Easter

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" -- to both.

Holy Week parable: Yes, faith played role in life, sacrifice of Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame

Holy Week parable: Yes, faith played role in life, sacrifice of Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame

Three years ago, a French police officer traveled to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne d'Auray near the Brittany coast, seeking yet another change in his already eventful life.

Arnaud Beltrame made his pilgrimage to offer prayers that he would meet "the woman of his life." Soon afterwards he met Marielle Vandenbunder and they celebrated their engagement in 2016 -- at Easter. They were married a few months later.

That was a secular union. Arnaud and Marielle wanted more time to prepare for a truly Catholic marriage, according to Father Jean-Baptiste of the Abbey of St. Mary of Lagrasse in South France. The wedding was set for June 9, 2018.

Father Jean-Baptiste was at their side all through that process. He was also at their side performing last rites -- hours before Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week -- when Lt. Col. Beltrame died hours after a sacrificial act that caused mourning across France.

French President Emmanuel Macron was blunt, stating that by "giving his life to end the murderous escapade of a jihadist terrorist, he died a hero."

Pope Francis sent his condolences to the families of those killed and injured when a self-proclaimed ISIS supporter attacked a supermarket in Trebes. The pope singled out the "generous and heroic" act by Beltrame, who offered himself as a substitute for a female hostage the gunman was using as a human shield.

The 45-year-old officer entered the standoff alone and placed his cellphone -- the line open -- on a table, allowing police to listen in. After two hours officers heard gunfire and rushed inside, killing the gunman. The fatal blow to Beltrame was a knife stab to the neck.

In a lengthy interview with Famille Chretienne (Christian Family), Father Jean-Baptiste went much further than the pope, when linking Beltrame's heroism with his pilgrimage to faith.

The officer "knew the incredible risk he was taking. He also knew the promise of a religious marriage he had made to Marielle, who is already his wife and loves him tenderly, of which I am a witness," said the monk, in a transcript, translated online from French.

Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

It's a challenge, but every Easter preachers around the world strive to find something different to say about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

This applies to the pope, as well, in his Holy Week and Easter sermons. Journalists always sift through these papal texts searching references to the Middle East, global warming, social justice or other "newsy" topics worthy of headlines.

 But Pope Francis did something different this year, abandoning his prepared sermon to speak from the heart about a recent telephone conversation with a young engineer who is facing a serious illness, as well as life-and-death questions.

Christians insist that Easter is the ultimate answer, said Francis.

"Today the church continues to say: Jesus has risen from the dead. … This is not a fantasy. It's not a celebration with many flowers," he said, surrounded by Easter pageantry.

Flowers are nice, but the resurrection is more, he added. "It is the mystery of the rejected stone that ends up being the cornerstone of our existence. Christ has risen from the dead. In this throwaway culture, where that which is not useful … is discarded, that stone -- Jesus -- is discarded, yet is the source of life."

So the pope has to defend Easter? As it turns out, anyone seeking other motives for the pope's blunt words could point to headlines triggered by a new BBC survey claiming that many self-identified British Christians have rejected, or perhaps watered-down, biblical claims that Jesus rose from the dead.

The BBC.com headline proclaimed: "Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians." Among the survey's claims:

The often overlooked Christian holy day that is precisely nine months before Christmas

The often overlooked Christian holy day that is precisely nine months before Christmas

Anyone who can do basic math knows that something mysterious happened to a young Jewish girl named Mary nine months before Christmas.

On the early Christian calendar, March 25 was designated as the Feast of the Annunciation -- one of Christianity's great holy days. This feast centers on the passage in the Gospel of Luke in which the Archangel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, announcing that she will conceive and bear a son.

"You have to think this through," said the Rev. Rudy Gray, a veteran Southern Baptist pastor in South Carolina who now leads the state's Baptist Courier newspaper. "If there is no conception, there is no virgin birth of Jesus. Without that you have no sinless life that leads to the crucifixion. Without the cross you don't have the resurrection and the resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith."

In St. Luke's Gospel, Mary responds with a poetic song that begins: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."

