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Death Experts Meet At Unique Conference

Jaweed Kaleem   |   April 26, 2013    7:07 PM ET

LOS ANGELES -- As a ceremonial officiant who specializes in helping people grieving over death use spiritual and secular rituals to mourn, Candice Courtney often finds that her work makes her the odd one out in her Scottsdale, Ariz., neighborhood. Since her husband died 14 years ago, Courtney has made a living speaking and writing about grief and death, and has written a book, Healing Through Illness, Living Through Dying -- a title that usually requires a bit of an explanation.

So when she arrived in Southern California this week to join 600 grief counselors, chaplains, academics, clinicians, social workers, funeral directors and hospice volunteers who had come to one of the nation's few death-centered conferences, Courtney said she was a tad overwhelmed.

"People are so afraid of death and dying that it prevents them from being present," said Courtney, fresh from a workshop on Turkish death and grieving rituals. "But right here, right now, I feel I'm among my own."

Every week, hundreds of convention centers across the U.S. are booked by professional groups, but the the one Los Angeles this week was unique. At the Association for Death Education and Counseling conference, at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, some of the nation's leading thanatologists -- people who study death for a living -- gathered to discuss what's new in one of the oldest experiences that all that all of the living share: the inevitable demise.

"We can talk openly about things for many people that they don't even want to think about," said Robert Zucker, a family counselor who specializes in helping parents who have have had loved ones die cope with their own losses and nurture grieving children. Zucker had traveled from suburban Boston to attend the conference, where organizers offered dozens of events on nearly every aspect of how people die and what happens afterward.

"It's tremendous to get this sort of input from all sorts of perspectives in thanatology," said Zucker, who attended workshops Thursday on Latino grief styles and funeral rituals, and how Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism interplay when it comes to death rites and grief in Malaysia.

Other events ranged from personal story presentations ("Laughing in the Face of Death: Comedies for Funeral Planning," showed how humor can be used alleviate some of the negative feelings around death), academic papers ("Healing the Wounded Self: A Feminine Psychology of Mourning"), teach-ins on spiritual and physical techniques in mourning ("Yoga: A Somatic Tool for Transforming Grief"), and art and activism centered around how to bring death to the forefront of everyday conversations ("Tea, Cake and the Death Cafe") and how the nation's health care systems deal with death.

On information tables outside the sessions, flyers advertised books, classes, and attractions that might interest the death-aware: organ donation, degree programs in thanatology, a "Heal Grief" iPhone application, and Dearly Departed, a tour of where celebrities have died in Hollywood.

But while attendees described their experience as fun and enriching, they said the theme of the convention was one of the most serious: how to better live, better die, and make the pain of death for those whose loved ones die the best and most productive experience it can be. The meeting was the Association for Death Education and Counseling's 35th conference since the group formed in 1976, and organizers said membership and attendance has increased as resources for death and grieving have grown and become more diverse. The group has about 1,800 members, most in the U.S.

"It's a wonderful, loving community of those who truly understand the wounds of the heart," said Bonnie Carroll, a former member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling board who is president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a national veteran's service organization based in Washington.

Carroll founded the veterans' group after her husband died in an Army C-12 plane crash in Alaska in 1992. Speaking of the families of dead veterans she counsels, as well as like-minded colleagues who had come this week, Carroll reflected on the gathering.

"There's nothing more life-affirming than working with those who have truly looked at death in the face," she said.

Bombers' Muslim Background Offers Few Clues To Crime

Jaweed Kaleem   |   April 19, 2013    1:02 PM ET

As police continue a manhunt Friday throughout Boston for the remaining living suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings after a deadly shootout near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge Thursday night, information continues to surface about Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, and his slain brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26.

Both had moved to the U.S. over 10 years ago from the Russian area near Chechnya, said an uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who lives Montgomery Village, Md., in interviews with news reporters. Social media accounts and interviews with friends point to both men being Muslims with an interest in Islamic insurgency movements in their homeland.

But the motives that led the men to the killings still remain unknown.

Chechnya declared independence in 1991 from and subsequently fought two wars against Russia, but eventually was brought back under Russian control. The area is predominately Muslim, and militants there and in Russia's North Caucasus have led attacks and bombings in Moscow and other cities for two decades. It's unclear whether either or both suspects supported that movement or other religious-based movements.

Peter Krause, a political science professor and terrorism expert at Boston College, said that the few details about the mens' backgrounds could point to several possible motivations.

"They are from Chechnya, but you could be American, Japanese, whatever, and it doesn't mean what you do is based on your nationality. They could be committing this for personal reasons or political reasons," he said. "It could be that these individuals are not affiliated with any organization or trained by them. They could be upset about their homeland, they could have thought of this as part of a larger assault against the west or Christianity by Islam -- that is heard among Chechen terrorists sometimes. You've had Al Qaeda fighters train in Chechnya, and Al Qaeda has been looking for more European-looking individuals to blend into society."

On Russian social networking site Vkontakte, the younger brother, Dzhokhar, has a profile last updated in mid-2012 in which he describes his "world view" as "Islam" and his "personal priority" as "career and money," and lists him as a member of the groups "CHECHEN'S" and "All about Chechnya Chechen Republic." The link for the second group leads to a page with the URL that includes the words "free_chechnya." Dzhokhar's profile page also has the words "Do good, because Allah loves those who do good."

The brothers were schooled in the U.S., and Dzhokhar graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in 2011. He won a $2,500 college scholarship from the city of Cambridge.

In interviews with networks on Thursday, relatives of the men were shocked about the attacks.

"I can't believe this, it's not possible," Alvi Tsarni, another uncle of the men who lives in Maryland, told CBS in a short interview.

When asked about what in the suspects' background could have led them to commit the bombing, Raslan Tsarni told MSNBC, "It has nothing to do with them being Muslim. They're losers ... anything to do with Islam, with religion is a fraud, is a fake." Their aunt, Maret Tsarnaeva, who lives in Toronto, told the Associated Press that Tamerlan was married and had a 3-year-old daughter in the U.S. She added that "recently, maybe two years ago, he started praying five times a day."

Separately, the suspects' father, Anzor Tsarnaev, said in an interview with the Associated Press that his younger son was a medical student who was a "true angel."

On CNN, a high school classmate described Dzhokhar as "just as American as I am or anyone else ... Smokes a little weed here and there." (Drug use is frowned upon in Islam).

A friend at Dzhokhar's high school told the Boston Globe that he last saw the suspect during Ramadan last summer at the Islamic Society of Boston building in Cambridge. Calls made by The Huffington Post to that mosque and other mosques in the Boston and Cambridge areas went unanswered.

A photo essay titled "Will Box for Passport" of Tamerlan, published in April 2009 before he competed at the National Golden Gloves competition in Salt Lake City, offered additional personal details about the suspect. (The photo essay has since been taken offline.)

In it, photographer Johannes Hirn reports that Tamerlan was a student at Bunker Hill Community College, wanted to become an engineer and had a girlfriend who had converted to Islam for him.

"Unless his native Chechnya becomes independent, Tamerlan says he would rather compete for the United States than for Russia," Hirn wrote in the profile, alluding to Tamerlan's aspirations to compete for the U.S. boxing team.

