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Mattingly: Now and at the hour of our death

When a believer is immersed in the rosary, the familiar phrases of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Doxology find a soft rhythm, as clicking beads mix with steady breaths and the human heart.

While meditating on each great mystery of the faith, the final words of the Hail Mary prayers are particularly sobering: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

The prayers are “like a pulse that sinks deep inside and goes on and on as you meditate on how these mysteries are connected to your life,” said writer Elizabeth Scalia, known as “The Anchoress” among Catholic bloggers.

“I think all the mysteries would have offered inspiration and consolation to James Foley” while in captivity, she said, as he “faced the fact that his life was truly in danger.”

It’s hard not to ask: Was Foley, the journalist captured in Syria in 2012 and recently executed, still praying the rosary as he knelt with an Islamic State guard’s knife at his throat?

After Foley’s death this month, beheaded by an Islamic State guard, his parents faced reporters and said they were proud of his calling to “bear witness” to truth and thankful, once again, for their family’s ties of faith.

“Jim was very loved, very proud to be a journalist,” Diane Foley told reporters outside their New Hampshire home. She added, “How do you make sense out of someone as good as Jim meeting such a fate? There’s so much evil in this world.”

John Foley said he believed his son “was a martyr – a martyr for freedom.”

In commentaries online, some Catholics have begun asking if the 40-year-old journalist may have been a martyr – period. In an interview with NBC, Foley’s siblings, Michael and Katie, claimed that Pope Francis had called Foley “a martyr” during a telephone call to the family.

A key fact in this discussion is that Islamic State fighters have consistently offered their victims a chance to save their own lives – by converting to Islam. In an online essay, theologian Pia de Solenni, a former staffer at Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, noted that it was also likely that Foley’s social media-savvy guards were aware that he was a Catholic, as well as a U.S. citizen.

“Martyrdom is not something that happened a long time ago in ancient Rome. ... It’s something that’s happening a lot, most – if not all – of the time,” she wrote. “If it takes the death of James Foley for us to realize that people are dying because of their faith every day, then that makes him even more of a witness to the truth.”

It’s almost impossible to believe, noted Scalia, that Foley was not pressed to convert during his captivity and, thus, to abandon his Christian faith. This may have happened, again, as he faced the immediate threat of execution.

“You know that they tried to get James Foley to do that,” she said. “Clearly, he refused to do it.”

If so, it’s hard not to think about the rosary prayers once again, she said. It’s easy to see the relevance of meditating on the First Sorrowful Mystery, when Jesus knows that he is facing his own death. Thus, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus prays, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”

• Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the project to study religion and the news.

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