The Latin translation became known as "The Magnificat," a text familiar to all Catholics who follow the church's holidays. The Annunciation is a major feast in Eastern Orthodoxy and this holy day is observed, to some degree, in other Christian bodies that use the ancient church calendar.

However, in many churches this holy day has vanished. The bottom line is that many Protestants are clear when it comes to knowing what they don't believe about Mary, but not at all sure about what they do believe about this crucial biblical character.

Lyle Schaller, the church fix-it man in rapidly changing times

All pastors know that there are legions of "Easter Christians" who make it their tradition to dress up once a year and touch base with God.

What can pastors do? Not much, said the late, great church-management guru Lyle Schaller, while discussing these red-letter days on the calendar. Rather than worrying about that Easter crowd, he urged church leaders to look for new faces at Christmas.

The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said, in a mid-1980s interview. Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?

"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."

It was classic Schaller advice, the kind he offered to thousands of congregations during his decades as a physician willing to work with bodies of believers -- if they were willing to admit they had problems. Ask him about Easter and he would talk about Christmas, if his research pointed him in that direction.

Holy Week 2015: Hearing confessions in the Silicon belly of the high-tech beast

It would be hard to live closer to the belly of the high-tech beast than Menlo Park in Northern California's Silicon Valley.

Close to Stanford University? Check. A highway exchange or two from the Apple mother ship? Check. Not that far from Googleplex? Check. It's the kind of home base from which an Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God") priest -- with the organization's emphasis on leadership among laypeople as well as clergy -- can lecture, as Father C. John McCloskey recently quipped, to "300 actual and would-be Techies and Masters of the Universe."

It's also an interesting place to hear lots of confessions as Catholics near the end of Lent and prepare for Holy Week and then Easter, which is April 5th this year for Western churches. Eastern Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar and will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on April 12th.

"One thing we stress during Lent is a sense of detachment from the things of this world," said McCloskey, an apologist and evangelist in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before this West Coast move. "We even do this with good things, if they've become temptations. It can be a kind of food or it can be alcohol. It can be other good things, like running and being obsessed with your health. …

"But if you can't be happy living without something, then that tells you something. It tells you that this thing is using you, rather than you using it."

But what if this good thing is woven into most of the details of daily life?

An honest Easter with doubters and the 'nones'

It's the first thing people do after meeting strangers in coffee shops and clubs favored by the young professionals now flocking into Austin, Portland and America's other trendy postmodern cities. Job one is to define themselves in terms of what they do and what they believe. "I am an accountant," one will say. "I am a vegetarian," or "I am gay," or "I am a techie," others will reply. Hipsters don't need to say, "I am a hipster," because everyone can see the obvious.

"Usually, our identity will emerge as a composite" of these kinds of labels, noted the Rev. Jonathan Dodson of Austin and the Rev. Brad Watson of Portland, in a small book of meditations on the resurrection entitled "Raised?"

"It will have a hidden mantra that goes something like this: I am what I eat, who I sleep with, how I make money, what I wear, what I look like, or where I came from. ... If you cannot imagine yourself without that statement being true, you have likely found something that is core to your identity."

For many Americans that core still includes a religious label, like "I am a Christian," noted Dodson, founding pastor of City Life Church, which meets in the Ballet Austin complex near downtown. And millions who make that claim, with varying degrees of fervor, will flock to churches this weekend for the year's one service in which almost all pews are full -- Easter.

Instead of affirming a "sentimental" or "mushy" faith on this Christian holy day, Dodson thinks more pastors should ask a blunt question: Do you really believe Jesus was raised from the dead?

If some people confess doubts, that would be good because sincere doubt leads to true faith more often than hidden apathy. This is especially true when discussing the brash claim that has been at the heart of Christianity for 2,000 years, he said. Thus, it's time to ask lukewarm believers to question their faith and to ask modern doubters to question their doubts.

This blunt approach would be timely in light of surveys indicating that more Americans -- especially the young -- are changing how they think about faith, including the role of scripture and the need for any ties to organized religion.

For example, the American Bible Society's recent "State of the Bible" survey found that the percentage of "Bible skeptics" is now precisely the same -- 19 percent -- as for those who are truly "engaged" in Bible reading and who strongly value biblical authority. The "Bible friendly" segment of the population shrank from 45 to 37 percent.

