Pope Francis has promoted the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in many symbolic ways, from spectacular liturgical rites to quiet gestures of forgiveness to sinners who have sought his help.
Now, the social-media star @Pontifex is saying that acts of grace, kindness and mercy should even be attempted by believers whose work and private affairs take them into one of modern life's harshest environments -- cyberspace.
"Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication. It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart," argued Francis, in a statement marking the 50th World Communications Day. It was released at the same time as a private meeting between the pope and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
"Social networks," wrote Francis, "can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division. … The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks. … Access to digital networks entails a responsibility for our neighbor whom we do not see but who is nonetheless real and has a dignity which must be respected."
Believers can stand firm in defending the faith, he said, but "even in those cases where they must firmly condemn evil" it's essential that they not resort to using words and arguments that "try to rupture relationships."
Alas, there's the rub, especially when "trolls" wreck havoc in online communities. Psychology Today, in the article entitled "Internet Trolls are Narcissists, Psychopaths and Sadists," defined the term this way: "An Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. … Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response."
At the heart of the pope's argument is a call to focus on the humanity of those encountered online, even if they behave like trolls, noted writer Elizabeth Scalia, known as "The Anchoress" during her 12 years in the Catholic blogosphere. She is editor of the English edition of Aleteia.org, a global Catholic website.
"I think that trolls are miserable and they want the world to be miserable with them. They aren't even trying to make a coherent argument anymore," she said. "That's why I try to resist the temptation to punch down. … It's one thing to be involved in a real debate. It's something else to deal with people who are not even arguing in good faith."
The problem, especially in debates about faith, worship and doctrine, is that it's easy to focus so hard on winning that you "lose sight of the humanity of the person on the other side," said Scalia. That's crucial when the goal -- especially during the Year of Mercy -- is to "admonish" sinners who the church believes are in need of mercy.
Striving to "correct" errors, she said, doesn't mean "getting out your hammer and hitting people with it."
Thus, Pope Francis stressed that in all communication -- online and otherwise -- individuals should "select their words and actions with care, in the effort to avoid misunderstandings, to heal wounded memories and to build peace and harmony. … Our words and actions should be such as to help us all escape the vicious circles of condemnation and vengeance which continue to ensnare individuals and nations, encouraging expressions of hatred."
While he never used the term "troll," the pope stressed that it's crucial for those inside the church to be bold and gentle at the same time -- especially when dealing with conflicts and problems that cannot be avoided.
"We can and we must judge situations of sin -- such as violence, corruption and exploitation -- but we may not judge individuals, since only God can see into the depths of their hearts," argued Francis. "It is our task to admonish those who err and to denounce the evil and injustice of certain ways of acting, for the sake of setting victims free and raising up those who have fallen."
Nevertheless, he warned, "Harsh and moralistic words and actions risk further alienating those whom we wish to lead to conversion and freedom, reinforcing their sense of rejection and defensiveness."
When the late Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, one of his main goals was to oppose President Jimmy Carter, the Southern Baptist who forced American politicos to learn the term "born again."
Months later, Ronald Reagan coyly told a flock of evangelicals: "I know you can't endorse me. But I want you to know that I endorse you."
People may have forgotten how odd that marriage was back then, recalled the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., as he introduced Donald Trump at Liberty University.
"My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher," said Falwell, Liberty's president, at a campus Martin Luther King Day convocation.
"My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out we are all sinners. … Dad explained that when he walked in the voting booth, he was not electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the president of the United States and the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not line up with those needed to run a church."
The GOP frontrunner's campaign trail pilgrimage to Liberty was a two-act drama -- Falwell's sermon-length introduction and then Trump's stump speech, with a few extra shots of faith. Falwell stopped short of endorsing Trump, but the New York billionaire and reality-television icon did everything he could to endorse Liberty.
Above all, argued Falwell, religious believers must judge Trump by his skills and deeds, not his past. In words that drew fire in social media, he called Trump a "servant" leader who "lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment."
One of the most quoted reactions came from the Rev. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Washington, D.C., office. During the event he tweeted: "Trading in the gospel of Jesus Christ for political power is not liberty but slavery."
