We're number 27! (In church-going)

Written by Peter Smith on .

church attendance

Maybe it comes with being a maroon state, but Pennsylvania ranks 27th nationally on levels of church attendance -- far below Mormon Utah and the Bible Belt, but well above the more secular New England and Northwest.

That's according to a new, but not very surprising, survey released by Gallup. 

Joining us in the middle of the pack are neighboring West Virginia (20) and Ohio (24).

This particular report doesn't break down the numbers by county. I'm going to hazard a guess that people in Western and Central Pa. attend at higher rates than folks to the east.




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Global trends buffet Christian-Jewish relations

Written by Peter Smith on .

rudinMy story today on local Catholic-Jewish educational cooperation brings up a question:

Could efforts like this become a victim of their own success?

It's something to watch out for, said one of the veterans of long efforts to build such cooperation, Rabbi James Rudin. He's the senior interreligious adviser to the American Jewish Committee.

Rabbi Rudin spoke Feb. 11-12 at Rodef Shalom Congregation in forums that marked this year's he 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the landmark document of the Second Vatican Council that repudiated the long legacy of teachings of contempt against Jews.

The effort to pass that document, which involved lots of behind-the-scenes maneuvering at the Vatican, "was difficult, it was important, (and) all of its promise has not yet been fulfilled," said Rabbi Rudin.

But those were largely tactical challenges, he said. Those who want to continue its legacy need to be vigilant about sweeping changes of a more strategic nature.

Rabbi Rudin said when he speaks to younger generations, they know little about Nostra Aetate or the history of Catholic-Jewish relations, which are largely positive now. It's easy to see how these groups could get complacent about interfaith dialogue.

"Will it be marginalized, ... will it be trivialized?" he asked.

He paid tribute to the popes, rabbis and other leaders of the generation that brought about Nostra Aetate. But he said that, like World War II's "Greatest Generation," they are passing into history. 

"I call them the Moses generation. They are the ones who set in motion why we are here today," he said, employing biblical metaphors. "We're the Joshua generation. It's up to us to cross over and bring fulfillment to all they labored for."

But there are huge challenges -- demographic and geographic shifts in which most of the world's Christians are no longer in Europe or North America but in the Global South, even as the center of Jewish population concentrates in Israel.

"The problem for Jews is precisely the areas of greatest Christian growth are precisely the areas that ... there's no viable Jewish community for these growing Christian communities to relate to," he said.

"This is irreversible, and it's going to affect Christian-Jewish relations for the next century," he said. "We have Christians growing up where there's no vital Jewish population."

Then there's technology. People can form virtual churches, synagogues and study circles online rather than in "big box" sanctuaries, even beautiful ones. "They don't need rabbis, priests or pastors," he said. That means they won't be relying as much on the kind of leaders who worked toward Nostra Aetate, but it also means they can launch interfaith efforts online, without waiting for leaders.

On another note of grand historical trends, he cited recent news that Spain and Portugal have decided to offer citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled from their countries half a millennium ago.

"We who are historians (realize) you never say never, because you never know," he said.



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Eastern Catholics seek to keep the faith alive

Written by Peter Smith on .


One of the most striking things about my interviews with married clergy in the Eastern Catholic churches is that at least two of them didn't grow up Eastern Catholic.

One, the Rev. Jason Charron, a Ukrainian Catholic priest in Carnegie, didn't have any ethnic ties to Ukrainians. He grew up in the predominate Roman Catholic rite in Canada.

Similarly, Joseph Wargacki, a deacon studying for the priesthood at the SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, has no ties to the Ruthenian ethnic roots of the church.

But both found decisive moments in their religious lives when exposed to the rich liturgical tradition of those rites -- part of the same Byzantine liturgical tradition and spirituality shared by Orthodox Christians, with its roots in the ancient Greek capital of the eastern Roman Empire.* The liturgy, complete with the sensory overload of robust choral anthems, clouds of incense and an eyeful of iconography, is anchored around dramatic re-enactments of the biblical accounts of the heavenly worship of God and the earthly life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

"We kept coming back," Deacon Wargacki recalled of his and his wife's first encounters with the liturgy years ago. It was the "whole ball of wax, the beauty of the liturgy, the preaching."

What they and others are hoping for is a revival of their traditions following the pope's decree last year enabling the tradition of married clergy to be the norm in the Eastern Catholic diaspora -- that is, outside the homelands of such faiths areas stretching from Eastern Europe to parts of Asia. That's after a century of the practiced being repressed.

News of the restoration of the married priesthood also cheers Donald Warhola of Cranberry Township

. Even as the American melting pot poses challenges for Eastern Catholics, he and his family are keeping the tradition alive. 

He’s an active layperson at his Byzantine parish in Gibsonia and is raising his son (shown receiving communion above) in the Byzantine tradition.

“It’s sad to go into our churches and see fewer and fewer young people,” he said. Eastern Catholic churches, he said, can learn from non-denominational churches’ hospitality and social outreach.

