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Holiday Almanac: Good Friday, mourning Jesus’ death

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Mary weeps for the dead Christ in this window at Corpus Christi Church, Miami. (Photo by James D. Davis)

Christians today mourn the death of Jesus Christ as Good Friday. Despite his agonizing death on a cross, the holiday is called “Good” because Christians believe the death was a sacrifice for all humanity’s sins. “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the New Testament calls him.

In Catholic churches, the traditional Good Friday service includes the Stations of the Cross, a series of meditations based on the 14 traditional events between Jesus’ condemnation in a Roman court and his burial. The Stations typically are represented with plaques or bas-reliefs around the church auditorium.

Catholics also hold a Veneration of the Cross ceremony, during which churchgoers approach the altar to show respect before a cross, often with a bow and a kiss.

Sometimes observed by ecumenical Protestants is Tre Ore, a three-hour service examining each of the “Seven Last Words” Jesus uttered from the cross. The service is useful for having seven or more ministers take part.

Another type of service is Tenebrae, in which a church is slowly darkened to illustrate Jesus’ death, then relighted to show his resurrection on Easter Sunday.



Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2017 at 12:00 am

More than shamrocks: The story of the real St. Patrick

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Parades, concerts, shamrocks and the “wearing o’ the green” mark the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, which falls on today. But the real-life fifth century man is even more colorful.

St. Patrick statue at Nativity Catholic Church, Hollywood, Fla. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Ironically, Ireland’s patron saint wasn’t born Irish. Born either in England or Scotland to a church deacon, he was kidnapped as a boy to pirates, who sold him into slavery in Ireland. He grew up a shepherd until he was able to flee and return to his family.

Yet Ireland or God, or both, still had a hold on him: He had a vision in which the Irish were begging him to “come and walk among us again.” He went to France, studied with the Church and was ordained a bishop.

He set up a base in northern Ireland, then gradually won over the fierce Celtic warlords who ruled parts of the island. A popular story has him lighting a bonfire near the hill of Tara, eventually winning over King Laoghaire there. Over the next 40 years, Patrick built churches all over Ireland, baptizing thousands, ordaining priests, converting the sons of local kings.

St. Patrick window in St. Helen Church, Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Stories multiplied about him: that he used a three-leafed clover to show the threefold nature of God, that his walking stick grew into a tree, and that he drove all serpents off the island (although none are believed to have ever been there). It’s said also that he performed a thousand miracles during his time in Ireland.

Whatever the truth of such stories, his dedication and legacy of Celtic Christianity are beyond question. One of the most popular saints, he is honored not only in Ireland but also by the Church of England and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Patrick himself testified his devotion in writings like his chant-like poem “The Breastplate”:

Christ be within me
Christ behind me
Christ before me
Christ beside me
Christ to win me
Christ to comfort and restore me
Christ beneath me
Christ above me
Christ inquired
Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger

Patrick died on March 17, 461, at Saul, the site of his first church. He is believed to be buried at Down Cathedral in Northern Ireland.


Written by Jim Davis

March 17, 2017 at 5:52 am

Holiday Almanac: Easter dawns with resurrection hope

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Photo by Andreas Krappweis via sxc.hu

Photo by Andreas Krappweis via sxc.hu

Christians celebrate today as Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter, the greatest holiday of the Christian year, ratifies for believers the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God.

As related in the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the body of Jesus was wrapped and buried in a rocky tomb near Jerusalem. Women came three days later to embalm the corpse, but found it missing. Jesus then began appearing to various groups of his followers, with the commission to ‘‘make disciples of all nations.”

Sunrise services — in parks, on beaches, even in cemeteries — are common Easter Sunday celebrations. The events are often sponsored by two or more churches, or even by whole ministerial associations.

This year, Protestant and Catholic Christians celebrate Easter on the same day as Eastern Orthodox believers, although they compute the date differently. The convergence happens about once every four years.

