Tricky interfaith details: Muslim preacher in an Episcopal pulpit and at the altar

Tricky interfaith details: Muslim preacher in an Episcopal pulpit and at the altar

Soumaya Khalifah's sermon fell in the usual place in the Holy Week rite in which Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta clergy renewed their vows -- after a Gospel passage and before the consecration of bread and wine as Holy Communion.

In this Mass, the Liturgy of the Word also included a Quran reading, including: "God, there is no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting. Neither slumber overtakes Him nor sleep. Unto Him belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth. Who is there who may intercede with Him save by His leave?"

Khalifah asked leaders from the region's 96 Episcopal parishes an obvious question: Was this an historic moment, with a Muslim woman preaching in a liturgy for an entire Christian diocese?

"I truly believe that interfaith works is the Civil Rights Movement for the 21st century," said Khalifah, head of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta. "Faith is used to divide us and we need to make intentional efforts to bring ourselves together. Normally we worship, associate and have friends from our own faith tradition, our own race. …

"When I look at the beautiful creations of God and how they worship, I see my Christian brothers and sisters. I think of their love for Jesus -- peace be upon him -- and their trying to live by his specific example of loving his enemies."

After her sermon, Atlanta Bishop Robert C. Wright invited Khalifah to join clergy and others at the altar for the Eucharistic prayers consecrating the bread and wine. As the worshippers stepped forward to receive Holy Communion, the bishop said Khalifah took part.

"She held out her hand to receive the Host and it is not my practice to refuse people," said Wright, reached by telephone. He noted that "open Communion" is common across his diocese, especially with visitors. Khalifah returned to her seat without receiving the consecrated wine, the bishop said.

Concerning those screaming babies in Mass

It was a blunt, honest, raw question and Deacon Greg Kandra knew it would stir deep emotions and fierce arguments among Catholic readers. The Catholic mother of six stressed that she sincerely wanted to know: "Why don't parents take screaming babies out of church?"

Nearly 200 online comments later -- with Kandra moderating comments to keep the dialogue constructive -- legions of Catholic writers are still airing their "screaming babies" differences at his "The Deacon's Bench" website and on other sites online.

The author of the original letter added: "When I politely ask the parent of a screaming child why they refuse to leave Mass so they don't disrupt it for everyone else, they get angry at me! ... There were four screamers at the morning Mass -- every Saturday the same families show up with screaming babies AND STAY in the chapel with them! People have expressed their desire that they leave the kids at home, but they don't."

Reactions on the other side were just as harsh, with Catholics expressing anger at those who glare at parents who bring noisy toddlers to church, allowing their children to act up Sunday after Sunday.

"Jesus embraced children, folks, and so does our church," read one typical response. "If you don't want to hear them cry, the solution is not to remove the holy little ones from the church. The solution is for you to go to the 7 a.m. quickie Mass or the solemn high Mass that takes three hours. Find a Mass kids aren't going to and shut yourself up in that one."

Catholics on one side accuse the others of being too judgmental. Then Catholics on the other side -- often from earlier generations -- argue that today's parents are not sensitive to the needs or others or strict enough when disciplining their children.

Believers on both sides insist that they are defending holiness of the Mass itself, as well as its role in the lives of their children.

Part of the problem, noted Kandra, is that Catholics on both sides have grown up in an era in which it is far too easy to "become lazy and spoiled," often jumping from parish to parish seeking the right "fit" for their personal tastes and prejudices. What if their current parish's Mass schedule doesn't fit a child's soccer schedule?

"Why should we be surprised," noted Kandra, by email, when "they can't abide something as normal -- and as intrusive -- as a baby's crying? ... It's vexing, and more than a little ironic, that a church that climbs on soapboxes and carries banners and prays endless rosaries in defense of life can be so intolerant of life when it's in the pew behind you, bawling.

"I still like what one priest said: a church without crying babies is dead. Let the babies come and cry. That's a sign of life."

Still, it's crucial to note that almost everyone agrees that priests need to ask the faithful to maintain some sense of decorum and discipline during services, noted Erin Manning, who posted during the original "screaming babies" debate and on her own "And Sometimes Tea" website. It isn't safe, for example, to let little children wander around the sanctuary during services.

But in the end, one person's "screaming baby" is another person's baby who is merely crying for a few minutes before slipping into a nap. There are also parents who hesitate to rush misbehaving children to the parish "cry room," where others may literally be playing with stacks of toys and ignoring the service altogether, she said.

