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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.

Too many people misunderstand the 'vegetative state'

Sat, 12/17/2016 - 21:02

Philadelphia, Pa., Dec 17, 2016 / 07:02 pm (CNA).- Martin Pistorius was a healthy 12-year-old boy living in South Africa with his family in the late 1980s when he was overcome with a mysterious illness.

The doctors weren't sure what had come over Martin, but their best guess was cryptococcal meningitis. Over time, Martin lost his ability to move by himself, his ability to make eye contact, and eventually his ability to speak.

The hospital told Martin's parents, Rodney and Joan Pistorius, that their son was in a vegetative state, and to take him home and make him comfortable.

But approximately two years into this vegetative state, Martin woke up. He was aware of everything going on around him “like a normal person,” he told NPR – he just couldn't communicate. He spent 12 years in this state, most people thinking him a vegetable, until he was able to prove that he was conscious.

Martin now owns his own business and has written a book about his experience. He lives in the United Kingdom with his wife.

Maggie Worthen found herself in a similarly bleak situation in 2006. A senior a week away from graduating from Smith College, Smith suffered a massive stroke, leaving her unconscious and unable to speak or move.

Doctors, assuming Maggie would not recover or regain consciousness, pressured Maggie's mother Nancy to remove the ventilator or withhold food and water to let her daughter die. They asked if they could harvest Maggie’s organs.

But Nancy refused, believing that Maggie was more conscious and capable of recovery than the doctors thought. Maggie soon was able to breath on her own, and was able to communicate through eye movements her last few years of life before succumbing to pneumonia in August 2015 at the age of 31.

The stories of Martin, Maggie and many others like them show a troubling misunderstanding of, or a tendency to misdiagnose, what is called the “permanent vegetative state,” or PVS, in the medical community.

Edward Furton is an ethicist and director of publications with The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The center offers a 24-hour hotline that Catholics can call with questions related to medical ethics, and Furton said they often receive calls from family members whose loved ones have been diagnosed as being in a vegetative state.

“(They) are being told that their loved ones can’t feel anything, they’re completely unaware, that we can take away food and water it won’t bother them, they won’t even notice,” Furton told CNA.

“These things I think are very dangerous views, because we should always presume that the patient has some level of consciousness.”

Typically, medical doctors will assume that a patient is unconscious if there are no outward signs of consciousness, Furton said. But in some cases, such as in the cases of Martin or Maggie, that may not necessarily be true.

Deacon Alan Rastrelli is a licensed physician with expertise in anesthesiology and palliative medicine with the Denver-based Divine Mercy Supportive Care center, where he also serves as a spiritual advisor to the staff. He said another common problem when diagnosing a patient who has suffered brain trauma is a confusion of terms and a tendency to jump to the worst assumption.

“What I've been concerned about for some time, as I've been dealing with palliative care and bioethics and hospice care as a physician, is that sometimes the jump in the ICU is to go right to, ‘Oh this is a vegetative state, they’ll never come out of it.’ Or to say they’re brain dead or are in a comatose state when they haven’t done the right studies,” he said.    

“The terminology has been so confused over the last 10-15 years, that sometimes families are not sure what kind of decisions to make when they’re faced with a neurological insult,” Dr. Rastrelli added.

The term brain-dead, for example, only came into common use when organ donation became possible. A patient has minimal brain stem function if any, and their heartbeat and breathing are able to be sustained only through machines. Over the years, it has become a clearer diagnosis, allowing for safer organ donation, Dr. Rastrelli said, although sometimes there are still misdiagnoses.

New technologies, including brain scans that can detect brain activity in persons who may be outwardly unresponsive, may help doctors better understand and diagnose the level of consciousness of their patients.

“It is making people pause a little bit more to say, well we think there’s nothing there, but wow, some areas of the brain light up when we talk about mom or dad or children, or something that they might remember,” he said.

“With these new studies, maybe we won’t have to guess whether they feel or not, or hear or not, or suffer or not, we might be able to see if there’s still some activity there, and to show the opposite too, if there really isn’t.”

Another issue with over-diagnosis of the permanent vegetative state is a tendency to underestimate a patient’s ability to recover and become aware, which can occur years after the initial incident causing unconsciousness.

Research suggests that 68 percent of severely brain-injured patients who receive rehabilitation eventually regain consciousness, and that 21 percent of those are able to eventually live on their own. Yet unconscious patients are often too quickly dismissed as vegetative, disqualifying them from insurance on further rehabilitation efforts.

