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Movements toward female priests: 12-31-14

Let's end this old, beat-up year by pointing off toward the far horizon to a change that is trying to work its way into the Catholic Church.

Rise-Catholic-WomenThe ordination of women as priests won't happen in 2015. And it may never happen. But the stirrings continue to grow in intensity. And now there is a pope who may be willing, not to remove the barricades but to soften them just a bit, perhaps eventually by making it possible for Catholic priests to be married. (Just for the record, however, Pope Francis says the "door is closed" to the possibility of female priests.)

From married priests, the idea of female priests is not such a large leap.

Those of you in the Kansas City area may have seen this recent story in The Star about a woman who intends to be ordained this weekend as a Catholic priest, even though the church won't recognize the ordination as legal.

Although she'll be the first woman to be ordained in this way in Kansas City, lots of women have been similary ordained, encouraged by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests.

At the same time, lots of voices -- both male and female -- are calling for a larger role for women in the governance of the Catholic Church.

A recent example is the new book Rise, Catholic Women: You Hold the Key, by Sarah Harding.

The author runs a Christian book store and flower shop in upstate New York, and, at age 82, has decided to add her voice to those encouraging Catholic women to become more engaged in the oversight of the church.

"The spirit of women needs to be interjected into the male-dominated Catholic Church," she writes.

Harding is not demanding female priests immediately. She understands that will be a long time coming, if it comes at all. She says, however, that "the first step is the acceptance of women deacons and priests' wives."

She offers ideas and resources -- including this blog -- for those who want to encourage a greater presence of women in the church but who aren't yet ready to break with the church in the way the Kansas City woman is.

Momentous change in institutions often happens only after tiny steps are taken first. Will these developments in Catholicism lead to women as priests? I can't predict. I know only that my Presbyterian Church (USA) has been blessed by the presence of many women in ministry, though it took us until 1956 to ordain the first female pastor. (That woman, Margaret Towner, though retired, still is active in church life in many ways in Florida.)

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The National Catholic Reporter's "Person of the Year," Pope Francis, continued in 2014 to engage, confuse, enrage and inspire millions. And as former NCR Vatican watcher John L. Allen Jr. reports, the various responses to the pope -- including those from insiders -- are well worth watching.

Standing against Hitler from the start: 12-30-14

As co-author of a Holocaust-related book, I have read a great deal about Adolf Hitler and his evil Third Reich, to say nothing of his "Final Solution" policy that tried to wipe out European Jewry -- and almost succeeded.

Hitler-Hildebrand-bookBut in all of this I had not run across information about Dietrich von Hildebrand, a Catholic theologian who spent much of the time Hitler was in power seeking to defeat Nazism.

This Daily Beast piece describes his life.

"Hildebrand," the piece says, "remains virtually unknown today, even to historians of the period. This makes the recent publication of his memoirs and writings against Nazism — entitled My Battle Against Hitler — all the more momentous."

I have not had a chance to read the book but the Daily Beast piece makes me want to.

Indeed, the example that Hildebrand, who died in 1977, offers to our era of reticent, recalcitrant and mindlessly uncivil leaders is exactly what we need. I was struck by how this principled man, willing to risk nearly everthing to defeat Hitler, stands in stark contrast to many of the current leaders (in politics and out) in the United States these days.

Author and journalist (and former Yale teacher) William Deresiewicz writes about this in his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, which one of our kids and his wife gave me for Christmas.

Deresiewicz calls our contemporary crop of leaders a "meritocracy," a reference to the fact that they've been educated at all the best, priciest schools and that they believe that they merit all the good things and positions life has given them ("given" being the operative word there).

"The meritocracy," he writes, "purports, like every ruling class, to act for the good of all. Its ethos is in fact, by definition, one of self-advancement: not duty or responsibility, not character or even leadership, but individual aggrandizement, a single-minded focus on the self and success. And yet the meritocracy believes, again by definition, in its own superior virtue. That's what 'merit' means, after all."

This was not Hildebrand at all. Again, a quote from the Daily Beast piece:

"We would miss a certain achievement in Hildebrand’s enmity toward racism and nationalism if we saw them just as acts of courage in the face of manifest evil. What sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries was his rare immunity from the influence of prevailing ideas. We cannot read his memoirs without opening ourselves to the possibility that many of us, had we lived at that time, would have been seduced by the siren song of National Socialism, falling into some compromise or other, and without marveling at Hildebrand’s almost preternatural independence of spirit in his unmasking of Hitler."