"I'm very religious," Tamerlan said in another part of the essay, adding that, as a Muslim, he doesn't drink alcohol. "There are no values anymore," he observed, and "people can't control themselves."

Regarding friendships, Tamerlan, who had lived in the U.S. for five years, said, "I don't have a single American friend. I don't understand them."

Slate reports to have found Tamerlan's wishlist, which includes the following titles: How to Make Driver's Licenses and Other ID on Your Home Computer; The I.D. Forger: Homemade Birth Certificates & ​Other Documents Explained; Secrets Of A Back Alley ID Man: Fake Id Construction Techniques Of The Underground; The Lone Wolf And the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule; Organized Crime: An Inside Guide To The World's Most Successful Industry and How to Win Friends & Influ​ence People.

A YouTube account, which has operated under the username Tamerlan Tsarnaev since January but has not been verified as belonging to the suspect, also linked to a sermon by Feiz Mohammad, a Lebanese-born Australian Salafist preacher who has called on Muslims to join holy war. Mohammad has also called for Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who has compared Islam to Nazism, to be beheaded. Prior to January, the account was listed under the username "muazseyfullah."

On the Twitter account @j_tsar, which many news organizations have reported as belonging to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a history of tweets includes a handful of references to his Islamic faith.

"When we consider prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) as our role model that's when we achieve true success & a path to Jannah," the user tweeted on Jan. 19 in response to Ismail Menk, an Islamic sheik in Zimbabwe who he follows. Menk had tweeted: "When parents are the role models of their children, there is a greater chance of them developing & achieving much more."

The user's last update was also a retweet of Menk: "Attitude can take away your beauty no matter how good looking you are or it could enhance your beauty, making you adorable."

In an email interview with HuffPost reporter Matt Sledge, Menk said it was "with absolute sadness and disgust that I came to hear about the unacceptable atrocity against innocent lives." He added, "I have no clue who the suspect is, hence I have never had dealings with him and I am very careful of the type of people I associate with or even respond to."

Last year, Dzohokar also retweeted a Huffington Post article about a Muslim convert who won $5 million dollars in damages in a workplace discrimination lawsuit after she began wearing a hijab and was called a "terrorist" by her coworkers.

In anticipation of a possible backlash against American Muslims, the Council of American-Islamic Relations, an Islamic civil rights group, called a press conference at noon in Washington, D.C.

"We must remain united as a nation as we face those who would carry out such heinous and inexcusable crimes," said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a statement. "We thank local, state and national law enforcement authorities for their diligence in bringing the perpetrators to justice and offer condolences to the loved ones of the officers killed and injured in efforts to detain the suspects."

The Islamic Society of North America also released a statement applauding law enforcement efforts, and saying that "no matter the motivation for these terrorist attacks, they will never represent the values or ideals of any religious or ethnic group."

"People of all faiths know that the horrific acts committed by these perpetrators go against everything to which God calls us. It is rather the loving, selfless acts of those who immediately responded on the scene that best uphold His teachings," said ISNA president Imam Mohamed Magid, who leads the 5,000-member ADAMS Center mosque in Northern Virginia. "At times like this, I am reminded by a verse from the Holy Qur'an which is similar to one in the Old Testament: If anyone kills a person, it is as if he kills all humanity, while if any saves a life, it is as if he saves the lives of all humanity."

This post has been updated with additional information about Twitter and YouTube accounts that reportedly belong to the suspects.

Pastors Stage Vigil Over Mass Mock Graves To Pray For Gun Control

Jaweed Kaleem   |   April 11, 2013    9:29 AM ET

In front of 3,300 mock grave markers representing Americans who have died from gun violence since the Newtown tragedy, the Rev. Matt Crebbin will stand on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Thursday to pray for expanded federal gun control legislation.

For 24 hours starting in the morning, dozens of clergy and people of faith will join him, making a religious case to restrict the flow of guns in the United States.

"As pastors, we know from ministering to those affected by gun violence and those who may have been directly impacted, how it ripples through our communities, impacting everything that happens," said Crebbin, who leads Newtown Congregational Church in Connecticut and was one of the first ministers to comfort families after the Dec. 14 fatal school shooting. "This is a moral issue that our nation has been facing for so long, and we're hopeful there will be a response."

As lawmakers prepare to debate gun legislation, Crebbin will be joined by five Connecticut pastors, the rabbi of Newtown's Congregation Adath Israel, Sojourners president the Rev. Jim Wallis and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"We know that laws don't solve all issues of gun violence. We have to work in our communities to promote peace of all kinds, and promote safety and understanding, but certainly legislation can help," said Crebbin, who led the nationally televised interfaith memorial service attended by President Barack Obama in the days after the shooting.

He described the months since as the "most challenging experience" of his ministry.

While optimistic about a bipartisan Senate deal to extend background checks to purchases at gun shows, Crebbin and the clergy joining him said they still hope for more.

"We're glad members of the Senate who until today did not support gun violence reduction legislation have responded to the moral imperative to enact reasonable common sense gun reforms that save lives," said the Rev. Michael McBride, director of the Lifelines to Healing Campaign for PICO, a national faith-based network of grassroots activists that's organizing Thursday's vigil.

"At the same time, we fear this compromise could leave a loophole large enough to drive a truck full of guns through and we'll continue to push for universal background checks for all gun purchases."

Since the Newtown massacre -- and the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin and the Aurora, Colo., movie theater killings before it -- several faith groups have mobilized to support more restrictive gun control laws. In an opinion piece last week, U.S. Catholic bishops came out in favor of federal legislation to "require background checks for all gun purchases, to limit civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines and to make gun trafficking a federal crime" as well as banning assault weapons. Speaking on behalf of bishops, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh equated abortion and the death penalty to assault weapons on the street, saying each "each reflects brutality in our society."

On Wednesday, a letter to Senate leaders signed by 23 Jewish organizations asked for increased gun control, including increased access to mental health services for would-be shooters. The groups included the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, Hadassah, Jewish War Veterans, National Council of Jewish Women, Orthodox Union and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

But the views of those in the pews are less clear. A poll released in January by Public Religion Research Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan organization, found that most members of major religious groups support stricter gun laws, including a majority of black Protestants (76 percent), Catholics (67 percent), religiously unaffiliated Americans (60 percent), and white Protestants (57 percent). But the poll also found that white evangelical Protestants were least likely to support stricter gun control laws (38 percent favored, 59 percent opposed).

The poll found that white evangelical Protestants were the only religious group in which a plurality (40 percent) said that putting more emphasis on God, and morality in school and society was the most important thing to prevent future mass shootings. The survey, which included more than 1,000 respondents, had a margin of error of+/-4 percentage points.


Rick Warren's Son Commits Suicide

Jaweed Kaleem   |   April 6, 2013    5:12 PM ET

In an emotional letter to his church members, pastor Rick Warren of Lake Forest, Calif.-based Saddleback Church told them that his youngest son committed suicide.

“At 27 years of age, Matthew was an incredibly kind, gentle and compassionate young man whose sweet spirit was encouragement and comfort to many,” Warren, the popular author of The Purpose Driven Life, said in the letter. “Unfortunately, he also suffered from mental illness resulting in deep depression and suicidal thoughts.”