“Patients like Maggie are routinely misdiagnosed and placed in what we euphemistically call ‘custodial care’ where they have no access to any treatments that might help them recover or give them a chance of engaging with others,” Dr. Joseph Fins, chief of the division of medical ethics at Weill, told Newsweek.

There are times when additional measures, such as a ventilator or a feeding tube, would be considered extraordinary means of prolonging life and would not be ethically required by the Catholic Church, but each case is complex and unique, Dr. Rastrelli said.

Typically, families are not required to keep their loved ones on ventilators if the person will never again breathe on their own. In the case of a feeding tube, a dying person’s body may reject the nutrients, putting the person at risk for infection or aspiration, but feeding tubes should typically not be withheld or removed unless there are proven adverse effects, Dr. Rastrelli added.

“That person is still a person and we need to see if we can comfortably provide them with at least nutrition and hydration, not to the extreme of breathing machines and dialysis machines, if it’s not going to help, but as a comfort measure almost to allow them to have the nutrition that their body would normally be asking for,” he said.

Dr. Rastrelli said he is also concerned about the over-diagnosis of the vegetative state in an age of increased pushes for legalized assisted suicide in that it could lead to cases of euthanasia, which differs from assisted suicide in that other people make end-of-life decisions for the dying person, including withholding food and water.

“If you would talk to people in Compassion and Choices (the company behind the publicized case of Brittany Maynard), they would say that we don’t need any more disabled, society-dependent people to use up our resources if we’re not going to get them into a more functional, independent state,” he said.

“They would say well they’re just going to be suffering and you’re just wanting to keep them alive, just because of your religious beliefs. So why not just let them die or why not just help them die? They’re going to die anyway so why not just do it now and end their suffering. It sounds very good in sound bites, but it’s very dangerous because other people are making those decisions and presumptions.”

Catholics also have a different understanding of the human person, Furton said, in that they believe people are a union of body and soul, which is different than the prevailing beliefs in the current medical community, and could contribute to the tendency to over-diagnose patients as vegetative.

“One of the main issues here is that the scientific community, which strongly influences the medical community, tends toward materialism,” Furton added. “So they see the human person as an assemblage of matter, and the matter has somehow come together to produce life and then the matter has also produced consciousness. So if there are no material indications of consciousness, they say the person can’t be conscious.”

“We have to recognize that each of us has a soul, and that soul has its own inherent awareness, and it may indeed be completely functioning despite the fact that there are no outward signs of it,” he said.

Pope John Paul II didn’t like the term “vegetative” because of its dehumanizing effect, Dr. Rastrelli noted.

The late pontiff, and now saint, was himself an example of understanding when to let the dying process take its natural course, he added. When Parkinson’s ravaged his body, and he was overwhelmed with complications from pneumonia and various ailments, Pope John Paul II chose to forgo the emergency room and intensive care. Instead, he spent the last of his days in his room, where Mass was said, and he could receive the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick.

“And there’s a chance that he could have been able to fight through that particular episode, but his body would have been another major notch lower in health, then he’d be facing the same thing not much longer from then,” Dr. Rastrelli said. Instead, “he passed away peacefully.”

Receiving the sacraments is an important part of end of life care at Divine Mercy Supportive Care center, which follows the medical ethics of the Catholic Church.

“So the Catholic perspective I think throws the most appropriate light on (end of life issues), in that on the one hand, we dignify life and we take care of people like we’re asked to do, human to human. But we also recognize that the whole reason we’re here in this world is that so we can be with God in eternity,” Dr. Rastrelli said.

“We’re not going to fight tooth and nail to try and eek out every ounce of life, because we have the trust and the faith and the hope of our eternal life. So our church brings us prayer and sacraments and care…so that we can be born into the arms of Christ and have that hope and that comfort and peace.”


This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 23, 2016.

The Catholic Church desperately needs artists.

Sat, 12/17/2016 - 12:02

New York City, N.Y., Dec 17, 2016 / 10:02 am (CNA).- “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.”

So wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Demons, one of four of his greatest novels. The Russian Orthodox novelist would find himself in agreement with a Polish Roman Catholic Pope, who more than a century later wrote of the Catholic Church’s need for beauty, and artists who could create that beauty.  

“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…” wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1999 Letter to Artists.