The 19 percent figure for "Bible skeptics" matched the key finding in a headline-producing Pew Research Center survey in 2012, which found that nearly 20 percent of American adults -- the so-called "nones" -- no longer identify with any given religion. The "religiously unaffiliated" number was 30 percent for those under the age of 30.

Meanwhile, one common theme in recent surveys is that an increasing number of Americans no longer believe they need to claim a traditional faith, and Christianity in particular, because they no longer see themselves as sinners -- especially when discussing doctrinal issues linked to sexuality.

This moral sea change could, for some people, even undercut belief in the resurrection. After all, if the resurrection actually happened, that validates the central claim of Christian tradition, which in turn validates biblical teachings about sin, repentance and forgiveness.

"What ruffles feathers is the God-sized claim" that Jesus died to atone for the sins of humanity, noted Dodson and Watson. This insistence "that we all need an atoning representative troubles our dignity. ... In light of recent horror trends, we might be more inclined to believe in a zombie emerging from the dead than a resurrected and fully restored person."

With doubts and open unbelief on the rise, it's time for church leaders to face this issue head on, said Dodson. This is no time to duck the central question at Easter.

"In so much of popular Christianity today, people are just nodding their heads and saying they believe all of these doctrines, but this really isn't having much of an impact on their lives," he said. "If they actually believe in the resurrection, it should make a difference. … The resurrection matters more than the Easter bunny."

Surviving the Easter crush, 2013

There must a law, deep in the cosmic base code, that if parents dress their nine children in Easter white -- especially when the New England snow is melting -- at least one will fall into the mud. "It was tough," said Simcha Fisher, describing this Easter's obstacle course, "but we survived all that and made it to Mass."

This was not an ordinary Mass, of course. The Fishers -- with children ranging from 15 months to nearly 15 years -- were trying to get into the 11:15 a.m. rites on the day when their New Hampshire parish would be jammed with those known, in commentaries on modern church life, as Christmas and Easter Only Catholics (CEOs), Poinsettia and Lily Catholics or even Two-Timers.

In a kind of Easter miracle, the Fishers found adequate real estate in a pew. "The church was, of course, packed," noted Fisher, in a telephone interview. "The family in front of us was dressed to the nines and they seemed to be trying to break the world record for the consumption of gum" during Mass.

Fisher knows that this narration sounds whiny. After all, this year she approached the most important day on the Christian calendar even more aware than normal of the tensions between Christmas and Easter Only worshipers and the faithful who attend week after week. As Holy Week came to a close, the National Catholic Register columnist had committed herself, in print, to being more hopeful and welcoming this Easter.

That's nice, but what are church-going Catholics supposed to do when faced with CEOs chattering during Mass "like they're in a football stadium," while turning the "Resurrection of our Lord into a photo op, turning what should be the most joyous holy days into an occasion of sin for faithful Catholics," she wrote.

It's one thing to promise to be more understanding, he noted. It's something else to struggle with the reality of legions of almost visitors.

"I really am glad that they're there," wrote Fisher. "It's got to be better than never going to Mass, and I do believe that the Holy Spirit could easily use that opportunity to send a powerful word, a lingering image, a stray idea into the mind or heart of a fallen-away Catholic, and a casual visit that was made just out of habit, or to please someone's grandma, might be the first step to coming back home to the faith. And yeah, they're not being reverent. Neither am I, by going through the motions while grumbling in my heart.

"But I know my limits. I know I'm not going to suddenly turn into Mother Teresa, especially if I show up 40 minutes early and STILL have to spend the whole Mass on my poor tired feet, trying to keep nine kids docile and attentive when the strangers who did get a seat are playing on their Gameboys. With the sound on."

At some point, this crush will affect whether some believers -- even the most faithful -- are willing to endure the tension in Easter pews, noted Joe Carter, senior editor at the Acton Institute. Recent numbers from LifeWay Research indicated that only 58 percent of self-identified Protestants, 57 percent of Catholics and 45 percent of nondenominational church members said they were likely to attend Easter services. It's legitimate to ask why so many believers are staying away, he argued.

