Cardinal Francis George
(Michael Sohn/AP)
September 20, 2014

Pope Names Moderate Bishop For Chicago Archdiocese

Pope Francis has chosen a bishop known as a moderate to replace retiring Cardinal Francis George as head of the high-profile Chicago archdiocese.

The Vatican said Saturday that the pontiff had appointed Monsignor Blase Cupich, 65, a native of Nebraska, for the post that had been held by George, a leading church conservative who is 77 and battling cancer.

Cupich has called for civility in the culture wars and has embraced Pope Francis' focus on fighting poverty.

During a news conference in Chicago, Cupich was asked several times about whether he would shift direction as a successor to Cardinal Francis George, who is particularly admired in the church's conservative wing.
 
He responded simply that he would be himself and it was up to others to decide whether that constituted a change.
 
Cupich also said it was wrong to think of his appointment as a strong signal from Pope Francis about the direction he wants to steer American church leaders.
 
"I think the holy father is a pastoral man,'' Cupich said. "I think that his priority is not to send a message but a bishop.''

UPDATE:  Catholic Latinos went to Mass on Sunday hopeful and optimistic that the next leader of the Archdiocese of Chicago will be willing to speak out for immigration reform, the needs of the poor and be a bigger part of their parishes.

On Sunday, several people at largely-Latino parishes in Chicago said they think the next leader of the nation's third-largest archdiocese will speak out and support issues that are important to them.
 
"He comes from a family of immigrants, so therefore we have something in common,'' said Jose Sauceda, 63, as he was arriving for Mass at St. Pius V Church.
 
Cupich on Saturday told his own story of having four grandparents from Croatia as he called for immigration reform.
 
Steve Vidal, a 42-year-old teacher attending Mass at St. Pius V Church, said he believes George and other Catholic conservatives left gays feeling "marginalized'' and hopes Cupich's views will mirror those of Pope Francis, who has been more welcoming.
 
At nearby St. Paul's Catholic Church, Nelly Viramontes, 36, said it seemed like George rarely visited the Hispanic parishes, whose members account for 44 percent of the archdiocese.

She said she hoped Cupich would reach out to Hispanics more.


Andrew Hamblin preaches while holding a snake above his head, LaFollette, Tenn.
(Ciaran Flannery/NGT)
October 04, 2013

Snake-Handling Preachers Open Up About 'Takin' Up Serpents'

Snake handlers dwell at the edge of the spiritual frontier — a community of people who are willing to die for their faith three times a week in church. Members of the Pentecostal Holiness Church take up venomous serpents to prove their faith in God. The practice is still widespread in Appalachia, though mostly hidden.

Pastor Jamie Coots warns about the scent in the snake room behind his house in Middlesboro, Ky.

"It's strong, so I'll go ahead and tell you that," he says as he unlocks the squeaky door. We're greeted by the rattles of dark-complexioned pit vipers lying about in glass cages. The air in the snake room is warm, musky and malevolent.

"Got rattlesnakes: the timber rattler and the canebrake," says Coots, inventorying his reptiles. "We have northern copperheads. And that's the only two cottonmouths we have."

Coots is a well-known snake handler here in southeastern Kentucky. He's 41, stout and bald, with a Vandyke beard. He's the third generation of Coots to take up serpents; his 21-year-old son, Little Cody, is the fourth.

"Takin' up serpents, to me, it's just showin' that God has power over something that he created that does have the potential of injuring you or takin' your life," Jamie Coots says.

Coots' church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, is a white, rectangular affair located on a hilly lane in the coal-mining town of Middlesboro. Like most snake-handling churches, the congregation is small — about two dozen, and most of them are family.

Coots says they're really not that different from other churches.

"We sing, we preach, we testify, take up offerings, pray for the sick, everything like everybody else does," he says. "Just, every once in a while, snakes are handled."

A Test Of Faith

Worshiping with snakes dates back more than 100 years, but today, the major Pentecostal denominations denounce the practice.

There are an estimated 125 snake-handling churches scattered across Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Appalachia, where the tradition is strongest. Snakes in church are against the law everywhere but West Virginia, though in most states it's a misdemeanor offense the authorities don't bother with.

Serpent handlers draw their peculiar devotion from the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Mark from a passage that most New Testament scholars consider either symbolic language or irrelevant:

"And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

"They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."

There are the five signs often practiced in snake-handling churches, including the sipping of poison such as strychnine or lye as a test of faith.

Coots has been bitten nine times by venomous snakes. Each time he refused medical attention. Half of his right middle finger is gone as a result of a fang from a yellow rattler. In 1995, a woman who was bit in his church refused to go to the hospital; she died on Coots' couch while church members prayed over her.