Matthew Warren, one of three children of Warren and his wife, Kay, killed himself Friday, the evangelical pastor said in the letter.

“No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now,” Warren wrote. “He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He’d then make a bee-line to that person to engage and encourage them."

“In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.”

Warren wrote that he and his wife "marveled at his courage" to fight "relentless pain."

"I'll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said, 'Dad, I know I'm going to heaven. Why can't I just die and end this pain?' but he kept going for another decade."

Warren thanked church members and supporters for their "love and prayers," telling them "we love you back."

Read the letter Warren sent to his congregation.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Prominent Christian Leader On Faith's Role In Politics

Jaweed Kaleem   |   April 5, 2013    7:59 PM ET

NEW YORK -- A little over a year ago, during some of the most heated moments of the presidential election, the Rev. Jim Wallis went on a three-month sabbatical.

The president and founder of Sojourners magazine and the progressive Christian organization of the same name, Wallis is one of the most politically active religious leaders in Washington, D.C., a familiar figure on Capitol Hill who has spent decades lobbying politicians from a liberal evangelical perspective on poverty issues. More recently, he has been a key member of influential Christian groups in the Beltway pushing for immigration reform, gun control and environmental protections.

But last January, he stopped doing interviews, going on television and speaking on the radio.

"I'd get up early, have some quiet space, exercise and write all day and read all day and I'd watch the news cycle at night. The more I did, the most depressed I got," explained Wallis, who visited The Huffington Post newsroom on Friday to discuss the book he penned during his time off, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good. "The vitriol. The screaming. The polarization. The paralyzation. The hate. The fear. And I thought we've lost something really significant, this ancient idea called the common good."

"If you just take care of yourself, and your group, your tribe, your party, we're all going to be in trouble," he said. "If we don't figure out how to take care of each other -- all of our neighbors -- we are all going to be in trouble."

In a wide-ranging series of interviews, Wallis, 64, spoke with HuffPost about the growth of political and religious polarization, the role of faith in politics, and how people who disagree on religious and political issues can work together. He also touched on his views on immigration reform and his support for same-sex marriage.

On what Washington is doing getting wrong -- and getting right:

In D.C., you've got the terrible loss of common good with the sequester and budget stuff, but the same politicians -- same people, same time -- are getting something right: immigration reform. I think we'll have it by the August recess. But they say it's only because of the momentum you people are providing from the outside. We're providing moral courage and political cover.

On the role of everday Americans in creating social change:

This last election, a demographic time bomb went off. For the first time ever now, you can't win an election with just white votes. But let's be clear, the demographic that runs the country has not changed yet, so how do you change all of that wealth and power? It's always movements that change the politics.

People have got to think they can be part of that. The Civil Rights movement was not just Birmingham and Selma, it was a million decisions made by ordinary people -- risky ones -- that made that movement possible. The book is about how to make those decisions, and it says, really, that this ethic of loving your neighbor as yourself is in all of our traditions but it's also in our secular democratic tradition -- the Golden Rule, treat others as you want to be treated.

On what the Biblical call to "love your neighbor" means today:

Our neighbor is beyond the boundaries of what's been common before. I used to hold my cell phone up and say, "You know the people in the Congo whose dirty minerals are being used to promote the warlords and militias are making our cell phones. So hold your cell phone up, this is your significant other. Whoever helped make this cell phone is your neighbor."

How do supply chains become value chains? The religious question is always to extend the boundaries of who the neighbor is, and until we do that, we will never get to the common good.

On the role of personal faith and religious communities in politics:

People have to understand how their personal decisions and choices connect to changing a society. We often don't think, "Oh, I can change Washington or Wall Street," but indeed, you look at immigration, for example -- what pastors and lay people are doing in their communities is changing the conversation in Washington. It literally is changing it. And now they are mobilizing to change it very deliberately.

This evangelical immigration table we put together, it's really reaching out to people in their congregations to reach out to their members of Congress to say, "You need to look at this because we are saying this is breaking up families, these are our brothers and sisters and you've got to change this."

Or when the mosque burned in Missouri, [or] in Wisconsin when the Sikhs were killed, or when the [anti-Muslim] subway ads came up [in New York City], all we did was offer local people a chance to put up these very simple messages, "Love your Muslim neighbor," and it really changed the conversation. In a situation of hatred and violence, putting up a different kind of message changes the public conversation. So people can change things.

On the growing support for same-sex marriage:

We are losing marriage in this society. I'm worried about that -- among low income people, but all people. How do we commit liberals and conservatives to re-covenanting marriage, reestablishing, renewing marriage?

I think we should include same-sex couples in that renewal of marriage, [but] I want to talk marriage first. Marriage needs some strengthening. Let's start with marriage, and then I think we have to talk about, now, how to include same-sex couples in that deeper understanding of marriage. I want a deeper commitment to marriage that is more and more inclusive, and that's where I think the country is going.

When pushed on whether he specifically supports same-sex marriage:

Yes. [This marks a change from his position as recently as 2008.]

On how people who disagree politically or religiously can speak to one another:

To disagree with someone shouldn't be to hate them. Even people who are your political adversaries don't have to be your enemies. How we talk to people we disagree with is really important. On the issue of gay marriage, you can be supportive of same-sex couples being able to have the same benefits that straight couples have, but you can also be in favor of of religious freedom for faith communities to figure this out in their own time, in their own scriptures, their own way. I don't think they should be called "bigots" if they are struggling with what the Bible says about this, or might we lose marriage because of this. Those are questions we cannot be afraid to talk about.

But calling each other names, we've got to stop doing that. To act like God's on our side is to make a mistake [President Abraham] Lincoln didn't want us to make. To ask if we're on God's side requires some humility. Should religion produce deeper certainty or deeper reflection? Sometimes it needs to be deeper reflection. How do we listen to each other? Tolerance is okay but it's kind of too weak a word. I want inclusiveness and humility.

On the growth in the number of atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated:

I don't think religion has a monopoly on morality. People like me who are religious need to keep saying that. How do you feel free to say who you are? "I love Jesus and Jeremiah and whomever," but [Martin Luther] King never said, "I get to win because I'm a Christian in a Judeo-Christian country." He knew he had to win the debate on the common good -- the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act were necessary for all of us, not just black Baptists or Jews.

So how do you do that in a pluralistic environment? This isn't a Judeo-Christian-Islamic country, it's a country that is pluralistic, including a lot of people who would check the "none of the above" on the surveys. I speak to them all the time. They are searching, they are looking. Most of them are not atheists. When religion says and does what it says we believe in, people are surprised and attracted. I hope this book surprises people and attracts people. In my head, this book is written a lot to the "none of the aboves."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Watch Wallis's appearance on HuffPost Live above.

Desmond Tutu Wins $1.7 Million Templeton Prize

Jaweed Kaleem   |   April 4, 2013   12:00 AM ET

Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town who rose to international fame as he helped lead the fight against apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, was named the 2013 Templeton Prize winner Thursday.