Did you catch the key words there? ". . .his rare immunity from the influence of prevailing ideas." It's that attitude -- whether in politics, economics, religion, technology, education or any field -- that can produce the kinds of leaders we desperately need.

Hildebrand did not succeed in stopping Hitler's death machine. But eventually he helped to create the intellectual and moral atmosphere in which, furiously spent, it no longer could operate.

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It's always telling when, after the boss gives a speech, underlings feel compelled to interpret what the boss meant. That's what's going on now in the wake of Pope Francis' recent harsh criticism of the Vatican's leadership, as this Religion News Service piece reports. But I'm not sure Francis needs interpretation. I thought he was pretty clear about the problems.

Faith that understands metaphor: 12-29-14

Some books -- even if I'm a year or more late at finding and reading them, -- ring true in ways that poetry (well, good poetry) does.

Bright-abyssChristian Wiman's 2013 book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, is exactly that kind of book, perhaps because Wiman is a poet. Indeed, he once was editor of the prestigious (can you use that word today with poetry?) magazine, Poetry. (And thanks to my friend Dan for lending the book to me.)

Wiman writes about faith, but from the perspective of one who is captured by a cancer that eventually may -- probably will -- kill him. And he writes with the sensitivity of someone who knows in his marrow the potency of poetry, its ability to ring the chimes of the metaphor, myth and allegory by which we are obliged to live.

Wiman comes to faith gingerly. But he comes. And he acknowledges that in the land of myth, allegory and metaphor, his particular Christian faith may not satisfy everyone, may not answer all the questions, may not be attractive enough for others to embrace because others may need details, may need no-doubt answers, may need the kind of fundamental, irrefutable truths that no healthy faith can provide without some acknowledgement of our human incapacity for the infinite.

One of Wiman's wisest conclusions is that God may be "distant, difficult," as poet Geoffrey Hill says, but believing in and serving Christ is, by contrast, also "quite difficult, and precisely because of how near he is to us at all times."

Wiman does not want to resort to "mystery" as an explanation of the divine when it's only the seventh inning, as one of my former pastor's theology professors used to say. And yet, in the end, faith wraps us in mystery, not in certitude. If you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, as Wiman has (and continues to do), and as a result you embrace certitude about matters of faith, you have missed the point, have missed the presence of God in your life, have missed the opportunity to give yourself away to a God you ultimately can never fully grasp, in part because that very God has fully grasped you.

I did not understand every sentence Wiman wrote in this book. Some of his poetic ways of saying things frankly lost me. But there is much here to savor, including, in the end, Wiman's bright abyss, which is God's own loving self.

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This year's movies about religion -- especially about God -- were pretty bad, this review says. Thus, I feel vindicated in that I didn't waste my money on a single one of them. Most movies in which God or Jesus have starring roles are pretty sad, in my experience. So I mostly avoid them.

Talking about faith at work: 12-27/28-14

When I worked full-time in a newspaper office, there seemed to be unwritten rules about spending work time discussing things like religion and politics.

Faith-workFor sure those of us who covered such fields felt justified in using our work time to talk with our colleagues and editors about the various developments we were writing about. But on a personal level -- which means discussing our own faith or our own political persuasions -- there were unspoken understandings that such talk was to be kept to a minimum, and among consenting adults, so to speak.

Yes, employees have rights in these areas and sometimes the courts have had to step in and clarify when those rights were being abused. But on the whole, work places seem to call for a fair amount of self-regulation.

All of which is background for an interesting new study by a researcher down the road at Kansas State University. As a K-State press release reports, a doctoral student in psychological studies has found that "it may be beneficial for employers to not only encourage office Christmas parties but also celebrate holidays and festivals from a variety of religions."

Why? Because, says the release, "employees who openly discuss their religious beliefs at work are often happier and have higher job satisfaction than those employees who do not."

What mostly seems called for is some discernment on the part of employees and sensitivity on the part of employers. If you spend your working time trying to convert people to your religion, you're stealing from your employers. On the other hand, if you feel so tightly controlled that you can't even mention to a colleague in the lunch room that she might enjoy an upcoming choral concert at your church, then things have gotten too tightly controlled.

