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Terry Mattingly's weekly column on religion and the media.
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Why it can be so hard for modern pastors to keep answering their cellphones

Monday, September 26, 2016

Once upon a time, the average-sized American religious congregation had two telephones that really mattered.

There was the office telephone, answered by a secretary or receptionist during business hours. It was the job of this gatekeeper -- who over time became an expert on life in the flock -- to tell the shepherd which calls were urgent and which could wait.

The other telephone was at the pastor's home. Many people knew that number, but they also knew it was not business as usual to dial it.

"People knew they never should call the pastor's home number unless it was a real emergency," said the Rev. Karl Vaters, of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, Calif. "There was a boundary there and people tried to help protect the pastor's time at home. That boundary was there to help protect his family and his ministry."

These days, both of those telephones, for all practical purposes, have been replaced by cellphones for the pastors and members of small congregations -- usually defined as those with under 200 people attending the main worship service. For most clergy, the cellphones in their pockets are always there, always vibrating to remind them of cares and concerns that rarely, if ever, go away.

It was the one-two punch of cellphones and email that first pulled clergy into the social-media age, followed by digital newsletters, Facebook pages and constantly changing congregational websites. Even in small churches, the work of the "church secretary" has evolved, from answering the office telephone and preparing an ink-on-paper newsletter to serving as an all-purpose online networker.

"The old boundaries are vanishing and, for pastors in some parts of the country, they're almost completely gone," said Vaters, reached by telephone. "That mobile phone is always with you. … Once your church passes 200 members you have to manage things in a different way. You just can't afford to be as accessible to all those church members all of the time."

So what happens today when a member of a congregation rings the pastor's cellphone? Vaters recently addressed that question in a post at Christianity Today's Pivot blog for small-church leaders. The blunt headline: "Why Most Pastors Aren't Answering Your Phone Calls."

For starters, there are too many calls to answer and about half of them are sales calls from businesses, he noted. Church members also tend to forget that many modern pastors no longer have desk telephones because they no longer have traditional offices or staffs. Many clergy -- especially in missions and new church plants -- have other full- or part-time jobs to help them pay the bills.

Meanwhile, some clergy are proactive and use text messages and emails to arrange personal meetings in "third places," such as coffee shops. They try to work calls into their time-management plans, reaching as many people as possible.

"The irony is that those face-to-face meetings are often interrupted by telephone calls," said Vaters. "So what are you supposed to do, take that call when you're actually praying with someone?"

But there are other reasons for pastors not reach for that mobile phone. Some laypeople need to learn that "some things can wait," he said. Then there was this angle in his commentary: "It's not you, it's us (except when it's you)."

Most of the time, pastors are not ignoring calls, "but sometimes we are. Let's face it, some people are a drain on resources," wrote Vaters. "It doesn't mean we don't love and care for them. … This is not a typical reason for a slow response from a pastor. But it can be a valid one."

Then there's one more thing. "Some pastors are lazy and rude," he added. These shepherds need to realize that -- one way or another -- members of their flocks deserve responses when they try to reach them. Even calling back to tell them "no" is better than leaving them feeling ignored.

Church members should know "that he's not ignoring me, he's not being mean to me," said Vaters. "They have to learn that you're trying to set important boundaries. … You're trying to spend less time in some conversations that are really not all that urgent, in order to make room for the calls that really are -- that really matter."

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The gentle, evangelical insider religious satire of The Babylon Bee

Monday, September 19, 2016

Anyone who visits a typical American megachurch worship service will get a quick education on the mechanics of contemporary praise music.

First, the band rocks into action, while swaying worshipers raise their hands high, singing lyrics displayed on giant screens. There may be lasers and smoke. A guitarist or keyboard player guides everyone through worship songs -- loud then soft, softer then louder -- linked by dramatic key changes and musical "bridges." Eventually, there's a sermon or worship video.

What if something goes wrong? This Babylon Bee headline was an online classic: "Worship Leader Caught In Infinite Loop Between Bridge And Chorus."

In this fake "news report," a weeping member of the worship band adds: "It's scary, honestly. … This is our third worship leader who's been sucked into a PCBV (Perpetual Chorus-Bridge Vortex) in the past year."

After the 14th chorus-to-bridge transition, deacons called 911 and the victim was rushed to an emergency room. "Physicians are subjecting him," readers learn, "to a barrage of classic hymns in hopes that he will recover."

This is an inside-baseball brand of satire that allows Babylon Bee creator Adam Ford to gently explore the yins and yangs of evangelical Christianity.