But along with such innovations, what the Eastern Catholics can offer is tradition. 

“I like that it hasn’t modernized, knowing this liturgy is the same as it was a thousand years ago,” said Mr. Warhola, who works at the Andy Warhol Museum, dedicated to the art of his late uncle, himself a committed Byzantine Catholic.

Allowing married priests, Mr. Warhola said, will help the “Byzantine Catholic faith do whatever is necessary to remain viable.”

For a longer profile on the extended Warhola family's faith traditions, see the story by my colleague Mark Roth here.

* Not all Eastern Catholics are in the Byzantine tradition, but the Byzantine (historically Ruthenian), Ukrainian, Romanian, Melkite and perhaps others are. Still other Eastern Catholics have their parallels in Arabic, Armenian, Indian and other rites. Then there's the more recent Anglican rite, a Western tradition, which is another story. There are lots of other stories here.

Photo by Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette




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One degree of Thomas Merton

Written by Peter Smith on .

On today's centenary of the birth of Thomas Merton, the vastly influential Roman Catholic monk and author, it's worth remembering that he didn't just write classic books and think provocative thoughts. He also kept remarkable company. Amazingly so, for a cloistered monk who spent his last years as a hermit -- if you can call him that for all the visitors that came and went from his little hut in the Kentucky woods. 

My article on the legacy of Merton at 100 is here

In fact, you can make a strong case that more than anyone else, you can tell the story of 20th century intellectual and cultural life through the story of Thomas Merton. 

The list of his contacts is encyclopedic. You can look them up in the Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, a book that really exists and that is deserved by Merton as it is by few other authors.

Among Merton's contacts: French philosopher Jacques Maritain, with whom he corresponded and whom he hosted at his hermitage, spending some of the time listening to a Bob Dylan album; Russian novelist Boris Pasternak, with whom he corresponded across the Iron Curtain; Islamic Sufis such as Abdul Aziz; Buddhist luminaries such as D.T. Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh; and even folk singer Joan Baez, who visited him at the hermitage and with whom he hopefully didn't discuss Bob Dylan.

Wanting to learn photography, Merton drew on the help and darkroom expertise of the remarkable photographer John Howard Griffin -- whose life story is one of the most amazing even in that century of amazing biographies, only partly due to his "Black Like Me" Odyssey. Griffin took some of the best portraits of Merton, and developed and printed many of the monks' own meditative photos, including one of Merton's last, overlooking a Bangkok harbor, in a scene resembling Merton's description of a dream of his impending death.

 And as if a friendship with one remarkable photographer were enough, Merton also had a close one with Ralph Eugene Meatyard, about whom a poignant play has been written and who took many remarkable Merton portraits. Among the photos is one of Merton hosting a poetry reading at his hermitage with poets Denise Levertov and a young Wendell Berry, who has more than inherited Merton's mantle with his literary/social critiques nourished in the Kentucky soil.

You could call Merton the Zelig or Forest Gump of the 20th century religious world, but the difference is that these fictional characters had no clue about all the impressive people they were interacting with. Merton knew, and engaged deeply with them.

Here's another measure. At the end of the 20th century, the public-broadcasting show Religion & Ethics Newsweekly had an expert panel select the 25 religious figures who most influenced America in the 20th century, Merton was on the list, one of only six Catholics in total and one of only two American Catholics.

But what's more remarkable is how many others on the list he interacted with.

The Catholic social activist Dorothy Day was one of his early inspirations and a longtime correspondent. Later on, Merton corresponded with and hosted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a figure of titanic influence in articulating Judaism's bond of spirituality and socially prophetic voice. Heschel had been working behind the scenes with Catholics drafting the landmark document Nostra Aetate, which opened a warmer era of Catholic-Jewish ties. But there were challenges from bishops who wanted the document to insert language reaffirming the longstanding Catholic goal of converting Jews to Christianity. Merton, after meeting with Heschel, wrote to the cardinal drafting the document, encouraging him to stay with the more inclusive version, which ultimately was approved by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

Another figure on that list was the Dalai Lama, with whom Merton met in India and formed a deep bond just weeks before Merton's accidental death in Bangkok.

"I always considered him a strong bridge between Buddhism and Christianity," the Dalai Lama said years later in a visit to Merton's Abbey of Gethsemani. "His sudden death was a great loss."

Merton also wrote to another person on the PBS list, Pope John XXIII, encouraging his reforms. Scholars have speculated whether Merton influenced John's landmark peace encyclical, "Pacem in terris," but both John and later Pope John Paul II (also on the list) are known to have been familiar with Merton's works.

A mutual friend was also working on arranging a visit by the Rev. Martin Luther King (also on the list) and Coretta Scott King to the hermitage in early 1968. Plans didn't materialize, but they hoped to arrange a meeting later. Neither would survive that traumatic year. Their legacies are still unfolding.



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