Such is the conviction of his belief that Coots has agreed not to call EMS if Little Cody is bitten. "He has been bit five times by cottonmouths, and he has already told me, 'Dad, I'll never go to a doctor,' " Coots says.

Skeptics wonder if snakes handled in religious services are milked, defanged, weakened by mistreatment or in any way made less deadly.

"It's kind of like playing Russian roulette. The more frequently you handle [snakes], the more likely you are to get a bite. Serpents don't get tamed," says Ralph Hood, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who has documented hundreds of hours of serpent handling over 25 years. Having said that, Hood says he has brought herpetologists to services to try and understand why it is that handlers can pick up reptiles with impunity, even walk on them barefoot, and receive so few snake bites.

"All I know is that these people do handle [snakes], and most of the time they are not bit, and they can do what scientists think is not likely. Nobody has a good explanation," he says.

'Better Felt Than Told'

The National Geographic Channel followed two snake-handling preachers off and on for a year for a documentary series called Snake Salvation that will air this fall on Tuesday nights. Pastor Jamie Coots is one of the series' subjects.

"Snake handling fascinated me because it's such an extreme gesture of faith," says Matthew Testa, the series' executive producer. "We set out to tell this story from the snake handlers' point of view, to really humanize them, not to judge them, and to show how important religion is in their daily lives with their daily struggles."

The Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., is a short drive through the Cumberland Gap from Coots' church. The pastor here is Andrew Hamblin, a lanky, charismatic 22-year-old, who is the other preacher featured in the TV series. Hamblin wants to modernize the practice of handling snakes in church. He posts photos of himself with snakes on his Facebook page, and he aspires to pastor the first serpent-handling megachurch.

His services are intense, high-energy spectacles. Dennis Covington, in his popular book, Salvation on Sand Mountain, called snake-handling services, "theater at its most intricate ... improvisational, spiritual jazz."

Hamblin, a talented guitarist, strums rockabilly and sings gospel for the 20 folks in his congregation. In the Holiness Church tradition, the women all wear skirts, no makeup and their hair is uncut.

When Hamblin warms up, he stomps and jumps and bellows into the microphone about salvation. And at some point, he puts down his Fender guitar and picks up a pair of copperheads.

The snakes are twisted around each other, and their entwined heads sway in space as he slings them carelessly back and forth. At one point, he wipes the sweat from his forehead with the coiled reptiles. The sight is terrifying; it is mesmerizing. Hamblin wears an expression of unbearable ecstasy.

After the two-hour service, Hamblin explains what it feels like.

"The feeling to take up serpents is unexplainable," he says. "It's better felt than told. It's a peace that surpasseth all understanding to know that you're standing there with death in your hand, and the anointment of God has protected you to let you do that."

Snake handlers are notoriously private. Hamblin, like his mentor, Jamie Coots, says he opened his church to the National Geographic film crew, as he did for NPR, to educate people and dispel stereotypes.

"Our message is not 'handle snakes, handle snakes, handle snakes,' " he says. "But our message is, 'Be saved by the blood of Christ.' We're not a cult. We're not freaks. We're Christians."

Both pastors have a parting message: Their snake-handling churches are open for services three nights a week. Everyone is welcome.


Pope Francis
(Riccardo De Luca/AP)
September 19, 2013

Church Must Find Balance, Pope Says, Or Fall Like Cards

Pope Francis, in a wide-ranging interview with 16 Jesuit publications, says "the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards" if it continues to focus on narrow issues such as abortion, gay marriage and contraception.

"I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful," he said in the 12,000-word interview that was also published in America Magazine. "It needs nearness, proximity."

He added:

"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

The comments, in the sixth month of Francis' papacy, follow the pope's remarks on gays in July when he flew from Brazil to the Vatican. At the time, answering a question about reports of gays in the clergy, he replied: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, elaborated on those comments in his interview Thursday: "By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person."

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who's the editor at large of America, writes that though at the time "several commentators opined that the pope's words were not only uninteresting (since the pope did not change any church teaching on homosexuality), they were also limited ... but":

"[I]n our interview, Francis speaks at some length about gay persons in general, and even notes that his comments during the in-flight conference referred to gay persons, not simply gay priests. ...

"The new interview continues his open and pastoral stance towards gays and lesbians. Notice, too, the gentle tone of the rest of his response to the question posed by the interviewer: 'Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanied persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.' While none of this changes church teaching, the Pope's words have changed the way that church speaks to and about gay persons. And that is new."

Martin highlights six quotes from the pope's interview, and it's well worth reading his interpretation of their significance. We'll list the quotes below:

— "My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative ... but I have never been a right-winger."

