CNA News

Subscribe to CNA News feed CNA News
ACI Prensa's latest initiative is the Catholic News Agency (CNA), aimed at serving the English-speaking Catholic audience. ACI Prensa ( is currently the largest provider of Catholic news in Spanish and Portuguese.
Updated: 2 hours 8 min ago

There's a generation that didn't know John Paul II – this film is for them

Mon, 01/02/2017 - 18:02

Denver, Colo., Jan 2, 2017 / 04:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square and around their television sets to pray for Pope John Paul II as he passed away on April 2, 2005. They remembered the more than 26 years he served as the Holy Father; the courage he had in fighting communism; his immense love; and his adventurous spirit.

But that was eleven years ago.

The generations of young people who grew up during the papacies of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis might only know St. John Paul II for his canonization, which took place April 27, 2014.

The recent documentary Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism hopes to educate these younger generations on the heroic life of the Roman Pontiff – telling the stories they cannot find in their textbooks.

“One of the reasons we set out to make this film is to kind of cement the legacy of Pope John Paul II,” David Naglieri, the film’s writer and director, told CNA.

“There’s a generation now that’s graduating college, entering the workforce, that didn’t necessarily live through all these events with the fall of Communism. Perhaps they didn’t … have the chance to see Pope John Paul II in person.”

Like a real life super-hero movie, the 90-minute film focuses on the saint’s role as an integral part in the fall of communism in central and eastern Europe – except St. John Paul II did not use destructive weapons to take down some of the world’s toughest leaders.

Rather, he used prayer and solidarity to encourage those oppressed by communism in Poland to keep their hope and will alive.

According to Naglieri, this documentary is unlike any other John Paul II film.

“What helps separate our film from past works is that we looked at the entire span of central and eastern Europe and how his message not just impacted Poland, but other countries as well,” he said.

“And then we tried to connect it to the modern day and to see how John Paul’s legacy continues to impact those who are striving for freedom in Europe.”

The film reveals the events in St. John Paul II's life through a timeline, which helps show how God’s providence guided the saint his entire life.

The late Pope grew up in Krakow, and became its archbishop in 1964. The documentary explains how he returned to the city for nine days in 1979, the year after his election as Bishop of Rome, instead of his intended two.

An interview in the documentary with Dr. Norman Davies, a historian of Poland, explains how the government’s distribution of antennas during the 1980 Olympic games led to the spreading of St. John Paul II’s message behind the Iron Curtain.

The film even tells the story of how President Reagan and the Pope met six days before the president’s famous ‘tear down this wall’ speech in 1987.

Filled with striking stories and interviews such as these, the documentary shows who truly held the power during this difficult time in the world’s history.

Naglieri said the film was an 18-month project from beginning to end, and that “we traveled to Poland and other central European countries several times during the making of it. ”

The documentary features interviews with Reagan’s National Security Advisor from 1981-82, the Prime Minister of Poland, the Archbishop of Lviv, a former Director of the Holy See Press Office, as well as journalists, historians, authors, and professors.

Narrating the documentary is Jim Caviezel, who portrayed Christ in Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’. Joe Kraemer, known for his work on multiple ‘Mission Impossible’ movies, composed the documentary’s original music.


This article was originally published on CNA June 15, 2016.

Can classical education save us from victimhood culture?

Sat, 12/31/2016 - 21:02

Denver, Colo., Dec 31, 2016 / 07:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

This quote from British author Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often misattributed to Voltaire) might sound rather foreign on many college campuses throughout the country today, who in many ways seem to prefer to be defended from the First Amendment rather than to defend it.

Earlier this year, students at Emory University in Atlanta protested that their safety was threatened by chalk messages showing support for Donald Trump for president. The president of the University agreed.

In early March, two student government representatives at Bowdoin College faced impeachment proceedings for attending a fiesta-themed party with mini sombreros, since the event was deemed an example of “ethnic stereotyping.”  

In April, North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Dan Forest proposed a policy for the state’s public university system that would punish “those who interrupt the free expression of others," such as hecklers during a speech.

The rise of a culture designed to protect students from words and ideas that seem threatening has some experts questioning the effect that this hyper-sensitivity could be having on higher education and society at large.

Defining the terms

In a long-form piece in The Atlantic in Sept. 2015, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explored this phenomenon that they dubbed “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Words like ‘microaggressions’, which are small, seemingly harmless words or actions that can be perceived as threatening, and ‘trigger warnings’, which are alerts that professors are expected to issue for potentially offensive or provocative material, haved moved from obscure terms to everyday language on campus, they said.

“This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion,” they wrote.

Another recent piece in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf explored a new scholarly paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who say that this new cultural phenomenon is different from previous cultures that have come before it, such as cultures that valued dignity or honor when faced with an aggrievance.

Now, the new cultural norm is “victimhood culture”, which values immediately and publicly airing one’s grievances, in hopes to “provoke sympathy and antagonism” toward the initial offender by “advertising (one’s) status as an aggrieved party,” Friedersdorf wrote.    

A Catholic college perspective

While many public universities are in the throes of grappling with the consequences of victimhood culture, some Catholic liberal arts schools say they have not seen the same cultural shift on their campuses.

Anne Forsyth is the Director of College Relations and Assistant to the President at Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), a Catholic liberal arts school in Santa Paula, California. She said she found it concerning when, for the first time a few years ago, she started hearing about “free speech zones” on college campuses.

“I remember thinking 'What is this? The whole country is a free-speech zone, what are they talking about? This is America, we all have the freedom to speak'.”  

But while she was aware of the culture of victimhood picking up speed on other college campuses, Forsyth said the student body of Thomas Aquinas seems to be untouched by the phenomenon.

“What we see here is endless conversation on all subjects, on which people can really disagree,” she said.

The reasons for the differences are complex, she added. One of the reason is the Christian faith of most of the students, she said, and that “where charity and love prevail, hopefully things will go a little bit better, so hopefully feelings won't be so hurt, people won't seem so doctrinaire, and those things are somewhat muted.”

Other reasons are likely the differences in pedagogy and curriculum, she said. Every class at TAC is in the form of a conversation-based seminar where the students are able to engage with their subjects on a level that wouldn’t be as possible in a large lecture class of hundreds of students, she said.

This engagement allows students to be able to grapple with differing opinions and ideas in ways that other students may not be being equipped to do, she said.

“I think it’s the advancing of an idea different or contrary to your own is what is triggering this (victimhood cultures), precisely because they just don't have the tools to deal with it,” she said.

The school also takes steps to reduce “emotional reasoning” in the classroom by requiring students to address each other during discussions as “Mr.” or “Miss”, she added.

“We're trying to minimize the personal part of it,” she said. “Not that everybody doesn't have a personal stake in these arguments or discussions, because we do, but we don't want to be personal about it in the point of feelings.”

Thomas Aquinas College also provides students with a classical education, with required courses in areas of philosophy, theology and literature that used to be the bread and butter of higher education.

What's God got to do with it?

Dr. William Fahey is the president of Thomas More College, a small, Catholic liberal arts school in New Hampshire. He said that the recent articles about “victimhood culture” are identifying something that’s been happening for several decades in higher education and the culture at large.

“If you have what Benedict XVI called ‘the emancipation of man from God’ in the public square, then it means certain things are going to be absent, certain things are going to become more prominent,” he said. “So if you're not allowed to talk about God at the center, then you can't have traditional ethics, you simply can't. You can't have virtue, you can't have justice, you can't have transcendent things because they actually require some sense of the transcendent.”

“So it’s no surprise if you have a college or university or a country where there is either no discussion allowed or a very perverse discussion of God allowed, you can't have ethics, you can't have real solidarity, because there's nothing that unites everyone,” he added.  

If there is no God, Fahey said, then the only thing that matters is gaining power, and many students have realized the power that comes with claiming victimhood status in today’s world.

But like Thomas Aquinas College, the student body at Thomas More has also not experienced the cultural shift seen at larger public universities for various reasons.

“We have a very traditional Catholic culture here that unifies everyone and we have a sense of justice, so if someone actually feels aggrieved, the categories for understanding that are virtue ethics, you could only understand your irritation as something significant because you perceive there's a violation of justice here, not merely annoyance,” he said.

Thomas More College is also a unique model in that is has less than one hundred students, allowing the student body to become a very tight-knit Catholic community.

“It would be comical at Thomas More College to talk about being marginalized, because one small single Catholic community, we're united in our faith, so we're not going to be prey to the same kind of feeling of alienation that most people in modern society and certainly most college students feel,” he said.

Also similarly to Thomas Aquinas College, Thomas More requires students to take many courses in the humanities and literature, which allow them to see the world through many different perspectives, he said.

“Someone who might be feeling marginalized is going to have a tough time seeing that as significant when they're reading tragedy and hardship, vice and virtue, they're reading kind of the broad sweep of human experiences across many different time zones, many different cultures, many different races,” he said. “And you realize, ‘Huh, there is something called humanity, and it’s foolish to say I'm going to define myself and my actions by (a more narrow category).’”

A Catholic psychologist weighs in

Dr. Gregory Bottaro is a clinical psychologist practicing with Catholic Psych Institute in Connecticut. He said that while it’s necessary and important to recognize that some people have experienced real trauma in their lives, the solution is not to shut themselves off to any experience that might be uncomfortable for them.

“The reality is that real trauma happens,” he said. “If you have somebody who’s been raped and they’re hearing a story about (rape)...a trigger warning essentially can be a positive thing to give people a heads up that we’re approaching an area that may trigger something for you, but the fact of the matter is that we are going to approach it,” he said.

“So that’s the intent, to just give people the awareness that if there’s something here you may have struggled with, get ready, get yourself ready for what we’re about to do.”  

But when awareness takes the form of censorship of differing opinions, then it’s gone too far, he said. For example, trigger warnings, which can be used as an appropriate way to alert someone that certain material may trigger something for them, are often used as an excuse to not engage with material at all.

“The problem is that people take them as permission to avoid or stay away from the material that’s being warned about,” he said.

One of the fundamental definitions of overall health, Dr. Bottaro added, is flexibility, and that applies whether one is referring to biological, physical, spiritual or emotional health.

“Flexibility is an intrinsic quality of overall health, and that means that you can have the ability to talk to different kinds of people, have different opinions, dialogue with different people with different perspectives or different cultural views, different world views, and that’s ultimately what’s healthy,” he said.

Therefore, the inability to handle differing opinions could be a sign of psychological sickness or disorder.

The solution?

A Catholic worldview can be extremely helpful for people encountering differing ideas and opinions, because they are grounded in something fundamental, Dr. Bottaro said.

“A Catholic worldview gives us a stable foundation that goes to the very root of what it is to be human,” Dr. Bottaro said. “So if our foundation is at the deepest root, then we don’t have to be afraid to dialogue with other people from different perspectives, we don’t have to be afraid of what other people might say to us, because we’re grounded on the deepest foundation possible.”

“And that’s ultimately what’s missing in our culture, that’s why they need these safe spaces, because they don’t have any kind of deeply rooted foundation, they’re not grounded, and so they need to stop people from saying scary things because it’s going to knock them off balance,” he added.

Some secular universities and institutions are recognizing the “culture of victimhood” as a threat to the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech, and are taking action. A new group at Princeton University, called the “Princeton Open Campus Coalition”, wrote in an open letter to the University’s president that they “are concerned mainly with the importance of preserving an intellectual culture in which all members of the Princeton community feel free to engage in civil discussion and to express their convictions without fear of being subjected to intimidation or abuse.”

Arizona lawmakers also decided to take action against victimhood culture by passing a bill to prevent colleges and universities from restricting free speech in a public forum. The bill was signed into law in May.

However, Dr. Fahey said, until secular universities and society as a whole once again recognize God and some sense of the transcendent as the center, then there’s no way to escape the rising culture of victimhood as an institutionalized part of society.

“The culture of victimhood can't really come out of a religious society,” Dr. Fahey said.

“I would go so far as to say that if you have an authentically religious culture of any of the traditional religions, you're not going to have this sense of victimhood.”

“In the United States, the religious tradition is Christianity. If you don't recognize that and have some sympathy for the other great religions, then you're never going to escape this problem, instead you're going to build an office to deal with victimhood, and in that action, as long as you have that office, you’ve now made it part of your culture, you've now made it systemic.” 

This article was originally published on CNA April 29, 2016.

'Hello. My name is Mother Teresa. I just wanted to give you my card.'

Fri, 12/30/2016 - 16:54

Denver, Colo., Dec 30, 2016 / 02:54 pm (CNA).- It happened on the most ordinary day, in the most ordinary of places.

A woman stood by herself in the back of an airport lounge, flipping distractedly through a magazine while she waited for her flight. Suddenly, she was approached by a 5’0” woman in a blue and white sari.

“Hello. My name is Mother Teresa. I just wanted to give you my card.”

The religious sister passed her a business card and gave her hand a gentle squeeze before turning and boarding a flight. The woman stared at the card. And then, a smile.

This is one of hundreds of testimonies about the life and holiness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta included in the new book “A Call to Mercy” (Image, 2016). The 384-page book published just weeks ahead of the Calcutta sister’s Sept. 4 canonization.

The book gives an exclusive peek into the first and secondhand oral and written testimonies that built Mother Teresa’s cause for sainthood. In total, the sainthood cause for the Missionary of Charity foundress included 17 volumes – or nearly 7,000 pages – of testimonies.

Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator of Mother Teresa’s cause and editor of “A Call to Mercy,” told CNA that such testimonies are typically unavailable to the public for decades following a canonization.

“This is the first time we’re using testimonies like that in such an organized manner and such a large number,” said Fr. Kolodiejchuk. “All that material will be available maybe in another 50 years. But in the meantime, if you read the examples you’ll see just what Mother did.”

“Some of them are extraordinary, but for the most part Mother is doing ordinary things. Like she herself used to emphasize; Ordinary things with extraordinary love.”

Since Mother Teresa’s canonization coincided with Pope Francis’ Jubilee of Mercy, “A Call to Mercy” also has a special focus on the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The book is divided into 14 chapters covering the 14 works of mercy. Each chapter includes a selection of Mother Teresa’s writings and testimonies related to a specific work of mercy.

“People will see – or have a good idea – firsthand or at least secondhand about how Mother herself lived the works of mercy,” Fr. Kolodiejchuk said.

A chapter on bearing wrongs patiently includes the testimony of a Missionary of Charity sister who was tasked with bringing Mother Teresa to the airport. The sister had just managed to usher Mother Teresa to the car when another sister ran to Mother Teresa and informed her that one of the children in their care was dying. The Missionary of Charity recalled being flooded with impatience.

