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'I had to flee for my life' – The reality of being a Syrian refugee

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 16:27

Washington D.C., Mar 15, 2017 / 02:27 pm (CNA).- Omar al-Muqdad wanted to help the Iraqi refugees who were displaced from their homes in 2004. He volunteered to help with refugee resettlement, aiding those who came in finding housing, clothing and schools in Syria, where he lived.

Little did he know that just a few years later, he himself would be a refugee fleeing civil war in his own country.

“I had to flee for my life,” Omar told CNA. Six years ago, the Syrian journalist ran away from security forces who were threatening him. His crime? Reporting on the early days of what would come to be the Syrian Civil War.

First, he found refuge in Turkey. Then, once his refugee claim was processed, he found permanent resettlement in the United States.

March 15 marks the sixth anniversary of the start of the Syrian Civil War. What began as peaceful demonstrations protesting ongoing human rights abuses and suppression of free speech erupted into a war that has killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions from their homes.

Today, six years later, an end to the violence is nowhere in sight. The majority of Syria’s population has been displaced. New threats that have grown out of the situation – most prominently ISIS – have only added to the chaos. Together with other conflicts and famines in Somalia, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, the world is now facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Syria back then was considered a safe country.

For refugees like Omar, leaving home wasn’t something they had wanted or were prepared for: it was a choice between life and death.

Now 37 years old, and a resident of the United States for five years, Omar hopes Americans can come to understand some of what he experienced.

“Refugees are not your enemy,” he said. “They don’t know they are coming to the US,” he added, explaining that often refugees have little choice in where they are sent once they flee home. Instead, he urged compassion and acceptance as “a human responsibility as Americans.”

Maggie Holmesheroan, program manager for Catholic Relief Services’ operations in Jordan, agreed. “These are normal people like you and me,” she said.

“They lived normal lives before the conflict. They are now in a position where they’ve lost everything. Frankly, they’ve displayed incredible resilience in the face of a terrible situation.”

“Sometimes the instinct is to feel that they’re very different from us,” she continued, “but we should definitely find our common humanity.”

The seeds of a crisis

Before March 2011, Syria and its people looked very different from the images of rubble and terrified citizens associated with the country today.

Holmesheroan told CNA that before the war, the Syrian people were very similar in many ways to Americans, in terms of education, industry and social class.  

“They had a very highly educated population – very diversified in terms of industry,” she said, noting that in her work, she regularly encounters refugees who were former government bureaucrats, blue collar workers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and nurses. “It’s really a representative range, just like we have here in the United States,” she said.

In fact, less than 15 years ago, some of the areas most damaged by airstrikes and bombing raids were the very places refugees from other conflicts were sent for safety and a new life.  

“Syria back then was considered a safe country,” explained Omar.

However, many people – including Omar – were unsatisfied with the ruling Assad family’s policies. The family and its Ba’ath party had held control of the country since 1971. Critics from a range of religious sects and ethnic backgrounds have protested against both former president Hafez al-Assad and his son and current president, Bashar al-Assad for their anti-democratic policies and denial of basic human rights like freedom of speech and assembly. In addition, the Assad family has drawn strong opposition from Islamist movements who objected to various aspects of the family’s rule.

I had to start over from nothing.

In his work as a journalist, particularly reporting on economic and human rights struggles in the south of Syria, Omar ran into opposition from the government. “The Syrian authorities don’t generally tolerate any form of criticism against the government and institutions,” he said. “They consider that an act of treason if you dare to say something against the government or you ask for reforms.”

For reporting on these issues, as well as starting up a private magazine not controlled by the State, Omar was apprehended by Syrian security forces. After questioning and a military trial, he was sentenced to three years in a military prison. “They did not like what I was writing there and they considered it an act of treason against the state,” he said.  

By March 2011, Omar had been released from prison and was working again as an undercover journalist, when protests began. Many of these demonstrations were initially focused on the government’s treatment of underage student protesters in the southern city of Daraa, and other political prisoners. Socioeconomic inequality, intense droughts and food shortages also heightened the tensions within Syria in the months leading up to the start of the conflict.

On March 15, 2011, protesters filled the streets of Damascus to demand the release of political prisoners and other human rights reforms. Within a few days, more and more demonstrators started gathering to demand broader democratic and human rights reforms. When the Syrian government cracked down in response to the initial protests, the demonstrations only grew stronger, bolstered by the success of pro-democracy movements elsewhere in the Middle East.

“The peaceful demonstration started taking over the streets, and people started demanding freedom,” Omar recalled. “I was covering this event.” But then he realized that he was once again being followed by Syrian security forces.

“I knew that if they could catch me, that would be the end.” Omar fled to Turkey.

Meanwhile, tensions continued to escalate in Syria and various opposition groups solidified against the Assad regime. Both government and opposition forces began to take up arms against one another as the conflict grew. By early 2017, it was estimated that at least 400,000 Syrians had been killed, at least 6.3 million displaced internally, and some 5 million had fled the country as refugees.

Close to home – yet far from it

When Omar fled to Turkey as a refugee, he registered immediately with the U.N. Human High Commissioner for Refugees. While his claim was being processed, he was able to work as a freelance journalist for CNN and other news outlets covering the war.

At the same time, other refugees from Syria started to leave, pouring into neighboring countries. More than 1 million refugees have fled to Jordan, and at least 2.2 million are now residing in Lebanon. This has placed considerable strain on the countries, which previously had populations of just 6 million and 4 million, respectively.

In some areas, refugees have moved into camps administered by various aid agencies. In other areas, like Jordan, the majority of refugees live in cities and urban areas. Still others take refuge in unofficial settlements.

Maggie Holmesheroan and her colleagues at Catholic Relief Services work with refugees who are trying to integrate in urban areas of Jordan. Refugees here face a number of challenges just getting by from day to day. “They’re trying to live life in a city, but basically, with no resources,” she said.

Many of the refugees fled violence at a moment’s notice with nothing but the clothes on their backs. In many cases, families were split up, and the men were often forced to stay behind. In most cases, documents, identification, birth certificates, diplomas, and bank cards were left behind.

When the refugees reach a safe place and apply for refugee status, they are generally not allowed to work, and must live off the allotment granted by the United Nations. Often, that is not enough to buy food and clothing, pay rent, cover medical expenses and send their children to school.

“You don’t have access to any of your resources, even if you were diligent and saved up money,” Holmesheroan said. “All those safety nets are gone for people. So they’re just surviving on whatever help they can get from a wide variety of organizations that are here.”

The majority of Syria’s population has been displaced.

In Jordan, CRS works with Caritas Jordan and Caritas Internationalis to provide refugees with aid in finding a livelihood, healthcare, non-food humanitarian support, psychological and social services, rent and cash subsidies to help make ends meet.

Recently, the situation in Jordan has improved slightly for some refugees, due to the country’s policy change allowing refugees to seek work permits in the garment manufacturing, agriculture, domestic work and construction industries. However the hundreds of thousands of refugees without those skills – for example, those who previously worked in the fields of teaching or medicine – still don’t have employment opportunities.

“They’re in limbo,” Holmesheroan said, with a very long wait ahead of them: the average refugee stays displaced for 17 years. Many of the refugees wish to return home, but there is no end in sight to the wars in Syria or Iraq.

“So, how do you handle the day-to-day stress of living in a situation where you’re in extreme poverty, you don’t have access to the resources that you need to do basic life, and then on top of that, you have no idea when anything might change?”

Until the conflict is resolved, the countries and agencies helping aid the millions of war refugees need adequate support and funding, Holmesheroan said. “We need to have a conversation about our fair share.”

She also stressed the importance of realizing that refugees are victims of violence. “The people who have run away from this war are running for their lives and are running away from extremism,” she said. “They are largely minorities and moderates who are running away from the violence. They don’t want to live in a country of extremists any more than we do.”

Permanent refuge

After a year of waiting in Turkey, Omar made it through the immigration process. Although the wait was long, he believes he “was one of the lucky ones” – the average waiting time for most refugees applying for resettlement is between 18 and 24 months. Omar added that he knows several people who have waited over three or even five years to be resettled.

In this time, Omar underwent interviews and waited for his status to be processed. Eventually his case was picked up by the International Catholic Migration Commission, which helped link his case with his new home country – the United States. Originally, Omar al-Muqdad expected to be sent to Canada or a different country for resettlement, so the news was a surprise. “I didn’t know I would be sent to the United States,” he said.

After he was referred to the United States, Omar underwent what he described as “extreme vetting,” consisting of interviews, health screenings and numerous background checks. In addition to the rigorous 20-step vetting process for those whose applications are initially accepted, Syrian refugees face further screening review from U.S. Immigration Services.

After passing all of these steps, Omar finally made it to the United States. “I was sent to Northwest Arkansas, to a small town called Fayetteville, where I started my life here.”

Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, described to CNA the process of helping to resettle refugees in communities like Fayetteville around the country.

The bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services is one of nine private agencies that oversee all the resettlement of refugees in the United States. For the last five years, the agency has placed between a quarter and a third of all refugees who come to the U.S.

After refugees are placed with a community, the local office – typically run through Catholic Charities or another Catholic organization – is responsible for welcoming them and providing or linking them with basic services, such as housing, food, and medical care while they acclimate to the United States. Churches and other groups help them learn English, find employment, and integrate into their new community.

The average refugee stays displaced for 17 years.

This year, Trump’s executive order is expected to reduce the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. from 85,000 to at most 50,000. The administration’s 120-day freeze on all refugee admissions will also impact total refugee numbers, as well as the bishops’ ability to process and place them, due to a lack of reimbursements and personnel losses during the freeze.

Feasley objected to these policies. “There are so many vulnerable individuals who have been in the pipeline starting the process, who really are seeking refuge,” she told CNA. “This is obviously going to prevent them from doing that here in the United States.”

“In some cases, it really is going to prevent family reunification.”