The honor, which comes with a $1.7 million award, is given annually by the West Conshohocken, Penn.-based John Templeton Foundation. It has, in recent years, been awarded to academics who work at the nexus of religion and science.

Tutu is being awarded for his promotion of what the foundation calls "spiritual progress," including love, forgiveness and human liberation, especially after the fall of apartheid when he chaired South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission addressed tensions between perpetrators of the apartheid state and reformers, and granted amnesty on both sides to hundreds of requests out of thousands that were submitted. It is considered key to the nation's democratic transition in the 1990s.

“When you are in a crowd and you stand out from the crowd it’s usually because you are being carried on the shoulders of others,” Tutu said in response to receiving the prize in a video on the Templeton website. "I want to acknowledge all the wonderful people who accepted me as their leader at home and so to accept this prize, as it were, in a representative capacity.”

Tutu, 81, has not said what he will do with the award money, although past winners have used it for charitable causes.

Giving the annual award to a man whose life's work has revolved around fighting racism, poverty and government corruption continues a shift that began last year when it was given to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. That award marked the first time in more than a decade that the Templeton Prize was given to an international spiritual and political figure that was a household name, rather than a lesser-known theologian or physicist. The award also has been given to the Rev. Billy Graham and Mother Teresa, its first recipient in 1973.

While the Dalai Lama is best known for his message of peace and nonviolence, he was honored by the foundation for his advocacy of studying the relationship between science and spirituality, including quantum mechanics and astrophysics.

Ahead of formally accepting the award in London on May 21, the foundation released a series of videos about the prize, including one in which its chairman and president, John S. Templeton, Jr., explains why it chose Tutu.

“By embracing such universal concepts of the image of God within each person, Desmond Tutu also demonstrates how the innate humanity within each of us is intrinsically tied to the humanity between all peoples,” Templeton says in the video. “Desmond Tutu calls upon all of us to recognize that each and every human being is unique in all of history and, in doing so, to embrace our own vast potential to be agents for spiritual progress and positive change. Not only does he teach this idea, he lives it.”

The prize, which was created by the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, is not without its critics. When it was given to British cosmologist Martin Rees in 2011, for example, Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, wrote that the foundation "plies its enormous wealth with a single aim: to give credibility to religion by blurring its well-demarcated border with science."

The foundation, whose website describes the prize as celebrating "no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity's efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine," has rebuffed such accusations.

Wise Sayings From The 2012 Templeton Prize Winner

Obama Pastor Stands By Criticism Of Religious Right

Jaweed Kaleem   |   April 1, 2013    5:47 PM ET

Under attack by some conservatives for speaking out against the "captains of the religious right" in his Easter sermon, the Rev. Luis León, pastor of the Episcopal church the Obama family attended for the holiday, told The Huffington Post on Monday that he stands by his words.

"It's in there. People will do what they want with it," said Leon, referring to the sermon in which he said it drives him "crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back ... for blacks to be back in the back of the bus ... for women to be back in the kitchen ... for immigrants to be back on their side of the border."

The words, spoken as he instructed congregants to follow the advice of Jesus telling Mary Magdalene not to cling to him after he returned to life after death, came as Leon said Christians need to remember that "God address us in the now." In the sermon, he linked the story to what he described as conservatives grasping onto outdated views on race, gender roles and immigration.

"It’s sad when clergy egregiously politicize worship," Mark Tooley, president of the conservative Christian organization Institute on Religion and Democracy, wrote in one of several blogs and articles that have criticized the sermon. "Is this characterization of religious conservatives as racists, chauvinists and bigots really fair and accurate? And if political critique of religious conservatives were appropriate in an Easter sermon, couldn’t León offer a thoughtful analysis rather than snide smugness?"

"I'm a bit surprised to hear a pastor use an Easter sermon to attack anyone, when the focus should be on Jesus and his resurrection -- the act that we believe defeats death and eventually brings all together," said the Rev. Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist minister and president of LifeWay Research, in an email. "Yet, we all know that there are lots of dumb things said by a lot of religious leaders, right and left."

Following his words on the religious right, León's sermon emphasized that the "the message of Easter is about the power of love over loveless power." He said that the "Easter vision" will allow Christians to see the world differently and that there "is no injustice so insidious that there can be no truth ... no war so deep that there can be no peace ... no enemy so bitter that they can't become a friend."

León's church is across the street from the White House in Washington and is the one the Obama family most frequently attends. León said Monday that he had not heard of the controversy because he had "not read the newspapers or watched TV." He said "the takeaway (of the sermon) was about the Easter vision ... that was thrust of it. That was it." He added that the full audio of the sermon -- only excerpts have been released so far via a White House pool report -- should be posted on the church website on Tuesday.

A person who who attended the church service told The Huffington Post there was no audible approval or disapproval from members of the congregation when León made his remarks about the religious right.

This is not the first time León, who also presided over services that President George W. Bush's family often attended, has been part of a controversy. In January, León, whose denomination ordains openly gay clergy, was tapped to replace the Rev. Louie Giglio, an Atlanta pastor accused of being anti-gay, at Obama's inauguration.

Giglio, of Passion City Church, had been scheduled to deliver the benediction at the inaugural ceremony, but dropped out after old remarks of him speaking against the "aggressive agenda" of the gay community and saying gay people could change through"through the healing power of Jesus" were reported in the media. At that time, a spokeswoman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee said that instead of Giglio, it wanted a pastor who reflected "inclusion and acceptance for all Americans" to deliver prayers.

What Jesus' Death Has To Do With Living Today

Jaweed Kaleem   |   March 28, 2013    6:38 PM ET

When the Rev. George Handzo attends church to observe Good Friday -- the day that marks Jesus' crucifixion -- he won't only be there to for an important spiritual holiday. He also goes to remind himself of the role death plays in everyday life.

"You can't appreciate Easter if you are not reminded of Good Friday," said Handzo, a Lutheran minister and chaplain who has spent most of his career working with cancer patients and those in their last days.

Easter Sunday, which marks the day Jesus rose from the dead, is the most important day of the year in Christianity and traditionally the most popular when it comes to church attendance. Yet, for many people of faith whose personal and professional lives bring them in contact with death and illness, the holidays that precede it to remember Jesus' last days, called Holy Week, can be equally as important in providing comfort and purpose in trying times.

"I've worked with a lot of dying children for most of my career. What does this week mean for us as caregivers who are standing with people who are sometimes dying in a fashion that is really untimely?" asked Handzo, who works for HealthCare Chaplaincy, a nonprofit New York-based organization that integrates spirituality into medical care.

"If you are not clear in your head about your understanding about somebody dying tragically, if you cannot reconcile that with the higher power of God or force of nature, this will be tough work for you," said Handzo, who teaches chaplains and palliative care specialists. "You will probably not do it well, and you will burn out. You have to go through death to get to resurrection.

"It's important for me to be reminded that this part of the Christian story ... It's painful, but it's also what can make things meaningful," he said. "We can make a mistake a lot of times with people who are dying. We can take our beliefs and say 'the resurrection is coming,' or 'things will get better.' But some people are not ready for that, they are still hurting and mourning, and they don't need that happy good news stuff. They need to be allowed to be where they are, to have that Good Friday time."