“I’m not saying anything, but my body language, my tutting and sighing, says it all,” the sister recalls. “Mother…didn’t tell me off at all or point out my dreadful behavior. She just lovingly put her hand on my arm and said, ‘I will come, but I need to see this child’.”

Mother Teresa went to the child, a young baby, and prayed before tucking a Miraculous Medal into the child’s shirt. She then proceeded to the car to go to the airport.

“She didn’t point out how rude I was being; she embraced me and held me in my rudeness,” the sister reflected. “With all my faults, in that moment, she took care of me too.”

For many, the simplicity of this testimony and many others may come as a surprise. But not to Fr. Kolodiejchuk.

“Most of the examples…are just very ordinary,” Fr. Kolodiejchuk told CNA.  “Almost all of them – we can do those kinds of things. The little thoughtfulness to your neighbor, paying attention to those in need, beginning in your own family.”

For Fr. Kolodiejchuk, the testimonies also paint a fuller picture of the simple affectivity of the saint, whom he knew personally and worked alongside for nearly two decades.

“Someone would meet Mother just once and it would change their life,” he told CNA. “Or they saw her walking by and it was a moment of conversion. She had this graced capacity to really affect people.”

“She radiated holiness and she had the witness of her life behind it.”


This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 25, 2016.


How knowing your fertility can catch diseases early

Fri, 12/30/2016 - 12:04

Washington D.C., Dec 30, 2016 / 10:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- When Maggie* was in high school, she stayed after class to talk to ask a teacher what to do about a very personal concern she felt her physician was not taking seriously.

What she learned led to the discovery of a brain tumor, and treatment for the growth, which had been affecting the teen for years. The tools she needed to find and treat this growth came from an awareness of her fertility and natural cycles.

“It wasn’t so much that I was trying to avoid pregnancy or get pregnant – it’s that there was something legitimately wrong with my body,” Maggie told CNA.

By the time she was in her late teens, Maggie had noticed that her cycles had never regulated, and had no idea what that meant except that it wasn't normal. While for the first years after a young woman begins to menstruate her cycles are of varying length and heaviness, they typically regulate within a few years. But several years after her own cycles began, Maggie was concerned that they never had settled into a normal pattern – in fact, she sometimes would have as few as one cycle a year. In addition, she also faced rounds of headaches.

One day, Maggie approached her college-level biology teacher, who also happened to be a practicing Catholic, looking for an explanation for her concerns and asking what to do. The teacher told her to ask her pediatrician, but also put her in touch with her church’s fertility instructor to see what could be done.

Maggie said her pediatrician immediately assumed that she was pregnant: an impossibility, because she was not sexually active. When the pregnancy tests came back negative, the doctor responded, “‘I don’t know what your problem is’ and brushed me off,” she recalled.

Meanwhile, the local parish’s natural family planning (NFP) instructor saw the teen’s distress and put her in touch with a Catholic fertility physician who could teach Maggie how to observe and chart the signs of her fertility.

Understanding Fertility

“A sign of health in a woman is a normal, regular cycle,” Dr. Lorna Cvetkovich, a gynecologist and obstetrician at Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Va., explains. “We know what a normal cycle looks like,” she continued, “so at any time the parameters fall outside of those, then that’s a clue that maybe they’re not ovulating, they may have a luteal phase defect, they may have fibroids. It can show you all sorts of things.”

For women whose cycles fall within a normal range, normal bodily processes present themselves in a predictable pattern.

In the first part of a woman’s cycle, called the follicular phase, hormonal signals from the pituitary gland trigger the follicles (egg-containing structures within the ovaries) to prepare an egg for ovulation and to secrete estrogen into the woman’s body. This rise in estrogen levels triggers changes in the kind of fluid the cervix secretes, as well as thickening the uterine lining, making them more able to support the conception process.

After ovulation a woman's body secretes progesterone, which causes a sharp increase in a woman’s basal, or resting, body temperature, as well as a preparation of the uterine lining for possible implantation. If a pregnancy occurs, the basal body temperature and hormone levels may continue to rise, whereas if pregnancy does not happen, the resulting dip in hormones triggers a drop in temperature, menstruation, and the beginning of a new cycle.

In a healthy woman who is not pregnant, this cycle will repeat every 21-35 days.

These changes can be observed by any woman, and can be used by married couples as a valid method to achieve or delay pregnancy, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, which teaches that it is immoral to disrupt this natural cycle with the use of contraceptive pills, implants, barrier methods, or by having incomplete intercourse. Using these observations to help in the discernment of family size is known as natural family planning.

However, the same observations and data – commonly collected into charts for easier analysis – can be used to help diagnose gynecological issues such as ovarian cysts and growths in the uterus, called fibroids, as well as hormone deficiencies and other abnormalities affecting bodily functions. The information can also be essential in pinpointing issues surrounding pregnancy, such as the exact date of conception, infertility, and miscarriages.

This information is such a valuable insight into a patients health and symptoms – and an invaluable tool for doctors practicing reproductive medicine. “I just think it’s invaluable, and I don’t really know how people practice [gynecology] without having the charting,” said Cvetkovich. “There’s just so many uses, and it adds so much to your evaluation of the patient.”

Cycles and Diagnosis

Disorders in other bodily systems – such as the endocrine system – can manifest in a woman’s menstrual cycle and her chart. “Thyroid plays a role in almost every function of the body, so it may show up as a sign in the cycle,” explained Cvetkovich.

For Christine, charting her bodily signs helped her to catch an issue with her thyroid that might otherwise have been missed. After charting for four years, she started noticing that some months there was no ovulation that could be detected by temperature or with chemical tests for the hormones that trigger ovulation.

“I had what looked like a really long cycle, and then eventually, what to the uninformed observer would look to be a light period. But because I knew I hadn’t peaked, I was able to identify it as estrogen breakthrough bleeding and not a real cycle,” she explained.

“It seemed like my body was trying to ovulate, and not really getting there.”

She approached her doctor, explaining she was not ovulating and that she would like to find the cause for something that was out of the ordinary. The doctor then ordered comprehensive blood tests, and found that some of her thyroid-stimulating hormone levels were elevated beyond normal – in fact, her levels were twice as high s they had been a year ago.

After receiving treatment, her cycles returned to their normal pattern.

“I didn’t have a lot of signs or symptoms of hypothyroidism, aside from missing ovulation,” Christine noted, saying she wouldn't have picked up on the disorder had she not been charting. “ I wouldn’t have realized there was an issue,” Christine she added, reflecting on the fact that she probably would not have even received the treatment she needed.

“Whenever I’m sharing my experience with NFP with somebody, I’m always quick to point out not only all of the standard benefits, but that it enabled me to know my body and know there’s a problem that so many people wouldn’t be aware of."

How Fertility Awareness Helped to Find a Tumor

After a local NFP instructor put Maggie in touch with physicians familiar with fertility awareness, she became more aware of what was going on in her own body. She learned to observe her basal body temperature and cervical fluid signs – and noticed that while sometimes she had a more typical menstrual cycle and her chart showed the usual peaks and dips of a healthy young woman, at other times her cycle was irregular and her temperature was more elevated.

Even though she was not sexually active, “my body was acting like it was pregnant,” Maggie said. The doctors at the Catholic fertility clinic sent Maggie out for blood work, which showed a high level of prolactin – a hormone present during pregnancy and breastfeeding. She took this information back to her pediatrician, and then to an endocrinologist, who ordered an MRI scan of her brain.

“There was a tumor pressing into my pituitary, pressing into my frontal cortex,” Maggie explained.

“When I first heard the word ‘tumor’ I freaked out,” she related, but thankfully, “it wasn’t cancerous,” but a benign growth which explained both her irregular cycles and some of her headaches.

Maggie received the treatment she needed to shrink the tumor, and told CNA that “things are pretty much normal now.” While the tumor is still there – “it’ll never really go away, unless I get surgery," she related; “what’s happened at this point is that it’s checked.”

While since receiving treatment she has no need to monitor as rigorously all of her signs and symptoms, knowledge of her fertility and its signs has given Maggie tools she can use use if the tumor starts to grow again.

“I have this, and I know these are indicators to know [if] something is wrong with my prolactin.”

Fertility – 'A Public Health Issue'

Cvetkovich suggested this level of awareness can be useful for any woman looking to take care of their health.

“I think that anytime you put someone more in tune with your body,  they’re just going to know that things are wrong earlier. I think that’s what it’s all about, knowing what’s normal for you, and being in tune with it.”

She commented that many of her fellow physicians, as well as the general public, have grown accustomed to relying on hormonal contraceptives to address disorders, a practice she said “makes people very distant from their bodies and from their cycles.”

“We’ve lost the idea that having a normal monthly cycle is health – that’s normal. Being fertile is normal. I think that’s where NFP brings us back to, really: to reality.”

Maggie agrees, saying that some of her initial struggle in receiving treatment was a result of people  “missing the point that fertility isn’t sort of an accessory to being a human woman – it’s an integral part of how our bodies work.” Awareness of how women’s bodies work, and how to tell when they’re not working correctly, is important for everyone.

“It’s a public health issue.”

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

This article was originally published July 31, 2015.

A crash course in Miracles 101

Thu, 12/29/2016 - 16:32

Denver, Colo., Dec 29, 2016 / 02:32 pm (CNA).- What do a grilled cheese sandwich and the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe have in common?

Both bore what appeared to be images of Mary. One was determined to be authentically miraculous, the other was not. Not to spoil any secrets, but it’s not Our Lady of the Grilled Cheese that converted Mexico and continues to draw millions of people on pilgrimage every year.

But have you ever wondered just how the Church determines the bogus from the divinely appointed?

In his recent book, “Exploring the Miraculous,” Michael O’Neill gives readers a crash course of sorts in “Miracles 101” - including common questions about the importance of miracles, an explanation of the approval process, and descriptions of the various types of miracles found within the Catholic Church.

“This is a very rare book in that it tries to cover the entire spectrum of miracles within the Catholic Church,” O’Neill told CNA.

Catholics by definition are people who have to believe in at least two miracles, O’Neill said - that of Christ’s incarnation and his resurrection, two pillars on which the Catholic faith rests.

For modern-day miracles, belief is never required of the faithful. The highest recognition that the Church gives to an alleged miracle is that it is “worthy of belief.” Investigations of reported miraculous events – which include extensive fact-finding, psychological examination and theological evaluation – may result in a rejection if the event is determined to be fraudulent or lacking in super natural character.

Or the Church may take a middle road, declaring that there is nothing contrary to the faith in a supposed apparition, without making a determination on whether a supernatural character is present.

But while official investigations can take years, the mere report of a miracle can bring Catholics from long distances, hoping to see some glimpse of the divine reaching into the human.

And it’s not just the faithful who find miracles fascinating.

“It's important for atheists and skeptics, those people who don’t believe, they’ve got to have an explanation for the inexplicable,” he said. “There’s something for everyone.”

The universal nature of the experience of the miraculous is also what draws people from all belief spectrums to these stories, O’Neill added.

“We all pray for miracles of one sort or another. They can be these really sort of small things like praying for an impossible comeback in a football game, or it can be a lost wallet or wedding ring,” he said.

“But they can also be these really big things, such as our loved ones, they fall away from the faith and we want them to return, or somebody from our friends or our family is very sick and we desperately implore God’s help for them. It’s something that everybody experiences.”

O’Neills own fascination with miracles started in college, when for an archeology assignment he studied the miraculous tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Marian apparition to which he’d inherited his mother’s devotion. He had heard stories about miracles associated with the image, both from within his own family and from the larger Church, and he wondered how much truth there was to the tales.

He also started learning about the larger tradition of miracles within the Church, and was struck by how the Church has carefully investigated thousands of claims over the years, only to select certain ones that it eventually deems as of divine origin.

“I thought that was fascinating that the Church would stick its neck out and say these things are worthy of belief,” he said.

Although he continued his engineering studies throughout college, a piece of advice at graduation from Condoleezza Rice, who was serving as vice provost at Stanford University at the time, stayed with him.

“She asked what we were going to do after graduation, and her advice was to become an expert in something,” he said.

“And I thought about what would be a great thing to study? My mind went back to all those hours I’d spent in the library and my promise to return to it someday and I said you know what? I want to be the expert on miracles.”

For a while he kept his studies private - he didn’t want to be seen as the guy who was obsessed with weird things like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. But eventually, he realized that many people were interested in miracles and found them helpful for their own faith.

“It’s a way that people feel connected to God, they know that God is a loving father watching out for them, so it’s one of those things - a miracle is a universal touchstone,” he said.

“No matter how strong we think our faith is or want it to be, we always want to know that God is there for us, and miracles are that sort of element that bridges the gap between our faith and our connection with God.”

In his book, O’Neill provides descriptions and examples of every basic category of miracle within the Catholic Church, including healing miracles from saints in the canonization process, biblical miracles, apparitions, locutions (audible messages from God or a saint), miraculous images, Eucharistic miracles, incorrupt bodies (those that either partially or fully do not decompose after death), and stigmata (the wounds of Christ appearing on some living people).

The most popular kind of miracle, and O’Neill’s personal favorite, are Marian apparitions - when Mary appears in a supernatural and corporeal way to a member of the faithful, most often with a message.  

There have been about 2,500 claims of Marian apparitions throughout history, and a major one that many people are currently curious about are the alleged apparitions happening at Medjugorje, about which the Church has yet to make a definitive decision of validity. Curiosity about Marian apparitions was also a large part of what spurred O’Neill to create his website,, where he files information about miracles in their respective categories and provides information on their origin story and whether or not they have been approved by the Vatican.

“The Vatican didn’t have a resource where you can find out what’s approved and what’s not, and what messages are good for our faith and what ones we should stay away from, so I tried to create a resource for the faithful for that,” he said. He’s now been running the website for 15 years.

O’Neill also loves Eucharistic miracles, because unlike several other types of miracles, whose validity are largely determined by faithful and reliable witnesses, science can be applied.

“They can check to see if it’s really human blood, and what type of blood, and in some cases you have heart muscle in these hosts that have turned into true flesh,” he said.

One of O’Neill’s favorite Eucharistic miracles occurred in Argentina while Pope Francis was still a bishop there.