Perhaps this trend can be explained with the help of a quip by baseball legend Yogi Berra, said Carter. When asked why he no longer frequented a popular restaurant, Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

Fisher said that, before opting out of Easter rites, frustrated parents could seek less popular services in the parish schedule, make strategic plans to arrive 45 minutes early and have family pep talks with their children about what to expect. And then there is the "Hallmark trap" in which worshipers are tempted to expect a picture-perfect Easter packed with emotional goodies.

It's easy to mutter, "But I DESERVE a flood of peace and grace and joy on Easter, because it's the Resurrection, dammit! But there's no guarantee Easter will work out that way," wrote Fisher. "We need Easter because we're crappy people who get mad at other people, even during Mass. ... Thank God the graces of the Risen Lord don't come to us only when it's a picture-perfect Mass."

Quest for the common Easter

Motorists across America saw a strange sight this past Sunday morning if they stopped at a traffic signal near an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary and then, shortly thereafter, passed a Catholic parish. What they saw was worshippers singing hymns and waving palm fronds as they marched in Palm Sunday processions at these churches. Similar sights will be common during Holy Week rites this week and then on Easter Sunday.

There is nothing unusual about various churches celebrating these holy days in their own ways. What is rare is for the churches of the East and West to be celebrating Easter ("Pascha" in the East) on the same day. This will happen again next year, as well as in 2014 and 2017.

This remains one of the most painful symbols of division in global Christianity. While Easter is the most important day on the Christian calendar, millions of Christians celebrate this feast on different days because they have -- for centuries -- used different calendars. The Orthodox follow the ancient Julian calendar when observing Pascha, while others use the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582, during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII.

"It was a calendar issue then and it's a calendar issue now," said Antonios Kireopoulos, an Orthodox theologian who is a leader in interfaith relations work at the National Council of Churches of Christ. "This is about calendars, but it's much more than that."

This clash between liturgical calendars in the East and West, he said, also affects how churches pursue their missions. "We are talking about the central event of our faith, yet we remain so divided about it. ... That has to raise questions for those outside the faith. If the resurrection is so important, why can't we find a way to celebrate this together?"

Seizing the temporary unity represented by the shared Easter dates this year and next, Kireopoulos and National Council of Churches General Secretary Michael Kinnamon recently renewed an earlier call that challenged leaders on both sides to pursue a permanent solution to this clash of the calendars.

Their letter restates three recommendations from the 1997 Aleppo Conference, which was hosted by the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. That gathering called for Christians worldwide to:

* Honor the first ecumenical council of Nicea by celebrating Easter on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, which would maintain the biblical ties between the Jewish Passover, Holy Week and Easter.

* Agree to calculate astronomical data by using the best available scientific methods, which was a principle established in Nicea to settle an early controversy about the date of Easter.

* Use the meridian line for Jerusalem as the reference point for all calculations, once again honoring the biblical narratives about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The problem, of course, is that making a change of this magnitude would require a broad spectrum of Christian leaders -- including the pope and numerous Orthodox patriarchs -- to agree on something that stirs deep emotions among the faithful. Orthodox leaders continue to wrestle with splits linked to a 1923 decision to celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar.

The final Aleppo document recognized that it would be especially hard for Eastern believers to change their traditions.

"In some countries in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, where the Christian churches have lived with the challenge of other religions or materialistic ideologies, loyalty to the 'old calendar' has been a symbol of the churches' desire to maintain their integrity and their freedom from the hostile forces of this world," it said. "Clearly in such situations implementation of any change in the calculation of Easter/Pascha will have to proceed carefully and with great pastoral sensitivity."

Orthodox leaders know that the Easter gap will keep getting wider -- with Pascha creeping into the summer in about a century.

But change is hard. As old joke says, "How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer: "Change? What is this 'change'?"

"This is not a matter of one side finally giving in and the other winning," stressed Kireopoulos. "This is a matter of finding a way to proclaim -- together -- what we all believe about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. ... What we hope is that, once again, we can follow the principles of Nicea and find a way to move forward."