— "A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: 'Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person, or reject and condemn this person?' We must always consider the person."

— "We should not even think, therefore, that 'thinking with the church' means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church."

— "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent."

— "If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, he will find nothing."

— "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner."

The pope's comments mark a departure from his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The Associated Press says both those men were "intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount, an orientation that guided the selection of a generation of bishops and cardinals around the globe."

The new pope, a Jesuit, has also tried to build bridges with other faiths, as well as with atheists. In a letter to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica earlier this month, he wrote: "The question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience."

He also phoned a pregnant Italian woman to comfort her after her married boyfriend tried, unsuccessfully, to get her to have an abortion.


August 13, 2013

Former McLean County Minister Pleads Guilty To Sex Assault

A former McLean County minister was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to a predatory criminal sexual assault charge.

Rodney D. Applington was an associate pastor at East White Oak Bible Church in rural Carlock. The 42-year-old was charged in January with having illegal physical contact with a minor girl.

The Pantagraph in Bloomington reports a second charge of predatory criminal sexual assault was dismissed in a plea agreement with prosecutors.

Prosecutors say had Applington gone to trial he would have faced six to 30 years on the Class X felony charges.

Applington's employment with the church in Carlock ended when the accusations surfaced. Church officials cooperated with police during their investigation of the case.


August 02, 2013

Lawmaker Wants Ban On Guns In Places Of Worship

An Illinois lawmaker wants to change the state's new concealed-carry law to ban guns in places of worship.

The law bars concealed weapons from schools, courthouses, government buildings, libraries and public transit. But churches, mosques and synagogues must post signs if they don't want people carrying guns onto the property.

Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge has introduced an amendment to change that, saying houses of worship "should be off-limits.''

Pastor Charles Burton of Unity Fellowship Church in Godfrey supports the amendment, saying he refuses ``to be governed by fear.'' But Pastor Cory Respondek of Living Water Church in Cahokia says churches should be able to decide for themselves.

The law was passed July 9 to comply with a federal appeals court ruling striking down Illinois' last-in-the-nation ban.


Pope Francis
(Michael Sohn/AP)
July 29, 2013

Pope Francis: Who Am I To Judge Gay People?

Pope Francis has said gay people should not be marginalised but integrated into society.

Speaking to reporters on a flight back from Brazil, he reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church's position that homosexual acts were sinful, but homosexual orientation was not.

"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?"

He also said he wanted a greater role for women in the Church, but insisted they could not be priests.

The Pope arrived back in Rome on Monday after a week-long tour of Brazil - his first trip abroad as pontiff - which climaxed with a huge gathering on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach for a world Catholic youth festival.

Festival organisers estimated it attracted more than three million people.

His remarks on gay people are being seen as much more conciliatory than his predecessor's position on the issue.

Pope Benedict XVI signed a document in 2005 that said men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests.

Pope Francis said gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.

Gay 'lobbying'

"The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well," Pope Francis said in a wide-ranging 80-minute long interview with Vatican journalists.

"It says they should not be marginalised because of this but that they must be integrated into society."

But he condemned what he described as lobbying by gay people.

"The problem is not having this orientation," he said. "We must be brothers. The problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem."

On the role of women in the Church, he said: "We cannot limit the role of women in the Church to altar girls or the president of a charity, there must be more.

"But with regards to the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and says no... That door is closed."

Answering questions about the troubled Vatican bank, he said the institution must become "honest and transparent" and that he would listen to advice on whether it could be reformed or should be shut down altogether.

"I don't know what will become of the bank. Some say it is better that is a bank, others that it should be a charitable fund and others say close it," he said.

'Undisciplined'

Before leaving Brazil, Pope Francis gave a highly unusual one-to-one interview to a Brazilian TV programme.

The interview was shown on TV Globo's high-profile Sunday night documentary programme Fantastico, broadcast not long after the Pope departed for Rome.

The Pope was asked about the moment on his visit when his driver took a wrong turn and his vehicle was surrounded by crowds.

"I don't feel afraid," he answered. "I know that no-one dies before their time.

"I don't want to see these people who have such a great heart from behind a glass box. The two security teams [from the Vatican and Brazil] worked very well. But I know that I am undisciplined in that respect."

Asked about the recent protests by young people on the streets of Brazil, the Pope said: "The young person is essentially a non-conformist, and this is very beautiful.

"It is necessary to listen to young people, give them places to express themselves and to be careful that they aren't manipulated."

Asked about his simple lifestyle and use of a small car, he said it wasn't a good example when a priest had the latest model of a car or a top brand.

"At this moment I believe God is asking us for more simplicity," he added.


