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Meet the therapy dog trained by Mercedarian sisters to help the students they serve

Gia, an 8-month-old Bernedoodle, visits Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Baton Rouge twice a week with a group of Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. / Wendy Milam

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2022 / 10:00 am (CNA).

Students at Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are visited twice a week by Gia, an 8-month-old Bernedoodle, and a group of Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Gia is a therapy dog who visits classrooms and interacts with the children. Although she is still in training, her warmheartedness and gentle spirit has become the perfect match for the children who attend this Catholic school.

Sister Mary Rosario Vega, who recently celebrated her 50th anniversary of entering the convent, is one of the nuns who trains Gia and takes her to the school each week. In an interview with CNA, she said, “She [Gia] adores children, she’s very loyal, very intelligent, very easy to train.”

Gia spends the majority of her days in the convent with the sisters. Vega explained that the dog sits outside as the sisters attend Mass in the chapel and will even attend adoration with each of the sisters. They are now working on training her to be able to attend Mass with the children.

“In general, she’s very good, very quiet. She comes to adoration — each of us have an hour of adoration with the Blessed Sacrament — that’s her best hour,” she said.

However, it’s her time with the children that makes Gia the happiest, Vega said. And the response from the students, teachers, and parents has made it even more worthwhile.

“It’s just so beautiful to see the children, how they change when they see the dog just wagging her tail,” Vega expressed. “She’s so good with the children. When [the teachers] see them crying or having a bad day or anything, they either bring her to the classroom or take the child to her and they calm down.”

Gia has also begun to form unique relationships with some of the students.

Vega recalled one particular student who “kneels down to her level and gives her a hug and Gia stands and gives him a hug.”

Some of Gia’s favorite activities included recess with the kids, playing in the school gym where the kids throw tennis balls for her, and receiving treats from the children in their classrooms.

Gia is not the first dog the sisters have trained. Fourteen years ago, at their convent in Cleveland, the nuns raised an emotional-support dog named Ava. She was the first dog they trained as part of their efforts to serve the local schoolchildren near their community.

The Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were founded by Venerable Maria del Refugio in 1910 in Mexico City. Their two pillars are devotion to the Eucharist and to the Blessed Mother. The sisters strive to lead people to experience the merciful love of God found through the Holy Eucharist while being accompanied by the Virgin Mary in the journey of being transformed by the Eucharist.

They also serve Catholic pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade schools. Through their ministry with children, they aim to lead the youth to discover the love of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, encourage the eucharistic celebration to be the source and center of their lives, and spread devotion and filial love to Our Lady of Mercy.

Today, there are more than 430 sisters who staff 83 schools, catechetical centers, and parish ministries in 13 different countries including Mexico, Italy, Spain, and El Salvador, to name a few.

As for Gia, she will continue to be trained in the basics in order to receive her Canine Good Citizen Certificate and strive to be a source of light and joy for the children she visits.

The next generation of sacred music? Gregorian Chant album uses new spatial audio feature

The Benedictine Monks of Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma emphasize Gregorian Chant as a way to delve deeper into the psalms. / Image credit: The World Over with Raymond Arroyo/screenshot

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2022 / 08:00 am (CNA).

The Benedictine Monks of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma have teamed up with De Montfort Music and Sophia Music Group to release a new album of Advent melodies that takes advantage of Apple’s new spatial audio feature.

Raymond Arroyo from EWTN’s "The World Over" recently spoke with the monks’ Father Abbott Philip Anderson for deeper insight into the inspiration behind the new album and the role music plays in the life of the abbey.

“Once you’re in the monastery for a few months and you’re only [hearing] Gregorian Chant … it’s like your eyes getting used to the dark are [now] ‘getting used to the light,’” Anderson said.

Anderson also spoke about his abbey’s decision to release “Rorate Coeli: Marian Sounds of Advent,” a collection of Advent chants that place the Virgin Mary at its thematic center.

“We were looking for a repertory that hadn’t been done recently elsewhere,” Anderson explained. “We thought Christmas would be a good time … to get out some of this music, so we chose something that hasn’t been recorded, or too much.”

Anderson also explained that, unlike Lent, there is a certain note of joy that imbues the penitential aspect of Advent. Ultimately, Anderson said, the goals behind the album’s release are to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, foster the sacred tradition of Gregorian Chant, and share a deeper insight into the monastic life of the abbey.

“If a person buys a CD … reads the booklet, and listens along with you, you’ll enter into our life a little bit,” he said.

Additionally, listeners can also be aided by Apple’s new spatial audio feature (with support for Dolby Atmos), which orients each element of the music into its own space around the listener.

Rather than simply splitting music into “left” and “right” channels as with stereo music, spatial audio orients each element of the music within a 360-degree radius from the listener — making the experience closer to a live concert rather than a static audio file. (Those interested in learning what this might sound like may do so by trying the free demo on Dolby’s website.)

While the availability of this feature on the album could vary depending on the streaming service used, it is nonetheless a new option for those interested in immersing themselves more deeply within the music.

As for the effort it took to implement the new technology into the monks’ latest album, Anderson credited producer Brad Michel for seamlessly integrating it into their recording process.

