Will Pope Francis Answer Muslims' Prayers, Too?

Host Michel Martin checks in with the Barbershop guys for a fresh cut on the week's news, including the new pope and college basketball's March Madness. Martin is joined by culture critic Jimi Izrael, attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, sports writer Pablo Torre and Reverend Leo Patalinghug.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the appearance clinic - I mean. the Barbershop; where the guys talk about what's in the news, and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael. He joins us in our Washington, D.C., studios, along with civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. With us from our bureau in New York is Pablo Torre. He is a senior writer with ESPN.com. And also with us, Father Leo Patalinghug. He is a priest with the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but we caught up with him in Springfield, Illinois. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Father Leo?

THE REV. LEO PATALINGHUG: Hey there.

IZRAEL: I have a confession. This is...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: This is the season for that.

PATALINGHUG: I cannot absolve you. Other people are listening. But I'll be happy to hear it.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: This is the first time we've had a father in the Barbershop. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome.

PATALINGHUG: We get haircuts.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Right. Fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing? Are we all right?

PABLO TORRE: Yeah. Doing well.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Bless us, for we have sinned.

IZRAEL: Well, speak for yourself. So let's get this started by talking about the real serious, big papa. Pope Francis started on the job this week. Here he is, speaking to his fans at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City after he was picked.

POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

IZRAEL: Ah, thanks for that, you all, when I...

MARTIN: That's the first time I've heard the believers described as fans, but that's...

IZRAEL: Yeah. Hey...

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Not that they - they didn't do the wave or anything but, you know, in - my Italian is a little rusty. But I think Pope Francis...

PATALINGHUG: I speak Italian.

IZRAEL: OK. Go ahead.

PATALINGHUG: He basically said that they went to the ends of the Earth to find a new pope. And he also...

IZRAEL: And thank you. And what's more interesting, I thought he - no one that on this particular pope but I thought it was an interesting choice that made sense because over 30 percent of the Catholic world is Hispanic or Latino. So Father Leo, I'm going to give you the floor first. Did this pick, did it answer your prayers?

PATALINGHUG: Oh, of course. Just the fact that we have a holy father is an answer to a prayer. The fact that it's - he ties in so many unique characteristics, the fact that he's the first American pope - and I'm talking about South American, so he's bringing in a whole new understanding of evangelization. The fact that he picked Francis, and I believe it's in commemoration of Francis of Assisi, who was the mystic deacon in Italy who heard God say rebuild my church. Because, you know, hey, the fact is if you want to keep a building going you got to keep rebuilding it.

IZRAEL: That's right. A-Train, Arsalan, as the Muslim guy, you spoken up before about tensions between Muslims and Catholics. What are you hoping for from Pope Francis?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I hope that Pope Francis actually skips a generation and takes the ecumenical interfaith legacy of Pope John Paul II, who actually did a lot to reach out to people of other faiths. People might remember he was the first pope ever to set foot inside a synagogue in 1986 in Rome. And he was also the first pope ever to step inside of a mosque when he went to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, in 2001. Then that is contrasted, of course, with the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, who, in September 2006, gave a very controversial speech at Regensburg University in Germany, where he quoted a Byzantine Emperor speaking about Islam and quoted him as saying, quote, "show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman." And from what I've read about the relationship of Pope Francis, the artist, of course, formally known as Jorge Bergoglio, and his relationship with the Muslim community in Argentina, they consider him a friend, as well as the Jewish community. And so I am hoping for improved interfaith relations globally with the choice of Pope Francis.

IZRAEL: Amen, brother. Pablo Torre, P-Dog.

TORRE: Yeah. Well...

IZRAEL: You call - well, I know you call yourself a Jesuit-breed Catholic.

TORRE: That's true.

IZRAEL: The new pope is a Jesuit. Will this pick make you more likely to show up to church on Sunday? As if, right?

TORRE: Oh my God. The most on the spot question. I know my mom is listening. Jesus.

(LAUGHTER)

TORRE: No pun intended.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: You messing up everywhere, bro.