Himself an artist as an accomplished actor and poet, Pope John Paul II saw the need to appeal to artists in particular to put their talents to use for the Gospel and the salvation of the world. He desired stronger collaboration between the world of art and the Church, once one of the world’s greatest incubators for the world’s greatest artists like Michelangelo, who created such enduring works as the Sistine Chapel and La Pieta.  

“With this Letter, I turn to you, the artists of the world, to assure you of my esteem and to help consolidate a more constructive partnership between art and the Church. Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age,” John Paul II wrote.

It’s no secret that the Michaelangelos of the Church seem to be few and far between in this age, where some modern churches more closely resemble spaceships than houses of God, church bulletin design seems to be stuck in the 1980s, and some church choirs consist of two people who’ve never taken a music lesson.

However, a slow but sure movement towards rediscovering the importance of art and beauty seems to be afoot in the Catholic Church. Here’s how three different groups are working to put Pope John Paul II’s call for artists into action.

Bringing artists to Christ, and Christ to artists

Emily Martinez loves the arts. In particular, the theater.

She studied acting during her undergraduate years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and she also also fell in love with Jesus, thanks to some missionaries she met through the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

But while she loved Jesus and acting, she longed to see these two parts of her life intersect more. FOCUS had specific outreaches to Greek students and student athletes - why not artists?

Martinez wanted to change that. Partnering with a FOCUS missionary who had studied graphic design, Martinez created CREATE - Catholics Redefining Everyday Art Through Excellence. Every month, the group hosted different speakers and presenters from a vast array of the arts - dance, music, film, writing, theater - who spoke or performed in front of an audience of 30-50 students each time, and explained how they were using their craft to glorify God.  

“It just made sense to me that we would be reaching out to people who are artists, because they’re going to be creating things their whole lives, things that are going to impact a lot of people,” she said. “And what if Christ was at the center of that? What if the beauty that they were creating pointed us back to God in some way?”

By the end of her senior year, Martinez’s plans to move away and go to grad school for theater had changed. Instead, she felt the Lord calling her to be a FOCUS missionary. Certain she’d be sent to a school without a strong arts program, Martinez mentally prepared herself to temporarily set aside her passion for art.

Until she received her assignment at New York University, one of the best art schools in the country.

“It was a gift, and I got to work with so many artists, because it’s New York City,” she said. “So I kind of just dove right in and started meeting as many artists as possible.”

She invited art students (typically freshman, who were looking for a home anyway) to join her bible study, which in some ways was more like a Christ-centered art class. They’d discuss religious paintings, plays and sacred music.

They read John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, which “just blew their minds” knowing that there was a Pope encouraging artists to create their art to the best of their abilities, she said.

At the end of the year, Martinez had her bible study put on a show. They each created pieces specific to their personal medium of art (acting, dance, fashion), based on the passage from the bible about the woman at the well, about a time that they encountered Christ, perhaps while looking for something different.  

The show was a hit, Martinez said. The girls invited their friends, many of whom were not Catholic, to attend. They told their stories of encountering Christ in a way that was authentic and beautiful.

“It was cool to be able to demonstrate what their art can be outside of this bible study,” Martinez said. “You can do this all the time, you can ask God to be with you in your art.”

The following year, Martinez said she was able to go a little deeper with the young women in her bible study, since they had already bonded over their common passion for art. Now, she’s working on writing up a bible study for all of FOCUS to use, based on what she did with her study at NYU.

“I just did this, I didn’t know if I was allowed,” Martinez said of her artist bible study. “And soon a  bible study will be out for all FOCUS artists.”

Catholic Creatives: Faithful artists come together

Like Martinez, brothers Marcellino and Anthony D’Ambrosio were millennial Catholic artists who longed to see more intersection between the Church and good art.

Both former youth and music ministers turned digital marketers and designers, the two would often meet with another creative friend of theirs Edmund Mitchell, to complain about the state of affairs with art and the Church.

“We’d end up talking about how bad Catholic dating is or how bad Catholic design or media is,” Anthony told CNA. “We’d have these sessions and so we were like well, what if we got more people together and actually tried to do something productive?”

The men started reaching out to other Catholic creative professionals and youth ministers they knew, and they decided to meet for the first time in Dallas, Texas.

The first topic to tackle? Terrible Church bulletin design.

“The invite was come, bring a six-pack of beer and an ugly bulletin, and we’ll solve this,” Marcellino said.

“And it was crazy. People drove from all over the place, they came from Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, people were sending in bulletins from Minnesota... it was like the first time anyone was like, oh my gosh, yes, I’d like to have a voice in this.”