Feasley also noted that in her experience, many refugees have been “benefits not only to their parishes, but to their communities.” She pointed to a number of former refugees who are now social workers in Catholic Charities and resettlement offices as an example.

Within the community of Syrian refugees specifically, she noted that the bishops have “seen great heartbreak but also great resiliency.” Most of them have fled extreme circumstances, and yet built stable lives here in the United States.

In this regard, she praised the Trump administration’s second executive order for removing the ban on Syrian refugees that was found in the initial order. “I think that it’s very important to welcome all nationalities,” she said.

Settling in

When he was first assigned to resettle in Arkansas, Omar said he was concerned because of stereotypes he had heard about the South being unwelcoming to newcomers. Fortunately, he learned that that was a misconception.
“My experience there was really incredible. People there were very warm,” Omar said, adding that in his first few weeks in Fayetteville, he was welcomed into the community, and even into one of the local family's homes. “Back then there wasn’t ISIS…So, people were really open to helping refugees.”  

Surrounded by warmth and welcomed into the community, Omar said that he “didn’t really feel alone.” A key part of the friendly atmosphere were the parish and Church agencies who helped with his resettlement. “I’m still grateful for them,” he said.

Eventually, Omar moved to the Washington, D.C. area in order to resume his career as a journalist. That path has not been easy.

“I had to start over from nothing,” he said. Although he already had a college degree in political science from Damascus University, he left his diploma at home when he fled Syria. When he came to the U.S., he had to start college over again.

Starting from scratch in his 30s was difficult. Still, in between reporting for a variety of national newspapers, Omar is on track to complete his studies soon. He plans on pursuing a Master’s degree next.

The people who have run away from this war are running for their lives.

Obaida Omar, a community supervisor and health case manager at the Catholic Family House in Rochester, NY, described the challenges of leaving one’s entire life behind and trying to start over.

She herself fled as a refugee from Afghanistan 25 years ago. Later, she became a social worker. “I just love helping refugees,” she told CNA. “They’re really good people. They’re very strong.”

Today, she aids people from Syria as well as other countries. Obstacles abound. Few of her clients have family or friends in the area, and it can take time to settle into a new community. Interpreters are provided as refugees learn the language of their new home, but building trust with the interpreter takes time.

Her clients also face a range of medical issues from the violence they have experienced. Some have lost limbs in war. Others are wheelchair bound or suffer from PTSD and other mental health challenges. And still others have various levels of hearing loss, creating an extra layer of difficulties when trying to arrange for an interpreter.

CNA attempted to contact a number of dioceses, Catholic Charities offices and relief agencies to talk to other Middle Eastern refugees. Many refugee families – both in the United States and abroad – declined to be interviewed, fearing discrimination or negative repercussions of being identified in print as a refugee or a Middle Easterner.

Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, located in the Archdiocese of Detroit, was one of several agencies that cited recent changes in government policy as causing personnel cuts, which meant that remaining staff were unable to contact families due to other increased responsibilities.

Resettling more than 700 refugees in 2016 alone, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan is one of the largest resettlement projects in the United States. The area has a significant existing Middle Eastern population.

Between 2014 and late 2016, the overwhelming majority of the refugees directed to the area were Chaldean Catholics from Iraq – most of whom were fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS. In late 2016, the office experienced a surge of Syrian refugees coming into the area.

However, the rapid decline in refugee admissions for 2017 has resulted in a budget shortfall of $131,000, the agency said. Bill Blaul, institutional advancement director, told CNA that the group was “hanging onto our absolute core in the hope that we can start relocating refugees here again.”

And other agencies around the country are facing similar budget constraints. Many staff members have been laid off. In some cases, vital programs will be able to continue for a few more months.

Omar al-Muqdad is one of the lucky ones. While other refugees are still waiting to hear if they will be accepted by a host country, he is ready to make his residence in the U.S. permanent.

“I just filed my citizenship application and America is my new home,” he said. He added that he felt he owed it to the Arkansas community who took him in “to pay the community back for the kindness that they showed to me when I first came here.”

“I’m trying, but it’s not easy,” he said of his journey so far. “I’m trying to do my best here.”

US exorcists: Demonic activity is on the rise

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 08:26

Indianapolis, Ind., Mar 15, 2017 / 06:26 am (CNA).- There is an alarming increase in demonic activity being reported by those who work in exorcism ministry, said the exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Although steps are being taken to increase the number of exorcists, demand is still outpacing supply.

Father Vincent Lampert has been an exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis since 2005 and is the pastor at St. Malachy’s in Indianapolis. He trained at the North American College in Rome and assisted with more than 40 exorcisms with longtime Italian exorcist Father Carmine De Filippi. Although the identities of most exorcists are hidden, Father Lampert often gives talks to warn against evil and turn people toward the power of God.

In an interview with the National Catholic Register, he said that he sees an increasing number of people involved in Satanic rituals and opening themselves up to evil.

“The problem isn’t that the devil has upped his game, but more people are willing to play it,” Father Lampert said. He pointed to rampant pornography, illegal drugs use and the occult. “Where there is demonic activity, there is always an entry point,” he said.

Last October, Father Lampert met in Rome with the International Association of Exorcists, a group of 400 Catholic leaders and priests. It is a support group that meets every other year. According to him, group members agree that there is a great need for more exorcists.

Actual demonic possessions are rare, however, Father Lampert explained. “I’ve only seen three possessions in the last three years, but there is also infestation, vexation and obsession.”

He explained that demonic infestation happens in places where things might move and there are loud noises. With vexation, a person is physically attacked and might have marks such as bruises, bites or scratches. Demonic obsession involves mental attacks, such as persistent thoughts of evil racing through one’s mind.

“In possessions,” Father Lampert said, “I have seen eyes rolled back in the head, throwing out obscenities, bodily contortions, foul odors, temperatures drop in the room, and I’ve witnessed someone levitating.”

When he was appointed as an exorcist by his bishop in 2005, there were only 12 others. He said there are now about 50 other exorcists that he knows of personally in the United States.

Bishops Respond

The Catholic bishops are aware of increased reports of demonic activity because a priest can only perform an exorcism with episcopal permission. According to Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, “Canon law requires a bishop to give permission before a priest can do a major exorcism, but bishops don’t receive any formal training in exorcism.”

To help support bishops, in 2010, while he was the chairman of the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Paprocki organized a two-day conference on all aspects of exorcism.

As a direct response to the need for trained exorcists in the U.S., the Milwaukee-based Pope Leo XII Institute was founded in 2012 to support “the spiritual formation of priests to bring the light of Christ to dispel evil.” It began as a series of informal meetings at the request of U.S. bishops wanting education and training. It was also a response to Pope St. John Paul II’s recommendation that every diocese appoint an exorcist. A spokesman with the U.S. bishops’ conference said that, although ideally every diocese should have its own exorcist, no statistics are kept as to the actual numbers.

Msgr. John Esseff, president of the institute’s board of directors, was one of the founding members. He has been a priest for 63 years and an exorcist in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for more than 40 years. He often gives talks at the institute on exorcism and deliverance.

“As the acceptance of sin has increased, so, too, has demonic activity,” Msgr. Esseff said. “The bishops saw the need for more trained exorcists because so many cases were being referred from all over the country to the dioceses that had exorcists.”

“A person should be cared for in his own diocese,” he added.

The Pope Leo XIII Institute graduated the first class of 55 exorcists, priests and deacons from its two-year program in 2015. The training involves 10-day sessions given at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, twice a year for two years. A second class of 52 will graduate this fall.

“I’m hopeful bishop are becoming more aware of their role as the ‘chief exorcist’ for the diocese,” Msgr. Esseff said. “There is also still some resistance of the reality of Satan,” in the Church, among priests and bishops, he added, “as if there is just evil and not the devil.”

“The only one that can overcome Satan is Jesus,” Msgr. Esseff said. “He overcomes the kingdom of evil with light. And every priest represents Jesus. The devil does not see the priest – he sees Jesus.”

Minor Exorcisms

Bishop Paprocki, who has also given lectures at the Pope Leo XIII Institute, said he likes to emphasize the difference between major and minor exorcisms. “A minor exorcism occurs very frequently in the Church, every time we do a baptism,” he told the Register. “It is a matter of rejecting Satan and all his works.”

A priest does not need a bishop’s permission to do minor exorcisms in situations where there is an evil influence, Bishop Paprocki explained. “It’s just a matter of praying to God to overcome evil influences.”

“The reason a major exorcism needs a bishop’s permission is that the priest talks directly to the devil and commands him in the name of Jesus Christ to leave that person,” he said. “For the priest to be able to do that, he needs the authority of the Church behind him.”

Father Lampert said that a priest, and even laypeople, can pray minor exorcism prayers because they address God. “The lay faithful should not give commands to demons,” he said. “Demons recognize the authority of bishops and the Church. If you claim authority on your own, it can get you into trouble,” he warned the laity. He referred to the example in Acts 19, when some Jewish exorcists tried to expel an evil spirit. The devil said: “Jesus I recognize, Paul I know, but who are you?” Then he attacked them.

“It’s not the exorcists that have the power,” Father Lampert said, “but the power and authority of the Church that comes from Jesus Christ. Catholics understand that individuals don’t have that power.”

Everyone interviewed for this article stated that the ordinary work of the devil is temptation, so it is sin that gives him a foothold in people’s lives. They all encouraged people to have strong prayer lives and to go to confession and receive the Eucharist frequently.

Father Lampert cautions people not to give too much attention to the devil, as well. “The focus should be on God and Jesus Christ,” he said. “When I remind myself that God is in charge, it puts everything in perspective, and the worry and fear dissipates.”

He added, “If people would build up their faith lives, the devil will be defeated.”


Originally published at the National Catholic Register.


New Mexico bishops admonish pro-choice Catholic legislators

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 19:01

Santa Fe, NM, Mar 14, 2017 / 05:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- New Mexico Bishops released a statement last week discouraging public advocacy from Catholic legislators for abortions and assisted suicide on behalf of their Catholic faith.