TORRE: I know. I'm face-planting all over the studio right now. No, I'm incredibly proud, as someone who was educated by Jesuits - as you said. I went to Regis High School in New York. And they have a reputation throughout the Catholic world and beyond for being scholarly. And that's what I kind of hope is to have a sort of open-minded scholastic approach to the problems that face the church today. And as a young Catholic, especially, you know, it's really interesting to see and to have this profound cultural, prideful moment like electing the pope when the entire world is looking at you. And then you contrast it with - as you sort of hinted at - a younger generation of people who are going to church less and less. And those are my friends, the guys I went to high school with, who really identify culturally as Catholic but do see obstacles like the difference right now in a lot of mainstream views, for example, on gay marriage and contraception and women's rights, and also want to see some lesser bureaucracy in the church. You know, when you talk about scandal, bureaucracy is a huge part of that. And so I hope the church becomes more academic in that respect it becomes more open-minded and sort of moves closer to where the younger generation is and that's my main prayer for the new pope.

MARTIN: Father Leo, can I ask you about that?

PATALINGHUG: Well, if I could just jump in real quick too.

MARTIN: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Yeah.

PATALINGHUG: Yeah. Yeah. I mean look, Cardinal Dolan, who is one of the electors, told a story to us when we were seminarians, I was actually a student in Rome, and he talked about how people would complain about the Catholic Church because it just wasn't good enough. And so, in response he would say, if you can find a more perfect church, please find it and join, but don't join it because as soon as you do you will render it imperfect. We are a community of just humans who are just trying to do our best in following faithful traditions. And you're absolutely right. While Pope Benedict wanted to focus more on the education of the Catholic people and what it really means, we also have the tradition in our pontificate of say, John Paul II, who in Assisi, where Francis, St. Francis of Assisi, lived is the only real ecumenical inter-religious dialogue that ever has taken place. And so we as the Catholic Church, and Catholic means universal, do what we can to reach out to all corners. But at the same time, we have to strengthen what it is that we believe as Catholic people and celebrate that.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, before we move on from this topic, father would you mind if I ask a question for me personally, not as a Catholic.

PATALINGHUG: Oh, please do.

MARTIN: I just, I was interested in his personal story of the fact that he takes the bus, for example.

PATALINGHUG: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean I don't know why, I mean that just, that means something to me. I mean the fact that he takes the bus.

PATALINGHUG: Have you been to the traffic in Argentina?

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. You don't want to take the bus.

PATALINGHUG: It's probably a very practical thing. Well, I mean absolutely...

MARTIN: But I do want to ask though, if you feel that he has the tools to revive and refresh the church in all of the ways that we have - and we haven't even raised all the issues that, you know, we've talked about here about, you know, the sex abuse scandals, the child sex abuse scandals, all of those things. Does he have the tools? Because one of the arguments about Pope Benedict is he didn't have managerial tools to do this. He didn't have the temperament. He was fundamentally a scholar. He did not have the temperament of management to address these issues. Do you think that this - that Pope Francis does?

PATALINGHUG: Yes, I certainly believe he does. First of all, by the ordination of his priesthood, he's been infused with the gift of the Holy Spirit. He also has the support of his College of Cardinals who elected him pretty quickly. Even though news speculated this would take a long time, the fact that it was only five votes into it showed that he had an overwhelming support of people. And thirdly, he has the faith and the support of the people. Now please know that no pope is going to be able to do everything perfectly because our world wants everything to be fixed in a microwavable minute and God uses a crock-pot.

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: All right, Father Leo.

PATALINGHUG: A little different...

IFTIKHAR: There's a bumper sticker.

MARTIN: We forgot to tell...

IZRAEL: And he drops the mic.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know, Father Leo is the chef, you know?

PATALINGHUG: Well, listen, I had a cooking show so I have to make these food analogies.

TORRE: Yeah, Father Leo is giving sermons. We got to hook up on Sundays.

IZRAEL: I know, right?

IFTIKHAR: Priests are dropping dimes.

PATALINGHUG: The only plate that I pass out is not a collection plate. It's got a little plate of my food on it, all right? That's what I pass out.

MARTIN: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, Father Leo Patalinghug. He's a chef as well as a priest, as he just told you, and sports writer Pablo Torre. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. All right, gentlemen, it's March. You know what that means.

IFTIKHAR: The madness.

IZRAEL: March Madness. Pablo Torre...