“Brad was great,” Anderson said. “He is an accomplished musician, not just a tech guy … He knows the equipment but he also could appreciate the music: the finesse [and] the kind of nuances … He helped us … group together and do the right thing, and so it was a good experience.”

Not only is the technical creation of the album impressive, the training of the monks is also something to take note of — as most members do not have a background in music when they enter the abbey.

“A generation or two ago, young men would enter with a certain knowledge of music, and now it’s rare that they have any training,” Anderson said. “But when you’re young, young men can learn fast, and they do.”

Anderson detailed the training that each monk undergoes in order to learn how to sing Gregorian Chant, which includes participating in an academy of sacred music in Europe as well as taking chant classes to ensure they understand the fundamentals behind the music. This process of formation takes years to complete, Anderson said, which gives ample time for training.

“As they take on responsibilities in the choir, they learn more,” he said. “There’s a whole range of knowledge that comes before you become a choirmaster, for example.”

Watch the full interview below.

Pro-life volunteer shot while going door-to door-in Michigan

null / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 24, 2022 / 10:05 am (CNA).

An 84-year-old pro-life volunteer was shot on Sept. 20 while going door-to-door in her community to talk about a ballot measure concerning abortion in Michigan, the group she was volunteering with said.

The woman from Lake Odessa was speaking about Proposal 3, a proposed state constitutional amendment that would advance abortion, according to a Right to Life of Michigan (RLM) press release

The press release said that the woman was shot in the back-shoulder area while leaving a residence during a heated conversation. The man who shot her was not involved in the conversation and the pro-life volunteer does not know his identity or motive.

RLM said that the victim, who wishes to remain anonymous, is still recovering from her gunshot wound.

Chris Gast, the education coordinator for RLM, told CNA that “She is at home recovering and in good spirits. She should be OK.”

Local news outlet WOOD TV8 reported police as saying that the pro-life volunteer was handing out pamphlets when she was shot, after getting into what police called an “alleged verbal altercation.”

The outlet noted that, after getting shot, the woman drove herself to the Lake Odessa Police Department. From there, she was taken to the hospital where she was treated and released.

The RLM press release said that the Michigan State Police are investigating the case, and will forward the results to the Ionia County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. 

This is a developing story.

Live Action’s Life Awards Gala celebrates progress made and work still to be done

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch was among the honorees of Live Action's Life Gala in Dana Point, California, on Sept. 17, 2022. / Screenshot of ETWN YouTube video

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 24, 2022 / 10:00 am (CNA).

For the past several years, Live Action has hosted its annual Life Awards Gala to recognize pro-life leaders for their outstanding work in the defense of life. This year, nearly 500 people gathered in Dana Point, California, on Sept. 17 for the third annual event, the first to be held in a post-Roe America.

This year's awardees included Pastor Lee Jong-Rak; Mary Wagner, a Canadian pro-life activist; and Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch. EWTN Pro-Life Weekly spoke with two of the awardees and the president and founder of Live Action, Lila Rose.

Jong-Rak is the founder of a ministry in South Korea that gives mothers an option other than abortion. Mothers who determine they are unable to care for their baby can anonymously leave their child in a climate-controlled baby box. To date, these baby boxes have helped save more than 1,500 lives.

“When I met the first baby, I was so shocked and I was so moved,” Jong-Rak said. “I prayed to God, and I believe that God gave me a mission to do.”

Meanwhile, Fitch received a standing ovation when given her award. It was her state’s case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that led the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Now that we’ve changed the entire narrative in American history, this is a new chapter,” Fitch said. “It truly means so very much to me, but to accept this award not only for myself but for my entire team.”

Rose also shared in the excitement of a post-Roe America: “There’s a lot of joy. There’s so much to celebrate. We have so many heroes in the room tonight,” she said.

“But there’s also the message that our work is just getting started in many ways. We have so much left to do in our movement,” she added.

“So, while we take a pause to celebrate, we’re also making the battle plan for the work ahead to change hearts and minds, to shift public opinion, and to establish legal protection for preborn children in every state of the country,” she said.

Rose also took a moment to comment on her recent interview on the Dr. Phil show and said he, along with many members of the audience, seemed “completely blindsided by pro-life facts — facts about human development, the science of when life begins, by facts on the harm of abortion.”

“People need to hear these facts,” she emphasized. “They’ve been given misinformation, or there’s ignorance about abortion, about its harm, and so we should be prepared to share the facts.”

Rose concluded: “It’s really winsome — when people hear that it gives them an opportunity to see the humanity of the baby, to learn about the evil of abortion, and to have a vision for something better.”

Catholics with mental health struggles aren’t alone, Phoenix bishop says

null / Photo credit: Chanintorn.v / Shutterstock

Denver Newsroom, Sep 24, 2022 / 09:00 am (CNA).

Catholics who struggle with mental illness, and their loved ones who want to help them, will soon find more formal support in the Phoenix Diocese. Bishop John Dolan has announced the launch of an office dedicated to Catholic mental health ministry.

“There are lots of people who are dealing with loved ones who are in crisis,” Dolan told CNA Sept. 19. “It’s a quiet work of charity, and obviously they need all the help they can get.”

