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African Saints, African Stories

It's a bit late---but not too late!---to start a new book as part of one's Lenten observance.  If that's what you're looking for, Camille Lewis Brown's splendid little book, African Saints, African Stories: 40 Holy Men And Women would make an excellent choice.

The format of the book is simple and straightforward.  First Brown provides a short (1-6 pp.) biography of the saint's life.  Then she adds a brief passage from scripture, a prayer and questions for further reflection.  It's a wonderful format for Lenten prayer, but serves equally well at any time of year.  The book is divided into two sections:  "Saints, Blesseds and Venerables" and "Saints in Waiting".

African Saints, African Stories is a powerful reminder of the depth and breadth of the formative African influence on Christianity.  As Bishop Joseph Perry notes in his excellent foreword, "There is evidence of African contribution throughout Sacred Scripture. beginning with Genesis 2, where the sources of the Nile River are located, to the deacon Philip's baptism of the Ethiopian official in service to the Nubian queen, Candace, in Acts 8."  That influence continues with the witness and ministries of the early African saints:

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How Many Leaves Does Your Shamrock Have?

It has become a holiday tradition in my family, along with the wearin' of the green, to complain about the epidemic of four-leaf clovers substituted for St. Patrick's Day shamrocks.

Do Not Kiss This Person

In brief (and not that I need to tell you): the shamrock, symbol of St. Patrick (or, rather, symbol of the Trinity used by St. Patrick) and thus of Ireland, has three leaves. The four-leaf clover is a good-luck symbol that has nothing to do with St. Patrick's Day.

You may never have given it a second thought, but if you keep an eye out as you go about your business today, you'll probably be surprised how many inappropriate four-leaf clovers you (forgive me) overlooked before. It's an irritating mistake, like typos on menus ("burger's" or "Fresh Soups Everyday"), at least if you're the type of person who is easily irritated by such things. (In some cultures we are known as "copy editors.")

It is also, perhaps, a sign of widespread disregard for the religious significance of the holiday -- but there it's in very good company, because let's be honest, there isn't much that's religious about the American celebration of St. Patrick's Day. It's an ethnic-pride holiday, and in a lot of cases it isn't even that so much as an excuse for drinking too much. "Happy St. Patrick's Day! Be safe, everybody!" is a message I still see popping up on my Facebook wall. I don't think the implied danger has to do with praying too hard.

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Nate Silver weighs in on the Crimea vote

Fans will be delighted to know that 538 is back up and running. Leading off is an assessment of what the citizens of the Crimea may really have thought: an interview with leading pollsters on polling in the Crimea and Ukraine. Headline: "Many Signs Pointed to Crimea Independence Vote--But Polls Didn't"

On St. Patrick's Day, a Mayor in Trouble with the Irish


First, New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio ran into criticism from fellow Italian Americans for eating pizza with a knife and fork. Now, it seems, he is in trouble with the Irish.

That stems mostly from his decision not to participate in the St. Patrick's Day Parade. He objects to the organizers' refusal to let an organization of gays and lesbians march as a group under their banner. But there are other perceived snubs as well, as The New York Times reports.

In the past, New York mayors snubbed the Irish at great political risk. Mayor Abraham Hewitt drew Irish ire by refusing to fly the Irish flag at City Hall on St. Patrick's Day. The Irish made sure to  vote him out of office in 1888.

Nowadays, no one even speaks of an "Irish vote" in New York, but rather of a white Catholic vote. It has diminished greatly, down to about 15 percent of the overall vote in the 2013 mayoral race, one analyst says.

But still, when one looks at the size -- and nowadays the diversity --  of the St. Patrick's Day Parade, it's hard to forget the major role the Irish have played and still play in shaping the nation's largest city.  The students paradiing behind the banners of the Catholic high schools are usually African American or Latino, and so are many of the marchers from the civil service organizations. Is there any other ethnic parade in New York that attract so many people from other ethnic groups to stand under its umbrella? (And in such windy weather?)