Days to observe the cycle of life and death span spiritual traditions. In Judaism, Tisha B'Av is a day of mourning to observe tragedies that include the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the Holocaust. In Islam, Shiites observe Ashura, the anniversary of the death of Prophet Muhammed’s grandson Hussein. In Hindu traditions, rebirth, destruction and recreation often play an important role. But Christianity is unique in placing death and resurrection of its prophet at the center of theology and traditions.

"You try to walk the life of Jesus and meditate on his death during Holy Week, you try to think about your own life and what death means to you," said Richard Lischer, a theology professor at Duke University who recently published a book, Stations of the Heart, about his 33-year-old son Adam's spiritual journey toward death during 95 days in 2005.

"We moved from place to place, from scan to scan, from appointment to appointment with him and the people in our lives," said Lischer, relating the journey to the Stations of the Cross, which describes the passion of Christ, Jesus' last hours as he carries the cross to his crucifixion.

On Good Friday, Christians often have processions through streets, reenacting the scenes from those last hours, which include a bloody Jesus' repeatedly falling and getting back up as his captors parade him in front of his followers before taking his clothes away and nailing him onto the cross to die.

"As Christians, our lives exist as a pilgrimage from one station to the next, and you have to discover those stations in your own way. That's the great metaphor for Holy Week," said Lischer, describing a lesson he was taught long ago that became vividly real during his son's death.

For the Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry, a minister at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., who also works as a hospice chaplain, the time of year is not just about symbolically moving life to death and resurrection, but trying to consider how to "move in the midst of life and death simultaneously."

"I think of those people who are living with death in their life all the time. For those who can't have children, there is a death of that dream. Or during these times when there's so much talk about being gay and gay marriage, I think about parents who have come to me after their kids come out and told me they are afraid because they will never have grandkids," said Hawley-Lowry.

"Part of a challenge in our culture is when people don't deal with or acknowledge death, but during Holy Week we get to see and experience how life and death came so quickly even back then," she said. "As we celebrate Easter, if we realized life is a sacred gift but not promised, maybe we would just be nicer to each other."

Churches Flock To Support -- And Fight -- Gay Marriage

Jaweed Kaleem   |   March 25, 2013    7:23 PM ET

Hours before the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Tuesday over California's ban on gay marriage, hundreds of same-sex marriage supporters will gather a block away from the courthouse at an interfaith church service to ask for God's "love and justice" and to pray for "the dignity of all souls as a religious value," according to organizers.

Afterwards, the coalition of Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Mormons and Buddhists, among other religious and secular representatives, will march to the courthouse steps to rally in support of gay marriage, with thousands of attendees expected.

At the same time, a group of Americans who support California's anti-gay marriage law, as well as keeping the federal government's Defense of Marriage Act (to be tested in a separate case beginning Wednesday), plans to march across the National Mall with prominent pastors and clergy to advocate what they view as a Biblically based stance against same-sex marriage. The Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco will be one of that rally's headlining speakers.

The battle over same-sex marriage is often framed in terms of faith, and the landmark cases set to go before the nation's highest court this week have brought two very different sides of religious America to the forefront. In one corner are socially liberal faith groups and secular organizations such as those behind United for Marriage, the coalition of more than 25 faith leaders from across 15 religious traditions that's organizing the early morning prayer and pro-gay marriage rally. Taking the opposite view is the March for Marriage, organized by the National Organization for Marriage with sponsors including evangelical groups such as Focus on the Family and the Catholic organizations Cardinal Newman Society and Catholics Called to Witness. Both sides will draw on religion to advocate for what one calls marriage equality and the other calls traditional marriage.

While there will be no lack of faith-based appeals for and against same-sex marriage, those who favor marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples are taking unprecedented advantage of a growing tide of religious support by holding pray-ins at churches and having ministers lead public events.

The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a United Church of Christ minister who flew to D.C. to preach at Tuesday's United for Marriage service, said he was honored to participate.

"This court decision is obviously deeply personal for me," said Guess, who is gay, "but it is also a great professional privilege to be able to represent and demonstrate the UCC's pro-marriage equality commitment as part of a large ecumenical, interfaith gathering.”

United for Marriage has organized dozens of pro-gay marriage events across the nation Tuesday, many with the aid of Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Methodist, Unitarian Universalist and other congregations.

Meanwhile, anti-same sex marriage groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Family Research Council and the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, have also made broad calls, each asking for prayers this week in support of keeping laws that bar same-sex marriage on the books.

While leaders of several Washington, D.C., churches, including the Episcopal Washington National Cathedral, are participating in pro-same sex marriage events on Tuesday, phone calls and emails sent to a handful of Catholic and evangelical churches in the D.C. area asking about prayer-related events during the high court cases elicited little response. At the Roman Catholic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the rector told The Huffington Post that Holy Week, the period that leads up to Easter, will likely be the main focus in the coming days.

"I am pretty confident that outside of an intercession for the protection of life and religious liberty and the sanctity of marriage during the Universal Prayer," the emphasis will be on "the Liturgies of Holy Week," Msgr. Walter Rossi wrote in an email. Rossi added that he was out of town and did not have access to the parish's exact schedule.

Still, the chair of the U.S. Catholic Bishops committee on the defense of marriage, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, will speak to same-sex marriage opponents on the National Mall on Tuesday, as will the Rev. Eugene Rivers III, a prominent minister who founded Azusa Christian Community in Boston, and the Rev. Bill Owens Sr., founder of the Coalition of African-American Pastors.

In other parts of the country, a handful of other pastors are organizing events tied to the court hearings in D.C. In San Jose, Calif., the Rev. Steven Andrew, founder of a nondenominational USA Christian Ministries, said he has received requests for Biblical literature opposing same-sex marriage from several churches and has gotten "positive response" to a "traditional marriage Internet prayer rally" he is promoting via Facebook.

"My primary concern is the hearts of the nation. God wants Americans to love Him from our hearts so He can bless the USA and get us out of all the troubles," Andrew said. "I want to see Americans walk faithful with God and God's marriage, including the Supreme Court."

Even if religious services in support of same-sex marriage are more visible in certain parts of the country this week, strong religious support can be found on all sides of the debate. A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, released last week, showed that majorities of Jewish Americans (81 percent), religiously unaffiliated Americans (76 percent), Hispanic Catholics (59 percent), white Catholics (58 percent) and white mainline Protestants (55 percent) support legalizing gay marriage. Majorities of white evangelical Protestants (71 percent), Hispanic Protestants (65 percent) and black Protestants (57 percent) said they oppose same-sex marriage.

Overall, just more than half (52 percent) of Americans favor same-sex marriage, the survey found, and younger Americans are more likely than their religious older counterparts to support legalizing it.

CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to clarify that individual congregations, as opposed to denominations as a whole, are sponsoring United for Marriage events.

Joe Biden Sparks Controversy At Pope's Installation

Jaweed Kaleem   |   March 18, 2013    7:06 PM ET

As Vice President Joe Biden prepares to lead a U.S. delegation to Tuesday's installation Mass for Pope Francis, he has reignited a familiar controversy: should pro-abortion rights Catholic politicians, whose support of abortion rights goes against official church teaching, receive communion?