“We are concerned by public statements by some legislators that seem to say that a faithful Catholic can support abortion or doctor-assisted suicide,” New Mexico's bishops stated March 6.

“Support for abortion or doctor-assisted suicide is not in accord with the teachings of the Church. These represent the direct taking of human life, and are always wrong.”

State Representative Patricia Roybal Caballero invoked her Catholic faith earlier this month as a factor in her decision to oppose a bill that would have banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

And last month State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino, also Catholic, introduced a bill which would force religious hospitals and individuals to act against their conscious and perform abortions.

The bishops wrote that “It is not appropriate for elected officials to publicly invoke their Catholic faith and to present their personal opinions as official Church teaching. This misrepresents Church teaching and creates a public scandal for the faithful.”

The bishops upheld Catholic teaching that “all human life is sacred, from the moment of conception to natural death, and must be protected,” and emphasized that “support for abortion or doctor-assisted suicide is not in accord with the teachings of the Church.”

“Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in His own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect,” the bishops stated, repeating the words of Pope Francis.

“It is not morally permissible for a Catholic to support abortion or doctor-assisted suicide,” they emphasized.

Recognizing Catholic legislators who support laws directed at supporting immigrants and the impoverished, the message applauded “their work giving voice to the voiceless.”

Citing the damages done to the soul by receiving, performing, or supporting abortions, the bishops acknowledged that “God’s forgiveness is always available to us if we seek it, so that we may heal our soul and be reconciled with God, the Church and others.” They promoted the sacrament of confession and the Project Rachel ministry for men and women who are in need of support after participating in an abortion.

“We want to be clear,” the bishops concluded. “Individuals and groups do not speak for the Catholic Church. As bishops, we do.”

“We visit the New Mexico Legislature when it gathers and host a time when together the priorities of the Church are made known to the legislators. We take the Gospel to the public square in public meetings and hearings as well as in private meetings and conversations with elected officials.”

“We pray for all legislators and through the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops are here to aid in the formation of consciences,” they noted. “We will continue to collaborate with many others to uphold the dignity of the human person through a consistent ethic of life from conception to natural death.”

Porn leaves men dissatisfied with real relationships, study finds

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 18:28

Washington D.C., Mar 14, 2017 / 04:28 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A recent analysis of 50 studies found that pornography was negatively associated with sexual and relational satisfaction among men.


The paper, entitled Pornography Consumption and Satisfaction: A Meta-Analysis, concluded that “Pornography consumption was associated with lower interpersonal satisfaction outcomes in cross-sectional surveys, longitudinal surveys, and experiments.” Specifically, pornography was linked to significant “lower sexual and relational satisfaction” among male viewers.


The analysis included a combined 50,000 participants across 10 countries, and contradicts another recent study that claimed that pornography has a positive impact on its consumers.


“Pornography is sex-negative,” Dawn Hawkins, Executive Director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), said in a statement about the new analysis.


According to their website, the NCOSE is a national organization dedicated to opposing pornography by highlighting the links to sex trafficking, violence against women, child abuse, and addiction.


“Pornography rewires an individual’s sexuality to pixels on a screen rather than to a real person, which is inherently inconsistent with healthy, organic relationships. A wide body of research is bringing attention to the various ways pornography negatively impacts both women and men, and this latest meta-analysis contributes important findings to that on-going dialogue.”


Hawkins noted that the analysis contradicted a recent study,  Porn Sex Versus Real Sex: How Sexually Explicit Material Shapes Our Understanding of Sexual Anatomy, Physiology, and Behaviour, which claimed that pornography positively affected relationships and sexuality after asking participants about the perceived impact pornography was having on their life.


“Those researchers asked survey participants questions about the effects of their pornography consumption using a faulty methodology which could only yield positive results, and then presented the results as unbiased and valid despite the skewed methodology,” Hawkins added.


Pornography has been receiving increasingly negative attention as more groups and individuals highlight its destructive effects on people’s well-being and relationships.


Last year, the GOP at the Republican National Convention declared pornography a public health crisis as part of their platform, a few months after the state of Utah declared the same.


British comedian Russel Brand, actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rashida Jones, and former NFL player and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” actor Terry Crews are just some of the celebrities that have recently spoken out against pornography, its addictive properties and its harmful effects on relationships.


Smartphones and other technology have made pornography more accessible than ever before, increasing the prevalence of pornography addiction. However, in response, numerous online community groups, smartphone apps and educational videos - both secular and faith-based - have launched, with the goal of helping people quit porn.


Still, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, strong biases in favor of pornography as a healthy part of sexuality still exist.


“Pornography is so pervasive today that many individuals grew up watching it and therefore assume it is a normal and healthy part of sexuality,” Haley Halverson, director of communications for NCOSE, told CNA.


“Yet, like cigarettes in the 1950s, we know that just because a practice is popularly accepted doesn't mean it is healthy or beneficial.”


There have also been recent arguments made that pornography simply needs to be produced more ethically. However, Halverson said, it is not possible to make an “inherently unethical” practice more ethical.


“Pornography inherently involves dehumanizing a person by reducing them to a mere collection of body parts for one’s own selfish sexual pleasure. This is an inherently unethical way to view or treat another person,” she said.


“Some people may try to make pornography ‘less’ unethical in different ways, but but such attempts can never change the fact that pornography objectifies human beings. Only a society that rejects pornography can fully respect the human dignity of each person.”


Aquinas College to downsize, shift focus to education

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 07:56

Nashville, Tenn., Mar 14, 2017 / 05:56 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Aquinas College in Nashville announced last week that it will be restructuring to focus primarily on education degrees, and will drop its other majors, as well as residential life.

“The decision to reconfigure Aquinas College was made only after a process of careful discernment, as we considered the College’s long and persistent history of difficulties in finances, fluctuating enrollment, and development, as well as other complexities related to operating a traditional college in today’s world,” stated Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, president of Aquinas College.

“We have sought to reach the most financially responsible decision possible, both for the short and long term,” she said in a March 10 press release.

Aquinas College was founded in 1961 by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee. It was originally a two-year, liberal arts college but later, it converted into a four-year school. Over the years, the college has offered a variety of academic majors, including arts, sciences, business, and nursing, as well as a graduate school of education.

Last fall, the college added new residence and dining halls to its campus, with hopes of growing its student population, and also offered new majors in marketing, math, and psychology. At the time, they had 344 enrolled students.

“Over the years, Aquinas has educated thousands of teachers, nurses, and health care professionals, as well as those engaged in business and law enforcement. These individuals now serve the Nashville community and beyond,” noted Sister Galbraith.

“We love Aquinas College, and are proud of the accomplishments of its graduates.”

Starting in the fall of 2017, Aquinas College will reconfigure its current system to focus primarily on offering bachelor and master degrees in education. The school will cut most of their other majors, and will only continue forward with philosophy and theology course offerings, as well as the School of Education.

Residential life will also discontinue, and student life activities will no longer be offered.

Sister Galbraith expressed that this decision was the most fiscally responsible path for the school to take, and noted that this move will have no impact on other schools involved with the Dominican Sisters.

However, the shift will also mean the drastic downsizing of faculty, students and staff.

Since the shift, Sister Galbraith said that the school is helping more than half of Aquinas students find other suitable colleges. The school is additionally laying off 60 of its 76 employees, while also trying to help them find other employment.

The Dominican Sisters, filled with a rich history and passion for education, believe that the new spotlight on education at Aquinas College will prepare future “teachers to serve the Church in its mission of education.”

“This decision to focus Aquinas College on the preparation of teachers primarily for Catholic schools is consistent with the 157-year heritage of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia,” Sister Galbraith stated.

Although the school’s president noted that the decision would surprise many people close to Aquinas College, she did express gratitude and hope for the school’s future.

“We look forward to its future, grateful to the City of Nashville and the wider Catholic community whose friendship and loyal support continue to be a source of strength for its life and mission,” Sister Galbraith noted.

“We are grateful for your prayers and support as we do everything in our power to assist and walk with those whose lives are affected by this decision.”



Is the death penalty a form of psychological torture? This author says yes

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 05:20

Washington D.C., Mar 14, 2017 / 03:20 am (CNA).- Recent “botched executions” resulting in painful deaths for inmates have stirred controversy over the use of the death penalty. But could capital punishment also be rejected on the grounds that it amounts to psychological torture?

That is the case that University of Baltimore law professor John Bessler makes in his new book, “The Death Penalty as Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition.”

“The U.S. needs to start looking at the psychological aspect of the death penalty, in terms of the psychological pain or suffering, because that is part and parcel of the definition of what is torture is, as defined by the U.S. ratification of the Torture Convention,” Bessler told CNA in an interview.

Capital punishment is not legal in 19 states, and four states have a governor-imposed moratorium on the death penalty. Of the 31 states where it is used, only four – Georgia, Texas, Florida, and Missouri – account for 85 percent of executions in the U.S. since 2013, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The overall number of executions in 2016 fell to 20, its lowest number since 1991 and down from 28 executions in 2015, the Death Penalty Information Center noted. This continued a long decline in the number of executions from 1999, when the number was 98. The Pew Research Center has also reported a continuing drop in public support for the death penalty.

Lethal injection is the primary method of execution in the U.S., but actions by drug companies and the European Union – which bans the use of the death penalty – to prevent drugs to be used for capital punishment have significantly factored into the decline in the number of executions, the Death Penalty Information Center says.

Drug companies including Pfizer, Akorn, and Par have moved to prevent or limit the sale of drugs to be used in capital punishment. The European Union has limited the export of drugs that are also used in executions in the U.S.

As a result, states are finding it harder to obtain drugs for lethal injections and they are resorting to other means of obtaining the drugs. In some cases, they imported them from a supplier in India, as BuzzFeed News found in 2015, as Arizona and Texas ordered shipments of the drug sodium thiopenthal which were blocked by the Food and Drug Administration when they reached the U.S.