What makes this possible is that there are still influential organizations that carry the Irish way in their DNA: the police and fire departments, some of the unions, and especially, the Catholic Church.

A happy St. Patrick's Day to all.

Photo: Students from Cardinal Hayes High School march in the 2012 St. Patrick's Day Parade.


Same-sex marriage and religious liberty, continued

Since the controversy about (and subsequent veto of) Arizona's SB 1062, a pointed debate in newspapers and blogs has ensued about civil rights vs. religious liberty.  Ross Douthat's New York Times column expressed frustration that religious dissenters are not being permitted to "negotiate terms of surrender" in a culture "war."

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

But is this best construed as a war, or does a less threatening metaphor suffice? Perhaps we're not fighting an apocalyptic war of religion vs. secularism, but instead tinkering with our delicate balance of Constitutional rights.

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Joseph A. Komonchak's Daily Lenten Reflections

As the second Sunday of Lent approaches, stay current with our series of daily Lenten reflections from Joseph A. Komonchak. You can access our special dedicated page on the website by clicking here (if you haven't bookmarked it already). And it's always reachable from the "Trending Topics" line in the blue bar at the top of every page on our website. Today: "Disturbed, Not by Misery but by Mercy." A new reflection will be posted every day through Easter. 

Francis's First Anniversary Forum, March 19

As I mentioned last month, next week I will be appearing on a panel at the American Bible Society in Manhattan to mark the first anniversary of Francis's papacy -- about which you may have heard a thing or two this week. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, one of the eight advisers on Pope Francis's new "Council of Cardinals," will be speaking, Ken Woodward will be moderating, and I'll be there to respond along with R. R. Reno of First Things and Matt Malone, SJ, of America.

The event is free and open to the public, but tomorrow is the last day to register by contacting Margaret Sarci (email

For all the details, see the invitation (PDF), or click here for the information on the website of the archdiocesan catechetical office. I hope to see you there.

Francis effects.

Did you hear? The anniversary of Pope Francis's election is upon us. So here comes everybody to tell you what that means. Our own Paul Baumann weighs in at Slate, arguing that fixating on the pope is bad for the church. You've got Drew Christiansen, SJ, at America, explaining how Francis means business. There's that Pew Research poll that got lots of people wondering whether Francis was actually having much effect on Joe and Jane Catholic. I suggested that, at this stage of his papacy, Mass attendance was not a great measure of his effectiveness. Daniel Burke at CNN interviewed a bunch of Boston-area Catholics who say Francis has made a big difference in their lives (spoiler alert: Jesuits love the guy). And over at Religion Dispatches, Patricia Miller responds to the Pew poll with what amounts to an extended raspberry. Let's focus on that one for a moment.

Miller's analysis fails in several ways, some of which I was cataloguing when I noticed that she had returned with another magisterial wave of her hand, this time lumping me in with "apologists" for that Pew poll.

But first things first. Does she have the foggiest clue how the Catholic Church works? How Catholics actually think about being Catholic? And can she read polling data?

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What is Pope Francis up to?

If you read more than one piece on the one-year anniversary of Pope Francis' papacy (I'd also first recommend Paul Baumann's Slate essay) I might go self-referential and suggest a few stories that I reported from Rome that look ahead at where we may be going in this pontificate.

First is my take on how Francis' chief goal is changing the culture of the Vatican and the wider church -- converting the church, as it were -- and the three main approaches he is using to try to do that: preaching to the hierarchy; teaching clergy (and the rest of us) to talk openly and honestly again; and opening up to the world in order to make the church truer to her mission, more like Christ:

“Some in the Roman Curia” — the Vatican bureaucracy — “say, well, this pope is old so let’s wait a bit, and things will return to the way they were,” said the Rev. Humberto Miguel Yanez, a fellow Argentine Jesuit, who heads the moral theology department at the Gregorian University in Rome.