TORRE: Yes.

You're our sports guy. What are you thinking about the N double - here I go.

(LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: NAACP.

TORRE: That's a very different bracket, Jimi.

IZRAEL: I'd love to see John Lewis on the...

IFTIKHAR: I've got Ben Jealous on that one.

IZRAEL: Right. Yeah, yeah. I'd love to see him on the three-point line. What do you think about the NCAA this year?

TORRE: So we have a really interesting year in college basketball because we have more parity, which is a nice word for balance, which is a nice word for unpredictability, that we've ever seen before. I mean we don't have a dominant single team, we haven't had one all year. And so for college basketball watchers there's always been this question: when will a 16 seed, the lowest seed, the lowest level team in the NCAA tournament, finally upset a number one? And this could be that year. But if I'm looking at four teams - I'm going to pick for teams - that I like right now before selection Sunday, obviously, before seeing the bracket, I actually have a Jesuit bias here as well, I like Georgetown, right in your hometown of D.C., or at least the studio home of D.C.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

TORRE: I like Gonzaga out of Washington, another Jesuit-educated institution, and I like two bluebloods, Indiana and Duke. Indiana might be the team that people have been pegged - that people are pegging as number one and Duke is obviously the traditional power, and right now they're rounding into shape. So those are my teams but honestly, this is the year when anything could happen and obviously, that makes more (unintelligible).

IZRAEL: So wait, having said that, Cleveland State and Kent State aren't on your radar at all, bro. Really? Seriously?

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: So...

TORRE: Jimi, one day but not this year.

MARTIN: Not this year.

TORRE: Michel, Harvard University, our Harvard University, second-year in the tournaments in a row.

MARTIN: I know. I know. I'm...

TORRE: That program is spiraling widely out of control as an athletic power. Better shut that place down.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Don't forget Cleveland State Vikings. Anything can happen. A-Train.

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: Arsalan Iftikhar, what have you got?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I was actually, in 2005, I was actually at the game where George Mason got to the Final Four by beating the University of Connecticut.

TORRE: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: And it was probably one of the best sporting events that I have ever been to in my life, and I've been to pretty much everything. There's nothing like March Madness. As Pablo said, there is a lot of parity this year, you know, the Cinderellas are going to try to come to the ball. You know, you have the typical powerhouses in Duke, Gonzaga, Ohio State, Georgetown, Indiana.

MARTIN: Harvard.

IFTIKHAR: Harvard, of course.

(LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: Some teams that I like. You know, I'm from Chicago so I have to root for the University of Illinois and hope they go far. But Oklahoma State I think is going to make an interesting run. And the University of Miami in Florida, you know, this is not a traditionally strong basketball powerhouse school, but they have just been, you know, running the show this year. And so it's going to be interesting. I don't think we're going to see a 16 beat out a one, but I think that, you know, we might see a double-digit team in the Elite Eight and Final Four.

IZRAEL: Father Leo, do you build a bracket or...

PATALINGHUG: Yes.

IZRAEL: ...is that a sin?

PATALINGHUG: No, it's hardly a sin. It's fun. Competition is almost like the understanding of bringing the best out of people, so we're all about it. That's why we have Bingo, for goodness sakes.

(LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: True story.

PATALINGHUG: I'll be honest with you. I got to make my confession too. I'm only at 5'5" so I don't really like tall people sports...

(LAUGHTER)

PATALINGHUG: But I do practice martial arts and so, you know, if the big guys tease me at least I can defend myself. However, just paying attention to the March Madness, I kind of make comparisons. As we were watching for that white smoke, everyone in the basketball world is going to be watching for, you know, what the selection committee is going to be electing, and not everyone is going to be happy, but they kind of have to deal with it.

TORRE: No they will not.

PATALINGHUG: I think there are more rules in basketball than there are in the church.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Wow.

PATALINGHUG: I'm very interested in the fact that there is this talk about a Catholic conference as well. So that kind of peaks my interest greatly.

MARTIN: Well, let me talk about one other interest of yours, Father Leo. You mentioned that you're into mixed martial arts. In fact, you have a black belt in - what's it called?

PATALINGHUG: I have two black belts, third-degree. One is in Tae Kwon-Do and the other is Arnis, which is full contact Filipino stick and knife fighting.