After that initial meetup, the group, Catholic Creatives, was born. A collaboration of Catholic artists and creative professionals from across the United States, the group now has a website, a podcast, and a Facebook group with some 1,000 members, all advocating for better art in the Catholic Church across their respective fields.

One of the biggest obstacles to great art in the Church today, Anthony and Marcellino said, is the defensive posture that the Church has taken in modern times.

“In the last century, Church culture has put an extreme emphasis on truth over goodness and beauty. The orthodox Catholic apologetics movement that’s been so big over the last 50 years or so says we must defend the Church’s teachings. And so we have conferences and events about defending the church’s teachings, how to catechize kids and teach them the truth. It says that we need to make sure that people understand the Mass, if they just understood, they would come more, they would care more,” Marcellino said.

“But if Mass is in a really crappy building, and you have a choir that’s way off-key, and you have really ugly bulletins, and the priest is bored and boring, it doesn’t matter if they understand it. People who understand it are going to stop coming! Because it’s not what it’s supposed to be,” Anthony added.

Beauty, Anthony said, is an easy way to impact people’s hearts for the Gospel. It’s part of the reason Christ became man, he added - men need to encounter truth and beauty in a person, not just to understand it intellectually.

“It’s really hard to argue with a sunset,” Anthony said. “Beauty impacts people in a way that short circuits this whole defense mechanism.”

The goal of the group is “to be able to make change,” Anthony added. Not a change in the Church’s teachings or orthodoxy, but “to return Catholic art to the forefront of the world’s conversation. Not just the church but the world. We need to get the world to recognize the face of Christ again through good art, media and evangelization.”

Making Churches beautiful: The job of a liturgical projects consultant

It’s not just Church bulletins and other by-products of evangelization that need help. Modern Church history has produced some equally displeasing Church buildings and designs.

But Patrick Murray’s job as a projects consultant for Granda Liturgical arts is to bring beauty back to Churches. From projects as simple as finding new saint statues to as large-scale as retrofitting a Church for new windows and interior renovations, Murray works with Churches to create fitting houses for God.

“When it comes to big projects, my job is to go and provide some initial thoughts based on what I know about liturgical norms, and what I know about art history and architecture,” he said.
“Sometimes they want to really get back to traditional styles that are heavily based on traditional church elements, and so we help them figure out a way those can be applied to buildings from the 60s,” he said.

A millennial and art history buff, Murray said that within the world of Church design, there has been a slow but definite movement toward Neoclassicism, which is a return to the more classic and traditional forms of design and architecture such as Greek, Gothic and Romanesque.

“It doesn’t take an art history professor to go into an ugly suburban church and say this place feels like a spa waiting room or something,” Murray said.

“And I think that’s a pretty common experience unfortunately. You can tell when things are ugly and not fitting for sacred worship and when they are, and more than a particular style or movement, it seems to me that we’re slowly but distinctly starting to regain the sense of what is fitting, and I hope it continues, because I’m on board.”

Murray’s personal favorite style is Neoromanesque, a style that several new Churches have adopted very beautifully, he said.

He also loves strong, vibrant colors in a church because “if church is supposed to look like heaven, I’m pretty sure heaven is not beige.”

The importance of beauty in the structure and interior of a Church is something that was impressed upon Murray at an early age. Soon after high school graduation, he was a cradle Catholic lukewarm in his faith when he moved to Chicago with his family. Always someone interested in art history, Murray found himself in awe of the beauty of the art and architecture at his new parish.

“The whole church is based on Christ, but it’s gorgeous, and that was the first time I as a young Catholic person realized that all of this, and by extension all of the Basilicas in Rome and the Cathedrals in Paris, and everything else, belong to me, they’re my birthright as a baptized Catholic, just as much as to Pope John Paul II or St. Peter,” he said.

“So not only did I get interested in this and get a job in sacred art, but it also saved me from a lifetime of lukewarm (apathy) about Catholicism,” he said. “It got me interested in my faith and in how sacred art can lead people to Christ. I believe so strongly that sacred art lifts our hearts and minds, but it also connects us to the traditions that the Church has preserved for so long.”

How the Church can support artists
Because of the power of art to lift people’s minds and hearts to God, good art should be something that the Church is willing to sacrifice for, Murray said.

“We’re doing this for God, we’re building these beautiful churches and making these beautiful statues for God. If this is a worthy goal, it requires sacrifice on our part, and therefore we should make that sacrifice - which these days is usually monetary - to support those artists who are doing this great work and participating in the creative power of God.”