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) and Georgetown University President John DeGioia will join Biden, attending his first papal installation, during the two-hour Mass in St. Peter's Square. But it's Biden and Pelosi, both Catholics with liberal positions on abortion rights and contraception, who have set off a flurry of criticism in anti-abortion media and among anti-abortion Catholics.

"Vice President Biden and Nancy Pelosi should certainly not receive Communion, either at the papal installation or anywhere else. Communion means 'union,' and they are not in union with the Church on the most fundamental moral issue of the right to life," said the Rev. Frank Pavone, founder of Priests for Life, a U.S.-based Catholic anti-abortion organization. "Should they receive at this ceremony, there will be a public uproar, and rightly so."

Like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Francis has spoken strongly against abortion, and as the president of Argentina's bishops when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he warned against distributing communion to pro-abortion rights politicians.

"We should be conscious that people cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act or speak against the commandments, in particular when abortion, euthanasia, and other serious crimes against life and family are facilitated," Latin American bishops, including Francis, said in a 2007 statement issued after a general conference in Aparecida, Brazil. "This responsibility applies particularly to legislators, governors, and health professionals."

A Vatican spokesman said Monday that Francis won't personally be distributing communion -- the wafer and wine that Catholics believe transform into the blood and body of Christ when consecrated during Mass -- but that it will instead done by 500 priests assisting. And even though it's clear where he has stood on communion for pro-abortion rights politicians, papal precedent means it's unlikely that Biden, Pelosi or others who have supported keeping abortion legal will be denied the church's central sacraments. At a papal Mass in Washington during Benedict's visit to the U.S. in 2008, Pelosi, then-Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and then-Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), both pro-abortion rights Democrats, received communion from local priests.

When Pelosi met Benedict in 2009, the Vatican released a statement saying the pope spoke to her about the "requirement of the natural moral law and the Church’s consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death which enjoin all Catholics." Biden also met Benedict in 2011, but the details of their conversation were not released.

Biden and Pelosi could abstain from communion at the installation Mass. The vice president's press office did not reply to question about whether he plans to receive communion. A Pelosi spokesman also did not respond.

Both leaders have been loudly criticized by U.S. church leaders for their abortion positions and Biden has been banned from receiving communion in a some dioceses. In October, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., said Biden would not receive communion if he went to Mass in his diocese during the presidential campaign. In an interview, Sheridan cited church Canon 915, which he described as saying "a Catholic politician who publicly espouses positions that are contrary, not just to any teachings of the Church, but to serious moral teachings, should not receive Holy Communion until they recant those positions publicly." During Biden's first vice presidential campaign in 2008, the former bishop of his hometown, Scranton, Pa., also said he would deny Biden communion.

But Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, part of the conclave that elected Francis, has said he would offer Pelosi communion despite her views on abortion because he didn't believe communion should be used as a weapon. "We never -– the Church just didn't use Communion this way. It wasn't a part of the way we do things, and it wasn't a way we convinced Catholic politicians to appropriate the faith and live it and apply it; the challenge has always been to convince people," Wuerl said in a 2010 interview. His position would logically extend to Biden. The vice president's bishop, Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Del., has also said he would not deny communion to Biden.

There are 132 delegations that will attend the papal installation, which starts at 9:30 a.m. Roman time on Tuesday. The Vatican has prepared for large crowds, with some officials estimating that up to 1 million people may attend. On Monday, Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, said the church has not officially invited any foreign delegations, but "those who wish to come are welcome, no one is refused."

In addition to the White House delegation, the House of Representatives has sent a delegation that includes Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.). House Chaplain Patrick Conroy, who like Francis is a Jesuit priest, will also join the group.

In a recent television interview, Archbishop of Hartford Henry Mansell suggested that DeLauro, a pro-abortion rights Catholic, also shouldn't ask to receive communion at the papal Mass, but indicated that he personally would not deny her communion. Politicians "should not go [to receive communion] if they support abortion," he said, but he added that he does not "make decisions at the altar rail. ... I don't examine their minds and conscience but we might speak about it later on."

The issue of of who should receive communion was less controversial during Benedict's installation Mass in 2005, when the White House delegation was largely made up anti-abortion Catholics. The delegation included then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, then-Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson; Frank Hanley, president emeritus of the International Union of Operating Engineers, and Helen Alvary, who was an associate professor of law at Catholic University of America.

UPDATE: March 19 -- The White House has confirmed that Biden and Pelosi received communion during the papal Mass.

Catholics Give New Pope High Ratings In New Survey

Jaweed Kaleem   |   March 15, 2013    1:20 PM ET

In the first days of his papacy, Pope Francis has made a strong impression among American Catholics, according to a new survey conducted by HuffPost/YouGov.

The poll found that 62 percent of U.S. Catholics said they have either a "very favorable" or "somewhat favorable" view of the new leader of the 1.2-billion member church, while most others said they did not know enough about Francis to make a judgment. It also found that 62 percent of Catholics said having a Latin American pope would help the church in its global outreach.

The first pope from outside Europe in more than a millennium, Francis, known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio before his election Wednesday, was previously the archbishop of Buenos Aires. His papacy has been viewed as a signal that the church, whose membership has dramatically shifted from Europe to the Americas over the last century, will put more emphasis on the regions where it's growing.

In addition to questions about first impressions and global outreach, the poll, which was conducted March 13-14 among a representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adults, including 214 Catholics, asked respondents how much they had heard about the new pope and if they thought he would or should broadly change the church's policies.

In the poll, nearly half of Americans (48 percent) and a majority of Catholics (67 percent) said they "heard a lot" about the new pope, and 53 percent of Catholics said they expected Francis to "maintain the traditional policies of the church." But when asked about church policies, 49 percent said they wanted the pope to "change church policies to reflect the attitudes of Catholics today."

The survey did not ask which specific policies the pope could or should change, but Francis steps into the papacy during a key period of transformation. He faces a rising tide of secularism in Europe and Western nations as well as church growth in areas such as Latin America, home to 39 percent of the world's Catholics.

During Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's papacy, multiple priest abuse scandals rocked the church in several nations, and Francis will have to confront the damage done to the church's reputation. The Vatican is also battling internal political turmoil, including the aftermath of VatiLeaks, the scandal involving a series of confidential Vatican documents released to the media during Benedict's papacy. In addition, changing mores on sexuality, including premarital sex, same-sex marriage and the widespread use of contraception, have challenged the church's traditional stances.

HuffPost/YouGov also conducted a poll prior to Francis' election that asked about U.S. Catholics' approval of Benedict. In that survey, released Feb. 22, about a third of Catholics viewed Benedict very favorably, while only 10 percent of non-Catholics said the same. Thirty-one percent of Catholics said they had a "somewhat favorable" opinion of him, compared to 18 percent of non-Catholics.

Both polls used a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling.

Full results of HuffPost/YouGov poll on Pope Francis

Will Pope Francis Uplift The Poor?

Jaweed Kaleem   |   March 14, 2013    7:24 PM ET

The day after his election, Pope Francis asked Argentine bishops to skip his formal installation on Tuesday and instead show "closeness" by doing "acts of charity for the neediest."

