Pope and patriarch point to the unity found among the modern martyrs

Metropolitan Hilarion of Russia left little room for doubt about his priorities when offered a few moments to speak during the Vatican's tense Synod on the Family.

"Militant secularism" was on the rise, he said last fall. Thus, Catholics and Orthodox Christians should stand united while defending the "traditional Christian understanding of the family," "marriage as a union between a man and a woman" and the "value of human life from conception till natural death."

But most of all, Moscow's top ecumenical diplomat wanted to talk about martyrs -- new martyrs.

Consider Iraq, home to 1.5 million Christians a few years ago. Today, 150,000 remain while the "others were either exterminated or expelled," he said. Then look at Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere.

"We are deeply concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe … unfolding in Syria, where militant Islamists are seeking political power," he said. Wherever jihadists "come to power, Christians are being persecuted or exterminated. Christian communities in Syria and other countries of the Middle East are crying for help, while the mass media in the West largely ignore their cries and the politicians prefer to close their eyes."

It was a foretaste of the historic "airport summit" declaration signed in Cuba by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Orthodox Church of Moscow and all Russia.

The man from Buenos Aires vs. dead Catholic museums

BUENOS AIRES -- It's hard to wrestle with the crucial moral and cultural issues in modern Argentina without getting Catholic and Protestant leaders into the same room. During one tense gathering, some Catholic speakers kept referring to decades of rapid growth by "evangelical cults" in Latin America. The assumption seemed to be that evangelical Protestants were all the same, with no real differences between, for example, the freewheeling "prosperity Gospel" preachers and ordinary Protestant flocks.

This went on and on and evangelical leaders started feeling attacked, said the Rev. Nestor Miguez, president of the Federation of Evangelical Churches of Argentine.

Then, during a break, a crucial player pulled him aside. Expressing sympathy, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio asked for a short paper describing how different evangelical groups "understand themselves and how they see themselves as part of church life in Argentina," said Nestor, speaking through a translator at a conference this week on "Journalism and Religion in Latin America."

"It is clear that he took this seriously because I can still recognize some of the language from that little three-page paper in his remarks about evangelicals and other churches, even now as Pope Francis," said Nestor, of the Evangelical Methodist Church. "This is crucial. This is a man who truly listens. He is not pretending to listen. He is listening. ... This is at the heart of who he is as a man."

According to several conference speakers who knew Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, it isn't surprising that his first major papal statement -- an "apostolic exhortation" called Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel") -- focuses on pastoral issues facing priests, bishops and laypeople. While the document addresses hot topics such as abortion, economic justice and the role of women, the vast majority of its 217 pages focus on missions, evangelization, preaching and pastoral care.

The pope tweaks "sourpusses" in the church who resemble "Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter." A true evangelizer, he adds, "must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!" In one passage, Pope Francis describes the "biggest threat of all" in church life, which is a "tomb psychology" that slowly "transforms Christians into mummies in a muse¬um."

The pope adds: "Here I repeat ... what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rath¬er than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."

While repeatedly defending Catholic doctrines, Pope Francis also pleads for Catholics -- including at the Vatican and in the papacy -- to seek innovations in structure, communications and pastoral care in the name of effective missions and evangelization. Catholic leaders must not be content to address the people still in their pews, but dare to reach out to marginalized Catholics and to all who are open to conversion.

Otherwise, the church can become "a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. ... This way of thinking also feeds the vain¬glory of those who are content to have a mod¬icum of power and would rather be the general of a defeated army than a mere private in a unit which continues to fight. "

The "museum" references may be linked to Latin America, said the Rev. Salvador Dellutri, a Church of the Brethren pastor who worked closely with Bergoglio on projects for the Argentine Bible Society. While the future pope led an institution with great prestige due to centuries of ties with the political and cultural establishment, he was increasingly candid about his church's struggles in an age of globalization, moral relativism and mass media.

"He worries about a kind of fake Christianity that in the past became a way of life for many," said Dellutri, through a translator. "But if people are worried that Francis wants to turn the Catholic church into some other church, this is not going to happen. ... This pope remains close to the doctrines of his church. Divorce is a sin to this pope. Abortion is a sin to this pope. But he wants to express mercy to sinners and, if possible, to bring them into the church.

"You cannot say this too much: This man is a pastor. He wants the church to be known more for its actions than for its words."

Pope Benedict XVI exits, on his own terms

In the spring of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI stopped in Aquila, Italy, to pray at the shrine of St. Celestine V. The pope left his pallium -- a wool garment that resembles a yoke, symbolizing bonds between a shepherd and his flock — on this medieval pope’s tomb, noted theologian Scott Hahn of Franciscan University of Steubenville. Then, 15 months later, he visited a cathedral outside Rome to pray before the relics, once again, of St. Celestine V.