States have also legalized other methods of execution if drugs for lethal injection are not available, or if that method is ruled unconstitutional.

Utah in 2015 allowed death by firing squad to be used for capital punishment. Oklahoma has legalized the gas chamber for such instances, and Tennessee the electric chair.

Arkansas recently scheduled eight executions in 10 days in April, before its supply of Midazolam, the sedative used in the execution process, expires.

However, the current processes of lethal injection have invited controversy for the physical pain they can inflict on subjects, most notably in “botched executions” like in Oklahoma in 2015 where an inmate was given a sedative and was supposed to be unconscious, but writhed in pain once the lethal drugs were administered before dying of a massive heart attack.

“The execution of Clayton Lockett really highlights the brutality of the death penalty,” Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City responded to the botched execution. “And I hope it leads us to consider whether we should adopt a moratorium on the death penalty or even abolish it altogether.”

Lethal injection is, in some states, a three-step process, with the first step involving a sedative meant to render the patient unconscious before the following lethal drugs are administered.

If their sedative does not work properly in the lethal injection process, the physical pain that these inmates could endure from the chemicals would definitely constitute torture, Bessler argued.

In the 2015 case of Glossip v. Gross, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the inmate Richard Glossip who claimed that the sedative Midazolam, used by Oklahoma in executions, was not certain to work properly and could result in a painful execution that violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor dissented and argued that Midazolam might not work as intended and thus would not sufficiently dull the pain inflicted on the subject’s body by the ensuing drug potassium chloride.

As a result, the painful effect of the drugs could essentially result in “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake” if Midazolam does not work, Sotomayor stated. The inventor of Midazolam, Dr. Armin Walser, has stated that he does not want it used for executions.

Recent Supreme Court cases on the death penalty have shown an “obsession with will there be physically excruciating pain” for an inmate at the time of death, Bessler noted.

However, the psychological state of inmates awaiting death could also be torturous, he added: “the helpless of the condemned person on the gurney is one of the elements of torture.”

And it was Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent in Glossip that “really does start thinking about the psychological aspect of what we’re doing with use of the death penalty,” Bessler noted.

First, Breyer wrote of how prisoners on death row are kept in solitary confinement for most of the day – a practice that, if carried out over weeks or months, could damage the psyche of an inmate. Breyer cited studies that show prolonged solitary confinement to cause serious psychological problems like hallucinations and stupors.

And inmates on death row can often be kept in solitary confinement. However, “the dehumanizing effect of solitary confinement is aggravated by uncertainty as to whether a death sentence will in fact be carried out,” Breyer wrote.

And this condition can be prolonged for years or even decades due to modern policies regarding death sentences. Laws require reviews of death sentences and evidence of crimes, and appeals can be filed, but this extends the time inmates spend on death row waiting for their execution.

The average time between sentencing and execution has steadily grown to its peak of 198 months in 2011 – or 16 and a half years – before falling slightly to 190 months in 2012, the Death Penalty Information Center noted. In one case of Brandon Jones, executed in February of 2016 by Georgia, he was on death row for 36 years after receiving a death sentence in 1979.

“Psychologists and lawyers in the United States and elsewhere have argued that protracted periods in the confines of death row can make inmates suicidal, delusional and insane,” the Death Penalty Information Center says, noting that some experts have even called such a condition the “death row phenomenon.”

Breyer, in his dissent, had referenced an 1890 Supreme Court opinion that found “when a prisoner sentenced by a court to death is confined in the penitentiary awaiting the execution of the sentence, one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected during that time is the uncertainty during the whole of it.”

When considering whether the death penalty meets the criteria for cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment, the Supreme Court must also consider the possibility that it is psychological torture, Bessler insisted.

“Even if you could guarantee a pain-free execution,” he said, “the concept of torture includes psychological torture in the modern era, and that’s something that the courts in the United States have not yet wrestled with head-on, and they need to.”

Bessler argued that in private cases, under “common parlance” when a murder is described as a “torture murder,” the factor “turns a first-degree murder into a ‘torture murder’ is the awareness of one’s impending death.”

One example of this is the 2008 case of ex parte Donald Deardorff, he said, where a murder victim had been “threatened with death,” bound, confined in a closet, and forced to walk with a hood over his head before being shot to death. The Alabama Supreme Court said that the whole ordeal preceding the murder was “psychological torture.”

With the death penalty, “you kind of have that issue on steroids, because the person has an awareness of their impending death for literally decades,” Bessler added. “And in a lot of cases you’re seeing multiple death warrants being issued. There’s cases where more than ten death warrants have been issued for a given individual.”

Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person,” and the purpose of which includes their punishment.

The inclusion of severe “mental suffering” in this definition, as well as any such suffering inflicted as punishment, makes it clear that the psychological anguish an inmate can experience on death row qualifies as torture, Bessler insisted.

South Africa, European countries, and 19 states do not use the death penalty, he said, and the rest of the U.S. is “really kind of behind the times in terms of thinking about this as a human rights violation.” The countries that are routinely executing people, he added, mostly make up “kind of a rogues gallery of human rights abusers,” including Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and China.

And, he added, both international law and U.S. law regard a “mock execution” as an “act of torture.” If this is the case, he said, “it’s hard to see how a real execution should not also qualify under that legal rubric.”


New South Dakota law could protect religious adoption agencies

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 22:01

Pierre, S.D., Mar 13, 2017 / 08:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- While religious adoption agencies have been shut down in various parts of the United States after facing pressure to place children with same-sex couples, they now have a few more legal protections in South Dakota because of a new law.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed S.B. 149 after it passed the House of Representatives by a 43-20 vote and the Senate by 27-8.

The governor said he was concerned that private child placement agencies acting in a child’s best interest could face a lawsuit if South Dakota bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the Associated Press reports.

Backers of the law cited the fate of adoption agencies in other states that have faced the revocation of their license to operate, funding cuts, and the denial of contracts under strict anti-discrimination policies and laws.

South Dakota’s Catholic Social Services has been placing children in adoptive homes for 43 years.

Jim Kinyon, executive director of Catholic Social Services, said that the legislation would help ensure that the state does not discriminate against faith-based organizations with sincerely held beliefs.

The bill drew opposition from the American Civil Liberties’ South Dakota affiliate and the LGBT activist group the Human Rights Campaign. The ACLU said it is considering legal challenges. Libby Skarin, policy director of ACLU South Dakota, contended that the governor’s action showed more concern for private agencies than for the needs of children.

Adoption agencies, including Catholic adoption agencies,  have shut down because of anti-discrimination laws or funding policies in Washington, D.C., Boston, Illinois and California. The agencies’ policies like placing children only with married husband and wife couples have conflicted with expanding legal requirements to place children with same-sex couples.

The Church is the 'only functioning institution' in South Sudan

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 18:46

Washington D.C., Mar 13, 2017 / 04:46 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Amid war and famine in South Sudan, the Catholic Church is still serving the most vulnerable even as the government has collapsed.

The Church is the “only functioning institution in civil society,” Neil Corkery, president of the Sudan Relief Fund, told CNA in an interview, and “is really the only thing that’s left trying to help people” who live “in the remotest parts of the country.”

Famine was recently declared in parts of South Sudan, where there has been an ongoing civil war, interrupted by tenuous peace, since December 2013.

42 percent of the population, an estimated 4.5 million people, are facing “severe food insecurity,” Corkery said, and that number is expected to rise to half the country’s population – or 5.5 million – by July.

There have been 2.5 million refugees created by the conflict, he added. A confidential UN report warned that the conflict had reached “catastrophic proportions for civilians,” the South China Morning Post reported last month.

“This crisis is man-made, the direct consequence of a conflict prolonged by South Sudanese leaders who are unwilling to put aside political ambitions for the good of their people,” State Department acting spokesperson Mark C. Toner stated on February 21.

“We call on President Kiir to expeditiously make good on his promise that humanitarian and developmental organizations will have unimpeded access to populations in need across the country,” Toner added.

Recently, President Salva Kiir called for a day of prayer for the country ahead of a national dialogue. The auxiliary bishop of Juba, however, dismissed it as a “political prayer” and “a mockery” amid violence inflicted by government troops.

Because of the conflict and the “scorched earth” policies of government troops, many have been “unable to plant their crops,” Corkery said.

At a parish in the Diocese of Tombura-Yambio, in the southwestern portion of the country and an area that is “very fertile” and was once a bread basket for the country, “these people are now in hiding, or taking refuge in the parish compound, and unable to plant crops,” he said. “Things are obviously just getting much worse.”

“It is a real crisis that’s coming down the pike,” Corkery warned.

The country’s bishops have spoken out against the violence there, accusing soldiers of committing war crimes and saying that the violence has interrupted the harvesting of crops.

“Despite our calls to all parties, factions, and individuals to STOP THE WAR, nevertheless killing, raping, looting, displacement, attacks on churches and destruction of property continue all across the country,” the bishops of South Sudan stated in a Feb. 23 pastoral message.

“Much of the violence,” they added, “is being perpetrated by government and opposition forces against civilians,” especially those of ethnicities deemed to be in alliance with rebel factions. And those victims “are prevented from harvesting their crops,” the bishops added.

Some members of the government have frustrated local peace deals brokered by the Church, the bishops said, and churches, priests, and nuns have been attacked.  

The U.S. has sent “$2 billion since 2014 in humanitarian aid alone,” Corkery said, but the United Nations humanitarian workers only operate in “certain pockets” of the country.

Amid this crisis and growing famine, Catholic priests, nuns, and missionaries have been laboring to bring food and supplies to remote areas and are “reaching these people who are truly destitute and starving.”

It is not an easy task. Aside from the ongoing conflict where soldiers could seize food and supplies if they were aware they were being transported, the country’s logistical infrastructure is so poor there are no paved roads outside the capital city of Juba, Corkery noted. During the country’s rainy season, this problem is expanded.

“The real heroes that I see there,” Corkery said, are the “missionaries toiling away on the front lines.”

