Denver

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.' "

'On Religion' flashback -- Pat Robertson, evangelicals and the White House (column No. 1)

'On Religion' flashback -- Pat Robertson, evangelicals and the White House (column No. 1)

Some friends have asked to see "On Religion," column No. 1 -- which predates the Internet by about five or six years. So here it is, typed into the system, working from a copy printed at the time on a newsroom dot-matrix printer. Remember those?

There may have been a few edits in DC, because the column format was about 100 words shorter in the early days.

-- tmatt

 

WASHINGTON DESK: Terry Mattingly's religion column for 4/11/88.

On the morning before Easter, Pat Robertson stood in a pulpit under an American flag and a banner that read, "King of Kings, Lord of Lords."

The press was barred from the meeting in the Harvest Christian Center, in a Denver suburb.

One of the last stops on Robertson's first try to reach the White House was at a luncheon here with about 200 clergy and church activists. Days later, he stopped active campaigning, but pledged that he would try again.

Still this 1988 scene held pieces of the puzzle that is Robertson's future.

The faithful raised their hands high in praise to God and sang familiar hymns with a man that they knew well, a fellow "charismatic" Christian who believed in miracles, prophecy and "speaking in tongues." A nearby table held tapes on a subject close to Robertson's heart -- healing.

It was a scene from his past. And Robertson's aides were trying to keep it out of his public image in the present and future.

Colorado students network to unplug key social-media apps, and an archbishop notices

Colorado students network to unplug key social-media apps, and an archbishop notices

Anyone trying to reach Cason Kurowski and his family at night in their home outside Denver needs to remember one thing.

Unlike most high-school juniors, Kurowski doesn't keep his smartphone within an arm's length of his pillow. In fact, the whole family leaves mobile phones downstairs at night, including his parents.

"It's amazing how much it helps me get a better night's sleep, since my phone isn't going off all the time," he said, reached on his smartphone (#DUH) after classes at Heritage High School in Littleton, Colo.

Wait, there's more. Back in September, Kurowski and some friends made strategic -- some would say radical -- tech changes after the news of two teen suicides, in two days, at area schools. Some students in this circle were friends with a Heritage student who committed suicide last year.

After several planning sessions, they launched OfflineOctober.com and urged friends to delete four specific apps -- Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter -- from their phones for a month. The goal, Kurowski explained, was to stop "hiding behind screens. … We wanted to try spending more time face to face, instead of just looking at phones."

The project grew through word of mouth, calls, emails, texts and, ironically, social media. Local news coverage helped spread this slogan: "Don't post a story. Live one." Students started planning informal gatherings to cook, play games, go hiking or just hang out.

At some point, their work caught the eye of someone whose support could help take the movement to another level -- the leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Toward a theology of barbecue and, thus, community outside the pews

The year was 1902 and the faithful at Denver's Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church decided to have a fundraiser serving up some this flock's famous barbecue.

"This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial altars of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes," pitmaster Columbus B. Hill told the Denver Times during the feast. "They discovered then the rare, sweet taste of meat flavored with the smoke of its own juices."

And all the people said? "Amen." In some pews, people would shout, "Preach it!"

For many Americans -- black and white -- it's impossible to discuss their heartfelt convictions about barbecue without using religious language. There's a reason one famous book about North Carolina barbecue, published by an academic press, is entitled "Holy Smoke."

It doesn't matter whether folks are arguing about doctrinal questions at the heart of the faith, such as, "Is barbecue a noun or a verb?" or "Pork, beef or both?" It doesn't matter if true believers are arguing about what wood to burn or the percentage of vinegar God wants them to use in the sauce. Mustard? Out of the question, except in certain South Carolina zip codes.

The bottom line: there's more to barbecue, and all that goes with it, than the stuff on plates and fingers.

Archbishop meets the press (year 21)

In most news reports, Mother Teresa seemed like such a nice, quiet holy woman. But as any reporter who actually interviewed her quickly learned, Calcutta's "saint of the gutters" could be remarkably blunt. She once noted -- in a half-serious jest -- that she would rather bath a leper than meet the press.

"Mother was not known for the ambiguity of her feelings," noted Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, at a recent gathering of journalists at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "A lot of people in the church, especially those who practice their faith in an active and regular manner, would agree with what she meant -- because they feel the same way."

The archbishop stressed that he does not feel that way, especially when working with journalists who have acquired the knowledge and skills needed to do accurate, critical coverage of religion. However, he is convinced that many religious believers simply do not appreciate the vital role that journalists are supposed to play in public life.

"Journalism is a vocation, not a job," said Chaput. "Pursued properly, journalism should enjoy the same dignity as the law or medicine because the service that journalists perform is equally important to a healthy society. I really believe that. You form people. You form the way they think and the way they live their lives. So journalists have a duty to serve the truth and the common good."

That's the good news. I have heard Chaput make that point more than once during the quarter of a century since I first met him, while he was a Capuchin-Franciscan priest in urban Denver and I was a newcomer on the local religion beat.

Chaput was already interested in mass media, popular culture and the changing landscape of American religion and those interests only deepened when, in 1988, he was ordained Bishop of Rapid City, S.D. Soon after he returned to Denver as archbishop, in 1997, he organized a conference on the cultural and religious implications of the Internet.

These were precisely the kinds of topics that I wanted to emphasize when -- 21 years ago this week -- I began writing this column for Scripps Howard. Our interests also overlapped when I began teaching about religion and mass media, first in a Denver seminary and then in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Our paths have been crossing ever since.

When it comes to journalism, Chaput knows the good news and the bad news.

The bad news, he said, is that far too many journalists who cover religion events have no idea what they are doing. They may be talented and intelligent, but when it comes to religion they just don't get it.

"I don’t expect journalists who track the church to agree with everything she teaches. But I do think reporters should have a working knowledge of her traditions and teachings," he said. "I do think editors should have the basic Catholic vocabulary needed to grasp what we’re talking about and why we’re talking about it."

Consider, for example, the media storms surrounding discussions of Holy Communion and the sacramental status of Catholic politicians who disagree with their church's doctrines on abortion, marriage and similar issues. In his book "Render Unto Caesar," Chaput argued that it's the "political duty" of Catholics to "know their faith and to think and act like faithful Catholics all the time" -- even those who work inside the Washington Beltway.

Alas, the journalists think they are writing about the rights of politicians, while some Catholic bishops want to discuss the salvation and, yes, damnation of souls. If journalists insist on describing this conflict in strictly political terms, he said, there is no way the public will ever understand what is happening.

"No one ever has a right to the Eucharist, and the vanity or hurt feelings of an individual Catholic governor or senator or even vice president does not take priority over the faith of the believing community," said Chaput. Thus, while journalists are under "no obligation to believe what the church teaches ... they certainly do have the obligation to understand, respect and accurately recount how she understands herself, and especially how she teaches and why she teaches" these doctrines.

Too often, said the archbishop, inaccurate news reports about this controversy have left the impression that "access to Holy Communion ... is like having bar privileges at the Elks Club."