"While we satirize our own camp quite a bit, we don't limit ourselves to evangelicalism. We write about culture, politics, other religions, current events, etc., regularly," said Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. He shares more of his personal story in his own Adam4d.com web-comics site.

Most Babylon Bee newcomers, however, are almost certainly be drawn there by social-media references to the site's popular items dissecting modern evangelical life. Take, for example, a "news report" about a new $90 million, 170-acre church complex with a petting zoo, seven bookstores, nine coffee shops, three restaurants, a baseball field and a monorail to the parking lots. But church leaders forgot something. Thus the headline: "Sanctuary Mistakenly Omitted From Megachurch Campus Design."

Ford, who once yearned to be a pastor, stressed that he is trying to be critical and supportive at the same time.

"God can and does use goofy things like lasers and smoke machines to bring people to Christ, sure, but I believe church services that are reminiscent of WWE productions have peaked and will be less and less successful and prevalent moving forward," he said.

The key is that Ford is a modern man who is filling an ancient role, said media scholar Terry Lindvall, of Virginia Wesleyan College.

"The biblical satirist shares in the blame and shame of his defendants. He may be God's prosecutor, but he is also entwined with the people he ridicules," wrote Lindvall, in his book "God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert." A skilled satirist, he added, holds up a prophetic mirror that "offers a comic frame in which to look at and to look through the heart; the satirist finds that none are righteous, including himself."

The Bee stings everything from common family life ("Woman Finally Accepts Doctrine Of Total Depravity Now That Daughter Is Two") to lofty academia ("Jesus Was A Socialist Deconstructionist Feminist, Claims Socialist Deconstructionist Feminist Scholar").

However, a headline about President Barack Obama nominating the Canaanite god Moloch to serve on the Supreme Court perfectly illustrates Ford's method, noted Lindvall, reached by telephone. The piece mocks evangelicals who are "totally paranoid" about anything Obama touches, yet also lances the left's ultimate Supreme Court litmus test -- abortion.

Ford, Lindvall added, "is piercing, yet gentle. … It's more of a poke in the ribs, instead of a poke in the eyes."

When seeking biblical inspiration for satire, Lindvall and Ford cited similar examples, such as Jesus asking critics: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" In the Book of Job, God puts Job in his place by asking: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much."

"I'm no prophet," stressed Ford. Instead, his ultimate goal is simply to "glorify God through our work. Under that, I don't like to spell out exactly how and what and why. 'Dissecting the frog' and all that. I like the content to speak for itself."

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Explaining St. Teresa of Kolkata's dark night of the soul -- to children

Monday, September 12, 2016

Like most illustrations in children's books, the image of Mother Teresa is quite simple, showing her kneeling in prayer beside her bed in a dark room, facing a bare cross and a single candle.

The tiny nun's eyes are open and her expression is hard to read. The text on the opposite page is candid.

"Mother Teresa experienced a great sorrow. Ever since she had moved to the slums, she no longer felt the presence of Jesus as she had before. She felt as though abandoned, rejected by him," according to "Mother Teresa: The Smile of Calcutta," a storybook for young children. "In her heart, she felt darkness and emptiness. She experienced the suffering of the poor who did not feel loved. She shared in the loneliness Christ suffered on the Cross."

Only the priests who worked with her knew about this "dark night of the soul," an experience seen in the lives of some other saints.

Working with text by Charlotte Grossetete, originally written in French, Ignatius Press editor Vivian Dudro said she "spent lots of time working on how to phrase that part. … You picture a young child reading about this pain in a saint's life or having this story read to them. How do you explain something like this in a few simple words?"

This dark night is clearly a crucial part of the life of the Albanian nun who was canonized this past weekend as St. Teresa of Kolkata. The formal petition to Pope Francis concluded: "Despite a painful experience of inner darkness, Mother Teresa travelled everywhere, concerned … to spread the love of Jesus throughout the world. She thus became an icon of God's tender and merciful love for all, especially for those who are unloved, unwanted and uncared for."

St. Teresa's sense of spiritual loss was the mirror image of the intense spiritual visions that, in 1946, inspired her to plunge deep into the slums of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) to serve the poorest of the poor. This move eventually led to the founding of the global Missionaries of Charity.

Early in this work, in 1951, her private letters and journals indicate that she prayed to be allowed to experience the isolation and pain Jesus suffered on the cross. Her visions immediately stopped.

"Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The one -- you have thrown away as unwanted -- unloved," she wrote in 1957. "I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer. … Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives."

It will be a challenge to explain this concept to young children, said Father James Martin, the author of "Jesus: A Pilgrimage" and many other popular works of apologetics. He has called Mother Teresa the greatest Catholic saint of modern times because of her faithful service to the poor -- even while experiencing such a profound challenge in her prayer life.

Asked to explain this painful puzzle -- as schoolteachers and priests will do in the years ahead -- he said he would focus on the common experience of prayer.

Martin offered, by email, these thoughts for children: "Do you know how sometimes it's hard to pray? Well, believe it or not, Mother Teresa didn't feel like God was close to her. Even though she knew that God was close she just didn't feel it. She felt very lonely. When she talked to a friend about it, though, he said that even Jesus felt lonely. And poor people feel lonely too. So Mother Teresa started to understand that this was one way she could be closer to Jesus."

This is the key point, stressed Dudro. St. Teresa used her suffering as a motivation to continue serving the poor and abandoned, rather than as an excuse to flee to safety elsewhere.

"She asked for this experience and she got it," said Dudro. "That's a powerful and beautiful thing, but that's also the kind of beauty that strikes a chord of terror in me. But she wanted that sense of communion with her Beloved. …

"So be careful what you pray for. Right? … But whatever happens, be faithful and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep going."

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The Supreme Knight addresses Catholics, voting, abortion and listening to angels

Monday, September 5, 2016

The symbolic fact passed quickly, during a long list of achievements in Carl Anderson's annual report as the leader of the Knights of Columbus.

Weeks earlier, the powerful Catholic fraternal order had donated its 700th ultrasound machine for use in crisis pregnancy centers. This was appropriate news to share during the Toronto convention, which took its biblical theme from Isaiah: "Before birth the Lord called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name."

"The Spanish language phrase that means 'to give birth' is 'dar a luz,' words that literally mean 'to give light' to the child," said Anderson, in his Aug. 2 text. "Our ultrasound program gives a light to the mother that enables her to see the reality and often the personality of her child in the womb."

Right now, he added, efforts to oppose abortion are linked to other public debates. For example, there are efforts to support the Little Sisters of the Poor's work with the weak and elderly, as well as their struggles against Health and Human Services mandates they believe attack religious liberty, seeking their cooperation with health-care plans supporting contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion.

This kind of work does require involvement in politics, noted Anderson, who held several posts in the Ronald Reagan administration. However, he noted that Pope Francis said: "Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good."

Thus, Anderson issued a familiar challenge to his audience, which included about 100 bishops.

"We need to end the political manipulation of Catholic voters by abortion advocates," he said. "It is time to end the entanglement of Catholic people with abortion killing. … We will never succeed in building a culture of life if we continue to vote for politicians who support a culture of death."

These are fighting words in a tense year in which the GOP White House candidate has clashed with Pope Francis and Catholic bishops -- conservatives as well as progressives -- on issues linked to immigration and foreign policy. Billionaire Donald Trump now says he is pro-life, after years of supporting abortion rights.

Meanwhile, Democrat Hillary Clinton has a bullet-proof record backing abortion rights. Her running mate, Tim Kaine, is an active Catholic who insists he is personally opposed to abortion -- while holding a 100 percent approval rating from Planned Parenthood for his work in the U.S. Senate.

The bottom line: This bizarre political year, noted Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, is both "depressing and liberating." It's depressing that both candidates have "astonishing flaws," and America is more polarized than ever. It's liberating because it's easier to "ignore the routine tribal loyalty chants of both the Democratic and Republican camps."

Stressing that he was offering advice, not speaking as an archbishop, Chaput wrote that he thinks the major candidates are "so problematic" that "neither is clearly better than the other." He added: "This year, a lot of good people will skip voting for president … or vote for a third party presidential candidate; or not vote at all; or find some mysterious calculus that will allow them to vote for one or the other of the major candidates. … It's a matter properly reserved for every citizen's informed conscience."

On the Catholic left, John Gehring of the Faith in Public Life think tank blasted Chaput for bashing Clinton, as well as Trump. "Donald Trump's toxic candidacy is sui generis, a grave threat to basic democratic norms and ideals, Christian values and the common good," he argued, in Commonweal. "In this context, the archbishop's astonishing false equivalency is irresponsible and even morally dangerous."

And so it goes. Speaking to the Knights, Anderson stressed the urgency of ongoing debates about the religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Also, it's crucial that "we refuse to let the worst among us define who we are as a people," he said.