All of this makes me wish common sense today were more common.

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As you may well know, Pope Francis read the Curia the riot act recently, listing 15 ways its members are failing to be all they're called to be as church leaders. Here is a pretty good backgrounder on the subject. I hope the pontiff's spirit of reform continues and eventually moves him to replace Robert W. Finn as bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, given that Finn has been convicted of the misdemeanor crime of failing to report a suspected child abuser to government authorities. We know this matter is on the pope's radar screen. What we don't know is whether he'll act and when. My guess is the pope will take action not too long into the new year, but that guess is based on no inside information. It's just a guess.

Those top faith stories lists: 12-26-14

Reporters and editors are making lists of the top stories of the year in whatever field they cover, and religion writers are no different.

Religious-literacySo, for instance, you find the Religion News Writers Association releasing this list, which includes ISIS, the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the continuing way that Pope Francis makes news.

I have no arguments with the RNWA list. But I also like this list compiled by Rabbi A. James Rudin, who once served in Kansas City.

Yes, it includes ISIS, Pope Francis and other things on the RNWA list, but Rudin, drawing on the RNWA list, includes some developments that didn't make the RNWA top 10. One of them was the disclosure by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that its founder, Joseph Smith, had at least 40 wives, including one who was just 14 years old.

As I've said before, it's difficult to find any news story that doesn't have at least a thread of religion running through it, which is why the world of journalism needs reporters well schooled in faith matters. On the whole, however, coverage of religion by the media -- with some shining exceptions -- tends to be too little and not especially insightful. Sigh.

By the way, there are top 10 story lists that some denominational news sites put out. For instance, here's the list from Baptist Press.

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And what was happening in the little town of Bethlehem this Christmas? As this story makes clear, the answer is: life in all its complexities. And why would we think it should be any different? For it was into the middle of such life that Jesus came.

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P.S.: I changed my photo above here to one of me swinging (and no doubt missing) a golf ball today because on the day after Christmas I am seriously thinking of playing a bit of golf today in Kansas City. Imagine that.

Translating the season: 12-25-14


M E R R Y  C H R I S T M A S

Or, as they say in:

French: Joyeux Noël

* Spanish: Feliz Navidad

* Portuguese: Feliz Natal

* Polish: Wesołych Świąt

* Hindi: मैरी क्रिसमस

* Arabic: عيد ميلاد مجيد

* Chinese: 聖誕節快樂

* Yiddish: מערי ניטל

* Swedish: God Jul

* Russian: С Рождеством

* Persian: کریسمس مبارک

* Japanese: メリークリスマス

* German: Frohe Weihnachten

Now go and greet likewise.

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Looking for some of your Jewish friends today? It's no myth to suggest you might first try looking in a Chinese restaurant. This piece explains why.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.

Jesus' scandal of particularity: 12-24-14

In the Hands of the Father

Because it's the day before Christmas, that remarkable festival of incarnation and love, I thought I'd be a faithful Christian contrarian and share with you an article by someone who doubts that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure.

"Weighing up the evidence of the 'Historical Jesus'" by Raphael Lataster, a tutor in religious studies at the University of Sydney, is representative of the kind of dismissive scholarship that is not too difficult to find in religious studies departments at universities around the globe.

It is less an effort to understand the religious impulse -- why people are attracted to faith -- than it is a post-modern rejection of the ways in which what eventually came to be called Christianity developed in a culture and time remarkably different from our own.

Lataster seems very much what I would call a Jesus Birther, after the Birthers who came to disbelieve that Barack Obama had been born in Hawaii, which was where and when birth certificate records said he had been born. Lataster returns to a way of referencing a divided Jesus that many scholars no longer employ because it is mostly unhelpful in understanding Jesus: The Historical Jesus vs. the Christ of Faith. He dismisses the latter as "clearly fictional." (Hey, Jesus, you listening?)

Christianity, to be sure, is rooted in a historical Jesus who lived at a particular time in a particular place. Indeed, the particularity of Jesus' life sometimes gets referred to as "scandal of particularity." That is a reference to the ways in which some people resist the idea that God would have become incarnate in one baby in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. Lataster seems to be among those who are repelled by the scandal of particularity -- so much so that they deny there ever was any particularity at all. It was, in other words, all made up.

