TIME Religion

Why Pope Francis Is Obsessed With Mary

Statue of Mary in a church
Rafael Belincanta/EyeEm—Getty Images Statue of Mary in a church

Christopher Hale is executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

If women can lead the church on the ground, why can’t they have a seat at the table?

Today, Christians around the world celebrate the ancient Marian Feast of the Annunciation. Falling nine months before Christmas, this holy day commemorates Jesus’s conception in Mary’s womb. Of particular focus is Mary’s courageous choice to say “yes” to God’s invitation to be the mother of Jesus.

Devotion to Mary is an integral part of being Catholic. It also plays a poignant role in the life of Pope Francis, who is known to pray the rosary three times a day.

A pope dedicated to Mary is about as guaranteed as a pope who is Catholic. But Francis’s Marian devotion stands apart from his predecessors for one reason: Francis’s conception of Mary is not just as the meek mother of God, but also as a strong and courageous leader of the faith.

While studying in Germany in the late 1980s, the future pope, then named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, developed an affinity for the baroque painting “Mary Untier of Knots.” The work depicts Mary untying a knotted rope while stomping her foot on a serpent. The message of the painting is clear: Mary solves problems, heals divisions, and defeats evil.

Moved by the painting, Pope Francis brought it back to Argentina and created a popular devotion to Mary Untier of Knots. One can say with confidence that the same Mary now stands as his patron as he navigates the church’s way forward during an exciting, uncertain time.

One issue that Francis must contend with is the leadership role of women within the church. While Francis has led the church’s ongoing evolution on its pastoral care of the LGBT community, not nearly as much progress has been made on church’s inclusion of women.

This is unfortunate. While men make up the hierarchy of the church, women play important roles. For example, women teach children, serve the poor in soup kitchens and social-service agencies and minister to the sick. Christians should look to these strong women for leadership. If women can lead the church on the ground, why can’t they have a seat at the table?

After all, that was the way it was in the beginning.

After Jesus’ death, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to remove his body. On the way there, she encountered a gardener. The gardener revealed himself to be the risen Christ. As Mary ran to tell the other disciples the good news, she held within her the very reason of the church: to share God’s saving love in Jesus. In that moment, some argue that she was the church.

If the Catholic Church is going to have a future, it must rediscover these radical roots. A church without women in leadership is a church without a future.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME viral

Did the ‘Face of Jesus’ Appear in a Colombian Rockslide?

A landslide in Colombia has reportedly yielded what some are calling a miracle — the face of Jesus, etched on a hillside.

So many worshippers came to the site in Putumayo that police have been brought in to manage the crowd, Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reports, and some locals have begun charging the pilgrims to see the face.

“If you believe in Jesus, you will see your image,” Ximena Rosero Arango, one of the people who came to the site, told the newspaper. The image has also been making the rounds on social media since Saturday, when the crowds first began arriving.

If the image is real it would be a departure for the Son of God; usually, the countenance divine is revealed in foodstuffs.

[El Tiempo]

TIME Religion

Lincoln and the Jews

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

For Lincoln, the inclination to acceptance culminated in the emancipation proclamation

“One of my most valued friends.” In all of the writings of Abraham Lincoln, we find that phrase used only once. It refers to Abraham Jonas, who was a Jew.

In a world where hatred or suspicion of Jews was near universal, our greatest President proves singularly free of this ancient prejudice. A remarkable feature of the lavishly illustrated and beautifully written work, Lincoln and the Jews by Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell, is to learn anew how many Jews Lincoln befriended in his too brief life and the consistency with which he opposed the common anti-Semitism of his time. Growing up, Lincoln knew no Jews, other than those whom he met in the pages of his well-thumbed Bible. Yet his was not a grudging admission of Jewish legitimacy but a genuine liking and even admiration. He even justified the appointment of one assistant quartermaster because he was Jewish: “I believe we have not yet appointed a Hebrew.” In fact, he had, but this appointment, Moise Levy, was a well known and traditional Jew, and the son-in-law of a prominent Rabbi.