“If this is the attitude, then his words and his reforms don’t mean anything. I think conversion is the most important thing, and that explains why Francis speaks every day, why he preaches every day. Some say that this pope talks and talks and talks but doesn’t do anything. But I think he is preparing the ground.”

As Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said to me in a nice line that didn't make any of my stories, Pope Francis "wants the church to know that God really loves her." Or, "Be not afraid," as another pope said -- but don't be afraid of other Catholics above all.

Another story of mine tries to explain how Francis is still a Jesuit (yes, afraid so) and how profoundly that shapes what he is doing and is hoping to do. Not much new there to most Commonwealers, I'm sure, but I thought it important to try to explain to a wider readership why this is important, and just what Jesuits are.

I also wrote about the pope's health (he "eats work," they say, but add that so far so good -- he knows how to pace himself), and about what life is like in the Roman Curia these days.

That should keep you busy, or bored, until his second anniversary. Feedback welcome.

Archbishop Nienstedt to return to ministry.

Ramsey County prosecutors will not press charges against Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who was accused of inappropriately touching a minor during a 2009 confirmation group photo. In a memo explaining the decision not to prosecute, assistant county attorney Richard Dusterhoft called allegation "unlikely." A boy who appeared in that photograph told his mother that Nienstedt had touched his rear end during the shoot. His mother mentioned it to a St. Paul-Minneapolis priest, who then reported it to the police. Officers interviewed Nienstedt twice, the boy twice, and everyone who appeared in the photo. None of them remembered seeing anyone being touched on the buttocks.

“This case was reviewed by an assistant county attorney with many years of experience prosecuting child sex-abuse cases,” Dusterhoft wrote. “It is that attorney’s experienced and considered opinion that based upon the evidence as presented by police this case could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and should not be charged.”

Nienstedt removed himself from ministry soon after the archdiocese received the allegation in December; he will resume public ministry immediately.

More from MPR. (More from me on the ongoing sexual-abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis here, here, here, and here.)

In Slate, Paul Baumann on the fascination with Francis

If you read only one piece on the one-year anniversary of Francis’s papacy, make it “The Public Pope,” by Commonweal editor Paul Baumann, which is featured today at Slate.

An excerpt:

Whatever people think Pope Francis is offering, he is no magician; he can’t alter the course of secular history or bridge the church’s deepening ideological divisions simply by asserting what in truth are the papacy’s rather anemic powers. In this light, the inordinate attention paid to the papacy, while perhaps good for business, is not good for the church. Why not? Because it encourages the illusion that what ails the church can be cured by one man, especially by a new man. In truth no pope possesses that kind of power, thank God. The very first pope, let us recall, was a man of legendary weakness, denying his Lord three times before the cock crowed. And the most recent pope, Benedict XVI—a man of towering intellect and inspiring, if fusty, piety—retired from the ring, overmastered by palace intrigue within the Vatican. John Paul II, to be sure, was a media superstar and arguably played a historic role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet even he could not effectively confront the most critical challenge facing his church, the clergy sexual-abuse scandals.

The truth is that the more the world flatters the Catholic Church by fixating on the papacy—and the more the internal Catholic conversation is monopolized by speculation about the intentions of one man—the less likely it is that the church will succeed in moving beyond the confusions and conflicts that have preoccupied it since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium; it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope. Lacking such equilibrium and self-possession, the church cannot find its true voice. But to find this voice, Catholics will have to turn not to Rome but toward one another, which is where both the problems and the solutions lie.

Read it all here, then come back here to discuss.

It has come to his attention.

The following voice mail was left for the principal of a Catholic high school in the contiguous United States.

It has come to his attention... by Grant Gallicho on Mixcloud

I'd be most grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of Pope Innocent's renown concordat Adulteri educatio. (The caller forgot to leave his name and number.)