“These people are looking at the long-term solution in terms of the eternal scheme of things, people’s souls.”

Several aid workers with Samaritan's Purse were detained or kidnapped by opposition fighters near Mayendit March 13.

South Sudan announced earlier this month it plans to charge $10,000 per visa for foreign aid workers.

“The government and the army have largely contributed to the humanitarian situation. And now, they want to create profit from the crisis they have created," Elizabeth Deng, South Sudan researcher with Amnesty International, said in reaction to the announcement.

Despite the heroic efforts of missionaries, the Sudan Relief Fund, and other aid groups like Aid to the Church In Need and Samaritan’s Purse, a long-term peace is the only lasting solution to the country’s problems, Corkery insisted.

Prayer is the most important thing Catholics in the U.S. can do to help the situation, he said, as peace can only come about through “prayer and grace working in the hearts and the minds of these warring tribes and factions.”

However, citizens can also ask members of Congress to “push the U.S. government to put more pressure” on South Sudanese leaders. The U.S. has already begun listing “top leaders as war criminals” there, he said.

Pope Francis has spoken about the crisis in the country and has expressed his desire to visit there. No details of the trip have yet been released, Corkery said.

“The Pope and the Church,” he said, “are the only people that have the ability to convene, bring the parties together” for a peaceful solution. Pope Francis will try to “refocus the international community on the gravity of this crisis that’s there” and “convene the warring parties to try to bring them to the table to get some peace.”

Despite warnings, assisted suicide bill advances in Hawaii

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 18:00

Honolulu, Hawaii, Mar 13, 2017 / 04:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Although critics said an assisted suicide bill would put vulnerable people at risk and change the nature of medicine, the Hawaii Senate has given it strong support.

“Physicians are seen as trusted health advisors, and this bill undermines this relationship, creating suspicion and uncertainty for Hawaii’s patients,” said Deacon Walter Yoshimitsu, executive director of the Hawaii Catholic Conference.

“The Senate’s approval of assisted suicide ignores the tremendous strides we have made as a community to promote the value of hospice and palliative care to care for those with terminal illnesses and to ensure everyone has access to quality end of life care.”

Deacon Yoshimitsu said the Catholic conference has worked to uphold the sanctity of life.

“Those in favor of assisted suicide have framed this as an issue about individual autonomy and freedom of choice, when it fact it is nothing more than a veiled attempt to make it legal for physicians to murder their patients with immunity,” he said.

The bill, modeled on an Oregon law, presents itself as an “aid in dying” bill. It would allow adults who have a prognosis of six months or fewer to live to ask for a fatal prescription of drugs. It passed by a vote of 22-3 on March 7.

State Sen. Breene Harimoto voted against the proposed bill. He spoke about facing his possible death after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and said he was glad he did not have the option to take pills to kill himself when he was at a low point of pain and suffering, the Associated Press reports.

“Life is a precious gift,” he said. “No matter how bad things may seem to be, that sense of hope is what keeps us all going. And unexplained miracles happen.”

State Sen. Rosalyn Baker, a backer of the bill, said it gave people the choice in how they would die.

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for debate in committee.

Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu wrote a Jan. 31 letter to the Catholics of Hawaii linking assisted suicide to the “throwaway culture” criticized by Pope Francis.

Eva Andrade, president of the Hawaii Family Forum, there was “strong opposition” to the assisted suicide bill and the number testimonies submitted against the bill “far exceeded” those in favor.

“We are perplexed why the concerns raised by individuals over the adverse impact such a law would have on Hawaii’s people are being dismissed by some members of the House and Senate. Yet, we remain prayerfully optimistic. Hawaii’s legislative session does not end until early May, and we will continue to closely monitor these bills and mobilize the community.”

She said Hawaii has one of the fastest-growing older adult populations in the U.S. She charged that the bill would allow elder abuse if it becomes law.

Five U.S. states presently allow assisted suicide.

Fr. Stanley Rother, first US-born martyr, to be beatified in September

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 12:37

Oklahoma City, Okla., Mar 13, 2017 / 10:37 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Father Stanley Rother, the Oklahoma-born martyr who served as a priest in Guatemala, will be beatified in Oklahoma City on Sept. 23, 2017.

The beatification announcement was made by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City on March 13. Fr. Rother was a priest of the archdiocese. The beautification Mass will take place at 10 a.m. at the Cox Convention Center.

In December 2016, Pope Francis officially acknowledged Fr. Rother’s martyrdom, making him the first recognized martyr to have been born in the United States.

Fr. Rother 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 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,” Maria Scaperlanda, author of The Shepherd Who Didn't Run, a biography of the martyr, told CNA in an interview last year.

“And they brought a goodness, simplicity and generous heart with them in (everything) they did.”

When Stanley was still in seminary, St. John XXIII asked the Churches of North America to send assistance and establish missions in Central America. Soon after, the dioceses of Oklahoma City and 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.”

The morning of July 28, 1981, three Ladinos, the non-indigenous men who had been fighting the native people and rural poor of Guatemala since the 1960s, broke into Fr. Rother's rectory. They wished to disappear him, but he 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.

Scaperlanda, who has worked on Fr. Stanley’s cause for canonization, said the priest is a great witness and example: “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.”

What the world could learn from the witness of Egypt's Christians

Sat, 03/11/2017 - 18:02

Washington D.C., Mar 11, 2017 / 04:02 pm (CNA/Europa Press).- Despite being victims of harassment and violence, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have set a standard of forgiveness that everyone should imitate, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the U.K. has said.

Egypt’s Christians have been loyal, peaceful, and forgiving amid a recent spate of violence that has driven hundreds from their homes, Bishop Anba Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the U.K., told CNA in an interview.

“I take a huge pride in their witness and in their example,” he said.

“And I think that really has given a substantial example for all of us to follow. If they can live with this grace and graciousness in that volatile setting, then in our day-to-day lives and in our day-to-day struggles, we should be able to do the same.”

In the last three months around 40 Egyptian Christians have been killed, including in a bombing of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo in December that killed 29.

Local Islamic State affiliates in Egypt’s Sinai region have been targeting Christians, intending to drive them out of the area. Attacks in al-Arish, a city in the Sinai region, have resulted in seven deaths, with hundreds of Christians leaving their homes.

Their needs are “provided for,” Bishop Angaelos said, from his conversations with local Coptic bishops, and the government is working to provide education for the children.

“Of course they want to go back,” he said of Sinai’s Christians. “No one ever wants to leave their home. Leaving one’s home is traumatic, and especially when this isn’t just leaving. They’ve left sometimes with the very bare necessities, to have left their whole lives behind.”

Yet, he added, “they won’t go back unless the problem has been resolved.” The perpetrators of the attacks are still in the region and could strike again.

Life in Egypt is not easy for its Coptic Christians, who trace their roots as a community to St. Mark, who first evangelized the area. Christians make up 15 percent of the Egypt’s population.

Yet in many ways, especially in the country’s rural areas, they are treated as second-class citizens as they are victims of discrimination or even violence, and their churches have been attacked. Yet the crimes have not been properly investigated and punished by local authorities.

Christians have seen “many positive things” in the national government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Bishop Angaelos noted, but “what we’re not seeing done is a robust system of law and order at the local level” where security forces can curtail criminal acts and then the local judiciary can hold the perpetrators accountable.

“Because otherwise what happens is an overwhelming sense of impunity, and a criminal confidence that continues escalating the violence and the attacks,” he said.

Yet the international community must also be aware of the importance of promoting peace in the country so Christians can remain in their homes, he insisted.

“The tragedy is that the number of Christians in the Middle East has dwindled,” Bishop Angaelos said, “because every other country where there was a significant Christian presence has been devastated by war or conflict and they have moved.”

He estimated Egypt’s Christian minority to make up around 80 percent of the overall Middle Eastern Christian population.

What can be done to help the embattled Coptic Christians?

“First and foremost prayer,” the bishop explained. However, advocacy is also vital in a time when ongoing conflicts can be supplanted in the news cycle by even more terrible and explosive tragedies.

“Just because it’s not the top item in your newsfeed doesn’t mean it’s [not] still happening,” he maintained.

It is important “to keep the issue alive and to keep it in peoples’ minds and in peoples’ hearts, and to keep people aware that it continues to be a struggle,” he said, “because they do feel very voiceless, and they sometimes feel very unsupported. And it’s up to us, I think, to make sure that they don’t feel that.”

The U.S. must also pressure Egypt to ensure that Christians enjoy equal rights as the rest of the citizenry, he said.

International partners could accomplish a great deal of good through foreign investment and supporting tourism in the country, he explained. What is most needed is “not handouts,” he insisted, “but an investment in the country and in the people of the country.”

“This isn’t just about governments. This is about individuals feeling vulnerable economically, and so therefore the weaker elements also become vulnerable to radicalization,” he said.

The poor and the unemployed are more vulnerable to radicalization, he explained. “And we find that it is poor, unassuming people who are manipulated into these situations and unable to push back enough, unable to withstand the pressure. And they become prey.”

“What we see in the Christian community, of course, is that they suffer. The Christian communities suffer because those who work in private industry or in tourist industry are suffering.”

Divorce numbers rise among older Americans, fall among younger couples

Fri, 03/10/2017 - 16:05

Washington D.C., Mar 10, 2017 / 02:05 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The divorce rate has doubled for Americans over age 50, and tripled among Americans over 65, a new survey shows.

“At a time when divorce is becoming less common for younger adults, so-called ‘gray divorce’ is on the rise,” the Pew Research Center said.

In 2015, the divorce rate among married persons over 50 was 10 in 1,000, an increase from 5 in 1,000 in 1990. Among those 65 and older, the divorce rate has tripled to 6 per 1,000.

Pew said the divorced rate among those 50 and older is partly linked to the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, the age cohort 51-69 in 2015. As young adults, this generation had unprecedented levels of divorce. Remarriages tend to be less stable than first marriages, with the divorced-and-remarried having twice the divorce rate as those married once. Among the divorces of adults age 50 and older, 48 percent were in a second or later marriage.