If you are Christian and, thus, a disciple of the one who began a revolution of love and grace centuries ago, most of this scholarship means very little to you. Scholarship is important work, but scholarship with an agenda, it turns out, isn't. In the end, it matters whether Jesus lived (#Jesuslifematters), but it's much less important whether he was born in Bethlehem or Nazareth or whether his year of birth was 6 B.C.E. or 1 C.E or some other year about then.

What matters, metaphorically speaking, is, as the carol says of Bethlehem, that "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

(The art here today is "In the Hands of the Father," by Roger Loveless and is used by permission of the artist. I'd say the holy couple and child look pretty real to me there, in an artistic sort of way.)

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For many reason, the stained glass industry is in a recession. But if you want to celebrate the beautiful stained glass you can find all over the Kansas City area, including in the church building I call home, get the new book by Bruce Mathews, Windows of Kansas City. Bruce spoke at my church last Sunday and he's got great stories to tell.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.

Farewell to a model Catholic priest: 12-23-14

Kansas City is mourning the death of a fabulous Catholic priest, Norman Rotert (pictured here), whom I was privileged to know for some 40 years and whom I considered a friend.

Norman RotertNorm died this past Wednesday at age 83 after a period of decline in recent years.

My former Kansas City Star colleague Mary Sanchez did this lovely tribute to this remarkable, wise and gentle man and servant of both God and people -- a man described several times in a prayer service this past Sunday evening as "a 21st Century priest" ahead of his time.

I first met Norm when he was priest at St. Therese Little Flower Catholic Church in the 1970s. He and I and a mutual friend who worked then for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development used to meet to think aloud about racial turnover in neighborhoods and what might be done to redeem neighborhoods that had declined for many reasons. Out of those conversations came such Norm-driven efforts as the Blue Hills Homes Corporation, which sought to be a stabilizing and healing presence.

When I decided to do a Kansas City Star series of articles about racial turnover in a particular block of southeast Kansas City, I picked the block on which St. Therese Little Flower was located and Norm helped me with introductions to neighbors. The hardest thing in that period was when a neighborhood boy attacked Norm with a broken glass pop bottle and Norm wound up at Research Hospital with his face sliced up. I remember visiting him there and I recall his difficult feelings about why someone in the neighborhood he was committed to helping would have targeted him for robbery and violence.

Later I had many dealings with Norm when he was vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and when he was a priest in other parishes, including his final assignment at Visitation Catholic Parish, where he oversaw a major renovation of the structure just before his retirement. After he left, I wrote that parish's centennial book and relied on Norm and other former priests there to help me understand that wonderful parish.

Back in the late 1990s for a few years, the editorial page staff of The Kansas City Star, on which I served, wrote occasional tributes to people we called "Community Stars." In Norm's honor today, I'd like to repeat here the one I wrote about him in June 1997:

The headline was:

Dedicated to the common good, The Rev. Norman Rotert helps people use their gifts

Forty years after his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Norman Rotert is clear about what drives him to be such a force for community betterment in Kansas City: "I have a strong commitment to the common good,'' he says. "One of the most destructive tendencies within current American society is this movement toward individualism and the unwillingness of people to sacrifice their individual good for the common good.'' Father Rotert is our Community Star this week not just because of his many years of service to his church, which one might expect from any priest, but because his service to the whole Kansas City community has exemplified his own willingness to work for the common good.

"I've always loved a challenge,'' he says. "I get bored when things are going well and running like clockwork. I want to move on to someplace else where there's a challenge of creating a vision and gathering people around that vision.'' That's exactly what he did in the mid-1970s in an area of Kansas City that had been severely damaged by various forces leading to rapid racial turnover and neighborhood deterioration. While he was pastor of St. Therese Little Flower Church at 5814 Euclid, he helped organize the Blue Hills Homes Corp. for that area and has served until recently as its board chairman.

The homes corporation, which honored him recently, tried in its early days to fight white flight, block busting and other pressures leading to neighborhood destabilization. It bought and fixed up homes and started selling and renting them to families with low and moderate incomes.

The corporation, once hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, now has an annual budget of $5 million and has persistently tried to create safe and decent housing for families.

Father Rotert has not given all his energy to that single project. He's also worked with (and in some cases helped to start) Kansas City Consensus, the Kansas City Church Community Organization and Catholic Charities. He's now at Visitation Church, but has served in several other parishes and, for a time, was vicar general of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.