Most of all, it's crucial for experienced parents to pass along what they have learned to parents in the next generation -- many of whom were raised in smaller families and, thus, never learned how to care for younger siblings.

"It's easy to forget that many of today's young parents are not only relying on daycare, etc., but grew up in it themselves," said Manning. In churches today "we have second- and even some third-generation parents who honestly don't know what sort of discipline is possible with young children or how to instill it. As the second oldest of nine children I knew ... that discipline was possible and required only patience, consistence and the willingness to keep trying even on days when nothing seemed to be going right."

No Hooters apparel in Mass!

Deacon Greg Kandra was well aware that modern Americans were getting more casual and that these laidback attitudes were filtering into Catholic pews. Still, was that woman who was approaching the altar to receive Holy Communion really wearing a Hooters shirt?

Yes, she was.

When did Catholics, he thought to himself, start coming to Mass dressed for a Britney Spears concert? Had he missed a memo or something?

"Somewhere along the way, we went from neckties to tank tops, and from fasting to fast food. And it's getting worse," noted Kandra, a former CBS News writer with 26 years, two Emmys and two Peabody Awards to his credit. He is now a deacon assigned to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, a 3,000-member parish in Forest Hills, a neighborhood in Queens on the north end of New York City.

"I recently had to tell a couple that no, they could not have their Chihuahua in a tuxedo as part of their wedding party," he added, in a commentary. "An auxiliary bishop in Indianapolis recently complained about people who tweet during funerals. Casual Catholics, it seems, have taken 'casual' to a new level."

After the Hooters incident, he decided it was time to stop whining about the rising tide of irreverence and immodesty and to start griping about it right out in the open. Thus, Kandra and the parish's other clergy have resorted to appealing -- in the parish bulletin and in public remarks -- for a hint of sanity or even some old-fashioned decorum.

One bulletin item proclaimed, with a gag headline: "PLANS FOR PARISH SWIMMING POOL SCRAPPED! After much study, our finance committee has determined it would not be feasible to construct an indoor swimming pool in our church. ... As a result, we can now announce with certainty that those who have been arriving for Mass as if dressed for the pool need not do so. Also, we hope to keep the air conditioning cranking all summer long. So you do not need to wear shorts, halter tops or bikinis to Mass."

Other missives in this series warned that late-arriving parishioners with allegedly faulty alarm clocks might be injured during their attempts to "find a seat by climbing over the rope strung across the aisle. This can result in falls or -- in some cases -- embarrassing displays of underwear."

And about the many active cellphones: "New research indicates that people who bring cell phones to church are more likely to suffer serious head trauma, usually caused by the priest throwing the lectionary at them. Such people are also more likely to be wounded by hurled umbrellas and rolled up missals."

It's easy to determine what is going on in his parish and elsewhere, said 74-year-old Monsignor Joseph Funaro. Decades ago, worshippers would dress up to go to church and then would return home to change into more casual clothing before heading to picnics, baseball games, the local pool or away to the coast.

Today, the sprawl of suburban life and omnipresent traffic jams -- especially close to Labor Day and beach-friendly weekends -- have tempted Catholics to abandon the old church-first schedule. The clothes symbolize larger changes.

"We have reached the point that just about anything goes," said Funaro. "We keep making appeals to our people, but it doesn't seem that anyone is paying much attention. ... Some of the ladies, well, you just have to wonder if they looked in a mirror before coming to church."

The key, he said, is not that formal attire has evolved into casual attire. That change took place several decades ago for most Baby Boomer adults and their children. Now, more and more Catholics have moved past casual clothing and have started wearing clothing that is distracting, at best, or is often aggressively immodest.

As a priest, Funaro said that he now worries that some of his parishioners are not really focusing on the Mass at all. Instead, they are stopping by the church while on their way to other activities they consider more important than Mass.

"I often ask people this question: 'Would you dress like that if you were going to meet the queen of England?' Of course, they always say, 'No, of course not.' Then I remind them that they are coming to Mass in order to meet someone more special than the queen. They are coming to meet their King."

Rome ponders iMissal app

When it comes to liturgical details, the Vatican has clear guidelines about sacred objects that are blessed for use during a Mass. "The Church has always sought," notes the Book of Blessings, "to ensure that all those things that are involved in any way in divine worship should be worthy, becoming and beautiful. ... Those objects that through a blessing are set aside for divine worship are to be treated with reverence by all and to be put only to their proper use, never profaned."

This includes books on the altar, as noted in the 2001 text Liturgiam authenticam (The Authentic Liturgy): "The books from which the liturgical texts are recited in the vernacular with or on behalf of the people should be marked by such a dignity that the exterior appearance of the book itself will lead the faithful to a greater reverence for the word of God and for sacred realities."