Few noticed Benedict’s actions at the time, wrote Hahn, on his Facebook page. So who was this saint? He was the elderly priest who, “somewhat against his will,” was elected pope in 1294. Before long, Pope Celestine V issued a decree allowing occupants of St. Peter’s throne to step down -- a step he then proceeded to take.

Looking back, it appears Benedict’s visit to shrines honoring this particular pope were “probably more than pious acts,” argued Hahn. “More likely, they were profound and symbolic gestures of a very personal nature, which conveyed a message that a pope can hardly deliver any other way."

This was a message consistent with the 86-year-old pope's stunning announcement this week -- days before the start of Lent -- that he would end his eight-year papacy on Feb. 28. Although it has been seven centuries since the voluntary resignation of a pope, this option remains in canon law and was affirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1975 and the Blessed John Paul II in 1996.

Benedict said he was thinking about the future of the papacy, not the past: "In today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

The Vatican Press Office noted these words were consistent with his thoughts in the 2010 book, "Light of the World." While it would be wrong to flee in times of trouble, Benedict said: "When a Pope realizes clearly that he is no longer physically, mentally, and spiritually capable of carrying out his role, then there is legally the possibility, and also the obligation, to resign."

Vatican leaders are planning for the election of a pope by Easter, thus creating a whirlwind of activity. Reactions, so far, have included:

* Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert -- an active Catholic -- quipped that "popes don't quit. God has a way of telling popes when it's time to retire. It's called death." Father James Martin, a Jesuit known as The Colbert Report chaplain, later tweeted that he should have told the comedian, "Pope Benedict XVI is raising the bar when it comes to giving things up for Lent."

* On the far doctrinal left, Catholics United noted: "The Catholic church hierarchy has been seen as an institution overly focused on issues of human sexuality, such as opposition to access to birth control and marriage equality. ... The next pope has a unique opportunity to radically shift the agenda of the church."

* Among journalists, "The Fix" blogger Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post tweeted: "Pope Benedict, following Sarah Palin's lead, resigns."

* This pope's departure drew several tributes from Protestant conservatives. Benedict reminded the world that humans are not mere machines, "collections of nerve endings, that spark with sensation when rubbed together," noted theologian Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The pope defended Down syndrome babies and Alzheimer's patients, as well as those "society wants to dehumanize with language: 'embryo,' 'fetus,' 'anchor baby,' 'illegal alien,' 'collateral damage,' and so on."

* Strategically, the key is that Benedict's "out of the blue" decision will do much to prevent the months or even years of political maneuvering that precede papal elections, wrote Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers. It also helps that Benedict did not act in response to calls for his retirement, such as the campaign aimed at John Paul II.

At the same time, he noted, "advancing medical technology means increasingly long life spans with a longer period of frail health. ... Unless we get really wizard regenerative medical technology really soon, we're likely to have more popes in that kind of situation, and thus there are likely to be more resignations in the future."

Angels, demons & good Catholics

Near the end of Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons," the beautiful scientist Vittoria Vetra clashes with a Vatican official who insists that the day researchers prove how God acted in creation is "the day people stop needing faith." "You mean the day they stop needing the church," she shouts, weaving together the novel's main themes. "But the church is not the only enlightened soul on the planet! We all seek God in different ways. ...

"God is not some omnipotent authority looking down from above, threatening to throw us into a pit of fire if we disobey. God is the energy that flows through the synapses of our nervous system and the chambers of our hearts! God is in all things!"

This long speech is not in the movie based on Brown's first novel about the dashing Harvard professor Robert Langdon, who uses his encyclopedic knowledge of art, religion, history, literature, architecture and archeology to crack through layers of ancient conspiracies that bedevil modern humanity.

This is, however, a speech that -- as a sermon by the author -- offers insights into the worldview behind "Angels & Demons" and the novel that followed it.

That, of course, was "The Da Vinci Code," which ignited a global firestorm because of its depiction of Jesus as a brilliant, charismatic and ultimately misunderstood mortal man who married the brilliant, charismatic and misunderstood Mary Magdalene and had a child with her before his untimely death. This power couple's goal was to create an inclusive, dogma-free, sexually enlightened faith. But, alas, the power-hungry patriarchs who created Christianity -- especially the Roman Catholic Church -- conspired to wreck and bury their work.