Why does he do so much more than simply stay within the walls of his church to perform priestly functions?

"I think it's my theology,'' he says. "I believe that God saves a people, and that individuals get caught up in that ... And if we're going to help build the kingdom of God on Earth we build up a people of God. That especially means focusing on people who are most in need of help at whatever point in their life they need help. It's very orthodox Catholic theology.'' To do that, Rotert sees his job as an enabler.

"I think my role is gathering the vision and articulating it, then gathering people around it and then getting out of the way and letting them move within the parameters of the vision,'' he says.

And his job is to encourage individuals to see their own importance in the context of a community.

"Whatever people do in their life's work builds up the society, the community and -- if they see it in the faith context -- it builds up the kingdom of God,'' he said. "No one's contribution is inconsequential.'' Rotert says his work now is primarily focused on the active and richly talented Visitation parish near the Country Club Plaza.

"This is a very strong parish with lots of gifts and resources and human talent and networks,'' he says. So he'll be asking, "How do we gather up the vision here? How does the church structure itself to best encourage people to give their gifts to the city and beyond?'' As usual, Father Rotert is seeing the big picture.

Rest in peace, Norm. You've been a gift to us.

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This Washington Post piece explores a question that no doubt has been at the top of your list for some years: Why isn't anyone writing Christmas songs that become classics any more? What? You haven't been wondering that? Then maybe next we need a piece about why people haven't been asking that question. Or not.

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P.S.: Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of this blog. Today we slip into year 11. As I told my Facebook friends (surely you're one of them) yesterday, it's been a decade of wisdom, beauty and enlightenment (and all the right opinions) at top speed. And it's all been free to you. You're welcome.

Last-(or first-)minute faith books: 12-22-14

Yes, yes, I know I'm late in suggesting some new books you might want to give as holiday gifts, but the truth is I already suggested some some weeks ago here. Besides, do you buy books I list just as gifts for others? Don't you sometimes splurge and read a book or two yourself?

And if you really want these by Christmas, you might find a way to get that done.

In other words, stop griping at me. It's the time to be jolly and all that.

Here are a few new faith-related books that have crossed my desk recently. I'm not going to give you a full review of any of them but will direct you to a site where you can read more about them and decide whether you want to acquire a copy.

Napkin-notes* Napkin Notes: Creating a Daily Connection with Those You Love, by Garth Callaghan. This is a touching book by a father with cancer who writes encouraging notes that he sticks into the lunch bags his daughter takes to school -- and eventually about the notes she leaves him. He began writing these notes long before he was diagnosed with kidney cancer but they took on a deeper meaning as he realized he had no idea how much longer he had to live. You may have heard news stories earlier this year about this father-daughter note tale.

* Chastity is for Lovers: Single, Happy and (Still) a Virgin, by Arleen Spenceley. The author, who now has degrees in both journalism and rehabilition and mental health counseling, writes here about Catholic Church teaching on chastity from the perspect of a single Catholic who remains a virgin by choice. She writes with honesty and frankness.

Nothing-love* Nothing but Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, by Robert Darden. It's difficult to understand any movement or people or tradition fully without grasping the formative role music has played in each situation. This book seeks to explore how important music of various kinds was to African-Americans who were confronting slavery, discrimination, bigotry and hatred. The author rightly concludes that music can be dangerous because it can change both the musician and the listener. This is a worthy addition to literature about blacks in American history.

* Loved as I Am: An Invitation to Conversion, Healing, and Freedom through Jesus, by Sr. Miriam James Heidland. Now a Catholic woman religious, or nun, the author writes of her journey from the life of a party girl in college to a feeling of profound emptiness to redemption. At the end of each chapter there are questions to help readers perhaps make a similar journey.

* The Future of God: A Practical Approach to Spirituality for Our Times, by Deepak Chopra. The author has written dozens and dozens of books, so his many fans may be interested in the ways in this one that he opposes militant atheists while not joining forces with sometimes equally militant fundamentalists. And as Chopra notes, "You get to the transcendent world by first arriving at a dead end."

* The Grace of Yes: Eight Virtues for Generous Living, by Lisa M. Hendey. The author, founder and editor of, describes what she calls the eight graces that are essential to the Christian life: Belief, generativity, creativity, integrity, humility, vulnerability, no and rebirth.