Ukraine: Some Politics

Confusion over the politics behind the opposition in Kiev is gradually clearing. This profile of a rightist group leader underlines the problem of political maturity--or as some of the quotes suggest political immaturity. It is interesting and instructive to watch the NYTimes reporters on the scene catching up with the blogosphere and providing a clearer picture of the situation, though it is still not the whole picture. "Front and Center in Ukraine Race, A Leader of the Far Right."

Yes, there is also thuggish behavior (and worse than thuggish) in Sevastopol, Crimea. The Washington Post has this story, including the disappearance of those opposed to a union with Russia.

The Catholic League revises its policy regarding those who criticize the pope

Dr. William A. Donohue, PhD, took issue over the weekend with my dotCommonweal post about Pope Francis's inadequate response to the sex-abuse crisis. He didn't actually disagree with what I said, at least not in so many words; rather, he took the occasion of my post and some other, similarly disappointed reactions elsewhere to air a few of his favorite themes: first, that the sex-abuse scandal was really all the fault of the gays and is totally over anyway; and second, that -- just as he predicted -- liberals never really liked Pope Francis and are now showing their true colors by turning on him. (There's also a delightfully bizarre detour into some book from the 1970s that is supposedly motivating all us liberals to this day -- the secret key to all grievances. I guess I'll have to look it up.)

That Donohue's grasp on the abuse scandal's particulars -- most especially the cover-up part -- is at best grossly misinformed and at worst actively mendacious is old news, not that it stops people from quoting him when it's convenient. But that he should be so exercised about what was, let's be honest, quite mild criticism of Pope Francis is news, because attacking people for criticizing the pope is something the Catholic League never, never does. I know that because Donohue said so way back in December 2013: "[The] Catholic League," he explained on Newsmax TV, "has never, never been after anybody for criticizing the pope or a priest or a bishop."

In that instance Donohue was responding to a question about recent comments made by Rush Limbaugh, who -- you probably remember -- was highly critical of Francis's economic views as laid out in Evangelii gaudium. "So reading what the pope's written about this is really befuddling," said Limbaugh, "because he's totally wrong -- I mean, dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong." (He went on to explain that trickle-down economics does too work!)

Would the Catholic League push back? Not at all. "We get involved when you hit below the belt, when you start becoming insulting, like -- Bill Maher would be a classic example," Donohue explained. As for Rush: "He didn't like the pope's views on economics. Rush Limbaugh is entitled to that. ...Everyone's entitled to criticize the Catholic Church on any public policy issue just so long as it's not hitting below the belt." So, the interviewer asked, did Limbaugh's remarks cross that line? "No, of course not." Of course!

Neither Donohue nor his interlocutor mentioned that the Catholic League also issued one of its trademark hard-hitting press releases in response to the Limbaugh interview, in which Donohue went after...Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. They'd had the temerity to criticize Rush, forcing fair-minded Dr. Donohue (who knows from professionalism) to expose their true nature as a "bogus Catholic entity."

So, to sum up: Rush Limbaugh declaring, in response to a papal exhortation, "This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope" -- totally in bounds. This, however, merits strong pushback. I can only assume that some aspect of the Catholic League mission statement has been updated since December. Donohue even followed up Friday's press release with a clarifying tweet:

Another opportunity for all Catholics to be grateful we have such a discerning arbiter of justice looking out for our civil rights.

Religion and the Anthropocene

I recently returned from an academic conference that examined conceptions of and responses to the Anthropocene. Many of you have heard this term already: it was coined over ten years ago by geologist Paul Crutzen to describe the impact that human beings are having on the deep structure of the globe. In geological time the Anthropocene is a mere eye-blink, a punctual supplement of maybe two hundred years. Human beings have altered the relative balance of the Holocene – the previous geological epoch, one that lasted ten to twelve millennia – in ways that we cannot foresee. The most we might expect is a future world of radical volatility.