But the question some Catholics are asking these days is this: Can there be an app for that? What if clergy used iPads containing the Roman Missal?

At this point, the hierarchy has not publicly approved this leap, noted Father John J.M. Foster, who teaches liturgical law at the Catholic University of America. But that doesn't mean that the Vatican might not support the limited use of an iPad application, which recently was created by an Italian priest who is a consultant with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine priests walking in processions with iPads lifted high. Could that happen?

"Not yet," said Foster. "That doesn't mean that some parish somewhere isn't going to make PDF copies of the Gospels, put them on an iPad and hand them to the deacon. ... However, we shouldn't assume that something can be used in the liturgy, simply because it has not been forbidden."

This buzz began in June, when Father Paolo Padrini said he was releasing an app offering the Roman Missal -- the texts that are read and sung during Masses throughout the year -- in Latin, English, Italian, French and Spanish. Two years earlier, he created an iBreviary for the iPhone, containing the Catholic book of daily prayers.

The Catholic blogosphere reacted immediately. Certainly in iMissal would help priests, such as military chaplains, who were constantly on the move. Priests with weak eyesight could change font sizes in a few seconds. But what would happen if the app crashed during Mass? Could laypeople read along, or would they be tempted to check their email?

The church, however, has faced technical questions before. Hand-written volumes gave way to those printed on presses. However, priests cannot hear confessions by telephone. Internet confessions don't work, either.

Speaking as a "self-professed geek who is a lover of both technology and theology," Jeff Miller of the Curt Jester website confessed that he has mixed emotions about liturgical texts on mobile devices.

"This might be a question answered by the Vatican sometime in the future, though they are notoriously slow in answering questions of this type," wrote Miller. "I can certainly see why some priests would appreciate an electronic version of the Roman Missal. It would be much harder to loose your place and in fact easier to find the correct section each day. I love electronic versions of the Liturgy of the Hours because it makes it so easy to read ... without having to thumb through a bunch of ribboned bookmarks."

Some changes will be needed, stressed Jeff Geerling of Open Source Catholic. For example, the screens on these devices will need to operate without strong backlighting. Imagine the blue-glow distraction of iPads during candlelight services. And that omnipresent aluminum shell?

"An appropriate case," he noted, "would need to be manufactured to (a) mask the logo on the back, and (b) downplay the fact that a bit of electronic technology is being used. Something simple; perhaps a nice red leather case?"

At this point, noted Foster, no one knows how these apps will evolve. One thing is certain. Priests would need to look up prayers for special occasions and rites.

"There would still be work to do," he said. "That's why we have all those ribbons. It's not like you could just call up a day of the year and everything would be right there so that you could keep scrolling on and on and on. It's not that simple."

B16 says, 'Thou shalt blog'

When Eunice Kennedy Shriver died, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley candidly reminded his Archdiocese of Boston flock that this was one Kennedy who was consistently faithful to the church's teachings. "She was preeminently pro-life, against abortion and there to protect and underscore the dignity of every person," noted O'Malley, praising the founder of the Special Olympics.

When Sen. Edward Kennedy died soon after that, the cardinal strongly defended his own decision to preside at his funeral -- despite the senator's public stands against church church's teachings on abortion and sexuality.

"We must show those who do not share our belief about life that we care about them," O'Malley argued. "We will stop the practice of abortion by changing the law, and we will be successful in changing the law if we change people's hearts. We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss."

The cardinal didn't deliver these highly personal messages from the pulpit of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Instead, he posted them on "Cardinal Sean's Blog" at -- his own multimedia journal.

O'Malley isn't alone. A few other bishops and priests have made the jump into cyberspace. However, there will be many more bloggers wearing Roman collars if Pope Benedict XVI has his way. In a message addressed straight to priests -- bypassing the offices of many cautious bishops -- the pope has urged them to start spreading and defending the faith online.

"The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more Saint Paul's exclamation: 'Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel,' " said the pope, in a message released on Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists.

"The spread of multimedia communications and its rich 'menu of options' might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web, or to see it only as a space to be filled," argued Benedict, whose online presence has risen with the birth of and the Vatican YouTube channel.

"Yet priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different 'voices' provided by the digital marketplace. Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis."

For tech-savvy Catholics, it's stunning news that the 82-year-old Benedict used the word "blog" in the first place, noted Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia-based scribe whose "Whispers in the Loggia" weblog is a global hot spot for Vatican news and gossip. The tone of this papal message, he added, is relentlessly positive -- a striking departure from the Vatican's many downbeat messages about media in the past.