The bishop hopes the new office will “let people know that they’re not alone when it comes to mental health.” He emphasized the need to help people talk and communicate about mental illness.

Dolan announced the office on Sept. 4 at Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral during a Mass of Remembrance for those who died by suicide, the diocesan newspaper The Catholic Sun reported.

During the Mass, the bishop led a procession of clergy. Joined by others in the congregation, they placed carnations in baskets in front of a shrine at the cathedral. Each carnation represented a person who died by suicide. The diocese had solicited suicide victims’ names to be commemorated during the Mass and had received more than 1,200.

The issue is personal for the new bishop. In a video message “Sharing My Story: A Life Changed by Suicide,” posted to the diocese’s YouTube channel, Dolan recounted how his family lost an older brother, a sister, and her husband to suicide.

“Losing a loved one is very, very hard. When we lose a loved one through suicide, it’s doubly difficult,” Dolan said in the video. “I had support from the Church but not ongoing support, real opportunities to continue to talk about it. I buried so much that I just never really looked into growing as I should have grown.”

Dolan, who was installed as bishop of Phoenix on Aug. 2, has co-edited a pastoral handbook, “Responding to Suicide.”

Mental illness is relatively common. The National Institutes for Mental Health says that as of 2020, nearly one in five U.S. adults — about 53 million people — were living with a mental illness. An estimated 14.2 million U.S. adults — 5.6% of the adult population — suffer from a severe mental illness. Of these, only 65% received mental health treatment in the previous year.

The planned focus of the Office for Catholic Mental Health Ministry includes mental health education for clergy and laity. The office aims to provide opportunities for Catholics to find support in accompanying friends and loved ones who struggle with mental illness.

The new office will provide priests with a mental health “first-aid kit” to help them advise or respond to those in need, Dolan said.

The educational aspect will aim to help clergy and religious know more about mental health and get basic training “so that they don’t jump to conclusions and kind of over-spiritualize behavior,” Dolan said. This educational effort should help inculcate in clergy “a broad view of what mental health is” so that they don’t “try to solve the issues on their own.”

Education will come through the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. The council, founded in 1969, is an advocacy and educational group that represents more than 3,100 mental health and substance use treatment organizations.

“They basically try to train them about what to expect and what to look for,” Dolan said. “It’s strictly clinical in education; it doesn’t focus on any of the spiritual aspects.”

The organization’s Mental Health First Aid program has trained more than 2.6 million people in the U.S. “to identify, understand, and respond to signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use challenges.” The training covers common signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and substance use challenges, how to interact with a person in crisis, and how to connect a person with help. It also includes content on trauma, substance use, and self-care.

The psychological sciences have a role to play in Catholic thought and practice, Dolan said.

“We see the science of psychology and psychiatry as a valued gift to our human person. We should not shy away from that,” he told CNA.

The aim is not to increase the burdens on priests. Rather, they will have a resource to which they can direct those in need. Dolan aims to have locations in each of the diocese’s 15 deaneries for people suffering from mental health problems, behavioral issues, trauma, or bereavement.

Dolan said he is not yet familiar with the particulars of how the diocese’s current seminarians are being prepared.  

Speaking generally of seminarians, he said that “counseling is perhaps one aspect of their training” and future priests receive only “little samplings” of psychology unless they are taking classes on the subject in their university or seminary.

A 2016 document from the Dicastery for the Clergy, “Ratio Fundamentalis,” discusses the formation of seminarians. It notes that the “useful contribution” of psychology to pastoral theology will benefit seminarians’ education as future pastors.

The Office for Catholic Mental Health Ministry will also have an advocacy role. It will seek to improve government policy and increase funding that addresses mental health. Dolan said this will help “to make sure that mental health is at the front of all of our conversations, particularly as we’re seeing more and more people on the streets with mental health disorders.”

According to the bishop, there are a “whole host of reasons” why some homeless people live on the streets, including trauma, mental disorders, or drug use disorders. The simple situation of experiencing homelessness causes additional anxiety and mental problems, he added.

The office, set to open in January 2023, has financial support from the Phoenix-based Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. Those responsible for organizing the new office are Dr. Anne Vargas-Leveriza of the diocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection and Dr. Maria Chavira, the diocese’s chancellor.

Dolan, a former auxiliary bishop of San Diego, noted previous Catholic statements like the California bishops’ 2018 letter on caring for those who suffer from mental health.

He said Catholic dioceses in San Diego, San Francisco, and Orange are already working to address mental health, often under the efforts of other diocesan departments. He noted the work of the University of San Diego-based Catholic Institute for Mental Health Ministry, which seeks to train mental health ministry leaders at the diocesan and parish level across the U.S.

Meet Chloe Cole, the 18-year-old leading the fight to protect children from transgender surgeries

Chloe Cole in her AirBnb in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 2022. A self-described “former trans kid,” she de-transitioned after undergoing years of puberty blockers and an irreversible double mastectomy at the age of 15. / Edie Heipel/CNA

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 24, 2022 / 06:30 am (CNA).

An 18-year-old woman is rapidly becoming one of the most powerful voices against transitioning children at a moment in which most politicians and media outlets lack the courage to speak out. 

