Holy Week

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.

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.

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?

American exorcist, 2009

It was clear from the man's testimony that all hell was breaking loose in his life and he needed help. However, since this man was a scientist, Father Gary Thomas wasn't surprised that he was a skeptic when it came to supernatural evil. That was fine, since one of the first things the priest learned in Rome while training to be an exorcist was to remain as skeptical as possible, as long as possible. Still, there were troubling facts in the man's story -- such as an episode when a counselor urged him to channel spirits.

Finally, the priest turned to "De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam (Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications)," the Vatican document released in 1998 that contains a modernized exorcism rite. He has been fighting this man's demons ever since.

"When we started, he told me, 'Wait! Can't you just take this thing right out of me?' But that's rarely how things work," said Thomas, the official exorcist in the Diocese of San Jose in northern California. "It's hard to get people to understand that no two exorcisms are the same. Reality isn't like the movies."

The subject of demonic possession remains controversial, as illustrated by the media storm that greeted the revised exorcism rite, which was required by a Vatican II mandate three decades earlier. Later, the Vatican announced that Pope John Paul II had personally performed three exorcisms during his pontificate.

While the new rite warned exorcists not to confuse diabolic possession with mental illness, it also affirmed ancient teachings about the reality of spiritual warfare, as illustrated by biblical accounts of Jesus performing exorcisms.

Truth is, stressed Thomas, the events of Holy Week -- especially Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter -- make no sense without real demons, real temptations and a real hell. But many Catholics disagree.

"There are plenty of bishops and priests who simply do not believe in Satan and demons and they have told me so," he said. "That makes a difference. What most people do not realize is that bishops are like independent contractors and they can do whatever they damn well want to do. ... That's why we don't have many exorcists in America."

At the request of his own bishop, Thomas took a Vatican-approved approved course on demonic possession while living at the North American College in Rome in late 2005 and early 2006. As part of his studies, the second-career priest -- who worked in a mortuary before seeking ordination -- participated in more than 80 exorcisms with a senior Italian exorcist. These experiences form the heart of "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist," a new book written by American journalist Matt Baglio.

For the past three years, the 55-year-old priest has quietly been using the techniques he learned in Rome. He said that his teachers, from the beginning, emphasized that an exorcist must strive to remain the "ultimate skeptic," pursuing every pastoral option before turning to the exorcism rite as a last resort.

Modern exorcists are urged to work with psychiatrists, psychologists and physicians while evaluating those who are suffering. They also test to see if spiritual health can be restored through confession, healing rites and frequent participation in Mass. However, Thomas noted that these contacts with "holy things" occasionally trigger open displays of demonic powers.

It's one thing to hear the voice of a demon on a recording or to read pages of blasphemies in transcripts. Face-to-face encounters are another matter.

The classic signs of possession have been established for ages. The possessed may exhibit superhuman strength, describe private events in the life of an exorcist or possess the ability to speak languages -- such as Latin -- they have never studied. They often suffer bizarre physical reactions to contact with holy water, crosses or icons.

Most people seeking exorcisms are simply physically sick, mentally ill or emotionally distressed. Some may try to fake "Hollywood-esque symptoms" in order to draw sympathy or attention.

"You may see case after case in which there are other explanations for what these people are suffering," stressed Thomas. "But then, every now and then, you see things that let you know that you are dealing with the real thing. That's when you know that sin is real, hell is real and Satan is real. That's when you learn what the cross and the resurrection are all about."

Facing a low-carb Lent

Depending on who is counting, somewhere between 5 million and 50 million Americans are on low-carbohydrate diets -- give or take a few million.

Trend watchers are even tossing around this monster statistic -- one in four Americans has caught the low-carb bug. That's a lot of bacon, sausage, eggs and cheese for the Atkins disciples and turkey, fish, egg substitutes and low-fat cheese for those who walk the way of the South Beach Diet.

This also means -- with 5 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in America -- that lots of people are trying to reconcile low-carb diets with the fasting discipline of Lent.

"I know that I'm struggling and everywhere I go I discover I'm not the only one," said Chuck Powell of the national Orthodox radio program Come Receive the Light (www.receive.org). "Lent is always a challenge and that's a good thing. But combine Lent with trying to stay on a low-carb and it's like, 'What is there left we can eat?' "

This leads to new questions, he said, such as: "What is the purpose of food anyway? What is the spiritual lesson to be learned here?"

Fasting is a part of life for many religious believers, including Jews at Yom Kippur and Muslims in the season of Ramadan. During the 40-day season of Lent, which precedes Easter, faithful Catholics will abstain from meat to varying degrees. Christians in other flocks may give up sweets or some other favorite food.

But Eastern Orthodox churches urge their members to follow an ancient fast that means abstaining from meat, eggs and dairy products. Orthodox believers do eat shrimp, scallops and other shellfish, but avoid meats with bones. There are subtle fasting differences between Greeks, Russians, Arabs and other Orthodox.