Was this a shot at Trump, Clinton or both?

"Faithful citizenship means that in times of tragedy we raise a standard of charity, of unity and of fraternity that can make possible forgiveness, healing and reconciliation," he said. "Faithful citizenship calls us to follow the 'better angels of our nature' to build a better society. But to build a better society we must have the freedom to follow those angels."

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Pastor Rick Warren, Michael Phelps and the story of a #PurposeDrivenSwimmer

Monday, August 29, 2016

Pastor Rick Warren has heard his share of inspiring stories about people reading "The Purpose Driven Life."

That comes when the territory when you write a book that sells about 40 million copies and gets translated into 85 languages. But the leader of Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, Calif., was surprised when he watched the ESPN feature "The Evolution of Michael Phelps" and learned that his book played a major role in helping the superstar recover from a personal collapse that left him considering suicide.

"I haven't met Michael Phelps yet," said Warren, reached by telephone. "A mutual friend gave me his cell, but I thought the last thing he needed was for me to bother him during the Olympics. …

"The key is that he was honest and he did a turnaround. … Wherever he is in his journey, I'd love to hear about it. You start where he is."

Phelps was brutally candid, with ESPN, about his frame of mind in September of 2014, after his second DUI. He thought this was his "third strike" in life.

"I was a train wreck. I was just like a time bomb, waiting to go off. I had no self-esteem, no self-worth," said Phelps. "There were times when I didn't want to be here. … I just felt lost. Where do I go from here? What do I do now?"

The crisis came after the most decorated Olympian in modern history ended his hasty 18-month retirement after a weak, by his standards, showing in London in 2012. After the arrest, Phelps hid in his bedroom for five days. "I didn't eat. I didn't really sleep. I just figured that the best thing to do was end my life," he said.

Phelps ended up at The Meadows center, near Phoenix. A Baltimore friend and mentor -- future NFL hall of famer Ray Lewis, an outspoken Christian -- sent him off to rehab with a copy of "The Purpose Driven Life."

"I think that when you find you're at the lowest point in your life ... you're kind of open to a lot of things to try to change, to try to get back on the right path. I was just surrendering," said Phelps, who in a social-media profile once identified himself as "Christian-other." Warren's book, he added, helped him learn "there is a power greater than myself, and there's a purpose for me on this planet."

Phelps kept calling Lewis, as he worked through the book's day-by-day format. Other patients started calling Phelps "Preacher Mike," when he kept sharing quotes.

On Day 1, he faced Warren's famous opening: "IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU."

Cue this manifesto: "The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It's greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. … Contrary to what many popular books, movies, and seminars will tell you, you won't discover your life's meaning by looking within yourself. You have probably tried that already."

There was more: "God's purpose is far greater than your problem and your pain. God has a plan behind your pain." And also: "We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it."

For Warren, the key to this story is that Phelps confronted the fact that he could not heal his own wounds, starting with his childhood in a broken home. Phelps was attempting the impossible. Thus, his demons kept winning, even as his Olympic triumphs made him a global celebrity.

Nevertheless, a Sports Illustrated Rio 2016 cover story claimed that Phelps "had desperately corrected his own life at 29."

If Phelps was reading "A Purpose Driven Life," said Warren, then saying that he "corrected his own life" is the exact opposite of what happened.

"Someone like Michael Phelps is exhibit A demonstrating that, no matter how successful you are, you can't look inside and find your own purpose in life," said Warren.

"The bottom line: You didn't invent yourself. If something is broken, you're going to need to talk to the Inventor or read the Owner's Manuel. ... It's safe to say that Michael Phelps didn't fix himself."

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Family and faith -- Trying to heal Hillbilly ties that bind in the Hills and Rust Belt

Monday, August 22, 2016

This was one call for water-leak help that the next-door neighbors in Middletown, Ohio, could not ignore.

"The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing -- hence, the leaking roof," noted J.D. Vance, in his "Hillbilly Elegy" memoir about the crisis in America's working class that shaped his family.

"Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers and passed out. … This is the reality of our community. It's about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life."

Vance was in high school at the time and dramas of this kind kept creating a dark cloud over his life. Many of his questions had moral and religious overtones, especially among people with roots back to the Bible Belt culture of the Kentucky mountains.

"Why didn't our neighbor leave that abusive man?", wrote Vance. "Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why didn't she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter?" And ultimately, "Why were all of these things happening … to my mom?"