Perhaps more than other popes in recent memory, Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, has quickly set the tone of his papacy by focusing on those whom Jesus called "the least of these," the poor and suffering on the lowest rungs of society. A Jesuit, Francis followed the tradition of his order whose members live simple, communal lives of poverty.

Reported anecdotes abound of Francis' symbolic first actions. Instead of adorning himself with an ornate gold cross as popes traditionally do, he wears a simple cross around his neck. Rather than riding in the "popemobile," he joined cardinals on a bus back to their temporary Vatican residence after his election. On Thursday, he stopped by the priests' residence where they had stayed before the papal conclave to grab his bags and pay his bill, reportedly to set an example of how priests should behave. Even before his election, he lived in a simple Buenos Aires apartment with another priest instead of an elaborate archbishop's residence and rode the bus to the chancery.

But though church observers expect Francis to speak more frequently and loudly on economic issues than his predecessors, some are wondering if his words and symbolic acts will translate into action that helps solve the world's growing economic divides.

"It's very clear that he cares about the poor and I celebrate him bringing global poverty to the forefront. As a man from the Global South, I think he'll have a clearer idea about the global economic structures that privilege Europe and the U.S.," said Miguel A. De La Torre, a professor of social ethics and Latino/a studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. "But I'm concerned his solution will be giving charity" to the poor.

De La Torre said Francis in his previous roles did not significantly impact the roots of poverty.

"The more effective way of dealing with poverty is to change the social structures that create poverty, but when he was bishop and cardinal, we didn't see that. Quite the contrary, he was hostile toward liberation theology, for example," said De La Torre.

The popular activist movement arose in Latin America in the 1970s, and focused on God's identification with the oppressed and uplifting the poor. While its reach for social justice was praised by Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, it also was criticized by Benedict, among other church leaders, for being Marxist.

De La Torre added that as the head of the nation's Jesuits in the 1970s, Francis also was criticized for not taking a strong stance against the "Dirty Wars," during which an Argentine military dictatorship resulted in the deaths or mysterious disappearances of thousands of leftist and political dissidents.

Yet, at the same time, as Buenos Aires' archbishop, Francis publicly clashed with the Argentine government and political figures. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the midst of a wrenching economic crisis in Argentina, Francis publicly questioned the nation's free-market policies and blamed them for increasing poverty.

More recently, during a 2007 address to Latin American bishops, Francis said their ministries were in "the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."

"You can tell that this is a man who is speaking from experience, not in a lecture. His sermons have talked about proximity to the poor. Benedict continued a strong line in Catholic social teaching in general, but I don't think he had that proximity. Francis does," said Michael Lee, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University.

"He is fond of quoting from the Latin American bishops who as a group have been strong and vocal against structural poverty and the downsides of globalization in underdeveloped countries in Latin America and Africa."

Lee pointed out that while John Paul II and Benedict also frequently spoke and wrote about poverty, they made bigger headlines for their conservative stands on issues such as homosexuality, contraception and marriage -- issues on which Francis agrees.

He added that Catholic views on economic issues, such as the "preferential option for the poor," also were more commonly discussed recently outside Latin America. During discussions last year in the United States over the federal budget, U.S. bishops strongly spoke out against Republicans for proposed cuts to social services.

"When you look at the economy and Pope Francis, you won't be able to find somebody further from the Paul Ryan budget in the world," Lee said.

Latin American Catholics Get Boost From Latino Pope

Jaweed Kaleem   |   March 13, 2013    9:04 PM ET

As the first Latin American pope after more than 1,000 years of popes from Europe, Pope Francis' election on Wednesday means the leader of the world's largest church is now hails from its biggest region of membership. Francis' papacy is expected to be a tremendous boon to Latino Catholics in South America and the Caribbean, who make up 39 percent of the global Catholic population.

Catholics are the biggest religious group in most parts of Latin America. In Argentina, Francis' homeland, nearly 77 percent (31 million) of the population is Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The nation has the world's 11th largest Catholic population.

As the faith's stronghold has faded in the U.S. with the growth of secularism and the decline of regular church attendance, so too has its growth slowed in places such as Brazil and Mexico. The nations have the world's biggest Catholic populations, with 133 million in Brazil and 96 million in Mexico, yet evangelical and Pentecostal movements have increasingly become popular in the countries as well as in neighboring nations. In Argentina, where the Roman Catholic Church is the only officially recognized religion, only 20 percent of Catholics regularly practice the faith and the church has recently clashed with the state, such as over the nation legalizing same-sex marriage in 2010.

Still, the Americas have the bulk of the world's Catholics. The U.S., with the third-biggest population of Catholics, has sustained its 74 million church members largely through the growing Latino population. Meanwhile, the church has become less concentrated in Europe, which held only 24 percent of Catholics in 2010, compared to 65 percent of Catholics a century earlier, according to Pew. The number of Catholics has increased in Europe over the last century but not nearly as fast as it's increased outside the continent.

"Latino Catholics have a great affection for the pope and I have to imagine that many are going to have a greater affection this time around," said Timothy Matovina, a theology professor who specializes in Latino Catholicism at Notre Dame University. "This will be an exciting time for many Latin Americans. Just to even hear the a native speaker who is pope speak in Spanish for the first time, it'll be emotional. I imagine he will visit the region.

"But at the same time, is it going to have a major impact on advances of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism? It may have some, but those trends are bigger than just one man, even the pope," said Matovina.

For a diverse global faith that has a foothold in nearly every nation and Vatican diplomats in 180 countries, the church has long been viewed as strictly European -- specifically Italian -- in large part because of the dominance of Italians and other Europeans in Vatican leadership. Despite the size of the church in Latin America, only 19 of the 115 cardinals who voted in the papal conclave come from the region. Experts said Francis, a Jesuit priest who was formerly Archbishop of Buenos Aires, may help improve the church's European image.

At the same time, the new pope's familiarity with Europe -- he was born to Italian immigrants, has worked extensively in high-level Vatican offices and fluently speaks Italian and German in addition to Spanish -- means the papal office and Vatican won't be entirely unfamiliar territory.

Miguel Diaz, a Cuban-American who was first Latino U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, said the cardinals' pick of Francis is a proud moment for Latinos.

"This is significant, as almost half of the church worldwide is Latin American and almost half of the church in the U.S. is Latino. There's a saying in Spanish that, 'Who we walk with in life matters.' This man has walked with the poor, lived among immigrants, and he has a personal story of migration. This will undoubtedly shape the way he serves," said Diaz, who left the ambassador post in November and is currently a professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton.

In Miami, home to one of the largest U.S. Latino populations and one of the largest communities of Argentines, Archbishop Thomas Wenski said in a statement that the the election of Latin American pope was "great day of rejoicing here in the New World, for Pope Francis is an American."

Wenski continued: "As Blessed John Paul II repeatedly told us: America is one, not North and South. And Latin America, with the world’s largest number of Catholics, is, as Pope Benedict reminded us, a continent of hope."


Jaweed Kaleem   |   March 13, 2013    3:23 PM ET

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires has been elected the 266th pope of the Catholic Church, taking the name Pope Francis.