Writing in The New York Times, Moore argued that embracing Trump would force religious conservatives to "repudiate everything they believe." After all, the real-estate magnate has built his career on "gambling, a moral vice and an economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate." In a life packed with boasts about having it all, he added, Trump once proclaimed -- in writing -- that he "gets to sleep with some of the 'top women in the world.' "
That was then. On this occasion, Trump opened by boasting about his poll numbers, then rushed to assure his listeners that he was on their side.
"We're going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don't have to be politically correct. We're going to protect it. … I hear this is a major theme right here. Two Corinthians, right? Two Corinthians 3:17, that's the whole ball game. Where the spirit of the Lord -- right? Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,' " he said, referring to a Bible passage displayed prominently on campus.
"We are going to protect Christianity. If you look at what's going on throughout the world, you look at Syria, where there if you are a Christian, they're chopping off heads. You look at different places and Christianity, it's under siege."
Trump stressed how "very, very proud" he is to be a Protestant -- "Presbyterian, to be exact" -- and said the 70 to 75 percent of Americans who claim to be Christians must band together to push for change since "very bad things are happening." He promised to "knock the hell out of ISIS" and that, "If I'm president, you're gonna see 'Merry Christmas' in department stores. Believe me."
Trump used blunt words crafted for populists angry about losing, sick of compromises and tired of watching politicians break their promises. Claiming outsider status, Trump endorsed their anger.
Yes, Trump is not a Sunday school candidate, admitted Falwell. Then again, he said, "for decades, conservatives and evangelicals have chosen the political candidates who have told us what we wanted to hear on social, religious and political issues only to be betrayed by those same candidates after they were elected."
In the not so distant Baptist past, all Sunday services ended with altar calls in which people came forward to make public professions of Christian faith or to become part of a local congregation.
But it was also common, during the "invitation hymn," for church members to come forward and huddle with the minister for a few quiet, discreet minutes. The pastor would announce that they had come forward to "rededicate their life to Christ" and then ask those assembled to offer them hugs and prayers.
"That's something that we've lost, somewhere along the way. We need to regain that confessional part of the faith," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville.
"It used to be common for people to go forward, rededicate their lives and get right with the Lord. … It was a chance to tell the pastor you needed help. It was important that our people knew they could do that."
The alternative is much worse, he stressed, in a telephone interview. If believers don't know how to reach out for help, or if they think they will be harshly judged if they do, they usually remain silent before using the exit door, for keeps.
The bottom line is shocking, said Rainer. If most churches could regain just the members who fled over the span of a decade -- for personal or private reasons, as opposed to dying or moving out of town -- worship attendance would triple.
"We have a tremendous back-door problem, among Southern Baptists and in churches in general," he said. "I see no signs that this is going to get better and it's pretty easy to see -- as we move from the Baby Boomers to the Millennials -- that it could get much worse."
Week after week, Rainer raises these kinds of issues in social media, with thousands of followers. One recent essay called "Six Early Warning Signs of Church Dropouts" dealt with trends that are relatively easy for leaders to spot -- such as a decline in a member's attendance in services, a decision to quit a small-group ministry or a sudden cut in financial support for the church. Most pastors also know when people are involved in fights inside the church, perhaps linked to changes in worship style or the departure of a staff member.
But the most destructive issues are the ones people work the hardest to hide, which he grouped under two headings -- "family problems" and "moral failure." Church members often become entangled in both at the same time.
The fallout, in pews and pulpits, was especially severe this past fall when hackers hit the Ashley Madison website that promised to help customers arrange sexual affairs -- with complete anonymity. In the first days after the scandal, Rainer said he was bombarded with calls, emails and text messages.
"I was overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of the these messages. Pastors wanted input on what to do, because they had members or deacons on these lists. … There were church members who wanted to know what to do because their pastor or one of their other ministers had been exposed," he said. "We were talking about a national epidemic."
Most of these congregations had no clear, articulated strategies for how to deal with messy discipline issues, said Rainer.
For example, while the public stereotype is that churches are obsessed with sexual sins, the truth is that it's relatively rare for church leaders to address adultery, premarital sex, divorce, pornography and other hot-button topics in the pulpit, in Bible studies or in small-group ministries, he said. The most common "pastoral" response -- due to privacy concerns -- is to try to keep "sweeping all of these problems under the rug."
This sends a terrible message to hurting people whose secrets are weighing them down.
"If your only goal is to keep things quiet, that means your people don't even know that it's possible to repent and come all the way back" into the church, he said. "If the goal is to keep things quiet, then ultimately you have to get rid of anybody who has problems. They just have to leave. Is that what we want to keep telling people?"