Economic woes played a part, he said, but the elegy of hillbilly life involves psychology, morality, culture, shattered communities and families that are broken, or that never formed in the first place. Yes, there are religious issues in that mix.

"It's a classic chicken and egg problem," said Vance, reached by telephone. "Which comes first, poverty and economic problems or people making bad moral decisions that wreck marriages and homes? Clearly people -- children especially -- are caught in a vicious cycle."

It's crucial that religious leaders face this crisis, rather than continuing to build their sanctuaries and schools in prosperous areas, he said. After all, problems that plague distressed urban and rural settings will reach many "safe" suburbs -- soon.

Anyone who knows Appalachia knows that some of these woes -- poverty, alcohol and others -- have been around for generations. But "conditions keep changing and making things worse," he said, such as the lose of industrial "Rust Belt" jobs, waves of new drugs and generations of young people who have never lived in a stable home, with their fathers under the same roof.

Vance's own life story is both typical and highly unusual. He grew up in what locals called "Middletucky," after his family left Jackson, Ken., in the heart of coal country. His mother was trained as a nurse, yet she struggled with drugs, at least five marriages and countless romantic partners.

Depending on how one defines family ties, Vance said he has about a dozen stepsiblings. In one searing biographical passage, he describes the seemingly endless series of households, addresses and relationships he experienced between third and ninth grade. Nothing was more destructive than the "revolving door" of father figures, he said.

Vance escaped, even graduating from Yale Law School, because of his grandparents and disciplines he learned in the U.S. Marines. His "Mamaw and Papaw" are heroes in this story, providing love, stability and a quirky sense of moral order.

Social workers, clergy and others who want to help those trapped in the underclass must focus on saving marriages and the extended-family ties that can protect children, he said. That will require face-to-face work with troubled people.

When his Mamaw moved north, he noted, her Bible stayed in her lap, she prayed constantly and she insisted that God had a plan. However, she never felt comfortable in local churches. Back in Jackson, church people knew who she really was, including the fact she almost killed a man when she was 12 and later lost nine children, in agonizing miscarriages. The fact that she cursed like a sailor and had a gun wasn't the whole story, back home.

In those hills, stressed Vance, his people were poor, but they retained a sense of identity linked to the towns, churches and schools they called home. For better or worse, they had big families and a real community.

"You simple have to have help," he said. "You can't do this alone. If it's just me and my mom and all her boyfriends, then I never would have made it out. … The single individual, or even one stressed-out nuclear family, is not enough. You have to see the bigger picture."

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Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Moments before the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, an Islamic State leader warned "Crusaders" that this rite was being held on a North African beach for a reason.

Previous videos of ISIS fighters "chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time" were filmed in Iraq and Syria, he noted, in fluent English. "Today, we are … south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

When the slaughter was over, the lead executioner stressed again: "We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission."

Time after time, Pope Francis has refused to take this bait -- consistently stating his conviction that true Islam promotes peace, not violence. He said this again when a reporter asked about the murder of the elderly Father Jacques Hamel in France.

"I don't like to speak of Islamic violence," said Francis, flying home from World Youth Day in Poland. "When I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy -- this one who has murdered his girlfriend, another who has murdered the mother-in-law -- and these are baptized Catholics! …

"If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence. … Not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent. It is like a fruit salad -- there's everything."

The terrorists who slaughtered the Egyptian Christians, he added, were quick to "show us their identity cards" as part of the Islamic State. "But this is a fundamentalist group which is called 'ISIS.' But you cannot say -- I do not believe -- that it is true or right that Islam is terrorist."

The pope's stand has caused debate among Catholics and other Christians, as well as quiet tensions with Christians in the ancient Middle Eastern churches. However, he has drawn praise from mainstream Islamic leaders, who stress the fact that ISIS has massacred countless Muslims who have rejected its radical vision of the faith.

Now, in a new issue of its magazine Dabiq -- entitled "Break the Cross" -- ISIS has responded directly to the pope of Rome, arguing that Francis has been misled by Muslims who are themselves heretics. ISIS leaders also claim that the views of Francis clash with those of earlier popes, including his predecessor Benedict XVI.

"Despite the clarity of past and perished popes regarding their enmity for Islam and its teachings, the current pope, Francis, has struggled against reality to advertise the apostate's perversion of Islamic teachings as the actual religion of Muslims," argues one essay in this Dabiq attack, translated into English by the Clarion Project (.pdf here).