Chloe Cole is a self-described “former trans kid” who de-transitioned after undergoing years of puberty blockers and an irreversible double mastectomy at the age of 15. 

Cole is now traveling across the country to share her story and raise the alarm about gender transition procedures on children, a growing trend she calls “child abuse” and “medical experimentation.”

“I’m planning to keep doing this until it stops,” Cole told CNA Wednesday in an interview.

Cole, who grew up in Northern California, was just 11 years old when she was first exposed to gender ideology through online platforms.

“I kind of lacked female role models growing up,” Cole told CNA, citing body image issues, early exposure to LGBTQ content, and unmonitored internet access as factors that propelled her struggle with gender dysphoria.   

Cole was also diagnosed with autism and ADHD at age 7, which she says are “common comorbidities with gender dysphoria.”

The link between autism and gender dysphoria has been scientifically studied and reported on by independent journalist Abigail Shrier, suggesting that children on the spectrum are particularly vulnerable to the pull of transgenderism.

A ‘false’ choice

It didn’t take long before medical professionals fast-tracked Cole into medically transitioning from a girl into a boy, a trend she says has exploded among children.

Cole said Wednesday that her parents “were scared and desperate for answers” when she first told them she was a boy and that their decision to sign off on transitioning her was “forced under extreme duress.”

“The gender clinic presented my parents with the classic false dichotomy: Would you rather have a dead daughter or a living son?” Cole said. 

Cole was put on puberty blockers and testosterone at just 13 years old, which caused a ripple of negative side effects including unbearable hot flashes and what she describes as an endless feeling of boredom. 

“For me it was pretty bad, like they were making my whole body really itchy. There were certain days that I couldn’t even wear sweaters or long pants in cold weather,” Cole told CNA.

“I felt like there was this feeling of boredom that just wouldn’t go away. I would just wake up waiting for the next best thing,” she remembered. 

Cole continues to experience joint pain from weakened bone density — a known side effect of puberty blockers — as well as certain allergies and ongoing urinary tract infection symptoms. 

But all of this pales in comparison to the double mastectomy Cole underwent at age 15, which permanently removed both of her breasts. 

“The name of the operation I went under was ‘double mastectomy with nipple grafts,’ meaning they make cuts under the breast and take out the tissue underneath,” she explained. 

Cole added that the surgeons also surgically removed her nipples and grafted them back on in a “more masculine position” — creating serious side effects that she will deal with for the rest of her life. 

“They severed the nerve endings. The sensation is never the same again and there are permanent changes in pigmentation — it might not ever look the same,” she explained. 

Cole says she was given the impression from doctors that her grafts would mostly be healed by a year and a half after the surgery, but she still has complications more than two years later. 

“The top layer of skin is not really healing over. It emits this fluid constantly so I have to wear non-adhesive bandages over them all the time.” 

But what Cole most regrets is how “the beauty of motherhood” was stripped from her at an age when she wasn’t able to fully comprehend the loss. 

“At 15, I wasn’t really thinking. I was a kid, just trying to fit in — not thinking about the possibility of becoming a parent.” 

Cole told CNA she went through a long period of grief as she came to regret the mastectomy and de-transitioned in 2021 — a realization that catalyzed after she took a psychology class studying the attachment between mothers and infants. 

The study, which examined rhesus monkeys, observed the importance of mother-child bonding through breastfeeding. 

“At the time when I was taking this class, I was 11 months post-op. I realized what I took away from myself because I was allowed to make this decision when I was barely in my mid-teens,” Cole said.

“I’ll never have the experience, or even the option, of breastfeeding my children and bonding with them in that way.” 

‘Adults need to take a stand’

Cole has no plans to back down from advocating against gender transitions for children and hopes her story opens the eyes of parents of children struggling with gender dysphoria as well as lawmakers who have remained silent. 

“Spend time with your kids, keep them off technology for as long as possible. Let them know they’re loved and stay in touch with them. If they’re on the internet, monitor their usage,” she urged parents. 

“Adults need to take a stand,” Cole emphasized. “Complacency is what led to this happening to me in the first place.” 

“If you look away for even a second, it’s very contagious,” Cole said, speaking of what she calls “skewed information” that medical professionals are sharing on the internet.

Cole referenced Dr. Sidhbh Gallagher, a gender-affirming surgeon from Miami who advertises transition procedures to minors on her Tik-Tok account.  

“There’s definitely a money incentive, especially for those who are doing gender-affirming surgeries,” Cole said. “Surgeons get the most money out of this.” 

So far, Cole has traveled to five states across the U.S. — including her home state of California, Louisiana, Florida, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. — to bear witness to lawmakers about her experience and urge them to take a stand. 

In September, Cole testified against California Democrat Scott Weiner’s proposed S.B. 107, which would make the state a “sanctuary” for children to obtain irreversible gender surgeries without parental consent. 

Alliance Defending Freedom and over 40 other parental rights organizations wrote to California Gov. Gavin Newsom protesting the bill.

“This legislation allows the ‘taking of a child’ to California (without parental knowledge or consent) to obtain gender transition procedures — including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and irreversible surgeries — and impermissibly gives California courts the power to strip custody from lawful and well-intentioned parents,” ADF urged.