For most Eastern Orthodox, the holy day began last night with the Resurrection Service. At midnight, the pastor carries a lighted candle, a flame that is passed on to his congregants’ candles. Then the pastor and choir sing hymns outside the church and return for the Pascha, the Easter liturgy.

Today, the Orthodox hold an Agape service, from the Greek word for “love.” During the service, the resurrection story in the Bible is read aloud in many languages. Greek Orthodox churches bless and distribute red eggs at the end of the service to symbolize the resurrection.

— James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

April 20, 2014 at 4:47 am

Holiday Almanac: Ash Wednesday begins Lenten season of prayer

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Praying hands by Jesper Noer, via sxc.hu

Praying hands by Jesper Noer, via sxc.hu

Christians in several traditions will observe today, March 5, as Ash Wednesday, the start of six weeks of Lent. The season is a period of solemnity before Good Friday, the traditional observance of Jesus’ death, which will be on April 18 this year.

Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes daubed on the faithful as a sign of penitence, with the traditional words, ‘‘Remember you are dust and will return to dust.”

Lent is a somber season marked by prayer, introspection and repentance. For Catholics, it also includes fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays for those 14 years and older.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, who still use the ancient Julian calendar, actually began Lent on Monday this week. However, they will join Protestants and Roman Catholics in celebrating Easter on April 18. The overlap occurs roughly every four years.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

March 5, 2014 at 5:29 am

Noble figures, doomed cause, forgotten war

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DVD review: For Greater Glory. ARC Entertainment and Dos Corazones Films. 143 minutes. Rated R (violence, some disturbing images).

It may be hard to believe, but Mexico once tried to wipe out Catholicism. That brutal effort, and the ill-fated war it spawned, is the subject of For Greater Glory.

The film, funded by the Knights of Columbus, popped in and out of theaters and quickly vanished this year. That’s a pity, because it was better than that — both for its star power, its production values and the historical lesson about religious freedom.

Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) molds a band of guerrillas into a rebel army in ‘For Greater Glory.’ (Hana Matsumoto photo, courtesy of ARC Entertainment)

The movie tells of the short, three-year war against the efforts of President Plutarco Elias Calles to wipe out Mexican Catholicism in the 1920s. The anti-clerical brutality gave rise to a guerrilla force known as the Cristeros, or Soldiers of Christ. They posted some early victories, and Calles agreed to allow some freedoms. Many Cristeros, however, refused to accept anything less than victory; thousands were hunted down and killed, and the war itself was largely forgotten.

Shot for a reported $12 million, the film resembles the recent There Be Dragons in sweep and intensity. Part western, part World War I in its look, the film pits legions of rifled soldiers against pistol-packing horsemen.

Calles’ Federales hang priests, burn churches, throw crucifixes onto bonfires, even kill women and children who voice faith in Jesus. The violence is graphic and the body count is high.

Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia), a general turned businessman, tries to ignore the bloodshed but finds it hard to refuse a direct plea from the Cristeros. His wife finally convinces him to do the right thing.

The guerrillas are painted as warrior-saints (some were even canonized by the Vatican): quick with guns and bombs, pious around crosses and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Still, the Mexicans in general are portrayed as multifaceted human beings, not the cardboard peasants and banditos of so many other movies.

One oddity: The guerrilla war cry is given as “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” It was actually “¡Viva Cristo Rey! ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” Maybe the Knights of Columbus wanted the film to appeal to Protestants, who don’t share their devotion to Mary.

Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) comforts his wife (Eva Longoria) in ‘For Greater Glory.’ (Hana Matsumoto photo, courtesy of ARC Entertainment)

Under Gorostieta’s leadership, the rebellion gains ground, with even women helping smuggle food and ammunition. But high-level politics are against the Cristeros: Both the Vatican and the U.S. government seek an end to the fighting, the latter to keep business deals flowing. For Greater Glory avoids accusing the Vatican, but it makes the American ambassador cynical and callous, even ignoring the sight of corpses hanging on telegraph poles.

