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Unlike in 2018, Pittsburgh was not the center of the religion-news universe in 2019, for which we can be grateful. And yet there are eerie parallels between last year and this in the annual surveys of the top religion stories of the year as voted by members of the Religion News Association.
In 2018, voters said the top story of the year was the Pennsylvania grand jury report into sexual abuse into Pittsburgh's and five other Roman Catholic dioceses, which prompted numerous similar probes around the country.
This year, the top story was a Houston Chronicle investigation into hundreds of cases of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention, which is still trying to figure out what to do about it. It represents the second-largest religious body in the United States, behind the Catholics.
In 2018, voters chose the second highest ranked news story to be the Tree of Life synagogue massacre here in Pittsburgh.
This year, it was another massacre in sacred place, this one the killings of Muslim worshipers at mosques in New Zealand.
In all, my top-10 list included six of those selected by my colleagues, although in very different orders. In addition to SBC abuse and New Zealand, I joined my colleagues in selecting the United Methodist Church's vote to uphold bans on gay marriage and clergy, resurgent anti-Semitic violence, Hindu nationalist moves in India and the Notre-Dam cathedral fire, which I actually selected as the top story.
My top 10 didn't include my colleagues' selections of the continued evangelical support of President Trump, the continued rise of the Nones, the controversial start of the tenures of the first Muslim congresswomen or the disciplining of Catholic hierarchs such as ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick (defrocked), Buffalo Bishop Joseph Malone (resigned under pressure) or West Virginia's former bishop Michael Bransfield (denounced).
Instead, my top 10 included two other reverberations of the Catholic sex-abuse crisis -- new policies promulgated by Pope Francis and adopted by U.S. bishops, and states' expansions of statutes of limitations to lawsuits over decades-old abuse against not just the Catholic Church but other churches, yeshivas, scouting organizations, etc. And I picked the untimely death of renegade evangelical author Rachel Held Evans and the remarkably seismic grief it sent through the progressive religious community. And I picked the Sri Lankan church massacre, which I saw as a distinct but inseparable part of the story that also included the New Zealand mosque attack.
(For disclosure purposes, I'm current president of RNA, and I help put together these ballots each year. RNA members, who are journalists covering religion, take it from there)
As for newsmakers of the year, I didn't join my colleagues in selecting Democratic U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who took office as the first Muslim congresswoman and immediately took center stage in bitter controversies challenging the bipartisan consensus on U.S. aid to Israel.
Instead, I selected the life-risking heroes of the Notre-Dame cathedral fire. My second was Rachel Held Evans, while my colleagues chose Pope Francis. We agreed on the third, Rachael Denhollander, Southern Baptist advocate for victims of sexual abuse.
Obviously certain story lines hit one person more than others, and for me in 2019 that was Notre-Dame. That's OK. Voters have spoken.
As for my own work, the year was really dominated by three story lines: Follow-up to the Tree of Life massacre and the grand jury into abuse among Catholics, and our investigation into sexual abuse among the Amish, Mennonites and other Plain People. All dark topics, yet all involve unsung people trying to shine some light in the darkness. When it comes to my favorite story to write, however, it was something that has nothing directly to do with my line of work, except that anything that brings joy to the world can be considered a righteous act.
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I was sorry to hear the news of the passing of Brother Patrick Hart, who was the last secretary to fellow Trappist monk Thomas Merton and who went on to edit and write works by and about Merton.
I had a handful of encounters with Brother Patrick over the years and always knew him as a gracious, welcoming presence at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky.
The following is adapted from an unpublished reflection I wrote after attending a conference at Gethsemani in 1996 between prominent Catholic and Buddhist leaders, including the Dalai Lama, who had befriended Merton shortly before the latter's sudden death on a trip to Asia in 1968. The following is written in the present tense as of 1996:
Throughout the week, groups of us went out to visit Merton's hermitage in the woods, receiving a guided tour by Brother Patrick Hart, who served as Merton's last secretary and who was then involved in the mammoth effort to edit seven volumes of Merton's journals.
Even the sparse furnishings of the hermitage, which remains largely as Merton left it, testify to the man's extraordinarily eclectic vision. There was one noteworthy difference: "It wasn't as neat as this," said Brother Patrick. "He wasn't a very good housekeeper. That wasn't his charism."
Merton had a simple bed, and in his kitchen, wall hangings included a picture of the Shaker tree of life and a framed Latin blessing from the pope. His living room had a fireplace, a woodstove, a Shaker-style desk made by a friend, and a small bookshelf whose contents included a work on Celtic monasticism and a book titled, Philo Kalia. The tiny chapel where Merton said Mass every day included several icons, a Navajo rug given by a friend, and a ceramic crucifix made by his friend Ernesto Cardenal.
[Note: Cardenal left the monastery and went on to join the Sandinista government in his native Nicaragua; that got him suspended by Pope John Paul II after a dramatic airport tarmac confrontation between the leftist priest and the anti-communist pope (google the photo). Just in the past few days, Pope Francis lifted that suspension on the now elderly Cardenal.]
"When did he (Merton) find time to write?" someone asked. Merton's output of books and articles is mind-boggling considering the amount of time spent in scholarship, prayer, chores and even a relationship with a nurse he met during a hospitalization.
"We think he wrote in his sleep," said Brother Patrick on a tour of the hermitage. "He used to walk for hours in the woods and then come back and bang them out."
Patrick told us his fondest memory was the last day before Merton's trip, when he said Mass for five monks in the hermitage. Afterward, the group polished off the remainder of the communion wine bottle. "He said, we can't leave half a bottle of communion wine till I come back in six months," Patrick said.
Merton never came back, and though there was no leftover bottle, there was enough leftover business from Merton's literary legacy to occupy Brother Patrick for much of the rest of his lift.