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Articles of Faith

O’Malley encounters Obama at funeral for senator

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley with President Obama at the Mission Hill basilica. He has criticized Obama’s stance on abortion rights. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley with President Obama at the Mission Hill basilica. He has criticized Obama’s stance on abortion rights. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / August 30, 2009

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For those of us on the O’Malley beat, there were lots of interesting moments yesterday, but none more so than the lengthy greeting that Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley had with President Obama. O’Malley, of course, is the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston and has been sharply critical of Obama’s support for abortion rights (“This man has a deplorable record when it comes to prolife issues,’’ O’Malley told me after the election).

I asked O’Malley’s spokesman, Terry Donilon, what the two men talked about, and he e-mailed back, “If he chooses to speak about it, he will in the blog, but it was a pleasant and gracious chat.’’ He said that the conversation lasted two to three minutes and that the cardinal welcomed the president to Boston and the basilica. He would not say whether there was a more substantive exchange.

O’Malley technically presided over the Mass, but he was not the principal celebrant or the homilist, and he was visible mostly at the end, as he said the final prayers of commendation over the late senator’s body. O’Malley’s tone, even on the happiest of occasions, is somber, and he added a funereal touch to the funeral’s close as he honored the body with incense, a sign of respect for the body and a sign of God’s blessing.

O’Malley’s participation in the Mass has been controversial in some particularly conservative corners of the antiabortion movement, but drew strong praise from the Rev. James Martin, associate editor of America magazine, who blogged: “Cardinal O’Malley’s decision to attend the funeral is large-hearted, compassionate, pastoral, sensitive and, above all, Christian. . . . Cardinal O’Malley has been clear about his strong opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, his simple presence at the funeral shows his support of forgiveness, compassion and that quality perhaps most missing in today’s church: mercy.’’

Religious leaders reflect on Kennedy dedication to others

The big story this week, in religion as well as in politics, was the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Multiple religious leaders offered thoughts on the senator’s death. Here are some excerpts:

From Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston: “We join with his colleagues in Congress and the people of Massachusetts in reflecting on his life and his commitment to public service. For nearly half a century, Senator Kennedy was often a champion for the poor, the less fortunate, and those seeking a better life. Across Massachusetts and the nation, his legacy will be carried on through the lives of those he served. We pray for the repose of his soul and that his family finds comfort and consolation in this difficult time.’’

From Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies: “Whenever the Jewish community needed help, Ted Kennedy was always there. . . . If his brothers were the symbol of the dream that drove and continues to drive my generation, Ted represented the hard work required, day in and day out, to turn those dreams into reality. Boston, Massachusetts, our people, the Jews of Greater Boston, and all the oppressed of the earth will all miss him.’’

From the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association: “Senator Kennedy had a gift for reaching out to religious people and lifting up our shared commitment to equality and the betterment of humanity. We can honor Senator Kennedy by carrying forward his legacy of working on behalf of those who are marginalized in this country. . . . By giving our resources and commitment to the causes of fairness and equality, we move toward realizing the American dream to which Kennedy dedicated his years of public service.’’

Displays of faith at home: In China, maybe not

A Chinese conceptual artist, Song Dong of Beijing, has collected all the objects from the house where his late mother lived for 50 years, and arranged them in piles in a 3,000-square-foot atrium in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Among several thousand objects, I did not see anything that was recognizably religious, and I started wondering how many American houses would be devoid of any religious objects - I suspect it’s a minority, given how most Americans describe their religious beliefs and practices to pollsters - and how that might differ from houses in China, so I e-mailed a few China experts to ask their thoughts.

Nara Dillon, a lecturer on Chinese politics and economics at Harvard, told me: “It’s quite typical for a woman of that generation to have no religious objects in her house, since religion was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. The PRC is still officially an atheist country, like all other communist regimes. In surveys, the vast majority of Chinese report having no religion. But there are many arguments about what these polls really mean, because many people participate in native Chinese religious practices without thinking of them as a ‘belief’ in the same way that they view Islam or Christianity. There has been a huge religious revival in the post-Mao period as the government has loosened its restrictions on some religions.’’

Rob Weller, chairman of the anthropology department at Boston University , offered a similar assessment: “In urban areas, it is still quite typical that there would be nothing religious in a home, although ancestral altars are beginning to come back. On the other hand, a religious knickknack or two would not be unusual, perhaps as a souvenir. In rural areas, it is common again to see ancestral altars and perhaps some images of gods in homes.’’