IZRAEL: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I wanted to ask about that because Fallon Fox was born a man but reportedly went underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2006. Now she's competing in mixed martial arts fighting against women. She's won a few bouts but some of her opponents say that's just not fair. In an interview with CNN, Fox disagreed. I'll just play that short clip.

FALLON FOX: I say that it's completely fair. The medical community stands behind me on that in that there's no unfair competitive advantages, which is the arguments who oppose my competition has said.

MARTIN: You know, Pablo, you've been writing about this.

TORRE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: This is like a surprisingly intense - I don't know of surprisingly - I say surprisingly because I think the percentage of people in the population we're talking about has to be fairly small. I mean how many people have undergone this experience?

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: But it evokes a lot of intense debate in sports. Talk a little bit about that, if you would.

TORRE: Yeah, I mean it strikes to the fundamental idea of, you know, one of sports' sacred principles: It's testaments of faith, which is competitive equity, right? I mean if you can't, I mean the reason why there's controversy is because if you believe that there is a person who can have an unfair advantage over another, then that's a problem. And obviously, gender carries, and sex, specifically the physical manifestation of gender carries this long-held - and scientifically proven in a lot of cases - distinction in terms of the male advantage over the female.

But in reality, what is funny about this is that while MMA is still working through its own rules and regulations about what a transgendered person can - what's fair to compete, what division they can compete in, the IOC and the NCAA have already made rules that do allow a person like Fallon Fox to compete. They require - the IOC requires gender or sex reassignment surgery specifically, physically changing the genitalia and then two years of hormone therapy. Fallon Fox, reportedly as she claims, has had a decade of hormone therapy. So that means in my eyes that she is fulfilling the more stringent requirements out there, and that's the IOC's own rules that they made in 2004.

So I personally, you know, you're not going to convince a lot of people at this stage in our culture. It's still early on, but honestly, Fallon Fox to my mind, she can call herself female, certainly she has every right to do that and she has the regulatory bona fides.

MARTIN: She's met the revelatory bona fides. I wanted to...

IZRAEL: Well, see...

MARTIN: Go ahead. Go ahead, Jimi.

IZRAEL: But there's also the thing, we can't deny that I mean Fallon, respect, but you know, she was born a man that mean she has the bone structure of a man, the bone density of a man. She's got male tendons, no, in musculature. No, I think it's not a fair fight.

MARTIN: Yeah, but all men are not the same size.

TORRE: That's very true.

IZRAEL: But she's still a man. I mean or she still has some of the same inner work - some of the same inner workings that a man is born with and I think that makes for a not...

MARTIN: Look, I had a relative, a female relative, born female who is still a female, who could bench press 300 pounds. I'm sorry. I'm just saying...

IZRAEL: Props. I mean but to the...

PATALINGHUG: I used to train women...

IZRAEL: To the extent I even believe that women shouldn't be fighting, that this shouldn't be a sport women should participate in. You know, I don't think this is, nah, this is unfair to me.

MARTIN: Well, hold on a second. Father Leo, this is your sport. Just very briefly, if you would...

PATALINGHUG: It is.

MARTIN: ...we only have a minute left, what do you think?

PATALINGHUG: Sure. Well, I think that I think science has actually caused confusion because while they know how to do certain things, they don't know why they do it. And so one of the reasons why I think this could be unfair is because we aren't really prepared to understand the ramifications of, say, transgendered people participating in sports. And it is true, they can't take away their maleness. They can't take away that Y chromosome and that does have an effect in a person's ability for muscle growth and their bone structure. However, however, I'm not saying that a woman can't defend herself because I know a lot of women who I used to train who can certainly do that. So I'm not going to make a decision one way or the other. I can just certainly say that this is one reason why sports needs a moral voice.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we got to leave it there for now. Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com. Arsalan and Jimi were here in Washington, D.C. With me. Pablo Torre is a senior writer for ESPN.com, with us from our bureau in New York. And Father Leo Patalinghug is a priest and author of the cookbook "Spicing Up Married Life." He joined us from member station WIUS in Springfield, Illinois. Thank you all so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

TORRE: Thank you.

PATALINGHUG: My pleasure. God bless.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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