Director Ron Howard, who also directed "The Da Vinci Code" movie, admits that large parts of "Angels & Demons" were scrapped and rewritten while turning the prequel into a sequel. Brown gave his blessing since the book's major themes remained intact.

As with "The Da Vinci Code," Howard is convinced that he has not created an anti-Catholic film. His goal, he said, was to raise questions about the nature of faith.

"I believe in God, yes, I do. I'm not a member of a church at the moment," he told reporters, before "Angels & Demons" reached theaters. "There is no personal struggle, for me, between my beliefs and religion. Basically, in a nutshell, I believe that our intelligence, and our curiosity, and our drive to know more are a part of the plan. … But I haven't worked to directly sort of inject my personal spirituality and belief system into the story."

The goal, while spinning another conspiracy-theory thriller, was to focus on "the threat that some in the Vatican may feel about what science represents, what it proposes to say about the origins of the universe and the origins of man," he said.

The plot begins with the sudden death of a "progressive and beloved pope." Then, all hell breaks loose as someone claiming to represent a secret society of freethinkers called the "Illuminati" kidnaps what the book describes as the four "liberal," reform-minded cardinals who were the top candidates to become pope and begins murdering them in public rituals.

As the coup de grace, this mysterious killer has arranged to steal a container of antimatter produced at the CERN Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border. Langdon and Vetra have to rush around -- call it "24" meets a papal conclave -- and find this missing "God particle" stuff before it explodes and vaporizes Vatican City.

By the time it's all over, Langdon and company have solved a papal-murder mystery, saved the enlightened cardinal who ultimately becomes pope and, literally, saved the throne of St. Peter from being captured a madman who is, of course, the story's most articulate conservative Catholic.

This villain "feels that the church is going down the wrong path" as it pursues peace with science and modernity, noted actor Ewan McGregor. "He thinks that the church is becoming watered down and is becoming weaker and weaker. … He's trying to put it back on course."

The key is that "Angels & Demons" offers a Vatican that contains good Catholics and bad Catholics. By the end of the film, said Howard, Langdon has gained a "more complex view of the church."

In the end, there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and Brown and Howard get to determine who is who.

Catholic South shall rise

Catholics in the urban Northeast are getting used to the headlines.

Parishioners in East Harlem have decided to conduct a vigil in a beloved old sanctuary because church leaders plan to lock the doors -- forever. The Archdiocese of New York recently said it would close or merge 21 churches in order to gather more people in fewer pews to be served by a declining number of priests.

A parishioner at Our Lady Queen of Angels told the New York Times: "People have been baptized here and married here, received first communion here. ... When they close the church, we are going to stay inside."

This is one image of American Catholic life today.

However, it's only part of a bigger picture, said Steven Wagner of QEV Analytics in Washington, D.C. While parishes are closing in regions long known as Catholic strongholds, more missions are opening in regions where the Catholic flock is small -- but vital.

For every Boston, there is a Knoxville, Tenn. For every Philadelphia, there is a Savannah, Ga.

"The church is closing parishes in the Northeast, but Catholics are building them in the South and the Southwest," said Wagner. "We know that a lot of that is driven by immigration and population trends. ? So if you really want to know where Catholicism is alive and where it's struggling, you can't just look at membership statistics. You have to ask other questions."

That's what Wagner and co-writer Father Rodger Hunter-Hall have tried to do in a study entitled "The State of the Catholic Church in America, Diocese by Diocese," conducted for the conservative Crisis magazine. Using statistics from the Official Catholic Directory they ranked the 176 Latin Rite dioceses in three crucial areas. Their goal was to study the role played by local bishops between 1995 and 2005.

In an attempt to gauge clergy morale, they determined if the number of active priests in a diocese was rising or falling. Five dioceses stayed the same, 29 experienced growth and 141 suffered deceases.

Then Wagner and Hunter-Hall counted the number of priests being ordained, using a scale that did not discriminate against small dioceses. On the negative end of the scale, 48 dioceses had zero ordinations in 2005 -- including large Sunbelt dioceses in Dallas and Houston.

"All kinds of factors can affect morale and the number of ordinations," said Hunter-Hall, who teaches at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. "But these statistics at least provide insights into whether a bishop is attracting new priests and whether or not he has created a climate that makes men want to serve in his diocese."

To gauge the effectiveness of evangelism efforts, they charted the number of adult converts in each diocese. Once again, Wagner and Hunter-Hall stressed that Catholicism is experiencing rapid growth in some regions due to immigration and, as always, many people enter the church through intermarriage.