Anthony also said that “artists need to be able to support a family. Good art is not produced by people that do it on the weekends as a part-time thing when they get around to it.”

“Good art, excellent art, Sistine Chapel kind of art, that comes from people who dedicate their lives to their craft,” he said.

Marcellino added that the Church needs to stop operating out of fear, and needs to take a more aggressive approach to evangelization through good art.

“Bishops and priests have to stop operating out of fear, they have to stop putting the decisions of ministry in the hands of lawyers and insurance companies,” he said. “Because when safety is valued over and above good expression and over innovation, it shuts downs artists being able to do their thing.”

Anthony also stressed the need for artists in the Church to not become discouraged, and to continue to hold themselves to the highest of standards.

“Don’t settle for mediocrity,” he said. “There is such a low bar for art in the Christian world that you can get away with being mediocre.”

“The world needs excellence to reach the 90 percent of people that think that Catholicism is totally archaic and meaningless, those are the people your art is supposed to reach.”


This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 3, 2016.

Record-breaking year for the Coming Home Network

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 21:42

Birmingham, Ala., Dec 16, 2016 / 07:42 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Dedicated to serving Catholic converts, the network Coming Home, will meet the closing of the year with record-breaking membership numbers, reporting over 5,000 new members for 2016.

“Protestants and other non-Catholics on the journey to Catholicism need to meet Catholics who themselves are faithful Christians, as well as other converts who know the difficulty of the journey into the Church and beyond,” said JonMarc Grodi, the director of the Coming Home Network.

“Handling these large numbers is a wonderful challenge, because ours is a very personal mission. We work to understand each individual person’s journey and needs, and then help them accordingly,” Grodi continued.

The Coming Home network is an apostolate produced by members of The Journey Home program, which airs on the Catholic network EWTN. The network was founded over 25 years ago, and features apologetic resources, retreats, and catechetical programs to journey with individuals on the road to Catholicism.

The organization began keeping track of their numbers in 1993, and recently reported that the 2016 year will mark the largest count of membership since then.

In order to tackle the growing multitude of members, the Coming Home network has implemented advanced social media strategies and redesigned their website for more efficient production. They have also prepared their staff to “handle the increase in inquiries.”

The members who have joined the Coming Home network throughout 2016 “include non-Catholic clergy, seminarian professors, seminarians, missionaries, lay ministers and even spouses of clergy.” Among the members are also “laypersons seeking to enter the Catholic Church and members who are already Catholic but have experienced a reversion to their faith.”

These members who have converted to Catholicism now serve the Church in various ways: as bishops, priests, deacons and religious, or also as active laypersons within the Church community.

“They’re serving in every imaginable way,” Grodi said of the converts.

Grodi, who is also the founder and president of EWTN’s The Journey Home, expressed excitement and gratitude at the growth in numbers.

“The personal touch of my guests telling their stories has been like the ripple effect from a stone thrown into a pond. A day doesn’t go by when we don’t receive grateful calls, emails, tweets, and texts from viewers and listeners,” Grodi said.

“I think however, that the main reason God is drawing people to the fullness of truth is for the sake of their own spiritual growth, and the graces of the sacraments.”


Can the Catholic Church help an addicted generation?

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 14:02

Greenwich, Connecticut, Dec 16, 2016 / 12:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Young Americans are dying at a rate not seen since the Vietnam War.

But they are not dying in combat - they’re dying of the effects of drug overdoses, alcoholism, mental illness and suicide, at a rate 200 percent higher than the 1980s in much of the United States. 

A recent report from the U.S. surgeon general estimates that more than 27 million Americans have problems with prescription drugs, illegal drugs or alcohol. But just a fraction of those people, only 10 percent, get meaningful help.

And it’s not just substance addictions that are on the rise. Process addictions, related to behaviors, have also seen recent spikes. Pornography addiction in particular has reached what some view as crisis levels.

A 2011 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information estimated that roughly 47 percent of all American adults struggle with at least one of the 11 most common forms of process or substance addictions.

The prevalence of all kinds of addiction likely mean that most people in the pews of a Catholic Church on any given Sunday have experienced addiction in themselves or in a loved one.

So what is the Church doing to address the problem?

Understanding addiction

Dr. Gregory Bottaro is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Catholic Psych Institute in Connecticut. He frequently sees clients who are dealing with either substance or process addictions.

Part of the problem of addiction is a widespread misunderstanding of addiction as a lack of intellectual or spiritual willpower, Dr. Bottaro said.