It was August of 1996, and a priest in Buenos Aires, Fr. Alejandro Pezet, discovered a host in the back of his church, and so he took it and placed it in some water in the tabernacle to dissolve it. Over the next few days, days he kept an eye on it, and it grew increasingly red. The priest decided to present the case to Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, who ordered that the host be professionally photographed and eventually examined by a scientist in the U.S., who was not told the origin of the specimen he was testing.

The tests showed the sample to be heart muscle with blood type AB, the same blood type found on the Shroud of Turin.

“The scientist was an atheist and he said, why did you send me this heart muscle, what was the point of this? And they said it was a consecrated host, and actually that atheist scientist converted to Catholicism as a result of that study,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill also notes in his book that when considering miracles, it’s important to not go to extremes.

“The question of the role of miracles in our life of faith is an important one and requires avoiding two extremes: an overemphasis and credulity regarding the supernatural on the one hand and a denial of the possibility of divine intervention and a diminishment of the role of popular devotion on the other,” he wrote. Either way, obedience to the magisterium of the Church and their teachings on particular miracles is key.

Miracles are an important asset for the faith because of their ability to connect people with God, either as first-time believers or as long-time faithful who need a reminder of God’s presence.

“I like to think of miracles as a great way to engage young people, to get them excited about the faith,” he said. “They shouldn’t be the centrality of anybody’s faith, but it’s a way to open the door for I think miracles can play a huge role in evangelization.”


This article was originally published on CNA May 8, 2016.

Here's what the Catholic Church has to say about your paycheck

Thu, 12/29/2016 - 11:51

Washington D.C., Dec 29, 2016 / 09:51 am (CNA/EWTN News).- “To defraud anyone of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven.”

This statement from Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum” is jarring, especially in an economy that appears to have as much to do with Church teaching as spiders do with spelling bees.

But the Church's view on wages and compensation has a long history reaching back centuries – and remains relevant today to employers and employees alike – say businesspeople and theologians seeking to find a moral response to today's changing economic landscape.

“The Church starts really from the perspective of the human person, and wants to see why the relationship between the employer and the employee is more than just an exchange of money for a certain part of time,” said Fr. Dominic Legge, OP, who teaches systematic theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception.

“It’s a personal relationship, and that means that there are rights and duties on both sides of that.”

The Church's stance on wages as bound to the concept of justice reaches back centuries. Teachings against defrauding workers of wages can be found in Catholic Catechisms for families as far back as the 1600s, and the principles of justice within Catholic teaching reach back even further, to the Bible itself. The development of Catholic thought on how wages and compensation for work should be considered is rooted not in laws of supply and demand, but in the human person and natural law.

“It’s not just reducible to the market. Just because the market would allow you to pay someone less does not mean that you have a right in justice to do that. Nor does it mean that it is just, for a laborer, to charge an extravagant amount of money for his work,” Fr. Legge told CNA.

He explained that the teaching surrounding the just payment of workers received substantial attention as part of St. Thomas Aquinas’s work elaborating upon the nature of justice. What's striking, he said, is that St. Thomas Aquinas uses just wages as the first “and most obvious” example of what justice actually is.  

However, the the concept of just compensation is clearly not the most obvious example of justice to contemporary thinkers, “which is a way of telling us that the way we think about wages now is very different from the way that someone like Aquinas in the Middle Ages thought about it,” Fr. Legge said.

Instead of viewing it as a situation where the employee, the business and the state were the only parties involved in making a person’s livelihood, the Church’s thought on just wages also incorporated all of the relationships and institutions an employer and employee interacted with.

“There’s a much richer texture to human life, and the Church has always respected the place of family, private organizations, the family, local organizations, the Church.”

Fr. Legge said that until the 19th century, “you often had people who were tied to their employment, their employer through lots of bonds – family, community, history.”

In many circumstances, employees were incorporated into their employer’s family structure and physical needs were taken care of both by their employer as well as by community supports, such as the parish. “We wouldn’t imagine that the person providing daycare would be lodged in the family home, and would remain there even after the children are grown,” he said.

How the nature of work changed

This interplay of different supports for workers, however, is largely absent from contemporary approaches to work.

“Once you get to the Industrial Revolution, work changes radically for the worker,” said Fr. Thomas Petri, OP, Dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate conception.

Shifts in labor and mass-production made it more difficult for some to see the dignity of work and the importance of the worker as a person.

“There’s a problem in markets when workers are depersonalized,” he told CNA. “It takes away in some way the dignity of the worker and makes work into some sort of a monotonous, humdrum thing.”

In part as a response to the changes facing the world during the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII wrote “Rerum Novarum,” outlining the Church’s teaching on the proper relationships between people, the state, labor and capital. Along with discussing the role of private property, unions, and a worker’s duties to their employer, Pope Leo XIII emphasized the importance of an employer’s duties to their employees.

The document, Fr. Petri said, aims “to remind people that work still has dignity,” as well as to serve as a reminder to all that business should serve the common good.

It also states that while “the state has to be involved in the adjudication of just wages,” Fr. Petri said, “there has to be communal support for the person.” The Pope emphasizes that institutions like the family, the Church, other institutions along with the state can help provide a living for workers.

“Minimum wage isn’t the only thing that can help support families,” Fr. Petri said.

While the state has a role in making sure all its citizens receive what they need for a good and virtuous life, “it seems to me that the Church’s social justice teaching suggests that this should also work in business,” he said.

Fr. Petri pointed to examples of company towns that provided housing, the provision of healthcare or education benefits, or employee-ownership of companies as examples of ways a business could expand its provision for its employees.

However, while the Church’s teaching, both in “Rerum Novarum” and other documents, does not provide strict prescriptions for all the ways employers can provide for their employees, not all contracts or forms of payment are morally acceptable.  

“Just because an employee agrees to work for a certain wage does not therefore make the wage inherently just,” Fr. Petri said.

“Sometimes people work for a pittance because they’re socially forced to or they have no other opportunities for a greater income. Leo XIII speaks about that as an evil.”

He pointed to many companies' practice of hiring of undocumented workers for very low wages as an example of this kind of mistreatment. To compound the issue, Fr. Petri said, illegal immigrants can't speak up about their mistreatment without fearing for deportation or other consequences.

In cases were businesses are acting immorally, “I think the government has a right to exert legislative authority in those cases where it’s clear that they are mistreating their workers,” Fr. Petri said.

“That’s what unions were supposed to do, that's why unions were started.”

He added that citizens can both approach legislators to take action as well as avoid patronizing companies that do not provide just compensation for their workers.

What should things look like now?

And business leaders themselves can and should put these principles into practice today, said Bill Bowman, Dean of the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America.

“The purpose of business is the human person. It's not to trade the human person like any other commodity,” he told CNA.

Bowman said that the Church shies away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach, instead setting principles around which an employer can balance people’s needs – such as a city's expensiveness or an employee’s family size, with the needs of the company is able to sustain itself. The result is that all businesspeople should be able to provide their workers with a just wage if they look towards innovative solutions.

He suggested that every businessperson should look carefully at what “a just wage really look like for this particular city where we're working. What would it look like for this employee, with a big family or a person with no family at all. If what we really want to do is provide enough money so that you can live a life and maybe put a little away on the side.”

“To just say 'well I can't afford it,' is, to me, to unnecessarily give yourself a 'get out of jail free' card.”

For entrepreneurs or startups facing tight budgets, Bowman noted that employers could work with employees to step up base pay with a company's growth or other “innovative” solutions he has seen from employers such as incorporating family size into bonuses or covering certain expenses like college tuition.  

He directed business leaders to look to the Church's “rich doctrine” and writings on wages and business, such as in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, papal encyclicals, and a short document called “The Vocation of the Business Leader,” put out by the Church's Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, among other sources of Church teaching on the topic.

“As a Catholic business man or woman, he or she should really be challenging themselves to orient their businesses in this way,” he said.

Bowman also criticized companies who avoid considering how they can better provide just wages to their employees. He said that companies, particularly large ones with shareholders, should not frame paying their employees a just wage as a “competitive disadvantage.”

“If a company clearly can afford to pay it, its idea of a 'competitive disadvantage' is largely nonsense,” he said.

“What it generally translates to is 'my share price might go down a bit and that's going to hit me in the wallet. Well, the Church has completely rejected the idea that a business is about shareholder returns.”

In addition to it being the right thing to do, providing just compensation to workers is a sound business strategy, Bowman said. He's found in practice that providing employees with the compensation they need to take care of their families properly decreases both an employee’s likeliness to leave and their sloppiness on the job, which are “enormous” costs to business.

“The return on investment of these programs is enormous,” he said, adding that within a year in some cases, the programs “paid for itself.”

Above all, employers should keep in mind the role the Church has laid out for laypeople in prescribing its moral directions on wages and work, Bowman said: to figure out how to implement Church teaching in daily life. By taking to heart this approach, businesses and their employees can focus back on virtues and the goal of business in the first place.  

“We understand that the purpose of business and the purpose of everything else in life is really the human person.”


This article was originally published on CNA June 22, 2016.

The dignity of work – one company's quest for the mentally ill

Tue, 12/27/2016 - 12:02

Denver, Colo., Dec 27, 2016 / 10:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- When Bayaud Enterprises was started in 1969 in Denver, Colorado, they had one thing on their mind: employment.

But not just any kind of employment. They wanted to seek out individuals with chronic mental illness and psychiatric disabilities to find them permanent jobs and an independent lifestyle.

Flash forward to 2016, and Bayaud Enterprises has aided over 7,000 individuals with disabilities and other barriers to employment find full-time jobs, housing, and benefit acquisition instead of relying on local boarding and care homes.

“We think there is a real connection between people living independently and provides dignity to the individuals,” executive director of Bayaud Enterprises David Henninger told CNA.

“The neat thing about employment is you really get to see a person blossom,” Henninger said, adding that the impact of finding permanent work for someone with a disability is life-changing.

Henninger has been with Bayaud Enterprises since its founding in 1969, and has been its executive director since 1973.

Although it was originally started as a Colorado-state run program through the Mental Health Institute at Ft. Logan, Bayaud evolved by starting its own program that helped patients after they left mental health centers.

“In a psychiatric hospital setting, you often see people initially at their worst – at the bottom of the barrel in terms of where they are,” Henninger said.

“As part of their recovery from a mental illness, the impact of work is really huge, in terms of ego and self-worth,” he said.

Bayaud Enterprises created a diverse work program that includes subcontracted work from the local business community. They hold ten different federal contracts in the state of Colorado and work with organizations such as the National Institute for Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and local hospitals and hotels.

In addition, they own a secure document shredding business with over 5,000 customers across the front range. Instead of sending the shredded paper to a landfill, Bayaud Document Services compounds the paper into bales and sends it to recycling.

With such a diverse range in businesses, Bayaud is able to place every individual seeking work at the appropriate level of employment. Henninger noted that Bayaud has aided individuals with “all sorts of ability,” from people with higher education degrees to people who have been diagnosed with aspergers.

“We outplace about 400 people a year into competitive jobs that aren’t related to Bayaud – and success stories there abound,” Henninger stated.

Henninger recalled one man in particular who came to Bayaud without permanent housing. He was placed as an administrative assistant in a small insurance company and worked there for several years.

“The owner of the insurance firm really liked him...when the owner decided to retire, he actually turned the business over to this individual and that individual is now running a small insurance company and has hired his own employees,” Henninger noted.

Bayaud Enterprises continues to serve over 1,200 individuals in Colorado every year through their employment services and benefit acquisition services. By offering resource navigation, they are also able to help individuals secure additional benefits such as social security, disability, medicaid, food supplement services, housing, and transportation.

“When people approach Bayaud, they are unemployed. So, people are finding some differences in their own personal lives that are significant,” Henninger stated.

Bayaud Enterprises is also focused on remaining community-centric by being involved in local community and emphasizing permanent employment and housing. They have cultivated relationships with local homeless shelters, such as the Samaritan House, by placing homeless residents in long-term jobs.

Their program also boosts local economy by generating annual payrolls of about $5 million every year.

“Our longevity of 10+ years of all of our staff says that they believe in our mission of providing hope and opportunity and choice...we do make a difference and we see it,” Henninger continued.

“Really, these jobs become transformational.”

This article was originally published Feb. 23, 2016.

Could this save Catholic marriage prep?

Tue, 12/27/2016 - 06:02

Washington D.C., Dec 27, 2016 / 04:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- With high divorce rates among Catholic couples – and marriage rates plummeting among millennials – Church leaders are scrambling to address the problem.  

But long before Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on “The Joy of Love” was written, one marriage prep ministry was already putting the Holy Father's message into practice.

The U.S.-based Witness to Love marriage prep ministry seeks to challenge engaged couples to a greater and more fulfilling life of virtue through an intensive, multi-faceted program.

It's something that's called for distinctly in the Pope's document when he says that “marriage preparation aimed at giving couples a genuine experience of participation in ecclesial life and a complete introduction to various aspects of family life.”

However, tough conversations about an engaged couple's spiritual situation often fail to happen in marriage prep.

“In most marriage preparation, we don't expect them (couples) to accept the challenge, and we don’t give them the challenge,” Mary Rose Verret, founder of Witness to Love, told CNA in an interview.

Verret and her husband realized that many Catholic couples – even those who were receiving marriage prep – saw their marriages fall apart.

“Most of us in marriage prep have lost hope,” she admitted. But couples, she said, “are capable of great things.”

The Witness to Love marriage prep ministry is intensive. It involves engaged couples working with a priest or deacon who catechizes them and a “mentor couple” at the parish who befriends them.

Thus, they not only receive the basic teaching on the sacrament, but they are invited into a deeper participation in the life of the Church through the friendship and witness of their married “mentors.”

Pope Francis noted a need for stronger marriage preparation in “Amoris Laetitia.” He wrote that “learning to love someone does not happen automatically, nor can it be taught in a workshop just prior to the celebration of marriage.” He added that catechesis must continue after a couple’s marriage, and shouldn’t stop when they make their vows.

Witness to Love, founded in 2012, seeks to do just this, to invite couples to be fully involved in a parish and not simply to disappear from the church once they have said their vows, as is all too common today.

Most couples don't get married at their current parish, Verret noted, which means that priests and wedding coordinators at the parish venue might not know the couple at all. There might only be a pre-nuptial inquiry and a confirmation of the baptismal certificates of the man and woman without any significant investigation into the emotional and spiritual health of the couple.

Consequently, many couples are “falling between the cracks,” Verret said, and when they encounter marital difficulties they were not prepared for, they may have no one in their parish to turn to. Through interviewing hundreds of couples before they began their ministry, Verret and her husband Ryan realized that many Catholic couples who were even receiving marriage prep saw their marriages fall apart.