However, that kind of growth "isn't the same thing as people making decisions to convert because of the faith itself," said Hunter-Hall. "If you see converts streaming into the church, that almost always tells you something about the spiritual climate in a diocese. That usually has something to do with the bishop."

Finally, the researchers combined these three factors and determined which dioceses that they thought had improved and declined the most during the past decade. The top 20 list was dominated by small dioceses -- including a stunning number in the Bible Belt. The sharpest declines were in the Northeast, especially New England.

Thus, Wagner and Hunter-Hall noted: "The church is ... most healthy in that region that is traditionally the least hospitable to it, and is least healthy in that region where it has the longest history, and in which are found the greatest concentration of Catholics (as a percentage of the population) and the largest number of Catholics."

Size is not always a virtue and, it seems, the first may become the last. Small dioceses -- especially in "missionary" regions -- consistently attracted more converts and more new priests.

"It sounds strange, but if you're a Catholic and you want to go where the action is you need to go to places like Alexandria (La.) Tyler (Texas) and Biloxi (Miss.)," said Wagner. "Catholics all over America are facing unique challenges. It seems that some people are handling them better than others."

Into the Anglican wilds

All it took the other day was hearing pop star Olivia Newton-John's

recording of the "Ave Maria" for Father Paul Zahl to feel that old,

familiar tug at his heartstrings.

Then came the voices in his head asking those nagging questions that many

weary Episcopalians have pondered in recent decades: "Why keep fighting?

Why not join the Roman Catholic Church?"

Every now and then, Zahl feels another urge to "swim the Tiber." This is

somewhat problematic because he is dean of the Trinity School for

Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., a post that makes him a leader among

Evangelicals in the embattled Episcopal Church and a strategic voice in

the broadly Protestant, low-church wing of the global Anglican Communion.

"I could become a Roman Catholic in a heartbeat," said Zahl. "But the

minute I say that, I stop and think about it and I know all the reasons

that I am an Evangelical and why my spiritual home is in Anglicanism. ...

But that doesn't mean that I don't understand why so many people --

people I love and respect -- have fled to Rome and why many more will

follow them."

Many Episcopalians, stressed Zahl, are seeking what he called a "truly

objective form of church life" that provides authoritative answers to the

moral and doctrinal questions that have -- for at least a quarter century

-- caused bitter conflict and declining statistics in the American branch

of Anglicanism. Their complaints run much deeper than mere discontent

over the 2003 consecration of a noncelibate homosexual as the Episcopal

bishop in New Hampshire.

But if they want that kind of church structure they are going to have to

join that kind of church, he said. The Anglican approach, built on a

unique blend of compromises between Protestantism and Catholicism, will

never be enough.

"Anglicanism can only give you an ersatz form of that kind of church,"

said Zahl, a Harvard man whose graduate work took him to England and

Germany. "If you want the kind of authority that comes with Roman

Catholicism then you should run, not walk, to enter the Church of Rome. ...

That's where you have to go to find it. You either become a Catholic or

you simply stop asking the big questions about ecclesiastical structure.

You move on."

This will be a painful step for some Episcopalians to take, in an age

when newspapers are full of reports about legal and theological cracks in

the foundations of the mother Church of England and its bickering

relatives around the world.

The big news on this side of the Atlantic Ocean is that eight

congregations in Northern Virginia -- including two of America's most

historic parishes -- have voted to leave the Episcopal Church to join a

new missionary effort tied to the conservative, rapidly growing Anglican

Church of Nigeria.

Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams faces a revolt in his

own backyard, with Evangelical leaders saying they will revolt if he does

not allow them to answer to conservative bishops, rather than to

liberals. And then there was that Sunday Times report claiming that Pope

Benedict XVI has asked officials in his Congregation for the Doctrine of

the Faith to research ways to reach out to disaffected Anglicans.

The temptation, according to Zahl, is for Episcopalians caught in these

conflicts to assume there is "some church body out there, some

supervising entity or person, which, when we find it, will be seen

definitely to be 'The One.' The question of 'Whither?' is based on the

idea that there is, at this point in time, a verifiable protecting safe


Instead, those committed to Anglicanism must embrace another image of the

Christian life found in scripture, argued Zahl, in a missive to

supporters of his seminary. While it will be hard, they should see

themselves as the "wandering people of God" who must spend a long time in

the wilderness as they "seek the city which is to come."

It will be hard to find clarity and unity during the years ahead, he said.

"I hold out exactly no hope of a safe haven in the Church of England,"

said Zahl. "If you have any hope of finding safe answers for the big

questions of church identity within Anglicanism, then you are going to

need to be patient because that is not going to happen anytime soon."