“You have to recognize that there is an actual brain disease in effect,” he told CNA.

“So as much as you can sit and talk through the issues, you’re dealing with real brain chemicals that are out of balance, and a real disease that has occurred in the brain, so approaching it from a number of different angles is very important.”

Behaviors or substance abuse have to reach certain diagnostic marks to be considered addictions, Dr. Bottaro said. Generally, an addiction is occurring when a person is compulsively dependent on a substance or behavior, and continues to do it despite negative consequences and a desire to stop.

And just like addicted individuals can build up tolerances to substances and require more to achieve the same effect, process addictions also show tolerance buildups, such as when a pornography addict requires more hardcore viewing to achieve the same release.  

Erik Vagenius is the founder of Substance Abuse Ministry Scripts, or SAM Scripts, a faith and scripture based ministry designed to help ease the process from recognition of addiction to seeking professional help.

Vagenius, who has been involved in addiction ministry for decades and is a recovered alcoholic himself, said that the first step to solving the problem is recognizing that there is one.

“I firmly believe so much for this (ministry) to be part of the church,” he told CNA. “(T)o have a church community that recognizes that they’re behind you, just as they would be if somebody had cancer, helps to destigmatize this thing.”

“Unfortunately the reactions I sometimes get are well, this isn’t really a Catholic problem. But I’ll bet everybody in the pew on any given day has had some relationship with the disease of addiction,” he added.  

What does faith have to do with it?

Faith has long been a tenet of many addiction recovery programs. One of the most popular, Alcoholics Anonymous has strong Christian roots because it’s co-founder, Bill Wilson, had a spiritual awakening after he was hospitalized for his drinking in 1934. He joined the Oxford Group, a nondenominational Christian movement popular in the U.S. and Europe at the time, and helped found AA in 1935.

The AA tenets of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects and restitution for harm done to others grew out of Oxford Group teachings.

Today, allegiance to a specific creed is not required for membership, though the group still considers itself a spiritual, though denominationally non-preferential group. Four of the 12 steps in the AA program mention God directly, and the 12th calls for a "spiritual awakening as a result of these steps."

Vagenius also considers addiction a spiritual battle.

“We’re dealing with a spiritual disease, and that’s why the Church needs to be involved with it,” he said.

The website for SAM Scripts recognizes that “addiction is a spiritual illness that disconnects a person: from self, loved ones, and God. SAM's mission is to help these individuals reconnect through education, prevention, referral, and family support.”

Dr. Bottaro said he also incorporates faith in his recovery programs for addicts.

He said he was especially inspired after hearing a talk by Catholic speaker Christopher West, who specializes in Theology of the Body.

“He said basically we have this desire, and our desires are insatiable. So God made us with this desire for more more more, and with that desire we can do one of three things...we can become a stoic, and addict or a mystic.”

A stoic ignores the desire or tries to repress it and pretend it doesn’t exist. An addict tries to fulfill their desires with the things of this world, and a mystic “directs their desires towards God, and that’s where we enter into that mysticism by transcending the finitude of this life,” he said.

That’s still an abstract way of looking at a very real disease, Dr. Bottaro said. However, there are several Catholic programs that offer concrete assistance to struggling addicts of all levels.

Catholic recovery programs

On the less intensive side, Dr. Bottaro has developed an 8-week online program that anyone can access from home called Catholic Mindfulness. It adds the Catholic understanding of abandonment to Divine Providence to a traditional mindfulness approach to healing.

“If you look into what mindfulness is, you’re basically training your brain to know that you’re safe, because the anxiety response is how God made us to react to danger,” he said. “The problem is we overuse that...we activate our anxiety response, but most of the time we’re not actually in danger. So mindfulness is basically paying attention to what’s actually real right now to convince your brain that you’re safe, and that corrects the brain chemistry.”

“The Catholic perspective as to why we’re safe is that we have a Father who loves us and who always keeps us in his hands, and we have a reason to trust that everything is going to be ok.”

Vagenius refers to those in his ministry as “SAM teams” who share their time and talent, typically through talks and meetings, to offering hope, healing and reconciliation to those touched by addiction. SAM teams provide a safe, confidential place for people to seek help and referral at the parish level.

Team members do not have to be in recovery but need to be acquainted with addiction, and must be approved by their pastor.  

The ministry’s exact format varies from parish to parish, depending on those involved and the needs of the faith community. Vagenius’ trainings provide a basic format, and the parish SAM team develops its own dynamic from that outline based on specific needs.