“Amoris Laetitia” instructs Catholics to “find the right language” and “invite” couples “to take up the challenge (of marriage) with enthusiasm and courage.” So the Verrets realized that friendship is the answer so many couples need when preparing for marriage.  

A couple, at the beginning of Witness to Love marriage prep, is asked to pick a “mentor couple,” a married couple they admire and look up to, to accompany them as friends not only through the engagement but into their own marriage. The mentor couple is then trained by parish staff or volunteers to ensure they are up to the task.

By friendship with this married couple, an engaged couple has both a good example and a mentor they can confide in.

“The only way we’re going to be able to offer true accompaniment,” Verret said, “is if there’s someone already involved in the process before the wedding.”

Someone “who’s been formed, who’s been coached, who’s been growing in virtue with (the couple), who’s been connecting them to the parish, and then prior to the wedding there’s an invitation to parish life, invitation to small groups, a follow-up after the wedding where both of those couples are invited into small groups together.”

Many couples who otherwise might have faded away from active participation in the church after their wedding now have a connection to the Church through their new friends. And, Verret noted, they have someone experienced to talk to when they encounter difficulties early in their marriage.

“Amoris Laetitia” affirms the very practice of mentor couples: “With the help of missionary families, the couple’s own families and a variety of pastoral resources, ways should also be found to offer a remote preparation that, by example and good advice, can help their love to grow and mature.”

It is “equally beneficial” for both parties, Verret said. The engaged couples like to spend time with mentors they admire, and the mentors are awed that they would be chosen for the task, and take their responsibility seriously.

Many couples who otherwise might have faded away from active participation in the Church after their wedding now have a connection.

This friendship is a critical component of the marriage prep program; priests are then able to focus more on catechesis, and the program becomes more than just a conference or series of classes which provide a brief “shot in the arm” for couples that fades in time.

“A gradual process where you do tell them the truth in love and within the context of a relationship is more likely to be successful,” the Verrets noted in their program training outline.

“You can't really witness without a relationship,” Verret told CNA. “Conversion happens in a relationship.”

Dr. Peter Martin is a psychologist who works at Catholic Social Services in Southern Nebraska. The Verrets relied on his input for their ministry. In an interview published in the training program, he explained why a mentor couple is so important to marriage prep.

Engaged couples, once they marry, undergo serious role changes from man and woman to husband and wife, and to father and mother, he noted. This can intensify existing insecurities and bring about new ones, he said. The guidance and advice of a parish and a married couple can bring significant support to a newly-married couple’s struggles, he said.

Yet for a friendship to even exist, there must be trust, Verret said. This is hampered by a wide gulf that currently separates many engaged couples from living in accordance with Church teaching.  

The mentor couple is there to bridge this gap between an engaged couple’s situation and Church teaching which can seem daunting at first glance, Verret said. The friendship and witness of the mentors makes the Christian life more livable and concrete.

“That’s what we need to be doing,” she said, but “it’s not what’s happening…there's such a disconnect between engaged couples and those preparing them.”

Some parishes worry about challenging engaged couples with an intensive marriage prep program because they don't want the couple to be overwhelmed and switch church venues. “We can't not have the revenue,” one marriage prep coordinator told Verret of her fear of losing couples.

Yet “the buck has got to stop with somebody,” Verret said. If the parish doesn't reach out to invite the couple to full participation in the life of the Church, who will?

On another occasion, a priest told her that it was “unrealistic and impossible to expect engaged couples” to return to Mass after marriage prep.

However, St. John Paul II's 1981 apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” made it clear that Catholics must “integrate couples into their church, into their parish,” Verret said.

From what she had seen before she and her husband started their ministry, that exhortation was largely being ignored.

“How can we expect couples to come to church if they’re not invited, and if we don’t even expect them to be able to come?” she asked. “If we’re not building friendships with them, they’re not going to come.”

Another big problem today, Verret noted, is that engaged couples visit the church venue and pick out a wedding date before they even begin marriage prep.

“We always say the first person they meet with absolutely, absolutely always must be Father or Deacon,” she insisted. “It cannot be the wedding coordinator ever. They can’t come scope out the church and get their date first. No. That’s backwards.”

Rather, couples should meet with the pastor or deacon first, complete a “pre-marital questionnaire,” choose their mentor couple, and talk with the marriage prep coordinator.

Otherwise, Verret said, significant problems might not get discovered until months into the process and after the wedding invites have already been sent out. By then, “everybody knows this shouldn’t have happened, but what was in place to prevent it from happening?”


This article was originally published on CNA May 22, 2016.

This priest from Oklahoma was a martyr – here's his powerful story

Mon, 12/26/2016 - 05:02

Oklahoma City, Okla., Dec 26, 2016 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- “Padre, they've come for you.”

Those were some of the last words heard by Father Stanley Francis, spoken by someone staying at the mission in Guatemala who had been led, at gunpoint, to where “Padre Francisco” was sleeping.

It was 1:30 in the morning on July 28, 1981, and Guatemala was in the throes of a decades-long civil war. The three ski-masked men who broke into the rectory were Ladinos, the non-indigenous men who had been fighting the native people and rural poor of the country since the 60s. They were known for their kidnappings, and wanted to turn Father Stanley into one of “the missing.”

But Father Stanley refused. Not wanting to endanger the others at the parish mission, he struggled but did not call for help. Fifteen minutes and two gunshots later, Father Stanley was dead and the men fled the mission grounds.

“How a 46-year-old priest from a small German farming community in Oklahoma came to live and die in this remote, ancient Guatemalan village is a story full of wonder and God’s providence,” writes Maria Scaperlanda in her biography of Father Stanley, “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run.”

The five-foot-ten, red-bearded missionary priest was from the unassuming town of Okarche, Okla., where the parish, school and farm were the pillars of community life. He went to the same school his whole life and lived with his family until he left for seminary.

Surrounded by good priests and a vibrant parish life, Stanley felt God calling him to the priesthood from a young age. But despite a strong calling, Stanley would struggle in the seminary, failing several classes and even out of one seminary before graduating from Mount St. Mary's seminary in Maryland. 

Hearing of Stanely’s struggles, Sister Clarissa Tenbrick, his 5th grade teacher, wrote him to offer encouragement, reminding him that the patron Saint of all priests, St. John Vianney, also struggled in seminary.

“Both of them were simple men who knew they had a call to the priesthood and then had somebody empower them so that they could complete their studies and be priests,” Scaperlanda told CNA. “And they brought a goodness, simplicity and generous heart with them in (everything) they did.”

When Stanley was still in seminary, Pope St. John XXIII asked the Churches of North America to send assistance and establish missions in Central America. Soon after, the diocese of Oklahoma City and the diocese of Tulsa established a mission in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala, a poor rural community of mostly indigenous people.

A few years after he was ordained, Fr. Stanley accepted an invitation to join the mission team, where he would spend the next 13 years of his life.

When he arrived to the mission, the Tz'utujil Mayan Indians in the village had no native equivalent for Stanley, so they took to calling him Padre Francisco, after his baptismal name of Francis.

The work ethic Fr. Stanley learned on his family’s farm would serve him well in this new place. As a mission priest, he was called on not just to say Mass, but to fix the broken truck or work the fields. He built a farmers' co-op, a school, a hospital, and the first Catholic radio station, which was used for catechesis to the even more remote villages.

“What I think is tremendous is how God doesn't waste any details,” Scaperlanda said. “That same love for the land and the small town where everybody helps each other, all those things that he learned in Okarche is exactly what he needed when he arrived in Santiago.”

The beloved Padre Francisco was also known for his kindness, selflessness, joy and attentive presence among his parishioners. Dozens of pictures show giggling children running after Padre Francisco and grabbing his hands, Scaperlanda said.

“It was Father Stanley’s natural disposition to share the labor with them, to break bread with them, and celebrate life with them, that made the community in Guatemala say of Father Stanley, ‘he was our priest,’” she said.

Over the years, the violence of the Guatemalan civil war inched closer to the once-peaceful village. Disappearances, killings and danger soon became a part of daily life, but Fr. Stanley remained steadfast and supportive of his people.

In 1980-1981, the violence escalated to an almost unbearable point. Fr. Stanley was constantly seeing friends and parishioners abducted or killed. In a letter to Oklahoma Catholics during what would be his last Christmas, the priest relayed to the people back home the dangers his mission parish faced daily.

“The reality is that we are in danger. But we don’t know when or what form the government will use to further repress the Church…. Given the situation, I am not ready to leave here just yet… But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it.... I don’t want to desert these people, and that is what will be said, even after all these years. There is still a lot of good that can be done under the circumstances.”

He ended the letter with what would become his signature quote:

“The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”

In January 1981, in immediate danger and his name on a death list, Fr. Stanley did return to Oklahoma for a few months. But as Easter approached, he wanted to spend Holy Week with his people in Guatemala.

“Father Stanley could not abandon his people,” Scaperlanda said. “He made a point of returning to his Guatemala parish in time to celebrate Holy Week with his parishioners that year – and ultimately was killed for living out his Catholic faith.”    

Scaperlanda, who has worked on Fr. Stanley’s cause for canonization, said the priest is a great witness and example, particularly in the Year of Mercy.

“Father Stanley Rother is truly a saint of mercy,” she said. “He fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, visited the sick, comforted the afflicted, bore wrongs patiently, buried the dead – all of it.”

His life is also a great example of ordinary people being called to do extraordinary things for God, she said.

“(W)hat impacted me the most about Father Stanley’s life was how ordinary it was!” she said.  

“I love how simply Oklahoma City’s Archbishop Paul Coakley states it: ‘We need the witness of holy men and women who remind us that we are all called to holiness – and that holy men and women come from ordinary places like Okarche, Oklahoma,’” she said.  

“Although the details are different, I believe the call is the same – and the challenge is also the same. Like Father Stanley, each of us is called to say ‘yes’ to God with our whole heart. We are all asked to see the Other standing before us as a child of God, to treat them with respect and a generous heart,” she added.

“We are called to holiness – whether we live in Okarche, Oklahoma, or New York City or Guatemala City.”

In June 2015, the Theological Commission of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted to recognize Fr. Stanley Rother as a martyr. Pope Francis recognized his martyrdom in early December 2016, after meeting with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.


An original version of this article was published on CNA Feb. 18, 2016.

How a simple idea helped 7,000 homeless pregnant women

Fri, 12/23/2016 - 17:39

New York City, N.Y., Dec 23, 2016 / 03:39 pm (CNA).- Christopher Bell was in his twenties and living in Times Square when he heard something that sounded like the voice of God.

Bell had been working with homeless and runaway kids in New York City, when he encountered pregnant women with young children who had no homes. At the time, Bell said there were no long-term programs that were ministering to pregnant women with other children.

“I thought there was a need to have longer-term housing for mothers and babies, but I didn’t know what to do,” Bell told CNA.

“I was close to Fr. Benedict Groeschel, and I complained to him, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something to help these young mothers and children?’”

Fr. Groeschel, founder of the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, told Bell that he would help him start the ministry that would eventually become Good Counsel Homes. Hearing those words from Fr. Groeschel “sounded almost like the voice of God and it was a great encouragement,” Bell recalled.

Good Counsel Homes was founded soon after in 1985 with the goal of helping women with children get off the streets and find stability through work or education.

“As soon as we opened on March 10, 1985, we were getting calls from women who were pregnant and women who were pregnant with other born children... So we responded to the need and took in the mothers,” Bell said.

Since 1985, Good Counsel Homes has aided more than 7,000 women at their residence homes and have expanded to four additional houses in New York and New Jersey.

During their time at Good Counsel Homes, the women in residence are offered finance, health, relationship and life-skills classes, as well as information about child growth and development. The average stay for a mother and her children at Good Counsel Homes is about 13 months, which allows them enough time to establish a job or some kind of stable independence.

Bell still remembers the first woman who came to Good Counsel Homes. She had a small son, but said that he was not her first child. She previously had an abortion when she was in high school, having been told that her nine-week-old baby in utero was a “blob of bloody tissue.”

After this experience, Bell found that about half of the women who came through Good Counsel Homes had been involved in an abortion. He decided to start an extension ministry of Good Counsel Homes called Lumina, to help individuals who had been affected by an abortion.

“Lumina is not only for the women of Good Counsel to learn about post-abortion healing, but also for women and men and siblings around the country to be educated and to find groups and healing and hope,” Bell said, adding “we want all of those involved in abortion to know that God can forgive you.”

Bell has experienced countless other difficult situations in which the women at Good Counsel Homes have been victims of rape or incest. He also recalled a woman who had been advised by her doctor to abort because her unborn child could potentially be born with defects.

“It's horribly unfortunate and really incomprehensible to me that doctors in these kinds of situations only offer pregnant women a termination,” he reflected.

“We know that even if the child is only going to live a few moments, it’s healthier physically, and it’s healthier psychologically, and certainly it’s healthier spiritually for the mother to give birth to her child - to let nature and to allow God to have his way.”

Over the years, there have been some 1,000 births from the women who have resided at Good Counsel Homes. They have also been instrumental in opening additional maternity homes in eight other states across the country. However, Bell says this “is not enough.”

“We are now looking to open or merge with other maternity homes,” Bell stated, saying they will accept women of all statuses, regardless of poor mental health or addictive behaviors.

“We want to take women in and try to help them make those next big steps. And we’d like to see other homes like ours open throughout the country.”

The Good Counsel Homes hotline is (800)-723-8331.


This article was originally published on CNA April 11, 2016.

You probably know someone who's been domestically abused.

Fri, 12/23/2016 - 05:53

Washington D.C., Dec 23, 2016 / 03:53 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Every minute, 20 people in the United States alone are victims of intimate partner violence.

Nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men have been victims of sexual violence other than rape at some point in their lives.

The numbers are staggering. But amid the silent epidemic of domestic violence, Catholics are banding together to work for change.

“Now is really a privileged moment in the Church,” said Dr. Christauria Welland, founder of the group Pax in Familia, which works to prevent domestic abuse.

Dr. Welland spoke with CNA at the “Help, Hope, and Healing” symposium exploring a Catholic response to domestic abuse and violence. The conference was held this summer in Washington, D.C.

Welland recalled how the Vatican had sent out a questionnaire ahead of the synods on the family, asking about challenges for families around the world. She looked at the questions, reached out to her bishop, and talked to him about the challenges of domestic violence. It was an opportunity to bring the issue from the shadows into the spotlight, she said.