The risk of divorce is also higher among those who have been married for a shorter time.

At the same time, Pew said a “significant share” of divorces are among those 50 and older. About 34 percent of those divorcing after 50 years old had been married for at least 30 years, and 12 percent were married for over 40 years. Many of these divorcees cited dissatisfaction in their marriages and a desire to seek opportunities to pursue their own interest and independence late in life.

These older divorcees, especially women, face more financial insecurity than married and widowed adults.

As for younger age cohorts, the divorce rate slightly increased among married adults age 40-49.

Divorce rates have dropped 21 percent among those aged 25-39, from 30 in 1,000 to 24 in 1,000 from 1990 to 2015. According to Pew, this decline is in part attributed to younger generations’ delay in marrying. It is also attributed to the phenomenon of the college-educated being more likely to marry and also being less likely to divorce.


NY archdiocese defends right to make hiring decisions

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 22:40

New York City, N.Y., Mar 9, 2017 / 08:40 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Archdiocese of New York argued before a federal circuit court this week that it should have the freedom to make employment decisions about Catholic school principals without government intervention.

“It is important that church-sponsored schools like St. Anthony’s be able to ensure that each student receives the best education in math, science, art as well as the Catholic faith,” Mercedes Lopez Blanco of the Archdiocese of New York stated on Tuesday.

“To do that, we must have the freedom to choose leaders – without government interference – who are dedicated to our mission.”

Blanco made her statement after oral arguments took place in Fratello v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York on Tuesday. That case involves a lawsuit filed by a Catholic school principal whose contract with the archdiocese was not renewed, and who says the decision was made on the grounds of unlawful gender discrimination.  

The archdiocese, represented by Becket Fund, says that they decided not to renew the contract of former principal of St. Anthony School Joanne Fratello because of her insubordination to the pastor of the parish and the archdiocese. The archdiocese says it has First Amendment protections in its hiring decisions of Catholic school principals, because it falls under the “ministerial exemption.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the archdiocese, argues that it is an important case for the religious freedom of all faiths against government coercion.

St. Anthony School is part of the Archdiocese of New York, which had a contract with Fratello. The principal at St. Anthony’s is responsible not only for the education of the students but for leading the student body in prayer every day, hiring teachers based on their use of religion in the school curricula, and for inviting students and parents to attend Mass.

Fratello claims that her contract was not renewed because of sex-based discrimination, and that she was not hired by the archdiocese in a ministerial capacity but in a “lay” capacity.

This, her lawyer argued, made her case different from the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor case, where the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of churches’ employment decisions of ministers, saying the government could not interfere with those decisions.

In that decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that a Lutheran church had the right to make employment decisions in its school that was directly connected to the church, as the grade school teacher who was fired had served in a ministerial capacity and had the title “minister of religion.”

The federal government, specifically the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, could not intervene in such decisions out of concern for discrimination, the Court said in that 9-0 decision.

In Fratello’s case, the principal’s record was “replete” with religious duties including leading students in prayer each day, Rassbach said. Furthermore, the archdiocese has made it clear that the duty of a principal at St. Anthony’s is ministerial by nature.

That Fratello was hired in a “lay” capacity did not mean that her job was a secular one, he emphasized. Rather, it meant that she was not part of a religious order, where her contract would not have included a salary.

Because she was a lay Catholic and her contract included a salary, Fratello was hired on a “lay” contract even though her job would be ministerial. A diocesan priest would have received a similar contract, Rassbach noted.

And Fratello emphasized her religious credentials when she applied to be the principal at St. Anthony’s, Rassbach said. She praised herself as an “excellent religious leader.”

Fratello’s lawyer, Michael Diederich, has written openly of his disdain for the Church. He wrote a scathing reply to a “friend of the court” brief filed by the Orthodox Church of America on behalf of the archdiocese, where he expressed contempt for “organized religion” as a threat to “enlightened rationality.”

Fratello should have been kept in her position by the archdiocese because as a secular employee, she could protect students against religious indoctrination, he argued.

He said that “our American democracy” would be “undermined if religious groups can propagandize and indoctrinate school children without the constraint of a loyal American citizen and educator (e.g., a lay school teacher or principal) insisting that secular curriculum be properly taught.”

Diederich disparaged “organized religion” in the U.S., and warned that the Roman Catholic Church is “the most powerful church on Earth,” and that by the archdiocese getting the Orthodox Church to file a brief the Roman Catholic Church “has sounded the alarm to enlist the support for organized religion in an effort to gain even more power and influence that organized religion already has in civil society.”

America’s founders, “people of the Age of Enlightenment – would not approve of judicial advancement of religion,” he continued. According to Diederich, the founders believed “that organized religion and religious dogma are dangerous to a society, and what a society needs is enlightened rationality.”

And he hypothesized about the Orthodox Church indoctrinating children with “Stalinist beliefs” if its school teachers operate in a ministerial capacity.


Muhammad Ali's family speaks up on religious freedom after airport detainment

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 18:45

Washington D.C., Mar 9, 2017 / 04:45 pm (CNA).- Family members of boxing great Muhammed Ali say they were detained at an airport for their religion and have linked the incident President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which they are challenging on religious freedom grounds.

“There shouldn't be a travel ban,” said Khalilah Camacho Ali, the boxer’s former wife. “If I don't speak up now, they're going to keep harassing us.”

She said Muhammed Ali’s family has been fighting for religious rights “for a very long time,” adding “We are going to continue to fight for religious justice.”

Muhammed Ali, Jr. and his mother Khalilah Camacho Ali, were detained and questioned Feb. 7 at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport as they returned from a Black History Month event in Jamaica, the Associated Press reports. They said they were asked if they were Muslim and a family spokesman charged they were flagged for their Arabic-sounding names.

While Ali's former wife could produce a photo of herself with her famous ex-husband, her son could not. They were separated and he was detained by immigration officials for about two hours, the family spokesman said, according to the Washington Post.

Ali Jr. was born in Philadelphia and has a U.S. passport.

Customs officials, however, rejected claims it had discriminated on the basis of religion or ethnicity. “We accomplish our mission with vigilance and in accordance with the law,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Feb. 26, adding “We treat all travelers with respect and sensitivity.”

Khalilah Camacho Ali said the incident at the Florida airport has affected her.

“I'm paranoid. I'm just waiting for somebody to mess with me. That's not a good feeling when you have to travel,” she said.

The ban on new visas for travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries and temporarily halted the United States' refugee program was revised after facing court challenges. The latest version will take effect March 16 and has removed Iraq from the list of countries, which originally numbered seven.

Ali Jr. and Khalilah Camacho Ali visited Washington, D.C. on Thursday to meet with lawmakers and discuss their experience. Democratic members of the House Subcommittee on border security invited them to a forum on the topic.

They have launched a campaign against the travel restrictions with support of former boxing stars Evander Holyfield, Larry Holmes and Roberto Duran.

They are framing the effort as a conflict with the president, using the hashtag “#AlivsTrump.”

The three-time boxing heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali also advocated for civil rights. He converted to Islam in 1964 and refused to join the military draft, citing conscientious objections as a Muslim. He was stripped of his heavyweight title and convicted of draft evasion, though the Supreme Court would rule in his favor.

He died in 2016.

Can we delete death? Transhumanism's lofty goal meets a Catholic response

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 18:02

Washington D.C., Mar 9, 2017 / 04:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie – being able to “upload” our minds to computers to live on after we die, to freeze our bodies only to bring them back in the future, or to pop pills to enhance our mood and intelligence.

While these may seem like impossible notions, these are the kinds of things the transhumanism and posthumanism movements are hoping for and working toward.

However, as with most technological advancements, these proposals have bioethicists and theologians questioning: just because we can, does that mean we should?

Transhumanism is a loosely-defined cultural, intellectual and technical movement that describes itself as seeking to “to overcome fundamental human limitations” including death, aging, and natural physical, mental and psychological limitations, says humanity+, a transhumanist online community.

The movement overlaps greatly with posthumanism, which posits that a new, biologically superior race is on the horizon, and could replace the human race as we know it. Posthumanists support technologies such as cryogenic freezing, mood-and-intelligence-enhancing drugs, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, bionics and “uploading” a mind to an artificial intelligence.

These movements stem from the idea that human limitations are just “technical problems” that need to be overcome, said history professor Yuval Noah Harari in a 2015 interview in “Edge,” a non-profit website devoted to the advancement of technology.

“Once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface ... when brains and computers can interact directly, to take just one example, that's it, that's the end of history, that's the end of biology as we know it,” he said. “Nobody has a clue what will happen once you solve this.”

But is human nature a problem to be solved? Will treading into this territory completely change the way man relates to God, to their own bodies, and to one another? These are the questions many bioethicists are grappling with as they consider the morality of such technologies.

For Catholics, escaping suffering and trials by escaping human nature itself is a morally unacceptable option, according to Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., Director of Education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

“Catholics cannot accept a vision of man which presupposes an outright ‘unacceptability’ of his basic human nature, nor a vision that labors to replace it with an alternate bodily structure that is engineered to be ‘post-human,’” Fr. Pacholczyk told CNA.

Instead, the “integral vision of man” accepts that man is incarnate – that humans have a body –and that “we are meant to embrace and grow through the limitations of our human nature,” he said.

“Even if our nature were to be radically re-engineered and modified,” he elaborated, “our innermost self would retain fundamental shards of incompleteness.”

The human experience is a struggle between a longing for the infinite, and learning to accept and embrace human’s finite nature, Fr. Pacholczyk explained. This longing would still exist even if technology were to significantly advance man’s material reality, because the longing for the infinite transcends the material world, he added.

Christ’s life provides the road map to transcendence – rather than transhumanism – for man’s life, “achieved through repentance, discipleship, self-denial, committed love, and generous self-giving,” said Fr. Pacholczyk. The infinite that man longs for “is effected from above through grace, rather than through the mere machinations of human cleverness or willfulness.”