The same thing happens to Father Kendall Harmon every year during the 12 days after the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
It happens with newcomers at his home parish, Christ-St. Paul's in Yonges Island, S.C., near Charleston. It often happens when, as Canon Theologian, he visits other parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.
"I greet people and say 'Merry Christmas!' all the way through the 12 days" of the season, he said, laughing. "They look at me like I'm a Martian or I'm someone who is lost. … So many people just don't know there's more Christmas after Christmas Day."
To shine a light on this problem, some churches have embraced an tradition -- primarily among Anglicans and other Protestants -- that provides a spectacular answer to an old question: When do you take down that Christmas tree? The answer: The faithful take their Christmas trees to church and build a bonfire as part of the "Epiphany Service of Lights" on January 6th.
As always, in a rite framed by liturgy, there is a special prayer: "Almighty God our Heavenly Father, whose only Son came down at Christmas to be the light of the world, grant as we burn these trees this Epiphany night, that we, inspired by your Holy Spirit, would follow his example and bear witness to His light throughout the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, live and reign in glory everlasting. Amen."
The struggle to observe the 12 days of Christmas is similar to other trials for those who strive to follow the teachings of their faith during the crush of daily life, said Harmon. Similar tensions occur during other holy seasons, but it's hard to deny that the cultural steamroller called "Christmas" -- which seizes shopping malls well before Thanksgiving -- has become uniquely powerful.
"If we are going to take Christmas seriously, we have to start by taking Advent seriously," he said, referring to the four-week season that precedes Christmas Day. "Then you have to think of the Christmas season like Holy Week, when we have service after service to truly prepare for Easter. I think you have to market this to your people as a challenge, a way to keep the celebration of Christmas going."
It helps that for Catholics -- as well as Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox Christians and others with liturgical calendars -- the days after Christmas are packed with significant feasts, many shared in common and others unique to the various church traditions. There's the feast of the great martyr St. Stephen, as well as that of St. John the Evangelist, while New Year's Day is marked by different feasts in different churches. However, since ancient times, the days after Christians have pointed toward the great feast of Epiphany, or Theophany in the East.
It's easy to spot the thread -- the incarnation -- that ties it all together, through feasts "consistent with tidings of comfort and joy, and some more alarming," noted Father C. John McCloskey, a Catholic apologist known for his evangelistic work in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before moving to Northern California's Silicon Valley.
These 12 days help believers "go deeper into the celebration of Our Lord's nativity and our understanding of his coming to secure the means of our salvation," wrote McCloskey, in a CatholiCity.com essay. "Through his birth of the Virgin Mary … Christ began his earthly journey to his death for us on Cavalry some 33 years later, and his resurrection from the dead three days after that. … From Christmas to the Baptism of Our Lord we are still marking the infancy of Christ's incarnation among us."
The bottom line, said McCloskey, reached by telephone, is that "Christmas is not over just because the culture says that it's over."
Harmon said it helps if people find ways to celebrate both inside and outside of their church sanctuaries during the 12 days after Christmas Day, in worship and in festivities. It's a good thing to challenge the status quo in people's calendars.
"Burning all of those Christmas trees creates a pretty big bonfire," he said. "This isn't your normal trip to church. I mean, you take a tree to church and set it on fire. … That gets your attention."
The goal of The Atlantic Monthly's recent LGBT Summit was to gather a flock of politicos, artists, activists and scribes to discuss the "Unfinished Business" of queer culture, after a historic win for gays at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The summit's final speaker was Andrew Sullivan, the British-born, HIV-positive, occasionally conservative, liberal Catholic whose trailblazing online journalism helped shape so many public debates.
Sullivan ranged from the genius of "South Park" to the impact of smartphone apps on dating, from the positive impact of gay porn to the lingering self-loathing that prevents some gays from embracing drugs that could end AIDS. He attacked Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, while yearning for another term for President Barack Obama.
Most of all, he stressed that it's time -- after a "tectonic" cultural shift on sexuality -- for professional LGBT activists to end the "whiny victimhood" in which they recite a "you're a bigot, we're oppressed, why do you hate us" litany to Americans who disagreed with them about anything.