“That was the first time that I can remember that anyone asked me as a Catholic for feedback,” she said, noting that she eventually spoke on domestic violence at the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. “Maybe this will go somewhere really great.”

The symposium was hosted by the National Catholic School of Social Service at The Catholic University of America. Other organizations also helped with the conference, Catholic Charities USA, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Catholics for Family Peace.

The event was a response to the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the family Amoris Laetitia, the university noted. In paragraph 204 of the letter, Pope Francis insisted that “good pastoral training is important ‘especially in light of particular emergency situations arising from cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse’.”

Shocking statistics, devastating consequences

Violence and abuse within families is everywhere, Dr. Welland said in her Thursday address on awareness.

An estimated 35 percent of women have been victims of physical or sexual violence some time in their lives. “Some national studies,” U.N. Women reports, “show that up to 70 percent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.”

Globally, 30 percent of women who have been in a relationship have been abused by an intimate partner, according to the World Health Organization.

And as much as 38 percent of the murders of women worldwide were committed by an intimate partner, according to WHO. In 2010 in the U.S., 1,095 women were murdered by intimate partner, according to the CDC.

Women aren’t the only victims: 28 percent of men in the U.S. have been raped, stalked, or physically assaulted by an intimate partner at some point, the CDC says. However, women reportedly suffer from the physical and emotional consequences of abuse at a rate of three times that of men.

Domestic abuse takes several forms – most notably physical, sexual, or emotional. Pope Francis, noted this in his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia:

“I think particularly of the shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected, domestic violence and various forms of enslavement which, rather than a show of masculine power, are craven acts of cowardice. The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.”

The impacts of abuse also take multiple forms, as Dr. Welland noted at the conference.

There are the immediate physical injuries stemming from physical abuse, but also severe disabilities, as in one case when a woman’s husband ran her over with his car and gave her a lifelong physical disability, she said.

Women can also contract sexually-transmitted infections from sexual abuse.

Stress-related injuries, like gastrointestinal problems, heart issues, chronic pain, and migraine headaches, can result from domestic violence.

The hidden problems – like mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder – are no less real. Anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, trust issues, sleep disturbances, and ineffective parenting can all be consequences for victims of spousal abuse and child abuse.

And the children suffer greatly, both from being abused themselves and from witnessing spousal abuse, noted Dr. Mindy Thiel, a social worker in Maryland who spoke at the conference.

“Those who grow up with domestic violence are 6 times more likely to commit suicide and 50 times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol,” the Childhood Domestic Violence Association says. Such children are also “74 times more likely to commit a violent crime against someone else.”

Children can also develop anxiety disorders, eating and sleeping disorders, or fears of leaving an abuse victim at home with the aggressor. They can exhibit depression by either withdrawing or “acting out” at school.

Stress can take its toll on children’s health. In one case where an angry father punched a hole in the wall above a baby in a crib, the child’s body essentially shut down for several days from the stress of witnessing the incident, Thiel noted.

Anger can be a “huge emotion” for children, she added, noting that they might grow up taking out their anger on others and even become abusers themselves.

For the Church, an issue ‘very much on the radar’

Recent popes – and the U.S. bishops – have spoken out forcefully against domestic violence, and the issue is “very much on the radar” of Pope Francis, Dr. John Grabowski, an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, said at the conference.

In his 1995 letter to women, Pope St. John Paul II wrote that “the time has come to condemn vigorously the types of sexual violence which frequently have women for their object and to pass laws which effectively defend them from such violence.”

Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, cited the bishops of Mexico in saying that “violence within families breeds new forms of social aggression.” He added that “surely it is legitimate and right to reject older forms of the traditional family marked by authoritarianism and even violence.”

The U.S. bishops had released a statement on domestic violence, “When I Call for Help,” in 1992, condemning violence against women as “never justified” and offering resources for parishes and priests to combat the problem.

What recourse is out there for women who are abused or who see their children abused? Oftentimes they are not met with the sympathy and support that they need.

If a victim’s mother was herself an abuse victim, noted Kathy Bonner of the National Council of Catholic Women, she might advise her daughter that the abuse was simply part of marriage and part of her cross she has to carry.

While ignorant of the abuse, the woman’s pastor might know the abusive husband as a leader in the parish. He might suggest couples’ counseling for their predicament. The husband may then twist the counseling sessions to strengthen his own position of authority in the marriage.

This is a common problem, Dr. Eileen Dombo told CNA. Dr. Dombo is the Assistant Dean and Chair of Masters of Social Work Program at The Catholic University of America’s National Catholic School of Social Service.

The abuser needs personal therapy to overcome his own problems, she said. With couples counseling, however, it often becomes an opportunity for the abuser to justify him or herself and “attack the victim through the lens of therapy.”

Other members of a parish or family members might be ignorant of the extent of domestic violence in their locality, and might even normalize it as just a part of marriage. Simply telling an abuse victim “it is your Cross and you must bear it” can be harmful and contradict Catholic Social Teaching, Dr. Welland emphasized.

Local solutions

More can be done on the parish and diocesan level to help embattled women and children, leaders insisted at the conference. The purpose of the July event – the first national Catholic symposium on domestic violence in recent memory, one organizer said – was to connect leaders from across the country on the issue.

Resources should be available to support and empower abuse victims to make the best decision they can for their well-being and the good of their family, experts agreed.

Fr. Chuck Dahm, O.P., who directs the Archdiocese of Chicago’s domestic violence outreach, was blunt about “one of the major challenges” to fighting domestic violence at the parish level – “our priests.”

Priests may be overworked or feel like they are not an expert on the issue, he acknowledged, and therefore may be reticent to speak out from the pulpit. Some fear they might appear to be “promoting divorce” if they speak out against domestic violence, he added.

Yet Fr. Dahm works hard to pitch his ministry any way he can on the parish level. If he succeeds at convincing his way into the parish, he might preach at Mass.

“After I preach, then the priests get it,” he said. Once he speaks at a parish, he calls a meeting afterward where anyone can show up – he usually gets 12 to 45 people – and the issue is discussed in the open.

The goals of his ministry, he said, are first, to create awareness through preaching and parish meetings, and then to connect the parish to domestic violence agencies close-by.

Laura Yeomans is another Catholic working to fight domestic violence. She is the Parish Partners Program Manager for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington, and explained how domestic violence ministry must be “survivor-focused.”

That “means that we listen to the survivor. We listen to her needs,” she said of her ministry. “We don’t know the safety consequences of any recommendations that we might have.”

A victim knows her situation and her family better than anyone, Yeomans continued, so simply leaving the house could prove to be a fatal mistake for a victim who lives with an angry abuser.

Rather than simply tell a victim what to do, “we develop a fierce respect for the survivor,” she said, and look to “empower them” and “offer choices,” including “information about what women might have found.”

Such information can include local domestic violence agencies, but also national centers like the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the National Domestic Violence Resource Center, and

Dr. Dombo at the National Catholic School of Social Service recommended those national resources as part of a compassionate response by a parish worker to an abuse victim.

Parish workers should be trained to recognize signs of a healthy relationship versus signs of an abusive relationship, she stressed. “A lot of times people will talk about what’s going on in their relationship, and they won’t necessarily identify what’s going on as abuse.”

So a worker can “think through the lens of power and control” to help someone understand abusive behavior directed at them.

In a healthy relationship, there’s equality, she said. “Your opinion is valued, your desires are validated, there are decision-making processes that are shared.”

In an abusive relationship, it’s dictatorial, she continued. “One person wants to centralize all that power” over the couple’s living situation, the social life, and other areas.

Abuse victims generally don’t “want the relationship to end,” she maintained, but just “want the abuse to end.” They should be helped to understand that they “can’t fix” their abuser.

Resources – like domestic violence hotlines and signs of an abusive relationship – can also be posted in “safe spaces” like women’s restrooms, she said.

There is progress being made at the parish and diocesan level in fighting domestic violence, Fr. Dahm maintained. Local parishes have met and shared information on successes and challenges. And there will be a Mass said for domestic violence at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral, which Fr. Dahm called a “major victory.”

He would like the issue to be discussed in greater depth in more seminaries, and to be incorporated into marriage preparation programs. He noted the efforts of dioceses which are planning or wanting to train clergy on domestic violence, including Kansas City, Portland, Kalamazoo, Laredo, Oklahoma City, and Washington, D.C.

Ultimately, helping victims of domestic violence is about empowerment, and being honest about the problem is an important step in fighting it, Dombo said.

“I just think that the more you’re able to validate for people that nobody deserves to be treated that way, and…that behavior is not part of a healthy relationship, that’s emotional abuse or psychological abuse….to name that, the more that empowers somebody who is feeling powerless, feeling victimized, to come forward,” she stated.


This article was originally published on CNA July 12, 2016.


Why there's a backlash against solitary confinement in US prisons

Thu, 12/22/2016 - 11:56

Washington D.C., Dec 22, 2016 / 09:56 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Kalief Browder was 16 years old when he entered the notorious Rikers Island prison in New York, awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack.

He stayed in solitary almost two years as his family couldn’t pay his bail, enduring beatings by the guards and fellow prisoners and attempting suicide multiple times. He was later released, but last June he committed suicide at age 22.

When President Obama announced new limits on the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons earlier this year, he began with Browder’s story. The Jan. 28 executive action ending solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, among other actions, has reflected a growing chorus of religious and political voices asking for the reform of America’s prison system, and of solitary confinement in particular.

Last July, Obama had asked the Justice Department to review the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. The department released its report months later, and on Jan. 25 the president announced he would be adopting their recommendations.

Among these recommendations were ending the use of solitary confinement for juvenile inmates, creating special mental health units for inmates with severe mental illness, providing psychologists for inmates requiring segregation, and overall reductions in the time inmates will spend in solitary.

The concept of solitary confinement does vary among prisons, the report acknowledged, and so it used instead the term “restrictive housing.”

There are three general qualifications for restrictive housing in prisons: inmates are set apart from the general prison population, they are alone or with another inmate, and the cell is locked for “the vast majority of the day, typically 22 hours or more.”

Prisoners are put in solitary for various reasons: they pose a security risk to other inmates or guards, they are awaiting execution, they are part of a prison gang that must be split up, they are threatened by other inmates, or they have broken a specific prison rule. Or, as reports allege, they are put in solitary for minor infractions and can be returned to solitary for small offenses.

While the practice must be curbed, it can be necessary as a security precaution, the Justice Department acknowledged in the report. Yet it went on to add that “as a matter of policy, we believe strongly this practice should be used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints.”

Ultimately, it is “not rehabilitative,” insisted Anthony Granado, a policy advisor to the United States bishops' conference in an interview with CNA, while acknowledging that there may be a legitimate, yet “very limited,” usage of solitary confinement for security reasons to protect inmates and guards.  

The purpose of punishment is for correction, not retribution, he insisted, citing St. Thomas Aquinas. Thus criminal justice must rehabilitate the prisoner, not dehumanize him.

The bishops’ conference has long advocated that juvenile offenders not be treated as adult inmates when it comes to solitary confinement, Granado said, noting that their concerns have been validated by neuroscientific discoveries. The human brain is not fully developed until about 25 years of age, and solitary confinement, if it is harmful to adults, could wreak even more havoc on the still-developing brain of a teenage offender.

While the Justice Department noted that the precise number of inmates currently in solitary confinement is hard to determine because of data “gaps”, it did refer to a survey conducted by Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators in 2015 which showed that in 32 states and the District of Columbia, 6.3 percent of the overall prison population was in restrictive housing on a specific date in the fall of 2014. Extended to the other states that did not reply to the survey, the estimated number would have been 80,000-100,000 inmates.

Some prisoners remain in solitary confinement for weeks, years, or even decades. Members of the “Angola Three,” three prisoners who were placed in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1972 after the murder of a prison guard, spent anywhere from 29 to 43 years in solitary confinement.

This long-term isolation can prove devastating to a person’s health and sanity.

St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized the “social nature of the human person” in his writings, Granado said. “And when you deprive a person of that sensory experience, that human touch, the human experiences, what happens in solitary confinement … you do really see an adverse impact on persons,” he added.

Numerous accounts of prisoners in solitary confinement reveal they suffered severe psychological problems and the deterioration of mental capacities as a result of prolonged isolation and monotony.

New York City’s former police commissioner Bernard Kerik served time in federal prison for tax fraud and false statements. He spent 60 days in solitary confinement in a 12-foot by 8-foot cell. He was let out three times per week to shower, and was allowed one 15-minute phone call per month.

During his time in solitary, Kerik said he began hallucinating and talking to himself.  “You’ll do anything – anything – to get out of that cell. Anything,” he said at a Heritage Foundation event on prison reform last May. “You’ll say anything, you’ll do anything, you’ll admit to anything.”

Shane Bauer, a journalist who was imprisoned in Iran for 26 months from 2009-11 after he and two others crossed the Iran border while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan, spent four of those months in solitary confinement.

In a 2012 piece for Mother Jones magazine, he wrote that “no part of my experience – not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners – was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement.”

He actually hoped to be interrogated, he recalled, just to have someone else to talk to.

Bauer’s visit to a “special housing unit” at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison actually reminded him of his confinement in Iran, he wrote. At least he had windows – the cell he was visiting did not. He was allowed a 15-minute phone call during his 26-month stint, but the California prisoners were allowed none.

What are some devastating effects of solitary confinement? “The one you hear most often is just hopelessness,” Maurice Chammah of the Marshall Project, who has written about criminal justice issues like solitary confinement, noted.

“I’ve spoken to people who have been in solitary confinement and they, almost across the board, describe this sense of utter hopelessness that makes it harder for them to kind of climb out of their feelings and find a kind of way forward,” he said. “A lot of times, the suicides actually happen when people are still in solitary confinement.”

In his 2011 testimony before the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, Dr. Craig Haney described the plight of inmates in California’s cells of long-term solitary confinement, saying that “prisoners in these units complain of chronic and overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression.”

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who served on the faculty at Harvard Medical School over 25 years, wrote back in 1993 about the harm of solitary confinement, saying it “can cause severe psychiatric harm” and explaining that it produces a steady decomposition of the mental faculties.

The state of an individual placed in a situation of isolation and monotony can soon become a sort of mental “fog,” he wrote. Then the person becomes oversensitive to things like light and noise. The mind descends into an “inability to focus” and then a sort of “tunnel vision,” an excessive focus often on some negative thought.