He is the first Latin American pope to lead the church, as well as the first Jesuit priest.

Francis, 76, appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday more than an hour after white smoke was released from the Sistine Chapel chimney at 2:05 EDT (7:05 p.m. CET) to signal that a new pope had been selected. Speaking from the balcony, he gave his first address as pope, the traditional Urbi et Orbi (to the "City and the World"), as crowds waved, cried and cheered for the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

He prayed for the church, the papacy and for his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

"As you know, the duty of the conclave was to appoint a bishop of Rome. It seems to me that my brother cardinals have chosen one who is from far away, but here I am," he said, adding that he thanked the church "for your embrace" as well as the cardinals who elected him.

"First and foremost, I would like to pray for our emeritus pope, Benedict XVI. Let us pray all of us together … so that he's blessed by the Lord and guarded," he said.

Francis was elected to the papacy after two days of conclave meetings with five rounds of voting. Voting in the conclave, which began Tuesday afternoon, is confidential and cardinals were sworn to secrecy, but Francis received at least 77 votes, which is the minimum two-thirds required to become pope. There were 115 cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave. All were under age 80 before Benedict's retirement, as required by Vatican rules. In 2005, when Benedict was elected, it took two days and four voting rounds.

The new pope steps into the papacy during a key period of transformation for the Roman Catholic Church. He faces a rising tide of secularism in Europe and western nations, and growth in other parts of the world, including his home continent, South America. During Benedict's tenure, multiple priest abuse scandals rocked the church in several nations, and Francis will have to confront the damage done to the church's reputation. The Vatican is also battling internal political turmoil, including VatiLeaks, the scandal involving a series of confidential Vatican documents released to the media during Benedict's papacy.

Amid changing mores on sexuality, including same-sex marriage, Francis' traditional views have clashed with cultural changes in Argentina. Before the nation legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, Francis called it a “destructive attack on God’s plan.”

But Francis, who was rumored in 2005 to be the runner-up to Benedict, also brings a more pastoral sensibility to the church, said the Rev. Raymond J. Kupke, an adjunct professor of church history at Seton Hall University. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he reportedly rode the bus to work, did his own cooking and visited the poor in Argentine slums. Instead of living in an archbishop's palace, he chose to live in a small room in a downtown Buenos Aires home.

"Francis fills the bill in many regards. Latin American with Italian background, archbishop of one of world’s largest diocese, rector of a seminary," said Kupke. "His name choice says a lot. St. Francis spearheaded a new evangelicalism and was a man of simplicity and humility."

It's unclear whether the pope's name is a reference to St. Francis Xavier, a 16th-century priest who was one of the first Jesuits; St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century friar who founded the Franciscan order of priests; or St. Francis de Sales, the 17th-century Bishop of Geneva.

The Rev. James Martin, one of the best-known Jesuit priests in the U.S. and the editor-at-large of America magazine, said the "choice of a Jesuit pope fills me with joy ... The name Francis is a clear indication of his desire to focus on the poor."

In a 2007 address at a large meeting of Latin American bishops, Francis emphasized that belief. "We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least," he said. "The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."

At the same time, the new pope is expected to uphold church orthodoxy on sexuality, abortion, marriage and contraception. The same year he said same-sex marriage attacks God's plan, he also said gay people adopting children is an act of discrimination against children.

He has also shown compassion for people with HIV and AIDS; in 2001, he visited AIDS patients in a hospice where he washed and kissed the feet of 12 patients.

One of the concerns among church-watchers before the conclave was whether the next pope would be strong enough to reform corruption in the curia, the mostly Italian group of cardinals who run the Vatican. National Catholic Reporter correspondent John Allen Jr. is unsure Francis is the right man for the task.

"Doubts that circulated about Bergoglio's toughness eight years ago may arguably be even more damaging now, given that the ability to govern and to take control of the Vatican bureaucracy seems to figure even more prominently ... Although Bergoglio is a member of several Vatican departments, including the Congregations for Divine Worship and for Clergy, he's never actually worked inside the Vatican, and there may be concerns about his capacity to take the place in hand," he wrote in a profile of the cardinal before he was elected.

Allen also noted the pope's age. At 76, he is two years younger than Benedict was when he was chosen -- significant, considering Benedict resigned Feb. 28 because of old age and declining health.

Judy Jones, an American who is associate director the Survivors Network for Those Abused By Priests, said the group is keeping a close eye on Francis and wants him to "show the world that the sexual abuse of children and cover-up of abuse will not be tolerated." Ahead of the conclave, SNAP released two lists of 15 cardinals it was "most worried about becoming the next pope." Francis was not on the list and Jones said the she knows "very little about this pope."

Terence McKiernan, the president of, an organization that tracks bishops' records on clergy abuse, had more pointed words about Francis.

"There is some evidence that Bergoglio is well aware that rebuilding the church will entail much more work on the abuse crisis than was done by Pope Benedict. For example, last year Bergoglio was outspoken regarding the case of accused (Argentine) priest Justo José Ilarraz," McKiernan said.

But while "Pope Francis’ meetings with survivors of sexual abuse will be less formal than Pope Benedict’s pioneering encounters," McKiernan said Francis "encountered many cases of sexual abuse in the years when he was an auxiliary bishop and then the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Yet he has been content for the most part to remain silent."

Francis, whose papacy is effective immediately, will be formally installed at 4:30 a.m. EDT (9:30 a.m. CET) Tuesday, the feast of St. Joseph.

Before that, the pope will privately visit Saint Mary Major basilica to pray on Thursday in one of his first acts as pontiff. He will then have an audience with cardinals at 6 a.m. EDT (11 a.m. CET) Friday, as well as an audience with journalists at the same time on Saturday.

Papal installation typically begins with a visit with cardinals to the grottos of St. Peter's Basilica, where the first pope, St. Peter, is said to be buried. There, the new pope is expected to say, "I leave from where the apostle arrived," before a procession to the square and the installation Mass (the Mass lasted two hours for Benedict's installation in 2005).

At the installation Mass, Francis is expected to receive the Fisherman's Ring made for his papacy (the one Benedict wore was given up when he retired and purposely damaged by Vatican authorities per tradition) as well as the pallium, the woolen stole that's a symbol of his authority.

When Benedict was elected, 12 church representatives knelt in front of him at the installation: three cardinals, one bishop, a priest, a deacon, a married couple, a nun and man from a religious order, and two young people who have had their confirmations -- a key sacrament of the faith. A similar group could possibly kneel in front of Francis as a symbolic pledge of obedience.

After the Mass, the new pope customarily is driven around St. Peter's Square to greet groups of priests and laypeople from around the world. In the following days, he is expected to visit St. Paul Outside the Walls. and St. John Lateran basilicas. The first visit is usually to St. Paul Outside the Walls.

During his first few weeks as pope, Francis will live in a temporary apartment away from the official papal residence. Vatican spokesman Lombardi previously showed reporters a video of the new pope's short-term home, which has a study, a sitting area and a carving of Jesus Christ's face on the headboard of the bed. Francis will stay there while the official papal apartment is renovated. The apartment was sealed after Benedict's resignation and church rules say it can't be reopened for any reason until there is a new pope.

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