My question and topic for discussion is deceptively straightforward: What is the proper Christian or even Catholic response to the Anthropocene? What does (our) religion tell us about a world that is fundamentally (and maybe even totally) dominated by human beings? Those of us on the religious left have already heard calls and exhortations to act. I’m not interested in hearing another exhortation. The Anthropocene emphasizes that we’ve already changed the globe. How does religion illuminate this particular past and its potential future? How does it shed light on a world without nature, a post-natural globe? How does it orient us in that speculative space?

New issue, now live

Our March 21 issue is now live on the website, with a feature essay from Terry Eagleton (adapted from his new book) on the Christian response to Frederick Nietzsche, “the first real atheist.”

Nietzsche sees that civilization is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested. You cannot kick away the foundations and expect the building still to stand. The death of God, he argues in The Gay Science, is the most momentous event of human history, yet men and women are behaving as though it were no more than a minor readjustment. Of the various artificial respirators on which God has been kept alive, one of the most effective is morality. “It does not follow,” Feuerbach anxiously insists, “that goodness, justice and wisdom are chimeras because the existence of God is a chimera.” Perhaps not; but in Nietzsche’s view it does not follow either that we can dispense with divine authority and continue to conduct our moral business as usual. Our conceptions of truth, virtue, identity, and autonomy, our sense of history as shapely and coherent, all have deep-seated theological roots. It is idle to imagine that they could be torn from these origins and remain intact. Morality must therefore either rethink itself from the ground up, or live on in the chronic bad faith of appealing to sources it knows to be spurious. In the wake of the death of God, there are those who continue to hold that morality is about duty, conscience, and obligation, but who now find themselves bemused about the source of such beliefs. This is not a problem for Christianity—not only because it has faith in such a source, but because it does not believe that morality is primarily about duty, conscience, or obligation in the first place.

Read the whole thing here.

Also, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels writes on Robert Gates and his memoir (“just as he did his duty to his commanders-in-chief, he now does his duties to his fellow citizens, who are still paying for two failed wars” [subscription]), and Ronald E. Osborn examines just-war pacifism and its realist assumption “that foreign policy is seldom if ever guided by rigorous just-war precepts.” The full table of contents for the March 21 issue is here.

And while you’re on the site, don’t forget to stay current with our ongoing series of daily Lenten reflections from Joseph A. Komonchak. 

A Living Offering

In the February issue of First Things, Matthew Milliner, who teaches art history at Wheaton College, has a striking reflection on the birth and baptism of his daughter.

He and his wife had lost a young child at birth some years before. They had named him "Clement."  For thirteen years they prayed for another child, before being graced with the birth of Mary (whom they lovingly call "Polly").

Milliner meditates on the baptismal ceremony:

“By a virginal birth Mother Church bears the children she conceives by God’s breathing,” reads the inscription at the famous St. John Lateran baptistery in Rome. Architectural historians have even suggested that early Christian fonts were deliberately shaped like wombs.

But they also resembled coffins. “That saving water was at once your grave and your mother,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The oldest surviving baptismal font at Dura Europos is covered by the same arcosolium found in burial places; and it is not a coincidence that the first great freestanding baptisteries resembled mausolea, the architecture of the dead. My daughter had been wrenched from the cords that threatened to smother her new life, only here to undergo a different, mysterious death.

To this I was oblivious. As the bishop handed Polly back to me, I instinctually did what I always did. I took back the daughter that God had given me after so much praying and hoping, and pressed her head up to my nose—only to receive an unwelcome shock. She had been chrismated as well, and the aggressive aroma of holy oil, not precious baby head, blasted into my nostrils like smelling salts.

“You have dedicated her to God, and He has taken the offering.” So wrote John Henry Newman to his friend Edward Pusey upon the death of Pusey’s infant daughter. I knew the same counsel applied to our dead child Clement, but I hadn’t considered that it could apply to our living one as well.

I should have thought twice before going through with the baptism. She is no longer mine.