Depending on the person, more intensive work may be necessary, including outpatient psychotherapy and group counseling, or even residential programs.

St. Gregory Retreat Center is a Catholic residential program for adults struggling with substance abuse located in Adair, Iowa.

The program offers separate residential facilities for men and women and offers a “holistic approach that combines the very best research in psychology, health, social support, and other methodologies.”

The program targets addiction behavior in four different aspects of life: biological, psychological, social, and spiritual.

Besides counseling, social activities and physical exercise, daily Mass and regular access to the sacraments are part of the residents’ normal routine.

Natalie Cataldo, Director of Admissions at St. Gregory, told CNA that incorporating spirituality in the recovery process has proven to be very effective.

“Research shows that people are more successful in overcoming addiction when they have an active spirituality in their lives,” she told CNA in an e-mail interview.

“Most people who come to us have had not a great past. With the sacrament of reconciliation, our guests are able to ask for forgiveness... Allowing them to feel like they are getting rid of the past, making new good habits for the future that they can start using and making better choices.  It also allows for self reflection and self evaluation.”

For those in post-recovery, there are programs available to help ease people back into their normal routine.

Dr. Bottaro works at one such facility, Ender’s Island in Connecticut, a residential program for young men “with or without faith” who are recently out of recovery. The program provides a community in which to practice the 12 steps and support for a better transition into regular life, as well as daily Mass and regular access to the sacraments.

The biggest barriers to seeking help for addiction can be denial on the part of the individual and a perceived stigma in seeking help. Increased education and understanding from everyone in the Church can help break these barriers, Dr. Bottaro said.

“It’s important to have support and understanding that there are other ways to fight these battles than just prayer, or just kind of sucking it up and hanging in there and seeing how far you can go before you get help,” he said.

“Once you’re looking for help, there’s a wide spectrum.”

Why pro-lifers are calling this rule a gift to Planned Parenthood

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 08:01

Washington D.C., Dec 16, 2016 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- States cannot keep federal grants away from Planned Parenthood clinics, the Obama administration ruled on Wednesday in a move that critics say is a “parting gift to Big Abortion.”

“The Obama administration, even in its waning hours, has chosen to put Planned Parenthood’s Big Abortion agenda ahead of women’s health and the right of states to decide how best to prioritize public health funding so that patients and the most comprehensive health providers come first,” Steven H. Aden, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom stated.

The Department of Health and Human Services released final regulations “to increase access to affordable family planning and preventive services” under Title X grants Dec. 14. The new rule takes effect Jan. 18, two days before the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Title X is a federal program that promotes “family planning” through grants to various providers of health care through the states.

In its new rule, the HHS says that states can’t withhold these grants to certain health providers if they provide the “family planning” services that Title X is based on: “no grant recipient making subawards for the provision of services as part of its Title X project may prohibit an entity from participating for reasons other than its ability to provide Title X services.”

Thus, if states felt that community health centers – which do not provide abortions but offer other health care options like breast cancer screenings – should receive grants over Planned Parenthood affiliates – which provide abortions but not breast cancer screenings or health care that is not preventative – they could not favor the health centers if both recipients met the criteria for the Title X grants.

“In the past several years, a number of states have taken actions to restrict participation by certain types of providers as subrecipients in the Title X Program, unrelated to the provider’s ability to provide family planning services,” the HHS stated.

“This has caused limitations in the geographic distribution of services and decreased access to services,” they added, noting that the final rule was meant to “protect access to family planning services.”

States such as New Hampshire and Kansas have tried to limit Planned Parenthood affiliates’ funding under the program, the HHS has claimed, but now they can only do so if they “can prove that they disperse birth control better than Planned Parenthood does.”

“Planned Parenthood isn’t superior to true, publicly-funded health care centers -- which are far more numerous – simply because it claims to focus on dispensing birth control, despite being America’s largest abortion business,” Aden said.

Back in October, ADF, along with the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List and its research arm the Charlotte Lozier Institute, wrote to the HHS asking them “to reject the proposed rule, as it contradicts the letter and spirit of Title X not to subsidize elective abortion.” Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest abortion provider.

ADF continued, saying the rule blatantly favors Planned Parenthood over public health centers, trampling on the states' legitimate authority to disburse the federal grants to organizations that best align with their declared health policy.