Most famously, Lincoln countermanded General Grant’s General order #11, which literally banished Jews “as a class” from his war zone, from the Mississippi river to the Tennessee river, and from Northern Mississippi to Cairo Illinois. Although meliorative explanations have been offered for Grant, his rhetoric and order were discriminatory at best. Lincoln’s other Generals like Butler and McClellan, expressed anti-Semitic sentiments even more openly.

A delegation of Jews went to the White House before Grant’s order could be carried out. The exchange that follows shows both Lincoln’s immersion in the Bible, his characteristically sprightly manner of dealing with even serious issues, and his sense of responsibility for the Jewish community. After recounting Grant’s action, the Jewish Spokesperson Cesar Kaskel gratefully heard the President’s response:

Lincoln: And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?

Kaskel: Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, seeking protection.

Lincoln: And this protection they shall have at once.

Lincoln immediately countermanded Grant’s order.

Some 70 years before, George Washington sent a letter to the Hebrew congregation at Newport, in which he too used biblical imagery, that of Isaiah, assuring the Jews of that community and by extension, throughout the newly created nation that, “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Both men, the founder of the nation and its savior were distinguished by their acceptance of Jews. Narrowing the boundaries of acceptance would fracture the nation one strove to create and the other to unite.

For Lincoln, the inclination to acceptance culminated in the emancipation proclamation. Throughout his life he was capable of judging individuals; when Frederick Douglass visited Lincoln in the White House he declared that while he was not satisfied with the President’s views, he was “well satisfied with the man.”

Lincoln and the Jews is filled with rare photographs and letters that tell the story of a man who himself defied the limitations of his time, and whose strength of character altered the nation’s destiny.

Lincoln was shot on Friday night and declared dead on Saturday morning. As a result Jews all over the country heard the news in synagogue. In New York’s Temple Emanu-El, the NY Times reported, people spontaneously rose to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. It was fitting: Not only had the nation lost its President and presiding spirit, but the Jewish people knew they had lost a great man, and a great friend.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

This Cathedral Will Stop Drenching Homeless People in Water

St. Mary's Church in San Francisco, Ca.
Getty Images St. Mary's Church in San Francisco, Ca.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco called the system "ill-conceived"

A cathedral in San Francisco will stop pouring water on homeless people to prevent them from sleeping in its doorways after the method incited public outrage.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Archdiocese of San Francisco called the sprinkler system at Saint Mary’s Cathedral “ill-conceived” and added, “The purpose was to make the Cathedral grounds as well as the homeless people who happen to be on those grounds safer… It actually has had the opposite effect from what it was intended to do, and for this we are very sorry.”

The controversial system sparked a backlash, with Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, calling it “very shocking, and very inhumane,” reports CBS San Francisco.

The system could also be illegal. The San Francisco Department of Building Inspection issued a notice of violation for “the unpermitted downspout,” according to the Washington Post. The cathedral has said it has already begun removing the system.

TIME Religion

3 Other Christian Denominations That Allow Gay Marriage

The Presbyterian Church (USA) formally recognized same-sex marriages Tuesday

On Tuesday the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to redefine marriage as “a commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” formally allowing same-sex marriages within the church. The vote to modify the church constitution follows last year’s recommendation from the church’s General Assembly.

Here’s are other major churches in the U.S. that allow same-sex marriage:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America allows same-sex couples to get married, but leaves it up to individual ministers of congregations to decide, according to a 2009 resolution. “There is nothing that prescribes who a congregation pastor can marry or not marry, so long as it is consistent with state law,” ELCA Secretary David Swartling said in 2012.

The Episcopal Church established a rite of blessing for same-sex couples in 2012 and prohibited discrimination against transgender people. It has welcomed gay people since 1976, when its General Convention decided that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.” Technically it has no official policy sanctioning same-sex marriage, but it will take up the issue in June.

