Today the world celebrates Pope Francis' first year. Notice I didn't say the church is celebrating, but the world. The pope has graced the covers of every magazine from TIME to Rolling Stone over the past year. People all over the world are delighted by the breath of fresh air he has brought. His popularity has moved beyond Catholics to Christians of all kinds, believers from other faith traditions, agnostics, and the "nones," who are very drawn to this pope who emphasizes love and simple living.
Amanda Murphy 03-04-2014

Rev. John G. Vlasny, archbishop of Portland, performs the Ash Wednesday ceremony. Photo by Michael Lloyd. Via RNS

This Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. For Christians, Lent is a 40-day season of fasting, reflection, and penance culminating in Holy Week and the Easter Sunday commemoration of Jesus’ Resurrection.

The Rev. Arne Panula, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., said his experience is that more people go to church on Ash Wednesday than any other holiday, including Christmas and Easter.

Here are a few basics on the Ash Wednesday tradition.

The Editors 02-13-2014

Pope Francis' recently named 19 new cardinals—half of which hail from non-European countries—to serve the Roman Catholic Church.

Eric J. Lyman 12-05-2013

St. Peter in Prison (The Apostle Peter Kneeling). Photo courtesy Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons/RNS

When Pope Francis cradled the small box said to contain nine bone fragments believed to be the mortal remains of St. Peter, the first pope, he fanned the flames of a long-standing debate over the authenticity of ancient church relics.

Most old churches in Italy contain some ancient relic, ranging from a glass tube said to hold the blood of St. Gennaro in Naples to a section of what is believed to be Jesus’ umbilical cord in the Basilica of St. John of Lateran in Rome. Perhaps the most famous religious relic in Italy — the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be Jesus’ burial cloth — will go on display again in early 2015, and Turin Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia this week invited Pope Francis to attend its public debut.

But St. Peter’s bones are of particular importance, since they are the very basis — both architecturally and spiritually — for Catholicism’s most important church. And yet the bones were only discovered during a series of excavations in the 1940s, almost 1,900 years after Peter died, in either 64 or 67 A.D.

Janet Tappin Coelho 10-11-2013

Juliana Lima and Jenifer Felicio, Candomble young women, pose for a photograph. Photo via RNS/by Robson Coelho

The couple practiced Candomble, an African-Brazilian faith with roots in Brazil’s slave trade.

They dressed in white and believed in an all-powerful God who is served by lesser deities, blending Catholicism with African spiritualism, or the belief that the dead communicate with the living.

But their neighbor, who attended a local evangelical church, disapproved. On a balmy day one year ago he shot and killed the husband as he was screwing in a light bulb in his yard.

Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society. Photo via RNS/courtesy American Chesterston Society

Christians and Jews are mounting campaigns for and against a path to sainthood for British writer G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), one of the world’s best-known Catholic converts.

Roman Catholic Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, where Chesterton lived and worked, has ordered an examination of Chesterton’s life — the first step in what is likely to be a long and unpredictable process toward canonization.

Alison Kirkpatrick 09-23-2013
Pope Francis, by Catholic Church (England and Wales) /

Pope Francis, by Catholic Church (England and Wales) /

Like most of the world last spring, I watched in fascination as Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope. The first day, I was non-plussed. Another old, white guy? Big surprise. The second day, I began to take notice: he was a Jesuit and he chose the name Francis, the first pope ever to do so. The third day, I got a little discouraged as Catholic pundits and news organizations across the nation scrambled to prop up his conservative credentials and hardline stances. But as the week unfolded, I heard the stories of how he paid his own bills, carried his own bags, and rode in a modest sedan across town and my heart melted a little bit. Then came his ordination, and in one simple gesture, stopping to cradle a disabled man in his arms, he captured my imagination. I was willing to entertain the possibility that he just might be a different kind of pope.

RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Pope Francis waves to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square in March. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

VATICAN CITY — Of all the novelties that Pope Francis has brought to the Vatican, few have endeared him to the public — and unsettled his aides — as much as his penchant for picking up the phone and calling someone out of the blue.