Nevertheless, these traditions tend to push those keeping the fast toward rice, pasta, corn, potatoes and bread -- the very foods shunned in low-carb diets. For many dieters the fear is real: What if they strive to keep the fast and, with a burst of carbohydrates, start regaining the weight they have struggled to lose?

"It seems like everybody in America is concerned about their weight and their health right now and you'd have to say that is a good thing," said Father Christopher Metropulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., founder of Come Receive the Light. "At the same time, it seems that this is making everyone totally consumed with food and the reason we fast is to try to learn not to be consumed with food. ... The goal of the fast is to learn to crave God, not food."

And it's not just the lay people who are struggling with the fast, or being tempted to deny that these diet conflicts are real.

"I know priests who doing these diets and they are working for them," said Metropulos. "But I asked a priest who is doing the Atkins Diet, 'What are you going to eat during Lent?' And he said, 'I'll be busy. I just won't eat. I won't have time to eat.' I told him, 'Good luck. You'll need it.' "

Some Orthodox people cope by sharing recipes for tofu desserts, falafel, oriental salads (the key is the right sesame-seed dressing) and every imaginable casserole that can be made with beans. They know the microwave properties of every soy product on the market. They can read food labels like scientists.

In the end, many find it easy to lose sight of what Lenten fasting is supposed to be about in the first place, said Father Matthew Streett of Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Potomac, Md. The goal is to discipline the will and to encourage repentance. Anyone who thinks of fasting as a form of dieting is missing the point.

"Fasting from food is only one aspect of fasting," he said, in a commentary written for strugglers. "Lent is a time for turning away from the emptier pleasures of our society: television, video games and the other forces that often do more to harm family communication and bonding rather than help.

"In Lent, we should examine our lives and isolate the influences that are destructive or silly, the habits that draw us away from God."

The Passion and the Talmud

The ancient rabbinic text is clear about the punishment for those who twisted sacred law and misled the people of Israel.

Offenders would be stoned and then hung by their hands from two pieces of wood connected to form a "T." The Talmud once included this example from the Sanhedrin.

"On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus of Nazareth," said the passage, which was censored in the 16th century to evade the wrath of Christians. "The herald went out before him for 40 days saying, 'Jesus goes forth to be stoned, because he has practiced magic, enticed and led astray Israel. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and declare concerning him.' And they found nothing in his favor."

If armies of Jewish and Christian scholars insist on arguing about Mel Gibson's explosive movie "The Passion of the Christ," it would help if they were candid and started dealing with the hard passages in Jewish texts as well as the Christian scriptures.

At least, that's what David Klinghoffer thinks.

The Orthodox Jewish writer -- whose forthcoming book is entitled "Why the Jews Rejected Christ" -- believes these lines from the Talmud are as troubling as any included in the Christian Gospels. They are as disturbing as any image Gibson might include in his controversial epic.

The Talmudic text seems clear. Jesus clashed with Jewish leaders, debating them on the meaning of their laws. They hated him. Many wanted him dead.

It is possible, said Klinghoffer, to interpret these documents as saying that Jesus' fate rested entirely with the Jewish court. The use of language such as "enticed and led astray" indicated that Jesus may have been charged with leading his fellow Jews to worship false gods.

There are more details in this confusing drama. Writing in 12th-century Egypt, the great Jewish sage Maimonides summed up the ancient texts.

"Jesus of Nazareth," he proclaims, in his Letter to Yemen, " ... impelled people to believe that he was a prophet sent by God to clarify perplexities in the Torah, and that he was the Messiah that was predicted by each and every seer. He interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment, to the abolition of all its commandments and to the violation of its prohibitions.

"The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him."

Is that it? What role did the Romans play?

In terms of historic fact, stressed Klinghoffer, it's almost impossible to find definitive answers for such questions. But the purpose of the Jewish oral traditions that led to the Talmud was to convey religious belief, not necessarily historical facts.

"If you really must ask, 'Who is responsible for the death of Jesus?', then you can only conclude that both the Gospels and the Talmud agree that the Jewish leaders did not have the power to execute him," he said.

"Did they influence the event? The religious texts suggest that they did, the historic texts suggest that they did not. It's hard to know. ... But if Gibson is an anti-Semite, then to be consistent you would have to say that so was Maimonides."

Obviously, Klinghoffer is not spreading this information in order to fan the flames of hatred. His goal, he said, is to provoke Jewish leaders in cities such as New York and Los Angeles to strive harder to understand the views of traditional Protestants and Catholics. And it's time for liberal Christians to spend as much time talking with Orthodox Jews as with liberal Jews.

It's time to everyone to be more honest, he said.

"I don't see anything that is to be gained for Judaism by going out of our way to antagonize a Mel Gibson or to antagonize as many traditional Christians as we possibly can. I think we have been yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater," said Klinghoffer.

"To put it another way, I don't think it's very wise for a few Jewish leaders to try to tell millions of Christians what they are supposed to believe. Would we want some Christians to try to edit our scriptures and to tell us what we should believe?"