Cole says that for the most part, politicians on both sides of the aisle have “just shied away from the issue.”

“Mostly they get into petty fights over it, but nothing has really been done about it,” she said.

CNA interviewed Cole the day after she testified outside Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in favor of a bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, that would criminalize gender procedures on minors. 

Greene’s Protect Children’s Innocence Act, H.R. 8731, would make it a Class C felony to perform gender transition procedures — including mastectomies, phalloplasties, and vaginoplasties — on minors. The bill is being supported by over 40 other Republican lawmakers.

“No child deserves to suffer under the knife of a gender-affirming surgeon,” Cole said in a press conference Sept. 21 unveiling the bill. “America’s children — all children — deserve better.”

“Chloe’s story is so important,” Taylor-Greene told CNA. “We’re so proud of her for being brave enough to come out and tell it, but her story isn’t the only one — there are many beyond her. If anyone is pushing this on children, they’re on the wrong side of history, and we will show that to be true.”

Suzanne Satterfield, a parental-rights activist based in Virginia, spent extensive time with Cole over her trip to D.C. to testify against child transitions.

“Chloe’s a ray of sunshine in the darkness that is looming over the children of today,” Satterfield said to CNA. 

“She could easily stay out of the public’s eye and live a much different life. But she has a big heart and has chosen to sound the alarm of the irreversible damage being done to children at the hands of ‘trusted health care providers.’”

When asked if she was happy, Cole’s face broke into a smile as she nodded vigorously.  

“I’m a lot happier today,” she said, her eyes shining.

“Doing what I’m doing now is giving me a purpose. That’s something that I’ve been seeking for quite a while.”

‘Unconscionable’: California Gov. Newsom cites Jesus on billboards promoting abortion

California State Governor Gavin Newsom. / Matt Gush/Shutterstock

Denver, Colo., Sep 23, 2022 / 18:56 pm (CNA).

When Gov. Gavin Newsom of California unveiled his plan for a billboard advertising campaign inviting women to travel to his state to have abortions, he was swiftly condemned by Catholics, who called the ads “unconscionable” and “blasphemy.”

Why the strong reaction? The abortion-selling ads include a passage from Scripture:

“Need an abortion? California is ready to help,” reads the message to be displayed along Indiana and Oklahoma highways.

In smaller lettering, the ads cite Jesus Christ’s words in the Gospel of Mark: “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these. -Mark 12:31”

“It is unconscionable that these ads distort Scripture to support abortion, specifically in states that have already dramatically limited abortion in favor of supporting life,” Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told CNA Sept. 23.

Funding ads in other states is “nothing more than a political stunt by our governor,” she said. “It is virtue-signaling that California, with our extremely permissive abortion laws, is superior to red and purple states enacting abortion restrictions.”

Newsom, a Democrat, is expected to win re-election as California governor this fall. On Sept. 15 he announced seven versions of the pro-abortion ads that would run on billboards in seven states that restrict abortion.

The ads, which list an abortion access website hosted by the California state government, note that they are paid for by Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign. His campaign committee had almost $24 million cash on hand as of June 30, according to filings available on the website of the California Secretary of State.

Domingo said the use of scripture to back abortion was misleading.

“If we truly loved our neighbor as ourselves, we would want the best for our neighbor, which means true comprehensive support services so that no mother or father is misled or coerced into ending a child’s life, and no mother or father walks their parenthood journey alone,” she told CNA.

She added that basic needs aren’t being met in Newsom’s home state.

“California is not just providing abortions but promoting abortion as a solution for women,” said Domingo. “When California families are struggling to pay for gas, afford rent, and put food on the table, promoting the violence of abortion solves none of the urgent problems countless families are facing.”

CNA sought comment from several Catholic dioceses in California, Mississippi and Oklahoma but did not receive a response by publication.

Chris Check, president of the California-based apologetics organization Catholic Answers, said the ads “commit blasphemy by co-opting Sacred Scripture in service of abortion.”

Writing in a Sept. 21 commentary for Catholic Answers, Check noted that the biblical quotation refers to another commandment in which it should be grounded, the preceding Bible verse where Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

Check cited other verses which stressed the need to care for widows and orphans. A woman abandoned by her husband or boyfriend is a sort of widow, and the unwanted unborn child is “a sort of orphan,” he said.

Christianity has rejected abortion from its earliest years. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says "since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion."

Pope Francis has spoken of abortion as an aspect of a "throwaway culture" that also rejects those in need.

As for Newsom, his political rhetoric has labeled bans on abortion “un-American.” He contended that his Republican foes are “literally killing women.”

“The idea that these Republican politicians are seeking to ‘protect life’ is a total farce,” Newsom said on Sept. 15. “They are seeking to restrict and control their constituents and take away their freedom.”

Newsom’s billboard ads refer to a California abortion access website that includes information about abortion and financial aid for the procedure. The website includes telehealth information about receiving abortion drugs by mail. It provides information for specific groups including those under age 18, those who live outside of California, and immigrants and undocumented people.