Calling himself a "classical liberal," Sullivan stressed that gay leaders must accept that some believers will not surrender the ancient doctrines that define their faith. Thus, it's time for honest conversations between believers, gay and straight.
"The blanket … I would say, yes, bigotry towards large swaths of this country who may disagree with us right now … is not just morally wrong, it's politically counterproductive," he said, drawing screams of outrage on Twitter.
"Religious freedom is an incredibly important freedom. To my mind it is fundamental to this country and I am extremely queasy about any attempt to corral or coerce the religious faith of anybody."
Sullivan's comments captured one of the tensions that dominated the Religion Newswriters Association poll to select the Top 10 religion news events of 2015.
The top story was the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to legalize gay marriage. Also, it was clear that religious liberty battles will keep making news at home and abroad, touching on issues from the First Amendment rights of doctrinally defined religious schools to ongoing struggles to welcome and assimilate refugees fleeing the hellish conflicts wracking the Middle East. For the third year in row, Pope Francis was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year.
This was the rare year in which my ballot was radically different than the results of the poll. My top story was the global wave of violence linked to the Islamic State and, as Newsmakers of the Year, I voted for the 21 Ethiopians beheaded by ISIS in Libya. The Coptic Orthodox Church immediately honored them as martyrs.
Here is the rest of the RNA list:
(2) Refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere pour into Europe by sea and land.
(3) ISIS expands its reign of horror in Syria and Iraq, while claiming responsibility for the beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians, the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, the deaths of hundreds on a Russian airliner and deadly attacks in Beirut and Paris.
(4) Anti-Muslim rhetoric flares in the U.S. and Europe as some politicians -- citing concerns about terrorism -- call for surveillance of Muslims and a ban on Muslim refugees.
(5) Pope Francis makes a triumphant and historic visit to the United States, speaking to Congress and the United Nations.
(6) Paris reels from its second major terrorist assault in 2015 as attackers linked to the Islamic State massacre at least 130 and wound many others in attacks at a rock concert hall, in restaurants and at a major soccer stadium.
(7) Pope Francis issues his Laudato Si encyclical on the environment, calling for replacing fossil fuels linked to global warming and lamenting a destructive throwaway culture, including legalized abortion and euthanasia.
(8) A white supremacist charged in the shooting deaths of nine black Christians during a Bible study at an historic Charleston, S.C., church. Afterwards, many Southern institutions remove displays of Confederate symbols.
(9) #BlackLivesMatter draws support from faith-based groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and Unitarian Universalists, amid rising scrutiny of police killings of black suspects.
(10) Pope Francis continues to shake up his church -- ending a three-year period of oversight for a progressive organization of U.S. nuns, linking abortion and the death penalty in a consistent pro-life agenda, streamlining the annulment process and seeking a more pastoral tone while upholding canon laws on divorce and remarriage.
It's hard to imagine Christmas without images of a giant star in the night sky over Bethlehem, with one supernaturally bright beam pointing toward a stable.
For carolers, the key words are in "We Three Kings of Orient Are" where everyone sings: "Star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light."
"The Christmas carols are surprisingly accurate when it comes to the details of what we know" from scripture, said New Testament scholar Colin Nicholl of Coleraine, Northern Ireland. "In many cases where they fill gaps in the biblical narratives, they end up including material that is pretty sound -- at least based on my research."
The problem is that this heavenly object simply does not behave like a star. Thus, in his new book "The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem," Nicholl blends material from history and science to argue that this phenomenon can best be explained by charting the path of what he calls "undeniably the single greatest comet in recorded history."
The language familiar to most readers is found in Matthew's Gospel, which states: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews?' for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."
This account adds, after the wise men face King Herod: "When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was."
A key reference in Nicholl's book is found in a 1st century letter from St. Ignatius to believers in Ephesus: "A star shown in heaven [with a brightness] beyond all the stars; it's light was indescribable, and its newness provided astonishment. And all the other stars, together with the Sun and the Moon, formed a chorus to the star, yet its light far exceeded them all. And there was perplexity regarding from where this new entity came from, so unlike everything else [in the heavens] was it."
What was this? The 1959 movie "Ben-Hur" featured a star with a giant halo that miraculously crosses the night sky. "The Nativity Story" in 2006 showed Jupiter and Venus aligning with the star Regulus, in the constellation Leo. Other theories have focused on supernova, comets or an appearance by an angel.