Love-steer* Love Will Steer Me True: A Mother and Daugher's Conversations on Life, Love, and God, by Jane and Ellen Knuth. Jane is the mother, Ellen the daughter who has grown up and moved to Japan after being reared a Catholic. Jane is worried how her daughter will stay connected to faith in a land without many Catholics. Ellen is open to new experiences. This is the story of how their worries and explorations are working out. I wrote about Jane's previous book, Thrift Store Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 Cents at a Time, a few years ago here.

* Your Divine Fingerprint: The Force That Makes You Unstoppable, by Keith Craft. The author is a pastor and he's writing about finding what is unique about you and using that special quality to make a difference in life.

* The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage, by Rob and Kristen Bell. The term Zimzum, the authors say, refers to an ancient Hebrew concept that suggests God creates space for the world by doing a bit of contracting of God's own self. The Bells -- he's a pastor and author of several popular books, she trained as an occuptional therapist and co-founded Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids -- take that concept and apply it to marriage and how each partner makes room for the other. Think of this as a marriage enrichment handbook that's marinated in Christian theology.

And finally a work of fiction (about which I rarely write), inspired by a true story, and written by a man from the Kansas City area:

Ravine* The Ravine: A Novel of Evil, Hope, and the Afterlife, by Robert Pascuzzi. One of the author's close friends murdered his wife and son and then died by his own hand by driving his vehicle into a ravine. Shattered by what happened, Pascuzzi felt that God was calling him to write about this in some way -- a way that turned out to be a novel. In the end, this is a story of hope and redemption, but getting there required a sometimes-painful spiritual journey. If, after reading the book, you're interested in having Pascuzzi do a speaking engagement, you may contact Jon Edlin at 913-231-7333.

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What has made Pope Francis so popular? This Daily Beast article has some good ideas about all of that. And it gives me a chance to remind you that my next book, co-authored with my pastor, Dr. Paul T. Rock, will be out next summer from Westminster John Knox Press, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk Into a Bar: A Seven-Week Study. It will help Catholics, Protestants and others understand the Francis phenomenon and what all of us can learn from it about better ecumenical and interfaith relations.

A long Vatican effort on Cuba: 12-20-21-14

Josef Stalin, that brutal dictator, once dismissed a pope by asking how many divisions of soldiers the pontiff controlled.

Pope-ObamaIt was one-dimensional thinking, not uncommon for history's tyrants.

The reality in modern times is that the pope -- unarmed except for the Swiss Guard -- sometimes has been able to influence international politics in remarkable ways.

Perhaps the most prominent example in the 20th Century was Pope John Paul II's role in stirring up his native Poland and, ultimately, in helping to promote the collapse of communism in Europe.

But we saw another example this past week when President Barack Obama -- one of several presidents under pressure from a pope on this matter -- decided to re-establish normal diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Pope Francis has received considerable credit for influencing Obama's decision, but as this piece correctly notes, several previous popes have lobbied for better relations between the U.S. and Cuba. And it finally has paid off. (Here, by the way, is Time Magazine's account of how Pope Francis helped bring about the change.)

As the first piece to which I've linked you in the previous paragraph notes, "In 1998, Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit Cuba, and his even more hardline-conservative successor, Pope Benedict, also visited the island in 2012. . . .(T)he involvement of the Vatican in brokering the prisoner release and broader rapprochement announced Wednesday by President Obama is not an innovation of Pope Francis; it’s a continuation of work begun by his far more conservative predecessors."

I certainly am not unaware of opposition to Obama's move, particularly by some Cuban refugees now in the U.S. and by people who say, correctly, that the Castro (Fidel and then Raul) regime has treated its own people miserably. No denying that.

But it's also clear that more than half a century of U.S. policy has not really bettered the lives of the Cuban people. Maybe it's time to try this new approach. It surely can do no worse, especially if Pope Francis continues to make it a priority for world attention.

(The photo here today accompanied the Religious News Service story to which I linked you in the previous paragraph and carried this caption: "(RNS) President Obama bids farewell to Pope Francis after a private audience at the Vatican on March 27, 2014. Photo by Pete Souza, courtesy of the White House via Flickr")

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And speaking of Pope Francis, for his recent birthday he turned the tables and gave gifts to others -- namely 400 sleeping bags for Rome's homeless population. In one week he goes from diplomacy to ziplomacy. Nice.