteria, not with the negative charge of deeply bitter expressions."

On another "private order," "administrative" issue in church affairs, he said the "notion of a gay lobby in the Vatican is out of proportion. It is something that exists much more in the ink of the newspapers than in reality."

Pope Francis has not directly addressed recent accusations that he helped shelter, and rehabilitate, McCarrick. But in a blunt Sept. 11 sermon, the pope -- echoing a theme in several other recent addresses -- said Satan is the villain behind these new attacks on leaders at the highest levels of the Roman church.

"In these times, it seems like the 'Great Accuser' has been unchained and is attacking bishops," said Francis. "True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people. …

"A bishop's strength against the 'Great Accuser' is prayer. … Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world."

On that same day, another symbolic Vatican voice addressed the same crisis in America, and the global church, in words that were subtle and powerful.

Escaping the M-word: Trying to go back to the Latter-day Saint future

Escaping the M-word: Trying to go back to the Latter-day Saint future

No doubt about it, New York press lord Horace Greeley interviewing religious pioneer Brigham Young was a face-off between giants.

One of the issues they discussed in 1859 is suddenly back in the news: Should outsiders use the word "Mormon" to describe members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Greeley asked Young: "Am I to regard Mormonism (so-called) as a new religion, or as simply a new development of Christianity?"

The faith's second "prophet, seer and revelator" insisted that there is "no true Christian Church without a priesthood directly commissioned by and in immediate communication with the Son of God and Savior of mankind. Such a church is that of the Latter-day Saints, called by their enemies Mormons."

In recent decades, LDS leaders have made several attempts -- prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, for example -- to distance themselves from the M-word. Now, the church's president has made another appeal for journalists, and everyone else, to avoid "Mormon" when referring to members of his church. To be blunt, he said he's on a mission from God.

"The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," wrote President Russell M. Nelson, repeating a message he voiced decades before reaching the top office. "We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will."

The church's new journalism "style" guide proclaims: "Please avoid using the abbreviation 'LDS' or the nickname 'Mormon' as substitutes for the name of the Church, as in 'Mormon Church,' 'LDS Church,' or 'Church of the Latter-day Saints.' When referring to Church members, the terms 'members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' or 'Latter-day Saints' are preferred."

Writers needing a shorter name are asked to use "the Church," the "Church of Jesus Christ" or the "restored Church of Jesus Christ." The word "Mormon" will continue to appear in proper nouns such as "The Book of Mormon," the "Mormon Trail" and perhaps even "The Mormon Tabernacle Choir."

Richard Sipe's journey into the long-secret hell of Catholic clergy sexual abuse

Richard Sipe's journey into the long-secret hell of Catholic clergy sexual abuse

The last thing an America bishop wanted to see was a letter from the relentless A.W. Richard Sipe, who spent more than a half-century studying the sexual secrets of Catholic clergy.

As a psychotherapist, his research files included hundreds of thousands of pages of church reports and court testimony. He estimated that he had served as an expert witness or consultant in 250 civil legal actions.

As a former Benedictine monk and priest, his private files included notes from years of work at the Seton Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore, where he counseled legions of troubled priests sent there by bishops.

"Sooner or later it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children," he wrote, in a 2016 letter to his local shepherd, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy.

"When men in authority -- cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors -- are having or have had an unacknowledged secret-active-sex-life under the guise of celibacy an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative."

Sipe, 85, died on Aug. 8, even as journalists around the world produced -- often with direct links to his work -- yet another wave of news about alleged sins and crimes committed by priests and bishops. The bottom line: Sipe was a critic of the church establishment whose work was impossible for liberal or conservative Catholics to ignore.

"He was the one who -- because of his unique background -- had first-hand knowledge of the psychosexual problems in the clergy," said Leon J. Podles, a conservative Catholic scholar with years of experience as a federal investigator.


Lessons about faith and modern parenting, from heroes of the Czech resistance

Lessons about faith and modern parenting, from heroes of the Czech resistance

PRAGUE -- No matter what was happening outside their apartment walls, Kamila Bendova pulled her six children together every day and read to them for two hours or more.

It didn't matter if the Communists had imprisoned her husband -- the late Vaclav Benda, a leading Czech dissident and Catholic intellectual. It didn't matter that state officials had bugged their flat near the medieval heart of the city. It didn't matter if a friend showed up after being tortured at the secret police facility a block away.

The Benda family faithfully observed the rites that defined their lives inside its second-floor apartment, a site the Czech Republic has marked with a memorial plaque at sidewalk level. Every day, they prayed together, studied together and found ways to enjoy themselves -- while doing everything they could to show others there was more to life than the rules of a paranoid police state.

"I was never good at playing with the children, so I read to them. … That worked for me," quipped Bendova, who, like her husband, earned a doctorate in mathematics. Father Stepan Smolen, a Catholic priest close to the family, served as a translator during a recent meeting with Bendova and two of her adult children.

The family had plenty of books to read. The walls of the Benda apartment, where Kamila Bendova still lives, are lined -- from the floorboards to the high ceilings -- with bookshelves containing 10,000 books and snapshots of her 21 grandchildren. 

The Benda children were especially fond of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," for reasons the family considers obvious. They were the hobbits and, living in a totalitarian state, they knew that "Mordor was real," said Bendova.