The pontiff with the pastor’s touch has phoned his cobbler in Argentina to inquire about a shoe repair, called to cancel his newspaper subscription, and phoned a woman who was raped by a local police officer to counsel her.

Just this week, Francis phoned a pregnant Italian woman whose fiancé had pushed her to have an abortion.

Anna Romano instead dumped the guy, wrote to the pope about her problems, and on Sept. 3 received a surprise call from the Holy Father, who offered encouragement and even said he would baptize the baby if she couldn’t find a willing priest.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan says Mass in Madrid in 2011, Jeffrey Bruno / Shutterstock

Cardinal Timothy Dolan says Mass in Madrid in 2011, Jeffrey Bruno /

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the most famous funny man in the American hierarchy, went on The Colbert Report Tuesday night to trade quips with another funny guy — and another well-known Catholic — host Stephen Colbert.

Indeed, as Colbert — inhabiting his onscreen persona as a blowhard rightwing pundit — said in welcoming Dolan: “You’re the second most famous Catholic in America – after myself.”

But it was actually Dolan who got the first gag, and giggles, as he walked onto the set and ostentatiously bowed and kissed Colbert’s hand as if he were greeting the pope.

“I’ve got to get a nice big ring if you’re going to be kissing my hand!” replied Colbert, who seemed — uncharacteristically —  unsure of how to play the exchange.

In fact, while Colbert was in full faux bloviating mode, he seemed to let Dolan set the pace of their chat; Colbert didn’t poke too hard on topics that could have prompted controversy.

Part of the relative deference may stem from the fact that Colbert is a serious Catholic who has taught Sunday school at his New Jersey parish. Or perhaps it was because Colbert knows Dolan personally, having appeared — out of character — at a forum on faith and humor last year at Fordham University. Or maybe Colbert was a bit out of practice: This was his first show after a two-week summer break, part of which he spent in Rome.

RNS photo by David Gibson.

Giovanni Pierinelli checks on his Baby Jesus inventory at the Catholic Marketing Network. RNS photo by David Gibson.

Centuries ago, Roman Catholics helped kick-start the market for religious articles with their insatiable demand for rosaries, icons, prayer cards, and all manner of devotional objects and spiritual souvenirs.

But in recent decades, evangelical Protestants have dominated the art of religious retailing, building a national network of bookstores and stamping the Christian message on almost any item that an American consumer might want, from perfume to golf balls to flip-flops.

Now, Catholic entrepreneurs are looking to catch up, and at the 17th annual Catholic Marketing Network trade show last week (Aug. 6-9) there was a sense that the Catholic sector has a new opportunity to expand — if businesses can update their approach and broaden their inventory beyond the usual catalog of sacred objects.

“If you are a Catholic gift and bookstore and you are not willing to reinvent yourself, you are going to be out of business,” said Alan Napleton, president of the network, which organizes the convention.

Alessandro Speciale 08-02-2013
Pope Francis in March. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Pope Francis in March. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

In message published on Friday, Pope Francis took the rare step of personally expressing his “esteem and friendship” to the world’s Muslims as they prepare to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fast.

While it is a long-established Vatican practice to send messages to the world’s religious leaders on their major holy days, those greetings are usually signed by the Vatican’s department for interfaith dialogue.

In his message, Francis explains that in the first year of his papacy he wanted to personally greet Muslims, “especially those who are religious leaders.”

Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had fraught relations with Muslims. In a 2006 speech he quoted a Byzantine emperor who said Muhammad had only brought “evil and inhuman” things to the world, sparking a worldwide crisis in Christian-Muslim relations.

Pope Francis 08-02-2013

'Not to share one's goods with the poor is to rob them.'

Carol Keehan 08-02-2013

Pope Francis is clearly on a mission to alter the status quo, but will that extend to greater freedom for women's leadership in the church?

Jim Rice 08-02-2013

In John Carr's view, Pope Francis is already shaking up the Catholic Church—and the best is yet to come.