"So while Benedict and many before him emphasized the enmity between the pagan Christians and monotheistic Muslims, Francis' work is notably more subtle, steering clear of confrontational words that would offend those who falsely claim Islam, those apostates whom the Crusaders found played the perfect role for their infiltration into Muslim lands."

Quoting from the papal document "The Joy of the Gospel," the ISIS statement claims that "Francis continues to hide behind a deceptive veil of 'good will,' covering his actual intentions of pacifying the Muslim nation. This is exemplified in Francis' statement that 'our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence'."

The bottom line: Ongoing conflicts between the Islamic State and the West, as well as all Muslims who reject its view of the faith, are not about politics, economics or even the logic of ordinary wars. No, the ISIS leadership insists that this global war is about religion, whether Pope Francis wants to admit it or not.

"We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah -- whether you realize it or not -- by making partners for Him in worship, you blaspheme against Him, claiming that He has a son, you fabricate lies against His prophets and messengers, and you indulge in all manner of devilish practices," argues one Dabiq essay.

"The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam."

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Did the terrorists who murdered Father Jacques Hamel know what they were doing?

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

One after another, news reports about violence at Catholic churches in France kept stacking up.

There was a mysterious fire on a church altar in Provence. Elsewhere, someone attacked the tabernacle containing the unleavened bread used in the Mass, scattering hosts on the floor. Attackers destroyed crosses and crucifixes in graveyards.

None of this surprised the Pro Europa Christiana Federation, which collects French media reports on anti-Christian acts of this kind. In 2015 they found 810 similar attacks in France.

But the murder of Father Jacques Hamel was different. The attackers interrupted a Mass, shouting "Allahu Akbar" and references to the Islamic State. The duo forced the elderly priest to kneel at the altar, where they slit his throat in what may have been an attempted beheading.

A nun who escaped -- Sister Danielle -- told reporters: "They told me, 'you Christians, you kill us.' They forced him to his knees. … That's when the tragedy happened. They recorded themselves. They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It's a horror."

This drama unfolded in the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, named for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, noted Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Australia, during a "Mass In Time Of Persecution" in Sydney.

"Though we welcome the solidarity of those of other faiths, and while we recognize that this was very much an attack on France, on civilization, on all religions more generally, we cannot ignore the fact that this was also a targeted attack on our Christian faith," he said.

"The two terrorists meant to go into a Catholic church. They meant to kill a priest of Jesus Christ. They meant to take nuns and faithful laity as hostages. They were not just looking for any old building, with any old people inside. And the terrorists underlined the meaning of their actions by engaging in a ritual sacrifice of the priest before the altar and a mock homily. So their act was not just murder, but also sacrilege, desecration, blasphemy."

Yes, Father Hamel had a history of kindness to the Muslim community. But in the end, his death was best described with a term rooted in Christian history, said Fisher, a member of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Hamel died "in odium fidei" -- due to an act committed in "hatred of the faith."

"This is a term Catholics use," he explained, "to describe the characteristic death of a martyr, as one who dies for his or her faith, and because of that faith."

There were, however, Catholics who questioned claims that Hamel's murder was driven by religion, even the radicalized, twisted version of Islam proclaimed by ISIS.

Crucial to this debate was a statement after the murder by Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.

Pope Francis, he said, "has been informed and participates in the pain and horror of this absurd violence. … We are particularly affected because this horrific violence took place in a church, a sacred place where the love of God is proclaimed, with the barbaric killing of a priest."

If the pope called the murder "absurd," then it it would be a rush to judgment to call this act "in odium fidei," argued Austen Ivereigh, author of "The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope."

"In describing Rouen murder as 'absurd,' Pope refers to its pointless banality. Don't glorify it/them by ascribing religious etc. motives," wrote Ivereigh, on Twitter. "So many of my coreligionists are falling into the trap set by ISIS. Trying to turn Fr Hamel's pointless murder into a sacralized act."

Catholic conservative Phil Lawler sharply disagreed, stressing that the terrorists knew why they killed a priest at a church altar.

"If you believe that he is a martyr, you can't say that his murderers acted irrationally. If you believe that they acted irrationally, you can't call him a martyr," argued Lawler, in a CatholicCulture.org commentary.

"A delusional schizophrenic might kill someone, selected at random. That would be a tragedy, but not a martyrdom. The victim might be a wonderful person; he might even be a canonizable saint. But he would not be a martyr, because he did not die as a witness to the faith. Father Hamel did. … He is not the first such victim; he will not be the last."

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