“I have examined countless individuals in solitary confinement who have become obsessively preoccupied with some minor, almost imperceptible bodily sensation, a sensation which grows over time into a worry, and finally into an all-consuming, life-threatening illness,” he wrote.

Sleep patterns are disrupted as well, resulting in lethargy during the day and sleeplessness at night.

Many inmates who have spent time in solitary confinement “will likely suffer permanent harm as a result of such confinement,” he added, such as social handicaps that may prove an intractable obstacle to their successful reintegration into society.

If solitary confinement can break and permanently damage a person, and they are released back into society – as 95 percent of prisoners eventually are – it could prove a public safety threat, Granado said.

When it is used for security reasons, there still must be assurance that “these people have access to the care they need,” he added, like psychological counseling for the mentally ill to determine why they are acting out.

Prison wardens and corrections officials, having seen the practical problems that solitary may impose, have tried to humanize the practice by starting rewards programs for inmates who show good behavior. Maurice Chammah has written on this development.

The Alger Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was a trend-setter after it started its own “step-down” program. Chammah, who reported on the program, said the transformation was “incredible.” Prisoners, with a “little bit of hope,” could break the cycle of solitary.

And other prisons are following suit. The executive director of Colorado’s Corrections Department Rick Raemisch, who made headlines for spending 20 hours in solitary in 2014, created a step-down program for the state’s prisons before concluding that it still took too long to move prisoners through the process. So he capped the terms of solitary confinement at one year.

Some prisons in the state of Washington have implemented conflict resolution and anger management classes into their programs for attendees to speed up their confinement period. Prisons in Texas and New Mexico, where prison gang members have been placed in solitary to break up the gang, allow inmates to be released from solitary if they renounce their prison gang.

“I don’t want to overstate the idea that the situation has been fixed,” Chammah said, noting that “across the board, it’s pretty bad.” But overall, he acknowledged, there is “more of an emphasis” on treating mental health problems among inmates in solitary confinement, a significant step forward in prison reform.

And the tide of public opinion is turning against the widespread use of solitary confinement. Although Obama’s executive action on juvenile solitary is more “symbolic” than “practical”, since there are only “dozens” of juvenile inmates in federal prisons, Chammah noted, it still marks a “major capstone” to political momentum against the use of solitary confinement, as well as religious momentum.

More and more Christians are supporting policies of criminal justice reform, such as limits on use of solitary confinement, he said. He used Pat Nolan as an example, a Catholic who served in the California legislature and a leader in the tough-on-crime movement before going to prison for racketeering from a federal sting operation. After his time in prison, Nolan became a loud voice for prison reform.

“A big part of this,” Chammah explained, is the “idea that rehabilitation and Christian ideals of redemption and the ability of an individual to be saved and transform their life can be also part of what prisons do.”

“I’ve gone into a lot of prisons in Texas, in Michigan, in New Mexico – Louisiana definitely is a big one – you hear Christian rehabilitation language everywhere,” he explained. People of faith have come to see prisoners how they used to see addicts and foster children – as people in need of redemption.

“Punishment is just and right, but we don’t want to dehumanize people and make them worse,” Granado said. “They are created in the image and likeness of God.”

Catholics who actually read the Bible – one woman's online ministry

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 18:43

Tempe, Ariz., Dec 21, 2016 / 04:43 pm (CNA).- Jenna Guizar is a busy woman.

When she’s not spending time with her husband and three daughters or being a full time respiratory therapist at a local hospital in Tempe, Ariz., she’s the Creative Director for “Blessed is She,” an online women’s ministry for Catholic women.

Guizar was running a personal blog a few years ago, mostly for close friends and family, when she noticed that the Protestants had somewhat cornered the market on online bible studies and corresponding communities.

“I found that it was lacking in the Catholic world,” Guizar told CNA. “That idea of doing bible studies together as a group or even studying the word together, and online resources for people to study the word on their phone or on their tablets or on the Internet.”

The desire to create community based on studying scripture from a Catholic perspective was what drove Guizar to found “Blessed Is She”, a women’s ministry that has community and devotions based on the daily readings at its heart.

When Guizar set out to found “Blessed Is She”, she wasn’t sure exactly where the project would go. She reached out to dozens of blogging Catholic women, hoping some of them would be interesting in contributing their talents for writing devotions.

She was surprised by how many women were eager to jump on board with what was still an emerging concept.

“I basically started with a team of about 20 women right off the bat who were willing to say ‘Yeah, I feel a tugging on my heart for this too, so let’s do it,’” she said.

“And so I think a huge reason for the success of 'Blessed is She' is that team atmosphere of women who are promoting it and really believe it.”

The bread and butter of the “Blessed is She ministry” is the daily readings and accompanying devotions delivered each day to subscribers’ email inboxes. Besides Guizar, there’s content editor Nell O’Leary and graphic designer Erica Tighe, making sure everything gets done and looks good.

The goal: to bring the Word of God to life for the women on the other side of the screen.

“We want to be able to really dive into the word and tell women and all Catholics really that it’s important to look at these daily readings and to look at the word of God and see how it greatly impacts your life today,” she said.

“It’s not just the words that were said 2,000+ years ago, but it’s something that you can look at and be able to open your eyes to how it greatly affects you now.”  

Guizar and her team also started branching out on social media - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest - to help foster that sense of community and to impact women wherever they might be.

As a blogger, Guizar said she realized how many women - young and old, married and single - felt isolated and would turn to blogs and other online sources for community.

“I think women feel isolated a lot of the time, they feel alone, not only people in remote areas who are actually living in isolation but even in metropolitan cities where they feel like it’s hard to meet other Catholics,” she said.

“And I realized that in the online world, people would say, ‘I’m blogging and I’ve finally found this community that I’ve been searching for,’” she said.   

“So I wanted it to be a space where there you could feel comfortable being yourself and you know that the person across from you or the person looking at their screen across from you on the internet thousands and thousands of miles away believes in the same things that you do and has the same goals that you do, which is ultimately to get to heaven,” she said.

Since it’s founding, the ministry has really taken off - Guizar’s team now includes 40+ writers, with more than 9,000 subscribers to the daily e-mail and tens of thousands of visitors to the website every day.

The explosion of the ministry has made possible some in-person meet-ups as well - Blessed is She now has regional facebook groups where women can connect to other women in their area, and plan get togethers or “Blessed Brunches”, a potluck brunch where women can meet in person, pray together and form a deeper community.

“If you’re a woman who likes to avoid social media then we want to meet you in real life; if you’re someone who can only be on social media because you’re in a remote part of the country then you can have that female community and that female presence in your life to be able to walk with you on your journey in faith,” Guizar said.

The Blessed is She team has also seen the impact the ministry has had on women through various testimonies that come to them through e-mail and social media.

“One of my favorite testimonies was a woman who was vacillating about coming into the Church and who had kind of started RCIA, but once she found BIS and got plugged into the community she saw that there were other people living out this faith and she wasn’t alone on the journey,” Guizar said. “She’s now baptized and a Catholic convert.”

This past Lent, Blessed is She rolled out a Lenten workbook - part journal, part Lenten checklist - that sold out again and again in print, though an online version is still available.

“It just was really amazing to see this sort of confirmation in these women saying I want this and I need this for my prayer life because it’s confirming that I’m not alone in wanting and needing that for myself,” Guizar said.

Blessed is She also hosted its first-ever retreat during Lent in Tempe, Ariz., with talks for women from all walks of life and worship led by Ike Ndolo and Rachel Lebeau.

In the future, Guizar hopes to create an app for the ministry, to create more online materials for small-group bible studies, and to possibly help launch a men’s edition.

For now, she said she’s grateful to be a part of something that is helping so many women grow in their relationship with Christ.

“I’m really grateful to be given this opportunity to serve and I try to maintain my gratitude, even when it’s tough and even when it’s a lot of work, that I am a humble servant to what BIS is doing for women and for me.”

A version of this article was originally published on CNA Feb. 14, 2016.

So, Catholic coloring books for grown-ups are a thing...

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 11:13

Chicago, Ill., Dec 21, 2016 / 09:13 am (CNA).- Coloring books for adults have exploded onto the bookstore scene in the past two years. What was once considered a hobby for the kids is now all the rage for people who are full-grown.

While the most popular books out there feature images of gardens, forests and beautiful patterns, Ave Maria Press and Catholic artist Daniel Mitsui are creating adult coloring books that draw from something else: the tradition of medieval Catholic art.

Mitsui, who lives in Chicago with his wife and their three children, specializes in ink drawing and describes his style as very graphic, with “precise edges and sharp outlines.” He’s heavily inspired by Catholic art from the 14th and 15th century, but is also influenced by the graphic elements of Japanese art, particularly with how it treats light and shadow.

While Mitsui told CNA that he hadn’t paid much attention to the adult coloring book trend at first, he has done a lot of work in black and white, which works well for the medium. He would print a lot of images in black and white and then color them in to sell as hand-colored images, and he would give his children the extra prints, or the prints that didn’t turn out just right, for them to color.

“I would save all of the ones that didn’t pass my quality control, and I would give them to my kids to color at Mass,” he told CNA.  

“I have small children who have a hard time paying attention so I would give them some of these coloring sheets. And friends of mine started asking for them and I thought, you know, I should really make this available to the public.”

With this in mind, Mitsui started adding the black and white images – usually of saints or other religious images – to his website, so that parents could access them for their kids and leave a little donation. Almost immediately, he was contacted by Ave Maria publishing company about creating a book for adults.

His first book features images from the mysteries of the rosary. Mitsui had been privately commissioned for a project on the rosary a few years back, and so he said it was easy to compile those images and create a coloring book with a unifying theme.

Faced with quick success, he soon began planning for another book, featuring colorable images of the Saints. While the book includes many of the main players – the Virgin Mary, Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Michael the Archangel – it also includes some more obscure figures like St. Robert of Newminster, St. Gobnait, and St. Hugh of Lincoln.

While many of Mitsui's images in the coloring books come from privately commissioned pieces he’s done in the past, some of them also come from images he's created as part of lessons for his children, who are homeschooled.

Mitsui added that he finds it unnecessary to divide coloring books into categories for children and adults. Children deserve, and equally enjoy, the beautiful and more intricate images that are often only marketed to adults, he said.

“I don’t think that you should say well, we have these really sophisticated coloring books with detailed art, and we’re going to give these to adults, and then we present things that have artwork in them that we don’t really think is that good, and then give those to kids,” he said.

“There’s so many children’s picture books that are really beautiful and really sophisticated and intelligent artwork, but they kind of get drowned out by so many ones that are sort of insipid, and I don’t think that that’s right,” he added.

“Kids like to see detailed images, they can actually appreciate serious art, and a good way to introduce them to it is to look through what coloring books are being sold for the adults.”

The sudden upsurge in the popularity of coloring books for adults has fascinated everyone from researchers to art therapists to yoga and meditation connoisseurs.

Mitsui said he’s excited about the trend, because it may mean that more adults are acknowledging their desire to express themselves creatively.

“It seems there’s an idea that a lot of adults have that drawing or making art is something that you do when you’re a child, and then unless you become a professional you kind of give it up,” he said. “And I think that’s just sort of a poverty...I don’t know why there’s a reluctance on the part of so many adults to create artwork.”

Drawing used to be the fashionable thing for adults to do in the Victorian era, he added. Many adults, particularly women, had their own sketchbooks and honed their drawing skills. Some of these sketchbooks have been preserved, and some of the work is quite good.

“I think what that demonstrates is that a lot of what goes into being an artist is skill that is learnable with practice,” Mitsui said. “People have this idea that somehow when it comes to art, you’re given this measure of ability from the beginning and you can never do anything to increase or decrease that, and I don’t think that’s true.”

For Catholics in particular, a Catholic adult coloring book is a way to become familiar with the rich tradition of Catholic art in a way that is different than viewing a painting in a museum, he said.
“The Catholic church has such a superabundance of wealth in terms of its artistic tradition, that sometimes it can get lost when it’s just sort of viewed as data,” he said.

“I’m interested in medieval religious art, and I think the art of that era certainly is very rich in terms of what it can teach you about the Catholic religion in that it’s very precise theologically, it corroborates the writings of the Church fathers, it corroborates the liturgy. So you see all of the Catholic tradition more clearly if you’re familiar with its presentation,” he said.

Having a book that you’re able to look at closely, and an image that you’re engaging not just with your eyes but also your hands, forces you to slow down and really concentrate on the image, he added.

“It’s a way to train yourself to really look at art and I think to really look at anything,” he said. “That more concentrated vision is something that is quite peculiar to a mass media age.”


This article originally ran on CNA July 10, 2016.

This man was 9 years-old when he saw John Paul II get shot

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 05:01

Washington D.C., Dec 21, 2016 / 03:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Thirty-five years after Saint John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square, a witness from the front rows of the security barricades says that the now-canonized Pope offers an example – and a challenge – of forgiveness for children who witness violence.

For witnesses and victims of violence, many experience the temptation of hopelessness, despair and even hatred, David DePerro told CNA in an interview.

“Then you think of John Paul visiting Mehmet Ali Agca,” DePerro said, pointing to the Pope’s visit to the man who attempted to assassinate him on May 13, 1981. “In that respect, it’s extremely annoying,” DePerro said with a laugh, “because you have to forgive. You just have to.”

May 13, 1981

In 1981, David DePerro was nine years old, living with his siblings and parents in Würzburg, West Germany, where his father was stationed as a member of the U.S. Army. In May of that year, his family took their second trip to Rome along with a tour group from the Army base. As one of three children, David was paired as seat mates with a young priest, Fr. Rachly, for the entirety of the bus ride from West Germany to Italy.

On May 13, the group went to the Pope’s weekly Wednesday audience, and “all the kids crowded up to the front” in order to shake hands with the Pope and wave as he drove by in the Popemobile. David and his siblings were up against the security barricade along the open-air vehicle’s route in St. Peter’s square, and the Pope drove by as they reached out. Several minutes later, the Popemobile circled back so Pope John Paul II could greet the children and faithful gathered on the other side of the aisle cleared out for the vehicle’s route.  

The Popemobile passed by again, this time across from DePerro’s group. “It was then that I heard the popping sounds,” he recalled. “That was all it was- popping sounds: I thought they were fireworks.”  Still the sound of fireworks was unsettling, odd:  David had only ever seen fireworks before on the Fourth of July or New Years’ Eve - not on a Wednesday in broad daylight.

As it turned out, Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish citizen, had attempted to assassinate John Paul II, firing four bullets at the Roman Pontiff. Fr. Rachly, who had stood behind David at St. Peters’ Square, had seen Agca raise his gun as he attacked the Holy Father.

