Colm Toibin’s 'Testament of Mary' Brings Jesus’ Mother Down to Earth

Photo by Paul Kolnik/courtesy The Testament of Mary production

iona Shaw in a scene from The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. Photo by Paul Kolnik/courtesy The Testament of Mary production

How far can one go in retelling a Bible story, adding things that are not in the original? In The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin goes a long way.

His 2012 book is now a Broadway play presenting a view of the mother of Jesus so different from pious tradition that it angers some Christians, creating a “new,” intellectually and spiritually challenging Virgin Mary.

Yet in the end, Toibin’s searingly human Mary may be ultimately more accessible than the Mary of porcelain perfection set high on a pedestal.

The Irish writer, who has written about his strong Catholic childhood, imagines Mary 30 years after the crucifixion of her son. She lives as a virtual prisoner of two of Jesus’ disciples, still mourning her son’s death, bitter at what has happened since, and seeking consolation from pagan idols, which make more sense to her than what happened to Jesus.

Irish Abortion Debate Reflects Growing Church-State Tensions

RNS photo by Sarah Parvini.

Ruth Bowie and her husband Michael (pictured here with their son Dougie). RNS photo by Sarah Parvini.

DUBLIN, Ireland — Ruth Bowie was in the throes of grief when she found out she would never know her unborn child. At the 12-week mark, a pregnancy scan showed the baby had anencephaly, a fatal condition in which a portion of the brain and skull never form.

Bowie, 34, a pediatric nurse, knew the implications of the birth defect even before the doctor explained. But the life-changing news didn’t stop there.

“The doctors said we will continue to look after you, or else you can choose to travel,” she recalled.

Put another way, if she and her husband wanted to seek an abortion, they would have to travel to England to end the pregnancy.

An 'Unsettling:' Non-Catholics and Pope Francis

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A man sells newspapers outside St Peter's Square on Thursday morning. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

When I heard about the white smoke on Wednesday, I wrote on my Facebook wall: “Habent Papum.”  My own church doesn’t use Latin, so I had to use Google translate to figure out how to change the “We have a pope” of “Habemus Papam” into “They have a pope.” I got a few good laughs for my cleverness before a Catholic friend humbly reminded me that it wasn’t just their pope, and that I’d have to deal with him too ... he has no idea how prophetic his words have turned out to be.

You see, I didn’t expect to tune in at all to the election of the pope. I was raised in the Catholic Church and received its early sacraments before my family joined the Episcopal Church (my father’s tradition). I spent plenty of time in high school and after defending its practices and traditions against atheists and Protestant friends and colleagues, and I more than made up for that by pressing hard on my Catholic friends on the nuances I didn’t understand. But mostly I only paid attention when the Catholic Church said something publicly or took a political stand on an issue I cared about.

But on Wednesday, the white smoke got in my eyes, and rather than confusing my sight, it’s made things a little clearer.

'Rebuild My Church'

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Newly elected Pope Francis waves to the St. Peter's Square crowd. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Francis. Pope Francis. This could be good news for the Catholic Church, for the whole church, and for the world. Let’s hope and pray so.

Jorge Bergoglio, the Argentinian cardinal from Buenos Aires, will be the first pope from Latin America and the first outside of Europe in a millennium. That’s good news from the start. And the world is now learning about the 76-year-old new pontiff whose election caused the white smoke to rise in the night skies of Rome to the cheers of tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square. A Jesuit scholar, he seems to be a humble man who lives simply, choosing to live in a small apartment instead of the archbishop’s palace, and travel on buses and trams instead of in the church limousine.

Will simplicity and social justice become the witness of the Roman Catholic Church around the world — and will it emanate from the first pope from the Global South, which is clearly the growing future of the church? What good news that would be.

Black Smoke: First Day of Conclave Ends Without New Pope

RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

A view of St. Peter’s square on the first day of the conclave. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

VATICAN CITY — Black smoke from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel signaled that the first day of the conclave ended without the election of a new pope.