The website also repeats criticism of crisis pregnancy centers that do not perform abortions, saying they may provide “false, medically inaccurate information” to convince women not to have an abortion. It links to a Planned Parenthood blog post about pregnancy centers and a California Department of Justice bulletin. The bulletin attempts to distinguish crisis pregnancy centers from “reproductive healthcare facilities” and claims crisis pregnancy centers “do not provide comprehensive reproductive healthcare.”

Newsom said the ads will run in seven of the states with the “most restrictive” anti-abortion laws. In the governor’s view, the ads “explain how women can access care — no matter where they live.”

“To any woman seeking an abortion in these anti-freedom states: (California) will defend your right to make decisions about your own health,” he said.

Billboard ads are also planned for Indiana, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. The ads tell potential readers that these states “don’t own your body. You Do.” Some of these ads show the back of a woman in a white dress, with her hands handcuffed behind her.

These five ads do not include the citation from the New Testament but still refer to the State of California’s abortion website.

For the Catholic commentator Check, the ads should be a cause for fear, prayer and action.

“These blasphemies of Gavin Newsom and the other leaders of California should fill us with fear — fear for him, of course, whose soul is in grievous danger of a fate too horrible to comprehend,” said Check, who also voiced concern for those he might influence.

He encouraged prayers for the governor and for Newsom’s local Catholic bishop. He also encouraged Catholics to engage in their own spiritual formation and to support the work of crisis pregnancy centers, pro-life sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics and the work of other pro-life non-profits.

Founder of Catholic apostolate charged with assaulting abortion clinic escort

Planned Parenthood gets millions of dollars in federal support each year. / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 23, 2022 / 17:56 pm (CNA).

A Catholic speaker and author who regularly prays the rosary outside an abortion clinic in Philadelphia was charged Friday with physically assaulting a Planned Parenthood clinic escort last year.

Mark Houck, 48, of Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, is the co-founder and president of the Catholic ministry The King’s Men, which aims to give spiritual formation to Catholic men. 

News of Houck’s arrest on Friday morning was widely shared on social media after another well-known Catholic speaker, Chris Stefanick, posted about it online. Houck’s wife, Ryan-Marie Houck, told CNA about the arrest Friday.

“A SWAT team of about 25 came to my house with about 15 vehicles and started pounding on our door,” Ryan-Marie Houck said. “They said they were going to break in if he didn't open it. And then they had about five guns pointed at my husband, myself, and basically at my kids,” she added.

She said that multiple agencies were present at the arrest and that she was handed a warrant after she requested to see it.

The FBI confirmed to CNA Friday that Houck was arrested outside his residence Friday morning “without incident.” In a press release, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said that Houck is being charged with a violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, more commonly referred to as the FACE Act.

The federal indictment says that Houck twice assaulted a 72-year-old man who was a patient escort at a Planned Parenthood clinic at 1144 Locust St. in Philadelphia on Oct. 13, 2021. First, Houck shoved the escort, identified only with the initials B.L., to the ground as B.L was attempting to escort two patients, the indictment says. Houck also “verbally confronted” and “forcefully shoved” B.L. to the ground in front of Planned Parenthood the same day, the indictment says. The indictment says that B.L. was injured and needed medical attention.

If he is convicted, Houck could face up to 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $350,000, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. 

The FACE Act “prohibits violent, threatening, damaging and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain or provide reproductive health services,” according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). 

Violating the FACE Act is a federal crime and protects “all patients, providers, and facilities that provide reproductive health services, including pro-life pregnancy counseling services and any other pregnancy support facility providing reproductive health care,” accoding to the DOJ.

Ryan-Marie Houck told CNA that her husband prays the rosary outside one of two different Planned Parenthood’s every Wednesday and hands out literature to anyone who wants it. She said that praying outside the clinic is part of The King’s Men ministry. 

“This was a gross over-reach from the ‘justice’ department with excessive use of force and trumped up allegations and our story needs to be told truthfully,” Ryan-Marie Houck said in a text. “These are false allegations.”

She said that he had his first appearance before a judge and was subsequently released on Friday. Her husband declined to comment, she said. 

In a statement Jacqueline Romero, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said that there is no tolerance for violating the FACE Act.

“Assault is always a serious offense, and under the FACE Act, if the victim is targeted because of their association with a reproductive healthcare clinic, it is a federal crime,” she said in the press release.

“Our Office and the Department of Justice are committed to prosecuting crimes which threaten the safety and rights of all individuals,” she added.

This Muslim NBA vet is marching for persecuted Christians on Saturday

Former Celtics player Enes Kanter Freedom will be the keynote speaker at the March for the Martyrs, / Freedom: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Martyrs: Screenshot from the National Catholic Register

Boston, Mass., Sep 23, 2022 / 11:00 am (CNA).

NBA veteran Enes Kanter Freedom has been using his platform as a professional basketball player to take direct aim at the Chinese Communist Party for its egregious human rights abuses.

“People need to understand this … the Chinese Communist Party does not represent the Olympic values of excellence, of respect, of friendship. The whole world knows that they’re a brutal dictatorship and they engage in censorship, they tread on freedoms, they do not respect human rights, and they hide the truth,” Freedom told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham in February.

But with no team signing a contract with the 6-foot-10, 250-pound center since February, he, and others, say that he’s paying the price for his activism — activism that includes explicitly calling out the NBA, his former team the Boston Celtics, and other players in the league for hypocrisy, citing their relationship with, and failure to condemn, China.