The full article (subscribers only) is available here.

Ukraine: 3/10

Francis will probably say something newsworthy again soon, but in the meantime, here is more ruminations on the situation in Ukraine.

In an interview with McClatchy DC, former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, just returned to the U.S. says: Putin is "a shrewd leader who wants to show the world a modern, new Russia but too often operates out of what the ambassador called an 'exaggerated' sense of U.S. power in the world." Putin sees the US as “fomenting instability and revolution in the Middle East, in Russia and, now, Ukraine.” (Side question: is it prudent to change ambassadors in the middle of a crisis?)

C.J. Chivers in Kiev (NYTimes) talks to locals about people missing in the aftermath of the protests. Some 600 were reported missing; many have now been found; but a couple of hundred have not. Kievians tell Chivers that in the midst of the chaos there may have been Russian agents/troops involved in rounding up people. This goes along with stories about men breaking up pro-Kiev demonstrations in other parts of Ukraine. (Fact? Fiction? Paranoia?)

At Foreign Policy, Leon Aron, argues that foreign adventures keep Putin's approval ratings up when everything else is in a downward direction. "As the economy staggers along at 1.5 percent growth, as capital flees the country at a record pace, and even as nearly half of Russians agree that the ruling "United Russia" party is the 'party of thieves and swindlers,' Putin can still point to his wins on the world stage -- from saving Syria to shielding Iran from U.N. sanctions after 2010 to, more generally, returning Russia to its former position as a power that counts, one that happily wields its U.N. Security Council veto -- to convince his compatriots that the motherland is in good hands." Hmmm! Sounds vaugely familiar.

International New York Times: More on the anti-Semitism issue in the Ukraine-Russia stand-off. (File in use and abuse thereof.)

More Ukraine

Some follow-up stories on Ukraine, Putin, the snipers, and anti-Semitism.

Who were the snipers in Maiden that provoked the outrage that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovich? At first, rumors were Ukrainian intelligence services, then it was elements of the Opposition wanting to provoke more outrage, and now?  The Russians, of course.  Here: an AP report from Haaretz.

Why did Putin do this: Stephen Lee Meyer of the NYTimes, writing from Moscow, has a story suggesting that this was an ad hoc decision born of Putin's anger at Western interference in Ukraine. It is suggestive that Meyer seems to have gotten the story from leakers in the Kremlin and business world who may not be happy about how things are turning out.

Here is James Stewart on the NYT Business Pages "Why Russia Cannot Afford Another Cold War," offering an optimistic assessment of why Putin's plan will not work: Why? Russian capitalism. Too optimistic?

Anti-semitism? The Jewish Daily Forward, here in NYC, has an account.

And the Tatars? 300,000 live in the Crimea and form 15 percent of the population. They do not want to be joined to Russia. The New Yorker has this account.

Francis ineffective?

BREAKING: Francis has not reversed decades-long trends in Catholic practice over the course of one year.

A new Pew Research poll shows what many Catholics might expect: Francis is really popular among the faithful. And lots of them still don't go to Mass very often. (Also Catholics still disagree with a bunch of church teachings.) Still, you'll find plenty of news stories leading with the claim that for all the excitement the pope has generated, it seems not to have put more people in the pews. Catholics say they're praying more--just not in church.

Aggregated Pew Research survey data reveal "no change in self-reported rates of Mass attendance among Catholic," according to the new report. And "in the year since Francis became pope, 40 percent of U.S. Catholics say they attend Mass at least once a week, unchanged from the months immediately preceding the papal transition."

That's not surprising. Mass attendance has been holding steady for years. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, for example, estimates the percentage of Catholics who attend Mass weekly somewhere in the mid-20s. CARA's data differ from Pew's because it uses both phone surveys, in which people tend to over-report socially desirable behavior, and self-administered surveys--respondents fill out a form--which seem to suffer less from over-reporting. (Read all about it.)

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