The bottom line, noted Palmo, via email, is that "against the backdrop of the widespread American experience of mass closings of parishes, declines in attendance, etc., we're learning that one thing that helps folks want to keep staying close is when ... the church realizes that one hour on Sunday just isn't enough, that people are looking for something to help keep them connected and inspired through the week. So I think Benedict is calling priests to see that they have a crucial role in that, and to see this not as some sort of hobby or personal indulgence, but a vitally important extension of their ministry. Anything that bears fruit to that end lifts all boats."

Catholic leaders will, however, need to be careful when working in this chaotic, even deceptive, online world.

After all, some early reports about Benedict's message about digital media mentioned that Vatican officials marked the occasion by opening an official Twitter feed -- @vatican_va -- complete with the Vatican coat of arms.

It was a fake. Catholic News Service soon established that the Vatican has not taken up tweeting -- yet.

"The whole episode has prompted some Vatican media people to remark, 'It wasn't us -- but it should have been us,' " noted John Thavis, the CNS bureau chief in Rome. "So don't be surprised to see a real Vatican Twitter feed in the future."

Wafer madness

Editor's note: Tmatt did not write a column for Scripps Howard this week, due to last-minute travel to Atlanta for the funeral of my wife Debra's mother, Jeanne Bridges Kuhn. The following is a post written for, which will interest many of my regular readers. To read the interactive version of this post, click here. * * * *

There is no question what the Roman Catholic Church calls the holy bread that is consecrated during the Mass. It is called the “host.” Anyone who knows anything about Catholic liturgy knows this.

Now, how do you describe or define the host? Those seeking to be reverent tend to call it “consecrated bread.”

The problem, of course, is that the special bread used in Western Rite services is not simply unleavened bread. As the old saying goes, there are two acts of faith involved in meditating on the host during a Mass. The first is to believe that it is the Body of Christ. The second is to believe that it is, in fact, bread.

Thus, many people refer to the host in a variety of ways. Some people insist on calling the host a “wafer,” a term that angers many Catholics. However, there are Catholics who use this term. Still, most simply call it by its traditional name — a host.

It is true that, if you look up definitions online, there is an ecclesiastical definition for “wafer” that applies. Thus, you end up with these two clashing definitions:

1. A small thin crisp cake, biscuit, or candy.

2. Ecclesiastical -- A small thin disk of unleavened bread used in the Eucharist.

So, is this unique bread the consecrated “host” or some kind of supposedly holy cookie? That seems to be the question.

I raise this because of the interesting and very detailed story that ran in the Boston Globe the other day about rites of “perpetual adoration,” a tradition that is explained well right at the top by religion-beat specialist Michael Paulson. However, many will stumble, or even scream, right at the lede:

The adorers sit in silence before the wafer.

Some settle cross-legged on the floor by the altar. Others kneel in a favorite pew. They read, or say the rosary; they pray, or think, or just allow the mind to wander. Hour after hour, day after day, they take part in an unusual Catholic ritual that appears to be making a modest comeback — a quest for silence in a noisy life, a desire to be part of a team, a hunger to feel closer to God.

The ritual, called perpetual adoration, is, at one level, strikingly simple: around-the-clock, people take turns sitting in a chapel in the presence of a consecrated wafer. But at another level, the ritual reflects an embrace of the teaching of Catholicism that many find hardest to understand: the belief that, during Mass, bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.

The lede seems to settle the issue. It’s a wafer. The Catholic church may say that it is the Body of Christ, or even consecrated bread, but it’s a wafer. For many readers, this rite is an act of faith. Others will consider it a mild form of madness.

I think it’s likely that they Globe newsroom stylebook even settles this language question (I’d love to know the actual answer, in fact). The story uses the term “wafer” eight times — including in a direct quote — and the term “host” only once. I found it interesting that the term “host” is left undefined. If the term is so common that it does not need to be defined, then why not use “host,” oh, eight times and the term “wafer” once? Just asking.

I also wondered if this statement is true:

Later this week, in a Back Bay shrine, the Archdiocese of Boston will celebrate the return of perpetual adoration to Boston for the first time in decades. Volunteers at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine are signing up 336 people — two for every hour of the week except during Mass — who will agree that, starting Saturday and continuing indefinitely, they will spend an hour a week in the presence of the consecrated wafer, a practice they understand as spending an hour a week with God.