The United Church of Christ has allowed same-sex couples to get married since 2005. At the 25th General Synod of the United Church of Christ in Atlanta, it “affirm[ed] equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage.” It was the first major Protestant denomination to do so.

TIME faith

Presbyterian Church Votes to Recognize Same-Sex Marriage

The church redefines marriage to include "a commitment between two people"

Correction appended, March 18

The Presbyterian Church (USA) made a historic decision Tuesday night to formally recognize gay marriage and allow same-sex couples to marry in its congregations.

The largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. voted to redefine the church constitution on marriage to include “a commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” the New York Times reports.

The vote, which was approved by a majority of the church’s 171 regional bodies (or presbyteries), cements a recommendation made last year by its General Assembly. As of Tuesday night, the vote stood at 87 presbyteries in favor to 41 against with one tied.

“Finally, the church in its constitutional documents fully recognizes that the love of gays and lesbian couples is worth celebrating in the faith community,” Rev. Brian D. Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which advocates for the inclusion of gay people in the church, told the Times.

There is a provision that states no clergy would be compelled to preside over a same-sex marriage.

The denomination has some 1.8 million members and about 10,000 congregations.

[NYT]

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described the Presbyterian Church (USA). It is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S.

TIME Burma

Burma Jails New Zealander for ‘Insulting Buddhism’ in Facebook Post

Phil Blackwood, a bar manager from New Zealand, comes out of court after being sentenced to two and half years in prison, at Bahan township court in Yangon on March 17, 2015.
Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters Phil Blackwood, a bar manager from New Zealand, comes out of court after being sentenced to two and half years in prison, at Bahan township court in Yangon on March 17, 2015.

Two Burmese were also jailed in what critics deem the latest instance of spiraling religious intolerance in the Southeast Asian nation

A Burmese court sentenced a New Zealand citizen and two Burmese nationals to 2½ years in prison with hard labor for posting a promotional advert on social media that depicted the Buddha wearing headphones.

State prosecutors claimed the image posted last year on the Facebook page of V Gastro bar, where Phil Blackwood worked as the general manager, was an insult to the Buddhist religion.

The establishment later issued an apology for causing offense, but Blackwood, along with the bar’s Burmese owner Tun Thurein and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, were arrested on Dec. 10 and have been held in Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison ever since.

Ahead of Tuesday’s decision, the visibly disheveled Blackwood still appeared optimistic.

“Well, hopefully a bit of justice is going to happen,” Blackwood told the BBC as he was frog-marched into court by police.

Hours later, activists panned the decision that they say further erodes freedom of expression and promotes growing religious intolerance in the former military state.

“That these three men acted in a culturally insensitive way by posting the Buddha with headphones image on Facebook is obvious, but that is nothing they should have been hauled into court for, much less sent to prison,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Burma has been rocked by myriad bouts of ethnosectarian violence pitting Buddhist extremist against the nation’s tiny Muslim minority since the country’s ruling military junta unveiled political reforms in late 2011.

The nationalist movement, known locally as 969, has helped bolster a growing wave of Buddhist chauvinism throughout the country. Nevertheless, over 90% of respondents to a poll conducted by local media outlet DVB said the V Gastro trio did not deserve to be jailed.

Analysts say Tuesday’s court decision may also be used to shore up political capital for potential candidates ahead of Burma’s national elections later this year.

“This is an election year and religion is already being used for political purposes,” Matthew Smith, executive director of the Fortify Rights advocacy group, tells TIME. “It’s become a race to the bottom to determine who is a stronger defender of conservative Buddhism, and that’s dangerous territory to be entering.”

TIME Religion

I’m Proud To Be a Transgender Catholic

Reflection of man and crucifix in city puddle
Getty Images

Nick Stevens is a Loretto Volunteer working for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good in Washington, DC.