Even if the first-round outcome was largely expected, thousands of people on Tuesday braved the inclement Roman weather to wait for the result of the vote. They slowly filled up St. Peter’s Square as the evening progressed, with their eyes fixed on the small chimney.

Cries of disappointment erupted from the crowd when the black smoke appeared instead of the white smoke that would herald a successful election.

Cardinals Begin Conclave to Elect the Next Pope

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Cardinals attend the Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass at St Peter's Basilica Tuesday. Franco Origlia/Getty Images

VATICAN CITY — The doors of the Sistine Chapel closed behind the cardinals on Tuesday, marking the official start of the conclave that will elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

The 115 cardinal-electors walked in procession into the Sistine Chapel, singing hymns and invoking the Holy Spirit, before filing under Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” and taking a solemn oath of secrecy on everything that will happen during the conclave.

At the end of the oath-taking ceremony, the master of papal ceremonies, the Rev. Guido Marini, ordered the “extra omnes” (Latin for “everybody out”).

Cardinals will be sequestered inside a Vatican residence until a candidate receives the two-thirds majority needed for election to the papacy.

Why the Next Pope Matters

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Cardinal Angelo Scola attends the Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass on Tuesday. Franco Origlia/Getty Images

As the College of Cardinals begins its conclave today in Rome to select the next Pope, I find myself intensely interested in the outcome. Since I am an Anabaptist, a child of the “radical” Reformation, I’ve spent some time reflecting on why that is so.

First, the Roman Catholic Church is an unbroken link to the first century Roman church for all Christians, no matter our denomination. Before the so-called “Great Schism” between the eastern and western church in 1054, the Christian church led from Rome was THE primary Christian church. No matter if we are Eastern or Western Christians, no matter how Protestant or Anabaptist some of us are, the Church of Rome is still in some way our Mother church.

Second, it remains the largest Christian tradition in the world.

The ‘Tough Guy’ Option: Picking a Pope to Serve as Sheriff

RNS photo by David Gibson

A poster of Pope Benedict XVI on the streets of Rome. The conclave will begin on Tuesday. RNS photo by David Gibson

VATICAN CITY — Amid all of the prognosticating about who the cardinals could choose as the next pope in the conclave that starts here on Tuesday, one reliable thread has emerged: the desire to elect a pontiff who can be a pastor to the world as well as a taskmaster to the Roman Curia.

Finding such a combination in a single man, of course, may prove difficult if not impossible, which adds to the almost unprecedented level of uncertainty surrounding this papal election.

So if anything is possible, some say it might be better to reverse the prevailing wisdom — look for a pope who will talk tough to Catholics (and the world) while shepherding the Curia with a firm hand in order to better police the wayward.

The prospect might appall progressives and others who were happy to see the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, but it has enough appeal to conservatives that they are trying to make the case.

One reason for their sense of urgency is that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger turned out to be more of a papal pussycat as Benedict XVI than the watchdog of orthodoxy that he had been for decades while serving under John Paul II.

Is now the time for a pope who could be more of a Ratzinger than a Benedict?

Venting and Vetting: The Brutal Side of Papal Politics

View of St. Peter's Basilica, Iakov Kalinin/

View of St. Peter's Basilica, Iakov Kalinin/

If you want a crash course on how papal politics really works, look no further than the saga of Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

On Friday, Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric grabbed headlines by telling the BBC that priestly celibacy was “not of divine origin” and that he’d be “happy” if priests had the option to marry.

On Saturday, O’Brien was back in the news, this time after four men reportedly accused him of “inappropriate acts” dating back to the 1980s.

By Monday, O’Brien had resigned as archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh and announced he would skip the conclave.

From champion of married priests to disgraced churchman within 72 hours, O’Brien’s trajectory is stunning but also emblematic of the frenetic and fever-pitched campaigning that occurs during the tiny window between a pope’s death or resignation and the election of his successor.