That’s interesting. I had no idea that perpetual adoration was this rare, since I have heard about the practice in a number of contexts through the years. Are there no monasteries in Boston? Did this particular archdiocese ban or discourage the practice for some reason? I’m curious.

Please understand that I am not attacking the Globe report (and certainly not Paulson) on the “wafer” vs. “host” issue.

Still, I have no doubt that many Catholics were not offended by the drumbeat references to their adoration of a “wafer.” However, I am sure that some were offended and there is a good chance that some traditional Catholics still read the Globe.

My question is more basic: What was gained by using the blunt “wafer” reference in the lede? Is the word “host” so strange in a heavily Catholic region? Why not open by saying that they are kneeling before the “consecrated bread” that they believe is the Body of Christ? A reference to the belief of the worshippers would be accurate, even for skeptics. Correct?

Behind this question is another: Should journalists cover the beliefs of others with some sense of respect for the language that they would use? What is accomplished by using language that is sure to offend many of the “stakeholders” — that’s a journalistic term used by and in some other academic settings — who will care the most about the accuracy and sensitivity of this fine story?

There is no question that the Catholic church calls this a “host.” And there is no question that the Boston Globe calls this bread a “wafer.” I am asking this question: Why does the “wafer” language need to win in this debate? Is there a way to be both neutral and to show respect?

Trying to market the Mass?

It's the kind of devil's advocate question that Roman Catholic priests discuss when no one else is listening.

How short do you have to make a Mass to appeal to parishioners who don't want to get out of bed to go to Sunday Mass in the first place? Would more people attend if Mass was 40 minutes instead of 50?

"There are priests who can do a weekday Mass in about 22 minutes and the people know that father has left his car running out back and his golf clubs are in the trunk," said Father John A. Valencheck of the Diocese of Cleveland.

"Sunday Mass is supposed to be different. I have trouble getting it done -- I hate those words 'getting it done' -- in less than 50 or 55 minutes. I don't know how to do everything we're supposed to do in less than that. ? But all of this should lead us back to a crucial question: What are we doing at Mass in the first place?"

The people who really have to watch the clock are the priests and lay leaders in the giant suburban parishes that surround America's largest cities.

This is especially true in the Bible Belt, where the children of northern Catholics kneel next to increasing numbers of Hispanics and many Protestants who have converted to the ancient faith. Thus, the pews and parking lots are crowded, while a declining number of priests struggle to offer services that please the old and welcome the new.

But there's another reason that many American Catholics want to edit and tweak their ancient rites. They know that Protestant megachurches offer rock-concert-quality mass media, ample parking, free babysitting, health clubs and every conceivable form of special programs for people of all ages, but especially the young.

Valencheck's parish office recently received a postcard -- addressed "Occupant" -- from a megachurch promoting its free Starbucks coffee and Krispy Kreme Donuts.

It's hard for Catholics to compete in this marketplace, he noted, in an essay entitled "Mass Marketing Mass" in the Adoremus Bulletin. The ultimate temptation is for priests to embrace the "bedrock assumption that the Mass is a painful event" and that they need to make major changes in order to survive.

"One solution is to make the Mass pass as quickly as possible, apparently on the assumption that the people who are there do not want to be there, so the object is to get them in and out before they can register the full measure of their boredom," wrote Valencheck. "The focus of the Mass is now placed on those who do not want to be there."

Then there are Catholics who are determined to make the Mass more entertaining. This can lead to sappy pop music, pseudo-megachurch media and priests who offer chatty sermonettes while presiding over liturgies that have been truncated until almost all of the ancient mysteries and traditions are gone.

The problem, Valencheck noted, is that an "entertaining innovation can too quickly become grating and we are right back to the problem of being boring." And then there are efforts at popularization that veer close heresy, like the popular YouTube video of the Halloween costume Mass in a California parish that ended with the priest recessing out of the church -- dressed as Barney the purple dinosaur.

It's crucial, said Valencheck, that priests continue to have faith that parishioners and visitors will respond to an "old school" Mass that is offered with dignity, grace and, yes, a sense of quality. The details of the rite must be beautiful, so that they point to the mysteries that are beneath the surface.

"There is a way to carry a chalice that says, 'This is just a cup and it really doesn't matter if you pay attention or not,' " he said. "Then there is a way to carry it that says, 'This is a chalice. Get down on your knees and meditate on that.' ...

"It's like when you tell someone that you love them. You can just say the words. But there's also a way to pause and look right in their eyes and tell them that you love them in a way that let's them know you really mean it. There's a way to give our words and our actions weight and gravitas. Priests have to remember that."