Pope Francis welcomed a transgender visitor with open arms. Now, the rest of the Church needs to follow his lead.

In January, Pope Francis held a private audience with a transgender man from Spain. After learning that Diego Neria Lejárraga’s parish and local church officials rejected him after his transition from female to male, Pope Francis spoke to him several times on the phone before inviting him to Rome. When Diego asked if there was room for him in God’s church, Pope Francis embraced him.

Under Francis’s inclusive leadership, Lejárraga now has more hope for his community’s future. As a transgender Catholic, I agree.

The Catholic Church has been a consistent presence in my life. I grew up in St. Louis, one of the most vibrant Catholic cities in the nation. Although I wasn’t baptized at birth, nor raised in the faith, I still encountered the Church at several points during my youth.

But, it was during my college years that my acquaintance with the faith grew into a friendship. After attending Mass almost every Sunday during my freshman year at a local Catholic university, Fontbonne, I felt called by God to receive the Easter Sacraments and to join the Church.

This wasn’t the only transition I underwent in college. I came to school as Jes, a compassionate, but at times confused, young female searching for a way through school. I left Fontbonne as Nick, a young Catholic man who was more confident going out into the world.

During my transition from female to male, I was often confused with and mad at God. I didn’t understand why I had been born in the wrong body. This anger and confusion with how God had made me seeped into my daily life. I often wasn’t present to my friends and their needs, and I lost a sense of who and what mattered to me.

During this struggle, I closed myself off to God. But God never tired of pursuing me, and eventually we rekindled our relationship. It was at this point that I relearned one of the basic truths of our faith: that God created me, that God loves me, and that God accompanies me. The Lord already knew that I wasn’t accepting a part of myself, but once I told God how broken I felt, he showed me how loved I was.

Admittedly, the Catholic Church isn’t historically known as the most welcoming place for the LGBT community. But I found many Catholics who continued to love me and walk beside me in my journey.

My best friend and current partner—who grew up Catholic—was one of the first friends I came out to. I believe that she spoke the words that the Lord needed me to hear: that God made us to be who we are, and if we aren’t being true to ourselves, then we aren’t being true to God. Her acceptance was a testament to God’s unfailing love, and it allowed me to be true to myself.

As I took the steps to come out to my peers, I was slowly gaining the courage I needed to come out to my family. But I was still especially scared to come out to my grandma, who had raised both of her boys in a traditional Catholic home. Much to my surprise, she already knew what I struggled to say, and made it clear that her love for me was without condition. With tears in her eyes, she told me that male or female, I was hers and had a home in her heart.

Besides my family, my biggest supporters came from the community I formed during college. A Catholic university, Fontbonne allowed me to become a leader in an inclusive and diverse environment.

As the student body president, I interacted with a lot of people on campus, which created a very difficult coming out process. I was afraid that many of those I befriended or worked with at Fontbonne would reject me. Luckily, that wasn’t the case at all. Even the president of the college accepted and welcomed my transition.

Sadly, this isn’t always true. Too often, Christians do not make a home for the LGBT community. For every Fontbonne, there are examples of social exclusion from the Church. Until the entire Church is willing to be as inclusive as Fontbonne—and Pope Francis—transgender people will continue to experience the pain of being excluded.

Now is the time to make Pope Francis’s dream our lived reality. As he recently tweeted, “Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.”

Read next: This Transgender Teen Is the New Face of Clean & Clear

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Pope Francis Has Taught the Church To Thrive Again

Christopher Hale is executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

From the moment he appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s in a simple white cassock, we knew that Francis was a game changer

Two years after the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, the Catholic Church is back.

From the moment he appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s in a simple white cassock, we knew that Francis was a game changer.

Images immediately went viral of the newly elected Vicar of Christ washing the feet of AIDS patients, riding the bus in Buenos Aires and ministering to God’s people living in the slums. In the two years since, Francis has again and again reminded us of that troublemaker who founded the faith, Jesus of Nazareth. Then again, I guess that’s the point.