The scene after the shooting was chaotic, as the Popemobile sped off, DePerro remembered. “We didn’t know what was happening.” After the Pope left, the witnesses were kept in the square “for hours and hours and hours- they would not let us leave” as Swiss Guards confiscated cameras and film to search for evidence and to treat bystanders who were injured in the shooting.

The four bullets Agca fired hit John Paul II and left him seriously injured, passing through the Pope’s abdomen, arms, and narrowly missing his heart. Two of the bullets that passed through the Pope hit bystanders, one of whom was a member of DePerro’s group from Germany. The woman, who had to stay in Rome for treatment, had been struck in the elbow while resting her arms on the shoulders of one of the religious sisters traveling with the Army group. The woman’s elbow was only inches from the sister’s head.

“When John Paul II said ‘the gunman fired the gun, but Mary guided the bullet,’” DePerro started, “there was more than one bullet that she guided that day.”

“We were very, very blessed. We were spared the worst.”

Shock and Healing

Following the attack, DePerro and the other witnesses of the assassination attempt were in shock. However, as a child, David DePerro did not know what shock was, much less how to respond to it. “I didn’t know what that was called. When you’re a kid, you feel a lot of things or you feel nothing.”

DePerro said that while what he experienced was troubling it did not make him sad – even though he felt it should. “There was just an emptiness and a confusion,” he recalled. This emptiness contrasted, however with others’ responses of sadness and tears, making David feel “guilty because I thought I should be crying.”

“I started crying crocodile tears. I started crying because I was supposed to be crying.”

He added that in the days following the assassination attempt, the group continued its tour of Italy, traveling to Assisi and holding Masses to pray for the Pope and their own group member injured in the attack. “I have no recollection of that service,” DePerro said, adding later that he has little recollection of any details of the trip after the assassination attempt. Instead, he said, DePerro turns to memories from his parents and others on the trip to fill in the gaps of what happened.

DePerro remained silent on his experiences as he reflected on them for years, until the aftermath of the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007. Since then  DePerro has taken to speaking to children and young adults, as well as to news outlets about his experiences during and after the shooting and to offer advice and the  “example of St. John Paul II as a saint to whom they can turn.”

One of the most important points for children and youth who are witnesses of shootings to understand, DePerro said, is that they should be free to talk about and to process their feelings on what happened, no matter what they are. Children who are witnesses of violence should find a trusted adult to talk about what they feel - sadness, anger, nothingness, even gratefulness - without fear of how others will judge those feelings. “It might take a long time to process those feelings. To feel those feelings,” DePerro advised, stressing that as children try to work through what they witnessed “there should be no guilt that it takes a long time to feel those feelings.”

He also stressed the importance of preserving memories and “meaningful artifacts” from important events, even if that event is traumatic. “It's important to capture your memories,” DePerro said, explaining that he advises children to write down what they saw as soon as they are able. DePerro also pointed to the importance of physical remainders of the event. He lamented that his family had lost the blue hat he had been wearing to the Papal Audience, a hat that helped neighbors and family pick out David from other children in pictures published in German magazines and other news sources covering the Pope’s shooting.

Most of all, he underlined that each child’s experience is unique – even if they experience the same event. “No one else can understand what you’ve been through,” he said. “The reason why I know I don’t understand it is because I’ve been through it myself.”

St. John Paul II and Forgiveness

While each experience is unique, David DePerro said that Saint John Paul II can be a resource and example for those who experience violence. “You can turn to John Paul II as a firm, reliable friend to deal with your spiritual needs, your feelings, regarding what happened, because he certainly does understand.”

The most important aid the Pope can help provide is as an example of forgiveness for those who have harmed others, DePerro said he tells children. After the shooting, John Paul II told the faithful that he had forgiven Agca and asked for prayers for the man. Two years later, the Pope and Agca met for a private visit in the prison where Agca was serving his sentence, and the Pope then met both Agca’s mother and brother in the years following the visit. The Agca family and John Paul II remained in contact until the Pope’s death. Aga was released from Italian prison at the Pope’s request in 2000, and from prison in Turkey for a separate crime in 2006.

While the Pope’s forgiveness is beautiful, it’s also a challenge, DePerro continued. “I have been the victim of violence myself. It was really hard to forgive that person. It was really hard to feel safe again in my own neighborhood, where I was attacked.” However, the example and experience of John Paul II was a call to not be afraid or hardened. “I call John Paul II someone we can turn to in our prayers for ourselves but also for the other person.”

Because of the difficulty of forgiveness, St. John Paul II’s actions after the assassination attempt should not be seen as merely tenderhearted or kind, but a duty and a part of healing, DePerro counseled. “To forgive is not a sentimental proposition,” he said.  “It is a demand that our Lord places upon us but it’s a demand for our benefit.”


This article was originally published on CNA May 13, 2106.

In the US, a request for asylum could essentially land you in prison

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 19:16

Washington D.C., Dec 20, 2016 / 05:16 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- With the number of displaced persons at its highest ever recorded – more than after World War II – troubling stories have surfaced of the U.S. disobeying its own protocol in detaining or removing asylum-seekers.

“We are facing a crisis at the border,” Kristina Arriaga, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told CNA.

“But as a result of DHS’ flawed policies,” she said, asylum-seekers “are being returned to their country of origin without the United States assessing whether these are credible fears.”

The commission published a new report this summer, examining “Barriers to Protection: the treatment of asylum-seekers in expedited removal.”

“Those seeking refuge from persecution deserve to be treated with dignity and should not be confined in prison-like conditions simply for seeking freedom and protection in the United States,” Fr. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., chair of the commission, stated on the release of the report.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is a bipartisan panel created by Congress in 1998 to promote religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy, advise the State Department, and document global human rights abuses.

In 2005, the commission issued its initial “Report on Asylum Seekers in Expedited Removal,” reviewing the entire process under the Department of Homeland Security by which persons who enter the U.S. without identification either establish a claim of asylum or are quickly deported to their country of origin.

The report found “serious flaws” in the whole process. To obtain asylum, someone who enters the U.S. must “establish a credible fear of persecution or torture” if they will be returned to their home country.

However, the commission’s 2005 report found that, in many cases, the interview to determine asylum was not followed according to protocol. Some people who were eligible for entry into the U.S. were sent home. Others were put in detention centers with poor conditions.

Systemic problems found in 2005 persist today, the current report says. According to field research and public information reviewed between 2012 and 2015, the commission found cases of abuse within the system that undermined the asylum process, and “most of USCIRF’s 2005 recommendations had not been implemented.”

Interviews of asylum-seekers by Customs and Border Protection agents were problematic, the report found. The asylum process is a delicate one. Someone fleeing violence and coming to another country where they are unfamiliar with the laws and language may not easily be able to establish a “credible fear” if they are sent back to their country of origin.

In one case in the report, an asylum-seeker said that in an interview to establish “credible fear,” they were not even asked if they were afraid to return home. The agent still wrote down that they were not afraid to be sent back home.

That same asylum-seeker “also said he had a letter from a helpful police officer in El Salvador saying he had been threatened by gang members, which he said the agent told him he would have to present to the asylum officer but then took and kept,” the report added.

In another case, “a Bangladeshi asylum seeker told USCIRF he was turned away at a port of entry and told to seek asylum in Mexico.”

Chinese asylum-seekers were met with skepticism by Border Patrol agents “because they could not name the church they attended,” the commission noted. “The official did not know that many Chinese Christians worship at home.”

One woman told Border Patrol that she was indeed afraid to return to Guatemala and was not coming to the U.S. to find work. However, her case read the opposite – she had come looking for work and was not afraid to be sent back home.

“Asylum officers reported to USCIRF that this was a common occurrence,” the report added. “They also said that they were seeing many forms with identical answers, and others with clearly erroneous ones.”

“Border Patrol personnel oftentimes are truly, truly doing the best they can,” Arriaga told CNA. “They just don’t have the equipment, the tools, or the training to do this properly.”

Even if asylum-seekers were deemed by officials to have a “credible fear” of returning home, they were often placed in detention centers until a federal immigration court decided their case.

“USCIRF found that asylum seekers continue to be detained under inappropriate penal conditions before their credible fear interviews, and in some cases, even after being found to have a credible fear,” the report said.

The conditions of the detention centers resembled that of prisons, it added. There is no privacy for men, women, and children there, Arriaga said, and “most importantly” there is no “access to legal assistance.”

“We see children suffering depression, tremendous anxiety,” she continued, and all this could be avoided if the Department of Homeland Security began putting into practice the commission’s 2005 recommendations, as well as its own 2009 policies. “These people would not be held for such a lengthy amount of time,” she said.

“How we treat people who come to our borders says a lot about who we are as Americans,” Arriaga continued.

“No one is arguing let everyone in without screening. We owe them, simply out of human dignity, the possibility of making their case at the border. And that is not being given to the people that come to the border.”


This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 4, 2016.

The dangers of spiritualizing your psychological problems

Mon, 12/19/2016 - 16:17

Denver, Colo., Dec 19, 2016 / 02:17 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Maria had been struggling with some depressive and anxious thoughts for a while, although at the time, she didn’t recognize them as such. Probably because she was 14 years old.  

When she shared her struggles with someone in her Catholic community, the woman told Maria that she was worried that “the devil was working his ways” in her, and used that to pressure her into going on a week-long retreat out of state.

“Sure, retreats are great,” Maria told CNA. “But pretty sure I just needed a therapist at that point in my life. And pretty sure I had already given valid reasons for why I wasn't interested in buying a plane ticket for a retreat.”

When Catholics experience spiritual problems, the solutions seem obvious -  talk to a priest, go to confession, pray, seek guidance from a spiritual director. But the line between the spiritual and the psychological can be very blurry, so much so that some Catholics and psychologists wonder if people are too often told to “pray away” their problems that may also require psychological treatment.

When body and soul are seen as unrelated

Dr. Gregory Bottaro is a Catholic clinical psychologist with the CatholicPsych Institute. He said that he has found the over-spiritualization of psychological issues to be a persistent problem, particularly among devout Catholics.

“Over-spiritualization in our time is usually a direct consequence of Cartesian Dualism,” Bottaro told CNA in an e-mail interview.

“Decartes is the philosopher who said: ‘I think therefore I am.’ He separated his thinking self from his bodily self, and planted the seed that eventually grew into our current thinking that the body and spirit are separate things. Acting as if the body doesn’t matter when considering our human experience is just as distorted as acting like the spirit doesn’t matter,” he said.

Because of this prevalent misconception about the separation of our body and soul, people both in and out of the Catholic Church often feel a stigma in seeking mental help that isn’t there when they need to seek physical help, he said.

“We shouldn’t think any less of getting help for mental health than we do for physical health. There are fields of expertise for a reason, and just as we can’t fix every one of our own physical wounds, we can’t always fix every one of our own mental wounds. It is virtuous to recognize our need for help,” Dr. Bottaro said.

Virtuous, but not always easy.

Just pray

Michele is a young Catholic 20-something who was used to being social and involved in various ministries within the Church. But a move to a new city left her usually-bubbly self feeling lonely and isolated.

“I felt like a failure spiritually because shouldn't my relationship with God be enough? But, I would come home from work and cry and just lay in my bed. It was hard for me to motivate myself to do anything,” she told CNA.

When a friend, also involved in ministry, called to catch up, Michele saw it as a chance to reach out and share some of the feelings that had been concerning her.

“I don't remember exactly what I said, but she told me what I was feeling was sinful. I shut down and said I was exaggerating and made up some story about how everything was fine,” she said.

Michele waited several more months before seeking help through Catholic Charities, where she was connected to a therapist. She found out that she had attachment disorder, which, left untreated for longer, could have turned into major, long term depression.

Derek is also a young 20-something Catholic who was also told to pray away his problems. He was suffering from depressive episodes, where he wouldn’t eat and would sleep for 15 hours a day. His friends’ advice was to pray. It wasn’t until he attempted suicide that he got serious about seeking psychotherapy.

Sarah, also a young Catholic and a former FOCUS missionary, had a similar experience. For months, she confessed suicidal thoughts to her pastor and spiritual director, who gave her advice based on the discernment of spirits from St. Ignatius of Loyola. But eventually the thoughts became so intense and prevalent that Sarah called every mandatory reporter she knew, and was admitted to the hospital on suicide watch.

“I think part of it is - if someone is trained in something, that’s how they want to fix it,” Sarah told CNA.

“If you’re trained in spirituality then you want to use spirituality to fix it. And you absolutely should include spirituality. However, you can’t just pray it away. These are real problems and real medical things. There are events in people’s lives that have happened, and they need to work through that both spiritually and psychologically, and a priest or youth minister can’t do both. They need to get you to someone who’s able to help,” she said.

The negative stigma attached to seeking mental help is magnified in the Church because of the “pray it away” mentality, Sarah added. Once prayer doesn’t work, people can feel like spiritual failures, and many people in the Church will distance themselves from someone who is mentally ill.

“I can’t be a fully functional young woman who’s working through something and needs help with it,” she said. “It’s either - I’m ok or I’m not.”  

A Catholic psychologist’s perspective  

Dr. Jim Langley, a Catholic licensed clinical psychologist with St. Raphael’s counseling in Denver, said he tends to see opposite ends of the spectrum in his patients in about equal numbers - those who over-spiritualize their problems, and those who under-spiritualize them.

“Part of the problem is that in our culture, we have such a medically-oriented, science-oriented culture that we’ve sort of gotten away from spirituality, which causes a lot of problems,” he said.

As human beings, our minds and our souls are what set us apart from other created things, Langley added, making those aspects of our being most vulnerable to evil attacks.

“I know a priest who would explain it like this: Evil is like a germ, and it wants to get in just like bacteria does in our body. And where does bacteria get in? It gets in through our wounds. So if we have a cut on our hand, that’s where bacteria wants to get in and infect us. On the spiritual side, it’s the same thing. Where we have the most sensitive wounds tend to be in our sense of self and our psychology, and so that’s where evil wants to get in at us.”  

People who tend to ignore the spiritual aspect of their psychological problems cut themselves off from the most holistic approach of healing, Langley added.  

“The main reason is because it really is God who heals, and almost any psychological issue you’re dealing with is going to have some sort of a spiritual component connected to it, because it has to do with our dignity as a human person.”

And while it can be challenging to make people see the spiritual component of their problems, it can also be a challenge to help other people recognize that their spiritual issues might also have a psychological component, he said.