Only by accepting their nature can humans re-orient themselves to “the only authentic source of redemption compatible with his essence,” which is Jesus, he added.  

Peter Lawler, a bioethicist and government professor at Berry College, said while he did not think transhumanism is possible, the movement’s ideology alone can impact society.  

The mindset of detaching humanity from biology contributes to a “paranoia about existence” which sees the natural world as the enemy of man, and views the body as a mere machine rather than as an integral part of a person, Lawler said.

“We’re living longer than ever,” he said. Improvements in healthcare, life expectancy and other technologies have changed the way people think about many things such as sexual morality, desired family size, and the integration of elderly people into society.

Charles Rubin, a professor of political science at Dusquenes University and author on the transhumanist movement, also takes issue with the transhumanist or posthumanist ideology. The idea of “a superior version” of human beings implies that humans are poorly-designed “creatures of evolutionary chance,” Rubin said.

“They have the very ‘thin’ understanding of what it means to be human that is in many ways characteristic of our contemporary thin ideas about self-hood,” he said. The movement also makes the assumption that “material circumstances can solve all our problems.”

“Building as they do on a thin sense of self, they risk encouraging those tendencies of contemporary thought that treat human beings instrumentally or that otherwise diminish human dignity.”

But it’s not all necessarily bad.

Some technologies that improve and even extend human life can be beneficial, so long as they don’t violate morality, Lawler noted.

“The consistent pro-life position is that we are for life,” he said, referencing Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth).

“Technology is highly attractive because it draws us out of our physical limitations and broadens our horizon,” the Pope wrote.

Still, he cautioned, technological advancements can never trump the good of the human person – they must always be done in an ethically responsible way.

“Human freedom is authentic only when it responds to the fascination of technology with decisions that are the fruit of moral responsibility,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote.

While extending life can be acceptable, the promises of transhumanism should be critiqued, Rubin said.

What should be combated, he continued, is those who “dogmatically assert the benefits of a longer life without having ever having asked seriously the question of what constitutes a good human life.”


This article was originally published on CNA April 9, 2015.

Where it's OK to eat corned beef on St. Patrick's Day this Lent

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 17:02

Denver, Colo., Mar 9, 2017 / 03:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- If you’re an Irish Catholic (or any Catholic) living in the United States, you will need to check with your local diocese before indulging in corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day this year.

The popular feast day, whose traditional fare is the salty, stringy red meat, poses a predicament for Catholics this year as it falls on a Friday in Lent, when the faithful are required to abstain from meat.

The last time this conundrum cropped up was in 2006, when roughly half of the United States’ 179 Roman Catholic dioceses granted some form of dispensation to the faithful on the memorial of the patron saint of Ireland. (Ironically, corned beef is generally not eaten in Ireland on St. Patrick’s day - it’s usually lamb or bacon.)

This year, more than 80 dioceses have announced some form of dispensation on St. Patrick’s Day. However, Catholics should check with their local diocese before partaking in the celebratory meats.

“In some places, abstinence from meat is dispensed on St. Patrick’s Day, but those who consume meat that day are required to abstain the next day,” said J.D. Flynn, a canon lawyer and Special Assistant to Bishop James Conley in Lincoln, Neb.


“In some places, a dispensation has been granted for parish or diocesan events. So it would be important to know what the bishop has determined in the place where you are.”


In many cases of dispensation this year, the bishops have requested that the faithful offer up some alternative penance or perform an additional act of charity in lieu of their abstinence from meat. Some dioceses have additional stipulations.

Many Archdioceses have already announced that they will be granting a general dispensation, including Atlanta, Georgia, Baltimore, Maryland; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota; San Francisco, California; Washington, D.C. and the Military Services, USA.

The following Archdioceses and Dioceses have dispensations, but with additional stipulations:


In some places, like the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, the faithful are required to transfer their day of abstinence to the next day if they choose to eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day.


In other Archdioceses, including Detroit, Michigan and Portland, Oregon, as well as the Dioceses of Trenton, N.J.,  Salt Lake City, Utah, and Grand Island, Nebraska, the archbishops and bishops have stipulated that the faithful must ask a priest’s permission if they want a dispensation. These priests can either dispense or commute the required abstinence from meat “for a just cause.”


In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, dispensations are being granted on a case by case basis for certain parish or diocesan groups or events that have successfully petitioned the bishop.


Many Dioceses have also publicly granted a dispensation for St. Patrick’s Day, including Bridgeport, Connecticut; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Dallas, Texas; Jefferson City, Missouri; Oakland, California; Phoenix, Arizona; Providence, Rhode Island; Savannah, Georgia; Worcester, Massachusetts, and Venice, Florida.

Only two dioceses, the Archdiocese of Denver, Colorado and the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, have publicly announced that they will not be granting any dispensations for the day.

So, technically, could a Catholic in Denver with a hankering for meat on St. Patrick’s Day drive south for an hour and dine on corned beef once they are in the Diocese of Colorado Springs?

“Generally speaking dispensations, like other kinds of administrative acts, are territorial in the Church, they determine the obligations of those in a territory. There are many exceptions to this, but this is the general principle,” Flynn said.

“In this case, a traveller who is in a place where a law has been dispensed is not bound to observe the law. It doesn’t matter why the person goes to a diocese, just that they’re there. A person should take a look at what the dispensation really says, though,” he added.

What about extremely proud Irish grandmothers (my own) who declare a dispensation for themselves and all their Irish kin, regardless of where they reside?

“Your grandma was, with all due respect to her Irish brilliance, mistaken,” Flynn said.

The Archdioceses and Dioceses listed here are not comprehensive. Catholics wanting to eat meat on St. Patrick’s day should check with their local diocese regarding whether or not they are dispensed, and under what conditions.


Arizona State University to hold first Pregnant on Campus Week

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:56

Phoenix, Ariz., Mar 9, 2017 / 02:56 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Students for Life Group at Arizona State University is planning the nation’s first Pregnant on Campus Week to offer resources, support and information for parents on campus this March 13-16.

“Pregnant and parenting students should never feel forced to choose between their children and their education,” said Beth Rahal, national director of the Pregnant on Campus Initiative.

She applauded the initiative’s student leaders for supporting their peers in difficult and vulnerable moments, and for “empowering women to succeed as parents, as students, and as valuable members of our communities.”

Pregnant on Campus Week will include table displays at Hayden Lawn, a central part of Arizona State University’s campus, offering information on resources for pregnant and parenting students.

These resources include breastfeeding rooms on campus and childcare options, as well as information about Title IX rights. The university’s Family Resources department will also be available to discuss school aid for students with families.

Additionally, a donation area will be set up for a baby shower drive to support pregnant moms on campus. Attendees will be able to write letter of encouragement to pregnant peers, learn more about fetal development, and utilize social media frames showing their support for parenting students.

Mariah Martinez, chair of the ASU Pregnant on Campus Initiative, explained in a press release the motto for the week: Fearlessly pursuing family and education.

“Our initiative exists to be a light of hope, empowerment, community, and resources for those students who find themselves pregnant and about to be a parent while completing their degree,” she said.

“Whether informing them about their Title IX rights, pointing them to local pregnancy resource centers for low-cost prenatal care, informing them on the resources ASU already offers, or simply being there for emotional support, the Pregnant on Campus Initiative recognizes that pregnancy while going to school is a real occurrence, and we want to celebrate both.”

The Pregnant on Campus Initiative is a project of Students for Life of America, a pro-life organization with over 1,100 high school and college groups. Pregnant on Campus offers resources for pregnant and parenting students at more than 500 schools.


Holy-wood: How one priest supports 'truth, beauty and goodness' in film

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:36

Hollywood, Calif., Mar 9, 2017 / 02:36 pm (CNA).- The path to priesthood doesn’t often include stops on the sets of soap operas. But for Father Don Woznicki, a stint as a production assistant for the NBC soap “Sunset Beach” in 1998 (the same year he entered the Mundelein Seminary to begin his formation as a priest) was a pivotal part of his exploration of his “calling within a calling” – his deep-seated desire to evangelize through the entertainment industry.

“While I was in my pretheological studies at Loyola University in Chicago, I sensed the Holy Spirit moving me to somehow be involved in an outreach ministry as a priest to Hollywood,” recalled Father Woznicki. “I always loved entertainment, and it was at that point in my life, as I discerned the priesthood, that I had a deep conviction that somehow the Church needs to be more present because of that influence it can have on people and cultures.”

As the South Bend, Indiana-born Father Woznicki assumed an associate pastor role at a Chicago-area parish, he (with the permission of then-Chicago Archbishop Cardinal Francis George) proceeded to trek to Los Angeles three or four times a year, for one week at a time during his spring and summer breaks, to continue his PA job with “Sunset Beach,” work with Act One (a mentorship program for aspiring Christian screenwriters) and soak up as much additional exposure to the entertainment industry that he could get.

Twenty years and a handful of IMDB credits later, Father Woznicki is now not only the pastor at Christ the King Church in Hollywood (where he began serving last July), but also the director of New Ethos, an advocacy effort that strives to drum up support throughout the Catholic community for films that, as St. Pope John Paul II (who was an actor in his youth) once put it, “bring us to a personal encounter with truth, goodness and beauty.”

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“There is great power in film and television, because much of our senses are acted upon through visuals (cinematography, special effects, movement), hearing (screenplay, musical score, sound) and a personal connection with the actors,” explained Father Woznicki. “Our celebration of the Mass and sacraments carry through its beauty the ultimate power to act on our senses, to have a personal encounter with our Lord and Savior and transform our minds and hearts. When one encounters an overarching spirit of the true, good and beautiful in entertainment, one also is encountering Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life.”

And while many on the outside looking in have a preconceived notion of Hollywood being a spiritual wasteland, Father Woznicki has found that Hollywood is, in fact, inhabited by its fair share of faith-filled industry professionals who, though they may not agree with all of the Church’s teachings, have an “attraction to, and appreciation for, the Church’s age-old and sophisticated approach to the arts through the holy Mass, in sacred art and in the various other traditional and progressive mystical expressions of faith.”

In order to support filmmakers and screenwriters who share his passion for truthful, beautiful storytelling, Father Woznicki and his core team of film reviewers collaborate with studio marketing executives in a number of capacities to galvanize support throughout the Catholic community for films that fit the bill. His ultimate goal is for New Ethos to become an esteemed, respected voice for the films it wants to promote, and has not only a hand in production and development, but also “a place at the table of major studios and independent production companies to have a meaningful influence on developing entertainment.”

To this end, New Ethos is in the planning stages of working with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications to coordinate a two-day retreat at the Vatican for accomplished industry artists and establishing a “New Ethos Film Festival,” a Sundance-esque event to be held annually in Los Angeles. For the time being, however, New Ethos’ primary efforts involve recognizing quality films and awarding them the New Ethos “Logo of Excellence,” which promoters can in turn use for marketing purposes.

New Ethos’ two most prestigious awards, the “New Ethos Excellence Award” and the “New Ethos Selection” are awarded to films that excel in the categories of religion, values and art. Father Woznicki hopes that, by recognizing films that succeed as much in their efforts to explore universal human truths and propel the craft of filmmaking forward as they do in telling stories concerning matters of faith, that New Ethos will help shake the filmgoing public’s tendency to equate “Catholic” with “G-rated” and/or “hokey.”

“New Ethos is not about just supporting films and entertainment media because a Catholic made it,” stated Father Woznicki. “Would you get on an airplane just because you heard a Catholic made it? Quality is the rule. Christ is constantly calling us to conversion, hope and to be transformed into his image, and the reality is that a vast majority of us are works in progress, made holy in Christ’s mercy, but with many rough and hard edges to be smoothed out.

“New Ethos films are not about promoting sanitized Christian propaganda, rather to that conversion, hope and transformation,” he continued.

Just as we are all works in progress, so is New Ethos in its early stages. But Father Woznicki firmly believes that New Ethos’ earnest intention to focus on promoting the best attributes of Hollywood, the goodness waiting to emerge in films hidden beneath the slog, will lead to a flourishing, symbiotic relationship between New Ethos and the entertainment industry.

“The mission’s philosophy was founded on transforming Hollywood not through a self-righteous ‘Hollywood takeover’ to form a ‘Catholic Hollywood,’ but rather encouraging and supporting and uplifting the true, good and beautiful in secular Hollywood productions, where much of God’s talent operates,” said Father Woznicki.

“[It’s not] about going to Hollywood yielding a stick to point out where they are leading our children into hell,” he continued. “Rather, [it’s] to form positive collaborative relationships, where the Church lets Hollywood be who they are: the most talented and creative storytellers in the world, which the Church needs, while Hollywood can use the Church not only for its large market potential, but also to tap into the Church’s wisdom to help guide the art-making process. It’s is a win-win mission!”


This article originally appeared in Angelus News. Reprinted with permission.


What the US bishops want to see in health care reform

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 17:29

Washington D.C., Mar 8, 2017 / 03:29 pm (CNA).- As Congress considers a new health care law, the U.S. bishops are calling for a plan that does not fund abortion, but respects conscience rights, while also ensuring universal access to affordable health care.

“The Bishops of the United States continue to reject the inclusion of abortion as part of a national health care benefit,” four committee chairs for the U.S. bishops’ conference said in a letter to Congress this week, while adding that “all people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care.”

The bishops’ letter, sent to all members of Congress on Tuesday, was signed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, chair of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee; Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the bishops’ religious liberty committee; Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the bishops’ migration committee; and Bishop Frank Dewayne of Venice, chair of the bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee.

In the letter, the bishops responded to House Republicans’ recently unveiled plan to take the place of the Affordable Care Act.

Entitled the American Health Care Act, the proposed plan would scrap the old individual and employer mandates and expand the available tax credits available to purchase health insurance.

However, those who drop their plans and delay too long in buying a new one could see a penalty of up to 30 percent of their new plan’s premiums for having a gap in coverage. Critics charge that this could unfairly penalize those who choose to go without health insurance, or even deter them from buying a new plan when they get sick.

The bill would also double the amount that could be contributed to health savings accounts, or tax-free accounts to save money for out-of-pocket medical expenses.

At a Tuesday press conference introducing the plan, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said that the bill is only the first phase of a three-part program that includes deregulation of the health care market and additional reforms, giving consumers the “freedom to buy” the health coverage they want.

Abortion controversy

Pro-life groups have hinged their support of a replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act on whether any taxpayer subsidies or tax credits would fund abortions.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, told EWTN News Nightly’s Jason Calvi that he expected Senate staffers to work to ensure no abortion coverage is funded in the law through subsidies or tax credits.

In addition, the proposed bill would defund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest performer of abortions, for one year, around $400 million.

Abortion funding has long been a controversial subject in health care. The Hyde Amendment – a policy passed yearly by Congress as part of appropriations bills – prohibits federal funding of abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake.

This policy “must extend to any relevant health care plan,” the bishops insisted on Wednesday. No federal subsidies for health insurance coverage – or even tax credits for coverage – should pay for any “health care plans that cover abortion,” they stated.

While President Barack Obama signed an executive order stating that an enforcement mechanism must be found to ensure no abortion funding under the Affordable Care Act, a 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office found that this might not have been the case.

The report found that 15 insurers and one state exchange were not itemizing abortion coverage in health plans offered on the exchanges and did not indicate that such abortion coverage was billed separately. Thus, federal subsidies could very well have paid for abortion coverage.

Also, in five states, all the health plans offered on the exchanges covered abortions, offering no alternative to those conscientiously objecting to paying for abortion coverage in their plans.

The U.S. bishops’ conference had originally opposed the Affordable Care Act because they believed the executive order would not be enough to prevent abortion funding. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, then-president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, had stated of the bill that “there is compelling evidence that it would expand the role of the federal government in funding and facilitating abortion and plans that cover abortion.”

Changes in coverage

Universal access to health care, including for those immigrants left out of coverage under the Affordable Care Act, must also be part of new legislation, the bishops insisted.

“Any modification of the Medicaid system as part of health care reform should prioritize improvement and access to quality care over cost savings,” they added.

Some of the biggest changes under the proposed bill would be to federal subsidies, ending the expansion of federal Medicaid grants to states after several years, and determining Medicaid grants to states based on their numbers of Medicaid patients.

The Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion had helped those caring for elderly parents and drug addicts, argued Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee. This would be cut in the new health care bill.

The Medicaid expansions provided many low-income Americans with coverage and these expansions should not be erased, the U.S. bishops said, noting that “those who are essentially the working poor or who find themselves one crisis away from falling into deep poverty” were covered “for the first time” under the Medicaid expansion.

If the expansion is rolled back, these families should be exempt from premiums “through some other means,” they said.

Furthermore, the bishops advocated for health-sharing ministries, saying, “Those who choose to participate in alternative approaches like health sharing ministries should retain the ability to do so and be further supported.”

Louis Brown, director of one such Catholic ministry, called CMF Curo, stressed that health-sharing ministries must have “equal access to health savings accounts” so participants can save like everyone else for out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Other concerns in health care

A number of policies in the Affordable Care Act remain in the bill, or will be phased out over the period of several years. Young adults are still allowed to remain on their parents’ health insurance plans until age 26, and insurers are still prohibited from denying coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions.

Brown told CNA that the plan “is a first step to restoring an American health care system where the dignity of the person is at the center, not the mandates of the government.”

Under the current system, he said, “the federal government was dictating so much of what the market looks like, and it wasn’t doing a good job of that,” thus driving up health insurance premiums even more in some areas.

The average “benchmark silver” premiums were reportedly set to rise 22 percent in 2017, it was predicted in October. Although federal subsidies would offset cost increases for eligible Americans, others saw their premiums rise but were not eligible for these subsidies.

Also, in more than 1,000 counties, there was only one insurer offering plans on the exchanges, and in some counties all insurers had pulled out of the exchange.

There were also serious religious freedom concerns with the health care system, in part because of government mandates like the birth control mandate.

The Affordable Care Act had mandated preventative coverage in employee health plans, which the Department of Health and Human Services later interpreted to include employer coverage for sterilizations, contraceptives, and drugs that can cause early abortions.

And the recent transgender mandate that doctors perform gender-transition procedures if asked to do so, despite any concerns they might have about the patient’s health, was another example of this, said Brown.

“Too much of the Affordable Care Act was used as a vehicle to undermine the right of conscience and religious freedom in health care,” he said.

The bishops also pushed for the conscience rights of health care professionals in their letter. The bishops’ conference has previously pushed for the passage of the Conscience Protection Act, which would establish federal protections for doctors or hospitals conscientiously objecting to performing abortions.

“Such protections should extend to all stakeholders, including insurers, purchasers, sponsors, and providers and should cover any regulatory mandates,” the bishops said in their letter.


This Catholic school made $24 million by investing in Snapchat

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 08:06

Mountain View, Calif., Mar 8, 2017 / 06:06 am (Church Pop).- St. Francis Catholic High School in Mountain View, California recently revealed that it invested just $15,000 in a very early seed round of funding for Snapchat (now known as Snap) back in 2012.

Snap just went public with an IPO, and the school sold some of their shares for a whopping $24 million.

They only sold two-thirds of their shares, saving one-third in hopes that the share price will continue to rise.

The school president said the money would be used to carry out their strategic plan, which includes expanding financial aid and growing their science and technology programs.

So why was the school investing in Snapchat in the first place? The school has a special growth fund that they’ve used to make investments since the 1990s as a way of generating additional income. In 2012, a father of two girls at the school who ran a venture capital firm recommended the school make the investment in the fledgling start-up.


This article originally appeared on Not for redistribution.