Pundits suggested that the Jesuit from Argentina would change his ways to adapt to the papacy. To the contrary, he has stayed the same priest and man of the poor that he always was and instead has transformed both the papacy and the Church.

I’ve experienced this transformation in my own life. Inspired by the Pope’s leadership, I quit my job in politics and took over the leadership of a Catholic organization dedicated to promoting the Church’s social justice agenda in public life.

I’m not alone. There are stories everywhere of young and not-so-young Christians responding in even more radical ways to Francis’s call to spread the joy of knowing Jesus and his great Gospel of justice, peace and mercy.

Why has Francis resonated with his contemporaries? I think there are three reasons:

He leads with mercy. The words from his first Sunday message as the Bishop of Rome still ring in my ears: “God never tires of forgiving us, but we sometimes tire of asking Him to forgive us.

Mercy is God’s most beautiful attribute. And Francis understands during this time of crisis where too many times the Church has failed to communicate God’s unfailing love for us, we must re-present the basic truths of our faith: that we are children of the God. The Lord loves us. Jesus Christ saves us. The Pope cherishes us, and the Church welcomes us.

Some of Francis’s detractors argue that this is soft. Nonsense! This is our faith, and this is the faith of the Church.

He leads with authentic joy. “I cannot imagine,” Pope Francis says, “a Christian who doesn’t know how to smile.” Yet the Pope complains that too many peoples’ lives “seem like Lent without Easter.” He says that we mustn’t always “look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!”

Erich Fromm once offered this critique of modern men and women: “Today we come across an individual who behaves like an automaton, who does not know or understand himself, and the only person that he knows is the person that he is supposed to be, whose meaningless chatter has replaced communicative speech, whose synthetic smile has replaced genuine laughter, and whose sense of dull despair has taken the place of genuine pain.”

Francis—from his joy of knowing Jesus—cannot be accused of such a thing. When he encounters men and women, you know his smile is real, that his tears are authentic and that his love is inspired.

He leads with humility. Pope Francis says a good priest is someone who is so close to his people that he becomes a“shepherd living with the smell of the sheep.” He has exemplified this ideal in his own pontificate. He rejected the apostolic palace. He washed the feet of Muslim women. He affirmed God’s love for the LGBT community. And the list could go on and on.

But Francis isn’t doing this for publicity. He believes that this outward focus must be the prominent disposition of the entire Christian community: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Paul Rauschenberg said it well some time ago: Pope Francis has made it cool to be Christian again. His pontificate is allowing the world to rediscover the great contribution of faith to culture and civic society.

At the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin once arrogantly asked Winston Churchill: “How many divisions does the Pope have?”

In 2015, we have our answer: The Soviet Union is dead and the Catholic Church is alive.

And with Francis leading the flock, the Church isn’t just alive. It’s thriving once again. The angel Gabriel must have been right then: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Military

Air Force Security No Longer Banned From Saying ‘Have A Blessed Day’

The greeting was briefly changed to "have a nice day"

After a brief hiatus, Air Force security guards at a Georgia Air Force base can once again wish visitors a “blessed day” after a rule change stemming from a complaint was overturned Thursday.

Mikey Weinstein, CEO of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, spoke with officials after receiving comments from 13 service personnel — nine of whom were practicing Christians. He convinced a commander to change the greeting to “have a nice day,” the Air Force Times reports.

News of the rule change at Robins Air Force Base quickly went viral, prompting officials to review the decision and eventually have it reversed.

“The Air Force takes any expressed concern over religious freedom very seriously … ‘have a blessed day’ as a greeting is consistent with Air Force standards and is not in violation of Air Force Instructions,” the Air Force said in a statement.

Weinstein said he plans to consult with lawyers to discern if any of his company’s clients wish to sue over the matter.

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