“By defining ‘quality of care’ in a way that strongly favors providers who focus on contraceptive services, HHS asserts that ‘reproductive healthcare providers’ such as Planned Parenthood are superior to the federal government’s own system of public healthcare because they more effectively deliver contraception – a proposition both remarkable and untrue,” the comments stated.

Plus, it is “simply better healthcare policy” to leave federal health funding to centers like community health centers that provide an array of healthcare options and not just contraceptives, ADF added:

“Unlike boutique ‘reproductive healthcare providers’ such as Planned Parenthood affiliates, such primary and preventive care centers provide low-income families with access to not only family planning services, but also vital preventive services, including prenatal and perinatal services, well-child services, immunizations against vaccine-preventable diseases, primary care services, diagnostic laboratory and radiological services, emergency medical services, and pharmaceutical services.”

Courage to host event on pastoral approach to sexual identity

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 02:02

Phoenix, Ariz., Dec 16, 2016 / 12:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Courage International will team with the Phoenix diocese in the new year to host an event addressing same-sex attraction and other sexual identity issues on the forefront of Church discussion today.

“The work of Courage International, helping those with same-sex attraction to build friendships and virtue, and helping the Church to share the Good News of Christ in a challenging area, is essential to our time,” said Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, Arizona.

“I encourage all who have pastoral responsibilities to join us at the conference in January in Phoenix. It will help you to grow in knowledge and friendship,” the bishop said.

This year, the “Truth and Love” conference will center around the theme of “Welcoming and accompanying our brothers and sisters with same-sex attraction or confusion regarding sexual identity.”

The event, now in its third year, will offer presentations and practical advice for those in a pastoral or instructive position in the Church, including religious, clergy, lay members, and health and medical professionals.

“So many of the current approaches to homosexuality do not include the fuller perspective of the human person. Rather, they limit themselves to acceptance and to the protection of the right of sexual satisfaction,” Carmel Communications said in a press release for the event.

For this reason, the conference will offer instruction from Catholic experts on how the Catholic community can effectively preach about the fullness of the human person, specifically in reference to same-sex attraction.

The conference will also touch on the topics of Christian anthropology, natural law, the psychology of homosexuality and chastity. Additionally, roundtable discussions and panels will be offered, as well as Mass celebrated by Bishop Olmstead and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, California.

The speaker series at the conference will include Dr. Janet Smith, Jason Evert, Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, Andrew Lichtenwalner, and Courage International's executive director, Fr. Philip Bochanski. The event will also offer testimonials of individuals who have experienced struggles with sexual identity, who will give instructive advice on living chaste lives with authenticity.

Fr. Bochanski, who heads the sexual identity apostolate Courage International, noted that the conference will “share the good news that living chastely and finding our true identity as sons and daughters of God is the way to real happiness and authentic relationships.”

The conference will take place from Jan. 9-11 at St. Paul Parish in Phoenix, AZ. Registration can be found at

Saint John Paul II documentary takes two Emmys

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 21:08

Chicago, Ill., Dec 15, 2016 / 07:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Two Emmy Awards have gone to a documentary that shows St. John Paul II’s central role in the end of communism.

Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism resulted an Emmy for outstanding achievement for documentary programs in the historical category. The award went to the documentary executive producer and Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson, along with producers Justyna Czyszek, Szymon Czyszek, David Naglieri, and Michele Nuzzo-Naglieri.   

“We are honored to receive these awards and grateful for the recognition it gives to this important film, which tells the story of how Eastern Europe regained its freedom without violence and by calling forth the best in the human spirit,” Anderson said. “The documentary shows how John Paul was the essential leader in making this happen and in such a hopeful, inspiring way.”

Anderson worked with St. John Paul II when he served in the Reagan White House. He is now Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization with 1.9 million members worldwide.

The film focuses on the sainted Pope’s role in ending communist control of Central and Eastern Europe and his spiritual influence on Poland’s Solidarity labor movement, which played a pivotal role leading up to the collapse of Communism that started in 1989.

Another Emmy went to the film's director of photography, George Hosek.

The Emmy Awards, announced Dec. 3, came from the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, one of the academy’s largest chapters.

The 90-minute film, narrated by actor Jim Caviezel, uses rare archival footage and interviews with several heads of state. Other interviewees include papal biographer George Weigel; Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, emeritus Archbishop of Krakow, who served as St. John Paul II’s longtime assistant; and Richard Allen, former national security adviser to Ronald Reagan.

The documentary has been airing on public television across the U.S. in partnership with WTTW Chicago and the National Educational Telecommunications Association.