Nicholl, whose doctorate is from Cambridge University, based much of his research on Revelation, chapter 12, a text containing images that would be familiar to any astronomer, ancient or modern.
"And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars," it states. This woman is threatened by a dragon as she gives birth to a "man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne."
The only "zodiacal female is Virgo the Virgin," noted Nicholl, and immediately south of her is the constellation figure Hydra, a multi-headed dragon.
Working with cooperative astronomers, Nicholl set out to chart the path of a great comet -- one making close passes by the Sun and Planet Earth -- that would fit into both the biblical narrative and what astronomers know about comets.
The result, he said, would have been a drama in the heavens containing specific symbols and information that would inspire the Magi to begin their journey, ending with them seeing a bright comet tail on the horizon that would point to a site in Bethlehem.
In his book, Nicholl concludes that the divine "plan for the messianic sign was already in motion at the point that the solar system came into existence, and the precise moment of the Messiah's birth was firmly established then, guaranteed by the laws of physics."
The goal from the start was to "take the star of Bethlehem seriously, in terms of what we see in the scriptures," he explained. "This is an example of science and religious scholarship working together to shed light on one of the greatest mysteries, ever."
Imagine this scene in a London movie theater, moments before the archetypal fanfare signaling the Dec. 18 arrival of the new "Star Wars" epic.
Imagine a beautiful, dignified advertisement appearing onscreen in which Muslims -- workers, refugees, artists and imams -- each recite one of the opening phrases of the Quran.
"In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek."
How would this be received in modern England, a tense land rocked by decades of debate about multiculturalism and whether it remains "Christian," in any meaningful sense of the word?
That's an intriguing question, after the decision by the dominant managers of British theaters to reject a Church of England advertisement -- targeting throngs at "Star Wars" rites -- in which Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and others recite phrases from The Lord's Prayer. It's important to ponder this comparison, argued theologian Andrew Perriman of London, at a website called "An Evangelical Theology for the Post-Christendom Age."
"Context is everything. It seems to me that the assumption that the Lord's Prayer is culturally and religiously innocuous points to some complacency on the part of the church," wrote Perriman, author of "The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church."
The decision to use this symbolic New Testament prayer in this public-square context, he argued, suggests that, "we have not let go of the Christendom mentality that expects everyone in this country to be, deep-down, innately, whether-they-like-it-or-not Christian."
Leaders of the Church of England hoped to run the 60-second ad -- with millions expected at early "Star Wars" screenings -- to promote the JustPray.uk campaign to promote prayer in the highly secularized United Kingdom.
However, church publicists released emails in which Digital Cinema Media leaders cited a "policy not to run advertising connected to personal beliefs, specifically those related to politics or religion. Our members have found that showing such advertisements carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences."
Welby bluntly told The Daily Mail: "I find it extraordinary that cinemas rule that it is inappropriate for an advert on prayer to be shown in the week before Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. … This advert is about as 'offensive' as a carol service or church service on Christmas Day."
Anglican leaders received strong support from several surprising voices, including the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, who has, in the past, called himself a "cultural Anglican." He told The Guardian that he strongly objected to "suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might 'offend' people. If anybody is 'offended' by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended."
Actress Carrie "Princess Leia" Fisher told critics of the ad to "get a life" and, on Twitter, proclaimed, "I don't find it offensive … even if I did it shouldn't be banned. You can't ban everything that may offend someone."
Leaders of England's Equality and Human Rights Commission released a statement noting: "We are concerned by any blanket ban on adverts by all religious groups. … There is no right not to be offended in the UK; what is offensive is very subjective and lies in the eye of the beholder."
Lost in the media storm was the poignant fact that the struggling, aging Church of England tried to hitch a ride on the "Star Wars" phenomenon in the first place. After all, "The Force" at the heart of this pop mythology is precisely the kind of "spiritual but not religious" symbolism that has been embraced by many "nones" who have been cutting their ties to traditional religious institutions, noted movie critic Stephen Greydanus of DecentFilms.com and The National Catholic Register.
"Which is bigger in England, Star Wars or the Church of England? … There may be more practicing Anglicans these days than there are members of the Jedi faith, but it says a lot that we can even ask that question with a straight face," he said.
"It's safe to say that more young people in England are familiar with the details of the Star Wars mythology than with the contents of The Book of Common Prayer."