John Paul II
(Thalion77/Wikimedia Commons)
July 02, 2013

John Paul II 'Set For Sainthood' With Second Miracle

John Paul II could be declared a saint this year after a Vatican committee approved a second miracle attributed to the Polish pope's intercession.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints ruled an "inexplicable recovery" on 1 May 2011 was due to the late Pope's intercession, Ansa reported.

Earlier that same day he had been beatified after a first miracle was attributed to his intervention.

Pope Francis must now give his approval before a canonisation date is set.

Canonisation is the final step in the official process that declares a deceased person to be a saint.

Speedy process

At a plenary meeting of the Congregation on Tuesday, cardinals and bishops mooted a canonisation ceremony taking place in December, sources told Ansa.
Pope John Paul II at St Peter's Square, Vatican - 2 June 2000 The Polish pope reformed the sainthood process in 1983

One possible date would be 8 December, on which Catholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which this year falls on a Sunday.

John Paul II could be canonised at the same time as John XXIII, Vatican sources suggested. Venerated by Catholics as "the good pope", John XXIII was elected in 1958 and convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, but died the following year before it was finished.

Canonisation requires the attribution of one further miracle to the intercession of the candidate after they have been beatified.

The Vatican has not revealed details about the second miracle in John Paul II's case.

It was reportedly deemed an "inexplicable recovery" by a panel of doctors before being approved last month by a board of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints' theologians.

John Paul II died in 2005 aged 84 and was beatified by his successor Benedict XVI in May 2011.

Among a crowd hundreds of thousands strong on St Peter's Square was French nun Marie Simon-Pierre, who says she was cured of Parkinson's Disease after praying for the intervention of the late pope little more than a month after he died.

Some questioned the Church's speed in beatifying John Paul II just six years after his death.

Although widely regarded as one of the great popes of modern times, his 26-year pontificate was tarnished by his handling of the clerical sex abuse scandal that has rocked the global Church.

Critics say other of the Church's deep-seated problems - such as its dysfunctional management and financial scandals at the Vatican bank - stem from shortcomings of his pontificate.

John Paul II reformed the sainthood process in 1983, making it faster, simpler, and cheaper. The office of "Devil's advocate" - an official whose job was to try to knock down the case for sainthood - was eliminated, and the required number of miracles was dropped.

The idea was to lift up contemporary role models of holiness in order to convince a jaded secular world that sanctity is alive in the here and now, says veteran Vatican analyst John Allen.

The result was that John Paul II beatified and canonised more people than all previous popes combined.


John Walker Lindh
(AP)
June 27, 2013

Indiana Prison Warden: Muslims Can Pray In Pairs

The warden of an Indiana federal prison in Terre Haute says allowing Muslim inmates to pray in groups larger than two threatens security in the facility.

Warden John Oliver said Thursday in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis that when group prayer was allowed, prisoners began exhibiting gang-like behavior, including extorting and disciplining other inmates and openly defying prison staff.

In response, Oliver changed the prison unit’s policy in May, only allowing Muslim inmates to pray in their cells in groups of two, which he said is still congregate prayer and therefore complies with the court order.

Ken Falk of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana is representing John Walker Lindh, an American-born Taliban fighter housed at the prison. Falk said the warden is not complying with a court order allowing Muslim inmates to pray in a group five times a day.

“What the court found was that group prayer in the unit outside the cell had been occurring for years on this unit and as I tried to say to the court, it seemed that the court’s decision wanted group prayer to be treated like any other congregate activity occurring outside the cell, not restricted to the cell,” he said.

A federal judge in Indianapolis said she will make a decision on whether the warden has violated her order to allow group prayer.


This Torah scroll discovered by the University of Bologna may be more than 850 years old.
(University of Bologna)
May 28, 2013

'World's Oldest Torah' Scroll Found at Italy University

The University of Bologna in Italy has found what it says may be the oldest complete scroll of Judaism's most important text, the Torah.

The scroll was in the university library but had been mislabelled, a professor at the university says.

It was previously thought the scroll was no more that a few hundred years old.

However, after carbon dating tests, the university has said the text may have been written more than 850 years ago.

The university's Professor of Hebrew Mauro Perani says this would make it the oldest complete text of the Torah known to exist, and an object of extraordinary worth.

The university says that in 1889 one of its librarians, Leonello Modona, had examined the scroll and dated it to the 17th Century.

However, when Mr Perani recently re-examined the scroll, he realised the script used was that of the oriental Babylonian tradition, meaning that the scroll must be extremely old.

Another reason for the dating is that the text has many features forbidden in later copies under rules laid down by the scholar Maimonides in the 12th Century, the university says.


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