Stephen Schneck 08-02-2013

Francis—refreshingly candid and seemingly repelled by the perks of the papacy—offers new hope for the Catholic Church and beyond.

Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Pope Francis addresses journalists on his flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome July 29. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

With his open and easygoing manner, Pope Francis charmed the media as much as the faithful during his successful visit to Brazil, the first international pilgrimage of his pontificate.

But it was the pope’s remarks about gay priests, made during a free-wheeling press conference on the return trip to Rome, that drew the most headlines, raising questions about whether the pontiff was signaling a change in the church’s approach to this volatile issue.

When asked by reporters about rumors of a “gay lobby” of clergy in the Vatican who were exposing the Holy See to blackmail schemes and scandal, Francis at first joked that while there’s a lot of talk about such a lobby, “I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word ‘gay.’”

Then, in a more serious vein, he added:

“I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good. … If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”

Photo courtesy RNS.

Rev. Patrick McCollum attends a spiritual gathering in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. Photo courtesy RNS.

Is calling someone a “pagan” a bad thing or a badge of honor? Do we even know what the term means?

Those questions were prompted by a recent speech by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput in which he lamented the decline of faith and morals in the modern world. “Even many self-described Christians,” he declared, “are in fact pagan.”

And it doesn’t sound like he meant that as a compliment.

Mark Silk 06-18-2013
Photo courtesy Pan Xunbin/

Freedom and peace abstract concept background. Photo courtesy Pan Xunbin/

We all know that when it comes to the acceptance of LGBT folks, religions differ. But what the religions communicate, and how the people in the pews actually feel, are not the same.

In a word, the rank and file tend to be more accepting than the leadership. What’s striking is how much this LGBT Gap varies from religion to religion, and we can get some idea of the variance from Pew’s new survey of LGBT Americans.

As the measure of institutional messaging, we will use the percentages of LGBT people who say a given religion is unfriendly to them. These range from 84, 83, 79, and 73 percent for Islam, Mormonism, Catholicism, and Evangelicalism to 47 and 44 percent for Judaism and Mainline Protestantism. Then there is the proportion of members of each religion who believe that “homosexuality should be discouraged by society.” That’s 45, 65, 20, and 59 percent for the first four groups; 15 and 26 percent for the last two.

Photo courtesy RNS/Globe photos.

Dolores Hart and Elvis Presley in “Loving You.” Photo courtesy RNS/Globe photos.

The way fans reacted to Dolores Hart’s decision to become a cloistered nun, you might have thought the movie star had announced her intention to kill herself.

Even close friends and family could not fathom why this Grace Kelly look-alike, who gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss and had her pick of acting jobs, would stow herself away in a nunnery for the rest of her life.

As if to test her resolve in those weeks before she left Hollywood, Universal Studios offered her a role opposite Marlon Brando, a role she turned down shortly after she broke off her engagement to Don Robinson, a kind and handsome businessman who loved her intensely.

RNS photo courtesy Graphic News.

RNS photo courtesy Graphic News.

Is Pope Francis endorsing heresy?

It might look that way from the eye-catching headlines this week that made it appear everyone was bound for heaven — “even atheists!” — thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross.

The passage that prompted the reports came from Francis’ brief homily at the informal morning Mass that he celebrates in the chapel at the Vatican guesthouse.

Speaking on Wednesday, Francis said that as human beings created in the image of God, everyone has a “duty to do good.”

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists,” he said, answering his own query. “Everyone! And this blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the blood of Christ has redeemed us all!”

Cue the jaw dropping and head scratching. Atheists were pleasantly surprised, conservative Catholics were dazed and confused, and the pope’s comments raced around the Internet; for a while they were the second-most shared piece on Reddit.

So was Francis preaching a form of “universalism?" That is the unorthodox teaching that says, essentially, that all faiths are equal and all are going to heaven, especially if you are nice to people here on earth. It’s also a heresy that Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, spent a career quashing every time he thought he thought he spied a hint of it in some theologian’s writings.