Garcia does a decent job as the reluctant commander, starting as a paid consultant, then gradually becoming a believer. Ruben Blades underplays his role as Calles, cultured in manners, casual about the need to slaughter opponents. Eva Longoria has a brief but decent role as Gorostieta’s supportive wife.

Peter O’Toole plays a gentle though rather dotty old priest who sacrifices his life rather than flee Calles’ soldiers. His friendship with a young boy is supposed to lend a softer tone to the film. But given the well-publicized problem of priests and young boys — over the last three decades — this seems like an incredibly tone-deaf element in the plot.

The boy, José Luis Sanchez, is undoubtedly included in the story because he was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, as were a couple of dozen priests and Cristeros. That seems yet another bit of cynicism: The church seemed to do little to halt the killings, but it honored the victims after their deaths.

The DVD edition adds a lengthy back story on the Cristeros, with impressive sourcing by bishops and historians. Perhaps the DVD will let the Knights of Columbus at least recover production costs. Thus far, the fate of For Greater Glory seems as sad as the events it retells: It has made less than $10 million worldwide.

Commentators have sometimes compared the anti-clerical laws of Mexico and the health regulations of the Obama administration, which is trying to make all insurers — including Catholic colleges, hospitals and dioceses — provide coverage for abortion and birth control. That’s an incredible leap of logic. For Greater Glory works better as a parable on the need for religious freedom. Not to mention the need to dial back violence — not only physical but verbal and legal.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

September 24, 2012 at 1:19 am

DVD review: ‘Pink Smoke Over the Vatican’

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Nearly 100 women have been ordained as priests or bishops in recent years, and been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Their actions, feelings and spiritual urgings make absorbing material in Pink Smoke Over the Vatican.

Unfortunately, the documentary has a lot of other stuff: biased reporting, strident rhetoric, manipulative lighting, and repetition of arguments that make it feel way longer than its 58 minutes.

Patricia Fresen of South Africa ordains another woman in "Pink Smoke Over the Vatican."

The title is drawn from an incident on April 17, 2005, when protestors released pink smoke in front of several U.S. cathedrals. The act was timed to the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, who soon informed the world he would hold the line on male-only ordination.

“The Church is an unapologetic boys club and deeply hostile to women’s agency, power and voice,” says author Angela Bonavoglia.

The documentary is actually more current than when it came out several months ago. On March 31, the Religion News Service reported that the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, one of those quoted in the film, is under threat of defrockment for helping ordain Janice Sevre’-Duszynska. He said he’s seeking a church lawyer and plans to fight the order.

Pink Smoke takes pains to show advocates’ intellectual creds: As Kathleen Kunster speaks, a subtitle shows her M.Div., M.A. and Psy.D. degrees. They are earnest, articulate, engaging as they tell their stories and explain their beliefs.

“My faith is in my DNA,” another says.

“I felt cellularly rearranged,” one says about the instant of her ordination.

“I knew that there was a place for women on the altar more than just in a coffin or as a bride,” Sevre’-Duszynska says.

Victoria Rue of San Jose, Calif., crosses herself not in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but “our Creator, our brother Jesus and wisdom, Sophia.” As part of a homegrown Mass, she uses tai chi-like movements as a bodily way of worshiping.

Patricia Fresen gushes about feeling a “flame of hope and longing and incredible excitement” to hear of the ordination of seven women in 2002 on a ship on the Danube River in Europe. She herself was then ordained by two of them.

But this film doesn’t stop at reporting; it takes the feminists’ side. Only one talking head on the other side is allowed — bald, elderly Father Ronald Lengwin, a spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh — sitting at his desk, backed by coldly blue-lit walls. When feminists answer, they’re shot at gardens and seashores and sunlit churches.

Lengwin says church law is not about sexism but “an understanding of one’s part in the church, male and female.” He also appeals to tradition going back to when Jesus picked 12 males as apostles.

In rebuttal, the advocates note that the Church once supported slavery, condemned money lending and allowed priests to marry.

They also cite a Bible verse that honors a woman named Junia as an apostle. And they show early frescos of women in vestments apparently saying Mass.