The 30-year-old seems more determined than ever to work in defense of human rights.

Freedom, a practicing Muslim from Turkey, will be speaking at Saturday’s March for the Martyrs in Washington, D.C., an event dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of persecuted Christians around the world. 

“His voice in this generation is so important,” said Gia Chacon, founder and president of For the Martyrs, the organization running the march. Chacon told CNA Aug. 25 that Freedom “had the world at his fingertips,” but added that he “sacrificed everything to advocate on behalf of the voiceless.”

Chacon said that the March for the Martyrs exists to “combat the silence” around the issue of Christian persecution. In addition, its goal is to bring the attention and prayers of Western Christians to the persecuted church across the globe. 

But why did Chacon choose a Muslim to speak at an event advocating for persecuted Christians?

She says it’s because a bridge needs to be built between Muslims and Christians. 

“For him to speak about persecuted Christians; to talk about the importance of freedom of religion makes this issue that much more powerful,” she said.

“And,” she added, “it’s a message to Muslims — not just in the United States, but around the world — that we need to build a bridge between Christians and Muslims,” especially given that Islamist terrorists are among the top persecutors of Christians around the world. 

This won’t be Freedom’s first speaking engagement for religious freedom. He spoke at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., in June.

Freedom also recently launched his foundation — the Enes Kanter Freedom Foundation — in June, which, according to the Washington Times, advocates for civil rights in authoritarian countries like China and Turkey. The Times reported that Freedom will be taking on the foundation’s work full time.

In a June 22 Facebook post, Freedom said: “I’m so excited to announce my new foundation that aims to promote #Freedom, Universal Values, Social Harmony, Poverty Alleviation #HumanRights & #Democracy around the GLOBE.” On Freedom’s website, there is a page to donate to the foundation.

Freedom was born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey before coming to the U.S. to play basketball. He was drafted by the Utah Jazz as the third overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft and made his debut that same year.

The Bleacher Report recently called him one of the most underrated players of the last 10 years, citing his top 10 performance in career rebounding and offensive rebounding plus his general awareness on the court. 

Freedom is a longtime critic of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, often calling him a dictator. Although his family still lives in Turkey, Freedom has said in past interviews that he hasn’t spoken to them in years, which hurts him. But he says that communication must be cut off because of the political climate there and his criticism of the regime. 

While he was with the New York Knicks, Freedom said in 2019 that he skipped a team trip to London because he feared being killed, while calling the Turkish president a “freaking lunatic” and a “dictator.” 

Other speakers at the March for the Martyrs event include Chacon; David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA; Esther Zang, a survivor of Christian persecution in China and North Korea; Jacob Coyne, founder of Stay Here, an organization dedicated to ending the mental health crisis and suicide; Father Simon Esshaki, a Chaldean Catholic priest; Jason Jones, a filmmaker, humanitarian, and founder of the Vulnerable People Project; Shane Winnings, CEO and president of Overcomers Inc., an evangelical organization that helps Christians preach and teach the Gospel; Russel Johnson, pastor of The Pursuit church; and Ryan Helfenbein, executive director of the Standing for Freedom Center. 

Delivering another keynote address will be evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who worked to spread Christianity in the Middle East for years before he was imprisoned in Turkey for two years. 

His experience as a pastor in the Middle East, in addition to his imprisonment, will be the topic of his speech, Chacon said.

As many as 1,000 people are expected at this year’s march, which begins at 3 p.m. with an opening rally before moving from the National Mall to the nearby Museum of the Bible. A new addition to this year’s event includes free busing for any group of 50 people located three or four hours from the march. 

The buses will pick the groups up and drop them off at the end of the night, Chacon said. Groups interested can email [email protected].

In addition to the march, Chacon’s organization leads an annual mission trip to visit persecuted Christians around the world. In 2021, Chacon and her team went to Iraq. 

The organization spreads awareness of Christian persecution through online content, especially through videos. It also sponsors various development projects overseas to help persecuted Christians such as a computer lab in Iraq for internally displaced Christians, Chacon said.

According to Open Doors USA, an organization dedicated to serving persecuted Christians across the globe, more than 360 million Christians around the world face extreme persecution and discrimination because of their faith.

The organization, which compiles a “World Watch List” of “The top 50 countries where it’s most difficult to follow Jesus” lists Afghanistan as the top persecutor of Christians in the world, citing “Islamic oppression.” 

The other countries that make up the top 10, in order, are North Korea, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Eritrea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, and India. China is ranked 17th on the list. Turkey is ranked 42.

Padre Pio sculptor’s work to be blessed on saint’s feast day: ‘I have to honor him’

Artist Timothy P. Schmalz touches the hands of Padre Pio in one of his sculptures. / Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 23, 2022 / 07:15 am (CNA).

Catholic artist Timothy P. Schmalz calls Padre Pio his favorite saint. And so, when he learned that four of his sculptures would honor the Italian mystic on his feast day — Sept. 23 — he was overjoyed.