Some devout Catholics see it as preferable to say they are suffering from something like the dark night of the soul, rather than to admit that they have depression and may need medication and counseling, he said.

“In some ways in our Catholic community, it’s cooler to have a spiritual problem than it is to have a psychological problem,” he said. “The problem with over-spiritualizing is that you cut yourself from so many tools that psychology and even your faith could have to help you to be happy.”

Many of the things psychologists do to help their patients includes teaching them “recipes” for happiness, Langley said - re-training their thought patterns, providing practical tools to use when anxiety or depression kick in.

But a person who doesn’t recognize an issue as also having a psychological component may be resistant to these methods entirely, including spiritual methods, he said.

Catholics who are concerned about seeking psychological help should seek a Catholic psychologist or psychiatrist who can talk about both the spiritual and psychological aspects of healing, Langley said.

“People who don’t practice from a Catholic or spiritual perspective can do a pretty good job, but it’s like they’re doing therapy with their hand tied behind their back, because they’re missing out on a whole array of things you can do to help a person.”

Therapists who aren’t practicing from a Catholic perspective could also do some unintended harm in their practice, Langley noted. For example, men who are addicted to pornography may be told by a secular therapist that pornography is a healthy release, or couples struggling in their marriage may sometimes be encouraged by secular practitioners to divorce.

It’s really a false dichotomy, Langley added, to categorize problems as strictly spiritual or psychological, because oftentimes they are both, and require both psychological and spiritual treatment.

“The main reason is because it really is God who heals, and almost any psychological issue you’re dealing with is going to have some sort of a spiritual component connected to it, because it has to do with our dignity as a human person,” he said.

“So much of good therapy is helping a person get back in touch with their sense of dignity that God created them with...and as they get more in touch with it, they are actually just more open to God’s love and they’re more open to making changes in their life that might be helpful.”

What needs to change?

The Catholic experience of mental illness varies. Some found their experience of a mental illness diagnosis in the Church very isolating, while others said it was a great source of healing and support.

Langley said that for the most part, he has a great relationship with the clergy in his area.

“Most of our referrals come from priests,” he said. “I hardly ever see a priest that is overly convinced that something is spiritual. I think priests really do a pretty good job of saying when something is more psychological.”

Some of Langley’s favorite clients are those who are seeking spiritual direction at the same time as therapy, he said, because between therapy and spiritual direction, the person seeking help is usually able to find the right balance of psychological and spiritual strategies that work.

Others said they felt the relationship between psychologists and Catholic clergy or other leaders could be stronger.

A licensed marriage and family therapist in California, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that priests and mental health professionals should be working together to support those struggling with mental illness, to make them feel more welcome, and to let them know what resources are available.

“The faith community hasn't done a great job reaching out for support for those within the community with mental illness, and the mental health community hasn't done a good enough job making itself available to the faith community,” he said.

Several Catholics who have had mental illness also said they wished that it were something that was discussed more openly in the Church.

“I have thirsted for greater support in the Church,” said Erin, who has depression and anxiety.

“That is my biggest struggle as a Catholic with mental illness: not necessarily focusing too much on the spiritual aspects, but people not knowing how to address any other aspect.”

She had some suggestions for Catholics who find out their friend has a mental illness.

“As Christ would do, and as Job's friends failed to do, please, please just walk with me. And if I bring up something spiritual, feel free to talk about it. If you think I'm shutting you out, ask. If I randomly start crying, hold my hand,” she said.

“Finding support in my one friend (who also has a mental illness) has done worlds of good for me. Imagine what could happen if Christians became more vulnerable about their mental illness. What a support system that would be!”

Michele said in sharing her story about seeking therapy, she has been surprised at how many Catholics have gone through similar experiences.

“I try to be very open about it now because a stigma should not exist.”

Catholic psychologists in your area can be found by searching at or at The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.

Some names in this article have been changed for the protection of privacy.

This article was originally published on CNA July 1, 2016.

For the ex-slave who blessed Denver, a path to sainthood opens

Sun, 12/18/2016 - 21:15

Denver, Colo., Dec 18, 2016 / 07:15 pm (CNA).- Julia Greeley was born into slavery in Hannibal, Missouri. But her cause for sainthood was opened on Sunday in Denver, where her life of devotion and service continues to inspire.

“She’s a model for me,” said Mary Leisring of the Julia Greeley Guild.

“We’re all called to be saints, and it just goes to show that an ordinary person can become extraordinary. For some of us, she’s already a saint,” said Leisring, who directs Black Catholic ministry in the Denver archdiocese.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver opened Greeley’s cause for canonization on Dec. 18 at an early morning Sunday Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

The U.S. bishops heard the case for her canonization from Archbishop Aquila in November at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual assembly.

Then the bishops unanimously voted to allow the archdiocese to investigate her life and her virtues, marking the beginning of the initial phase of a possible canonization.

Greeley bore slavery’s wounds on her body. One time as a slave master beat her mother, the whip caught her right eye and destroyed it.

She was freed in the 1860s when slavery was abolished.

Around 1880, she traveled to Denver and served as a housekeeper for Colorado’s first territorial governor William Gilpin and his wife Julia.

Greeley converted to Catholicism at Denver’s Sacred Heart Parish. She became devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to the Eucharist. She joined the Secular Franciscan Order in 1901 and helped spread the Sacred Heart devotion to Denver’s firefighters, among many others.

Despite her meager income, she was famous for aiding her neighbors in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.

Wearing a floppy hat, oversized shoes, and dabbing her bad eye with a handkerchief, Greeley was regularly seen pulling her red wagon of goods to deliver to the poor and homeless of the city. She often did this at night to avoid embarrassing the people in need of assistance.

She died June 7, 1918, the Feast of the Sacred Heart. A constant stream of people paid their last respects to her.

Because she was born in slavery, her exact age was never known. She was estimated to be 80 years old.

When the first phase of the investigation into her possible sainthood concludes, the archdiocese’s investigators will send a report to the Vatican. The Pontifical Congregation for the Causes of Saints will decide then whether to continue the process.

The astonishing secret history of the Pope who fought Hitler

Sun, 12/18/2016 - 16:36

Washington D.C., Dec 18, 2016 / 02:36 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Pius XII's secret support for the attempted overthrow of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler is the subject of a recent book that draws on wartime documents and interviews with the American intelligence agent who wrote them.

“This book is the truth – as best I could establish it in a number of years of research – about the Pope’s secret operations in World War II,” historian Mark Riebling told CNA earlier this year.

“Its main premise is that Pius opted to resist Hitler with covert action instead of overt protest. As a result, he became involved in three separate plots by German dissidents to remove Hitler.”  

“I thought this idea – that the Church engaged in secret operations during the bloodiest years in history, in the most controversial part of its recent history – was not just a footnote; it was something worth pursuing,” he said.

Riebling tells this story in his book “Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler,” published by Basic Books in September 2015.

In the late 1990s, debate over whether Pius XII did enough to counter the Nazis reached a high point with the publication of the deeply controversial book, “Hitler's Pope,” by British journalist John Cornwell. The book was highly critical of Pius XII, charging that he was culpably silent – if not an accomplice – in the rise of Nazism.

“If you read the fiercest critics of the Nazi-era Church, the major ones all concede that Pius XII hated Hitler and worked secretly to overthrow him,” Riebling said. “Yet they say this in their books in just a clause, a sentence, or a paragraph. To me, this episode merited more curiosity.”

“If 'Hitler's Pope' wanted to help rid the world of Hitler, what's the story?”

Riebling said there were several sources of inspiration for the book. During his Catholic upbringing, he learned the long history of the Church: in its first centuries, Christianity was an underground organization. In post-Reformation England, the Jesuits were involved in clandestine work.

This history prompted him to ask how a historian would document it and find evidence.

He also drew inspiration from the story of James Jesus Angleton, a famous U.S. intelligence officer who during World War II ran an operation to penetrate the Vatican for the Office of Strategic Services, the Central Intelligence Agency’s predecessor.

During research on his previous book, “Wedge: The Secret War between the FBI and CIA,” Riebling discovered wartime documents from Angleton's Rome section of the Office of Strategic Services.

“There were at least ten documents implicating Pius XII and his closest advisers in not just one, but actually three plots to remove Hitler – stretching from 1939 to 1944. These were typed up by someone using a very distinct nickname.”

That nickname, “Rock,” belonged to Ray Rocca. Rocca served as Angleton's deputy in Rome and for most of his later career. His career included responsibility for the Central Intelligence Agency's records concerning the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“So, here's a guy who had been in the Vatican; who had been charged with penetrating the Vatican; and who knew a thing or two about assassination probes. I thought: here’s an interesting guy to get to know,” Riebling said. Rocca did not violate his oath of secrecy, but his interviews with Riebling are among the book's sources.

According to Riebling, his book does not charge that the Pope “tried to kill Hitler.” Rather, the Pope’s actions were more subtle.

“Pius becomes a key cog in conspiracies to remove a ruler who is a kind of Antichrist, because good people ask for his help, and he searches his conscience, and he agrees to become an intermediary for the plotters – their foreign agent, as it were – and thereby he becomes an accessory to their plots.”

The historian described these actions as “some of the most astonishing events in the history of the papacy.”

Pius XII had connections with three plots against Hitler. The first, from October 1939 to May 1940, involved German military conspirators. From late 1941 to spring of 1943 a series of plots involving the German Jesuits ended when a bomb planted on Hitler’s plane failed to explode.

The third plot again involved German Jesuits and also German military colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Although the colonel successfully planted a bomb near the Nazi dictator, it failed to kill Hitler. The priests had to flee after the failed attempt. Those unable to escape were executed.

During his research, Riebling discovered that Pius XII secretly recorded the conversations held in his office. Transcripts of the Pope's talks with German cardinals in March 1939 show that he was deeply concerned that German Catholics would choose Hitler instead of the Church.

“The cardinals asked Pius to appease Hitler, so that German Catholics won’t break away and form a state church, as happened in Tudor England,” Riebling said.

“Pius heeded the German episcopate's advice. Instead of protesting openly, he would resist Hitler behind the scenes.”

Pius XII's agents provided the Allies with useful intelligence about Hitler's war plans on three occasions, including Hitler’s planned invasion of Russia. In all three cases, the Allies did not act on the information.

For their part, the Nazis regarded Pius XII with suspicion since his election in 1939.

“He worked hard to allay those suspicions, to minimize persecutions of German Catholics. But the Nazis never dropped their guard,” Riebling said.

At one point Hitler planned to invade the Vatican, kidnap the Pope and bring him to Germany. Leading Nazi Heinrich Himmler “wanted to have the Holy Father publicly executed to celebrate the opening of a new soccer stadium,” Riebling said.

“Pius became aware of these plans, through his secret papal agents; and, in my view, that influenced the Holy Father’s decision to become involved with the anti-Nazi resistance.”

For Riebling, the assassination plots against Hitler were an admission of weakness, “because it’s saying that we can’t solve the problem by some other means.”

“Knowing what I do about Pius XII, and having researched him for many years, I believe he wanted to be a saint. He wanted people in Germany to be saints,” he added.

“When he heard that a priest was arrested for praying for the Jews and sent off to a concentration camp, he said: 'I wish everyone would do that.'”

“But he didn't say it publicly,” the writer acknowledged. The Pope's words were made in secret in a letter to a German bishop.

“So I think what really happened here is: Pius XII wanted to lead a Church of saints. But had to settle for a Church of spies.”

This article was originally published on CNA Feb. 5, 2016.

Elizabeth Smart on captor's porn use: 'It just led to him raping me more'

Sun, 12/18/2016 - 06:09

Salt Lake City, Utah, Dec 18, 2016 / 04:09 am (CNA).- Editor's note: This article contains content that readers may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

Elizabeth Smart, who drew the nation’s attention when she was abducted from her home at age 14, said that her captor’s pornography use made her captivity much worse.

“Looking at pornography wasn’t enough for him. Having sex with his wife, after looking at pornography, it wasn’t enough for him,” Smart said in a recent interview. “And then it led him to finally going out and kidnapping me. He just always wanted more.”

In 2002, Smart was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom when a man broke into a window in her family’s home in Salt Lake City.

She was taken to a makeshift campsite just a few miles away, where her captor, Brian David Mitchell, and his wife held her for nine months, until she was discovered and rescued.

During that time, Smart says that Mitchell declared her to be his new “wife” and raped her multiple times each day.

Mitchell was later found guilty of kidnapping and sexual assault. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Now, in an exclusive interview with Fight the New Drug, a group that works to educate people on pornography's effects on the brain and society, Smart discusses the role that pornography played in her captivity.

In the interview, Smart describes what she calls “the longest nine months of my life.”

“Every time when I thought I had hit rock bottom, my captor would find something new, to make it worse,” she said.

“And one of those times, I had been forced to drink alcohol. I had thrown up and then I had passed out, face down. I woke up the next morning and my face and my hair were still all crusted to the ground, covered in vomit, and I remember at that point just feeling like, how can you get any lower than this?”

But just a few days later, she continued, “my captor was just really excited and really kind of amped up about something.”

It turned out his excitement was over hard-core pornography, which he forced her to look at.

“I remember he would just sit and look at it and stare at it,” Smart said. “And he would just talk about these women. And then when he was done, he would turn and he would look at me, and he would be like, ‘Now we’re going to do this’.”

“It just led to him raping me more. More than he already did, which was a lot.”

Smart said she doesn’t know whether Mitchell would have kidnapped her had pornography not been involved.

“All I know is that pornography made my living hell worse.”

Smart’s interview comes as an increasing number of hotels, restaurants and states are recognizing the damage caused by pornography, as well as the link between pornography and human trafficking.

Studies have found that porn is addictive and elicits a response from the brain similar to the use of drugs. In addition, research shows that regular porn users can develop a tolerance over time, needing more extreme pornography to become aroused.

A 2012 survey of 1,500 men found that 56 percent said their tastes in pornography had become “increasingly extreme or deviant.” Porn users were also found to be more likely to express attitudes supporting violence against women.

In her latest interview, Smart – who has gone on to get married, become a contributor to ABC News, and be an activist against human trafficking and pornography – also shared the life-changing advice that her mother gave her the morning after she was rescued.

“What these people have done to you is so terrible, you may never feel like restitution is made, but the best punishment that you could ever give them is to be happy,” Smart’s mother told her.

“And that advice has helped make me who I am today,” she said.

Note: Resources on recovery from pornography addiction can be found here:


This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 22, 2016.