Pink Smoke stumbles in examining Bible verses, though. It approvingly cites Paul saying that all differences — including those of gender — are erased, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” But it disapprovingly cites Paul’s verse not allowing a woman “to teach or exercise authority over a man.” Why is one valid and not the other, besides the fact that it agrees with the advocates?

It also goes too far as its subjects try to link women’s ordination with their own favorite causes. Several invoke civil rights leaders like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr.

Bourgeois and Sevre’-Duszynska complain about the U.S. military, reflecting their focus on peace activism. Fresen tells how she defied apartheid in South Africa by opening her school to all races.

Joanna Manning of Toronto, who has treated AIDS-infected babies in Africa, somehow links condoms with women’s ordination. And several advocates push for ending the celibacy requirement for priests.

But they stumble again by claiming that if priests could marry, sexual abuse cases cases would dwindle. Pedophilia, the form of abuse most priests are accused of, has little to do with marriage: Thousands of married men abuse their own biological children.

Besides, what does all that have to do with women’s ordination? You know, the issue this film is supposed to be about?

For all its arguments, Pink Smoke actually misses a few points. It could have pointed out that Jesus picked all Jews as apostles, yet the Church feels free to ordain non-Jewish priests.

In fact, the Roman Catholic Church itself has honored three women — Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Terese of Lisieux — as “doctors of the Church,” whose writings are valid sources of Catholic teaching. If they can be thinkers, why not be pastors?

Finally, a poll in May 2010 by CBS and The New York Times found that 59 percent of American Catholics favor ordaining women. So the hierarchy’s position isn’t well-received in the pews.

As a chronicle of why some women feel driven to a ministry that the Church reserves for men, Pink Smoke is a textured, sensitive success. As a thoughtful, many-sided analysis of reasons for and against ordaining women, the documentary fails.

Whatever you think about women’s ordination, it’s bad form to tell you what to think. Isn’t that one of the things the advocates fault the Church for doing?

For more information on the documentary, visit pinksmokeoverthevatican.com.

Written by Jim Davis

April 4, 2011 at 3:05 am

Something about Mary

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For millions of people, Mary is more than a mere supporting player in Christmas pageants. Devotees, in fact, claim to have seen supernatural apparitions of Mary in Spain and Portugal, Japan and Korea, Egypt and Venezuela.

For the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12, let’s take a look at Web sites that promote these appearances.

Catholic Online gives a typically crisp rendition of the Guadalupeapparition in 1531, to a Mexican Indian named Juan Diego. The story is remarkable for yielding an image of Mary on a cactus-cloth poncho — a picture still visible five centuries later. (See a picture of the original image at the right, from http://www.sancta.org.) It’s also unusual for being among the few apparitions that have gained official church approval.

Yet the many Marian Web sites, like this one and this one, cheerfully lump in the approved with the others. You’ll see not only accounts of the approved Our Lady of Lourdes and Fatima, but the unapproved Garabandal and Medjugorje.

You can even see videos of some apparitions, courtesy of Google Video. One link leads to GodWay, a Coptic Orthodox site.

GodWay has some of the lesser-known apparitions, including Naju, South Korea, and Zeitoun, Egypt. The Zeitoun section has a collection of fuzzy-looking photos purporting to show a woman robed in light, walking the rooftops of Egyptian churches.

Taken together, the reported sightings reveal some unexpected things. One is a quiet, gentle rebellion against the Catholic hierarchy. Even if the Church doesn’t approve an apparition, people flock to them anyway.

Another observation: For many Catholics, even Jesus isn’t enough. They seem to feel a need to see, not just believe.

Finally, some church thinkers are surprisingly indulgent about the apparitions. I once asked Eugene Kennedy, a Catholic psychologist, why people saw Mary so much. His answer: “Why are you surprised? The mother is one of the most powerful images we know.”

I was amazed. He artfully left undropped the other shoe: that people may be inspired by the apparitions, whether they’re real or not.

Written by Jim Davis

December 13, 2008 at 5:14 am

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