“I thought a couple years ago about that moment in my life where Padre Pio gave me that peace and comfort and I thought, ‘I have to honor him,’” the 53-year-old sculptor told CNA over the phone, his hands full of clay. “I really do. And the best way I can honor a saint is by sculpting them.”

St. Pio of Pietrelcina, more commonly known as Padre Pio, is one of the most popular saints of the 20th century. The Capuchin friar is famous for his stigmata (Christ’s wounds, present in his own flesh), his spiritual wisdom and guidance, his ministry in the confessional, his reported ability to miraculously bilocate, and his being physically attacked by the devil.

On Friday, Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston will bless Schmalz’s bronze sculptures that will be installed that same day. Three of them will be placed in the plaza of San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy, where an average of seven million pilgrims visit annually to pray at Padre Pio’s tomb. The fourth will stand at another popular, nearby pilgrimage site: St. Michael’s Cave.

A video on Schmalz’s YouTube channel shows the artist working on his Padre Pio sculptures in his studio located in St. Jacobs, Ontario, Canada. At one point, he holds a rosary.

“I usually consider my sculpture [to be a] prayer, and my hands are always not busy with beads, but busy with clay,” he told CNA. “I do believe that these sculptures — all of them — are prayers, visual prayers and cast in bronze.”

Schmalz is not new to sculpting. The experienced artist’s work can be found worldwide, from St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican to Washington, D.C. He is perhaps best known for his “Homeless Jesus” sculpture and the “Angels Unaware” statue. Right now, he is also creating a life-size Stations of the Cross to be placed by Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

It took him roughly a year, he said, to form his Padre Pio sculptures. Each one is different.

A struggle with evil

His first sculpture depicts the saint wrestling in combat with a demon.

“I really do believe that it is something that, if you did not know who Padre Pio was, seeing this sculpture, you would want to know about him,” he explained of the sculpture that he hopes introduces more people to the saint.

In particular, he hopes that his work attracts the younger generation.

“Art can be a wonderful entrance, a wonderful doorway, but it has to be exciting,” he articulated.

Artist Timothy P. Schmalz's sculpture illustrates Padre Pio strangling a demon and pushing him into nothingness, with one fist posed to strike. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz
Artist Timothy P. Schmalz's sculpture illustrates Padre Pio strangling a demon and pushing him into nothingness, with one fist posed to strike. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz

This sculpture illustrates Padre Pio strangling a demon and pushing him into nothingness, with one fist posed to strike.

“I think so many people today have struggles with evil and they have these battles going on,” Schmalz said of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. “I thought that to have this saint in combat with evil and winning is a wonderful representation — and a very much authentic representation — of St. Padre Pio.”

A pietà offering peace

The second shows Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Padre Pio encircled in a sculpted ribbon.

“It's the ribbon for breast cancer, and many people around the world have that ribbon as a symbol of all cancer,” Schmalz said, adding that people frequently pray to Padre Pio when they have a family member suffering from cancer.

But the ribbon doubles as something else: a fish — an ancient symbol of Christianity — facing upward toward the sky.

Inside the outline of the ribbon (or fish), Mary looks down on Padre Pio in a way that Schmalz likens to a pietà. Padre Pio’s gloved hands reach out, inviting passersby to touch them.

Schmalz hopes that, when they do, they encounter peace.

Artist Timothy P. Schmalz touches the hands of Padre Pio in his sculpture that includes the Blessed Virgin Mary. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz
Artist Timothy P. Schmalz touches the hands of Padre Pio in his sculpture that includes the Blessed Virgin Mary. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz

“If you consider all the miracles of St. Padre Pio, I think one of the greatest miracles is that he brings people peace,” he said. “What I like to think about St. Padre Pio is [that] the comfort and peace he gave people, including myself, was the miracle.”

‘Be Welcoming’

His third piece embodies a pilgrim who turns into an angel. It is, Schmalz said, a visual translation of Hebrews 13:2: “Be welcoming to strangers; many have entertained angels unaware.”

“You have the pilgrim that has a staff, who has a conch — which is the symbol of pilgrims — and then before your eyes, artistically, that stranger turns into this mysterial-looking angel,” he described.

Sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz's work embodies a pilgrim who turns into an angel in a visual translation of Hebrews 13:2: “Be welcoming to strangers, many have entertained angels unaware.” Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz
Sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz's work embodies a pilgrim who turns into an angel in a visual translation of Hebrews 13:2: “Be welcoming to strangers, many have entertained angels unaware.” Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz

Schmalz said he is particularly excited that the “Be Welcoming” sculpture will be located at San Giovanni Rotondo because “it’s the place where pilgrims go.”

St. Michael the protector

The sculpture that will be placed in St. Michael’s Cave depicts the archangel protecting Padre Pio, as he kneels in prayer, from a demon.

“It makes me so happy that [on] this feast day of St. Padre Pio, this sculpture will be permanently installed and blessed in St. Michael's Cave,” he said. “It’s just beyond my wildest dreams of happiness that these celebrations are happening right now.”

Artist Timothy P. Schmalz's sculpture depicts St. Michael the Archangel protecting Padre Pio, as he kneels in prayer, from a demon. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz
Artist Timothy P. Schmalz's sculpture depicts St. Michael the Archangel protecting Padre Pio, as he kneels in prayer, from a demon. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz