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Pennsylvania religious sister dies in car accident

Sister Augustine Marie Molnar, a member of the Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, died tragically in a car accident on Nov. 18, 2023, while traveling to an event to promote vocations. / Credit: Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

CNA Staff, Nov 20, 2023 / 14:38 pm (CNA).

A religious sister in Pennsylvania passed away over the weekend after colliding head-on with another vehicle on the road as she was traveling to a reunion of women who participated in an annual discernment retreat known as Fiat.

Sister Augustine Marie Molnar, 43, a member of the Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, was a middle school religion teacher at All Saints Catholic School in Cresson, Pennsylvania.

She sometimes assisted in vocation work and was headed to Reading, Pennsylvania, in the Diocese of Allentown, to share her own vocation story. 

“She was traveling there to promote vocations to the religious life. She died promoting vocations, you could say,” Mother Mary Joseph Calore, SSCJ, the order’s provincial superior in the United States, told CNA in a phone interview.

Calore said that Sister Augustine Marie also worked at the community’s personal care home for the elderly, the John Paul II Manor, as a physical therapist.

Calore said Sister Augustine Marie was very talented, especially as a musician, playing the piano, organ, and trumpet. Sister Augustine Marie used that musical talent in her vocation work leading music ministry at Fiat events, Calore said.

Sister Augustine Marie also had a skill for helping young people, Calore said, organizing a team of young girls who helped to serve at John Paul II Manor.

“She was such a hidden soul,” Calore said. “She was hidden in life, but in death, everyone is giving glory to the Sacred Heart for everything she was doing.”

Calore said that Sister Augustine Marie had just finished a private retreat four days before her passing saying that “she was in a very peaceful and good place spiritually.”

“So I think that Our Lord took her at a time in her spiritual life when she was very ready to meet him,” she said. 

Calore said that Gregorian Masses are being prayed for the repose of Sister Augustine Marie’s soul. Gregorian Masses are 30 consecutive days of Masses offered for the deceased right after their death. 

The two passengers in the other vehicle survived and only had minor injuries, George Holmes, the chief deputy coroner for Berks County, told CNA Monday.

Sister Augustine Marie had taken temporary vows with the community and possibly would have made her perpetual profession of vows as early as March of next year. 

“She was a wonderful, sacrificial, and prayerful holy sister, and we’re really going to miss her terribly,” Calore told CNA. 

Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on May 12, 1980, Sister Augustine Marie entered the Congregation of the Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on Sept. 8, 2013. 

She made her first profession of vows in 2017 at St. Francis Xavier Church in Cresson, Pennsylvania.

She served in the sisters’ local community of St. Maximilian Kolbe, which is located at the congregation’s provincial house in Cresson. 

A public viewing will take place at St. Francis Xavier Church in Cresson on Nov. 26 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and the morning of Nov. 27 from 9:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. 

A funeral Mass will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 27. She will be buried at St. Francis Xavier Parish Cemetery in Cresson.

“It’s just such a heartbreaking loss to lose such a young sister with so much promise and so much joy,” Calore said. 

“But she wanted to be the spouse of Christ forever. And so I wrote to our mother general yesterday in Poland: ‘It appears that the heart of Jesus will give the profession ring to Sister himself, since the bishop will not be putting that on her finger here.’”

Ohio priest sentenced to life in prison for sex trafficking 

null / Credit: Zolnierek / Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Nov 20, 2023 / 12:45 pm (CNA).

An Ohio priest was sentenced to life in prison Friday after being convicted of multiple sexual abuse charges earlier this year. 

Parish priest Michael Zacharias was convicted on five counts of sex trafficking by a federal jury in the Northern District of Ohio in May. 

The priest had been arrested in 2020 on the charges, which included “coercion and enticement, sex trafficking of a minor, and sex trafficking of an adult by force, fraud, or coercion.” 

Zacharias had engaged in sexual conduct with minors since the late 1990s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said at the time. 

Upon his conviction in May, he faced a minimum of 15 years in prison. The U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release on Friday that the priest received a life sentence for the crimes. 

Luis Quesada, an assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, said in the release that Zacharias “met his victims when they were as young as 5 and began exploiting them for commercial sex acts and enabling their resulting opioid addictions.” 

The release said the priest met the victims “when they were minor parochial school students through his affiliation with their school.” 

Zacharias “exploit[ed] his victims over extended periods as they developed opioid addictions and criminal records,” the release said. The priest later reportedly “manipulated the victims’ fears of opioid withdrawal and homelessness” to abuse them further. 

“Michael Zacharias used his position as a trusted spiritual leader and role model for young boys and their families to exploit them in the most insidious ways, coercing his victims from childhood and beyond to engage in commercial sex with him,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in the press release. 

“This sentence sends a very clear message that those who abuse their positions of power and authority to sexually assault and exploit children will be held accountable,” she continued. 

“The Justice Department stands ready to fully enforce our federal human trafficking statutes while seeking justice for the survivors of these treacherous crimes.”

Upon learning of the abuse charges in 2020, Toledo Bishop Daniel Thomas placed Zacharias on immediate administrative leave, forbidding him from exercising public priestly ministry or presenting himself as a priest while the claims were being investigated.

After his conviction earlier this year, the diocese said Zacharias’ case would “be presented to the Holy See, who will make the final judgment, which will lead to a determination of his status as a priest.” 

In a statement on Friday, Thomas said Zacharias’ sentencing “marks another step towards justice for all of those harmed by his actions.”

“At the conclusion of the federal trial and the conviction of Zacharias,” Thomas said, “the diocese, in accord with Canon (Church) Law, had requested the imposition of the penalty of direct dismissal of the clerical state (returning him to the lay state), transmitting the case to the Holy See who alone has the authority to make a final determination concerning his status as a priest in the Church.”

Diocesan spokeswoman Kelly Donaghy told CNA on Monday morning that the diocese was “still awaiting a response” from the Holy See.

Priest delivers twin babies outside cathedral in Washington state

Father Jesús Mariscal recently helped a homeless woman give birth to twins outside St. Paul Cathedral in Yakima, Washington . / Credit: Catholic Extension

Yakima, Wash., Nov 20, 2023 / 12:15 pm (CNA).

A young priest recently helped a distressed homeless woman bring two young lives into the world. He shared the remarkable story with Catholic Extension and now is wondering what God was trying to tell him through the extraordinary experience.

Father Jesús Mariscal is the parochial vicar at St. Paul Cathedral in Yakima, Washington. He stepped out of the rectory in September for what he thought would be a quick trip to buy doughnuts for a marriage preparation meeting with an engaged couple.

As he walked past the statue of the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, located on the cathedral grounds, he noticed a homeless woman in distress standing near it.

She was screaming frantically, “I need help! I’m having a baby!”

Mariscal couldn’t believe it at first. But he looked closely and saw blood at her feet. She cried out, “I’m having it now! I’m having it now!”

He called 911 and helped the woman lie down. He put his phone on speaker and placed it on the ground so he could follow the 911 operator’s instructions. Within seconds the woman gave birth to a baby boy. Mariscal handed the crying boy to the woman.

“I’m having another!” she shouted to the shocked priest.

Mariscal helped deliver the second boy. He told the 911 operator the child was still in the amniotic sac, the protective membrane that surrounds a child in the womb. Mariscal saw the baby moving inside it.

The 911 operator told him to break it open. This proved more difficult than expected. With precious time evaporating and no tools at his disposal, the priest was finally able to burst the sac with his hands, only to find the tiny infant wasn’t breathing.

His umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. The operator told Mariscal to lay the child on his side and gently tap him on the back.

After a few terrifying moments, the baby started to cry, announcing his arrival into the world. Mariscal placed the second child in the woman’s lone free arm.

The morning air was chilly, so he ran inside to get towels. Finally, the paramedics arrived.

Mariscal texted the couple he was supposed to meet for marriage preparation. “I’m sorry I’m late for our appointment. I was just helping a lady deliver twins,” he wrote.

Assuming it was a joke to excuse his tardiness, they responded: “LOL Father. You don’t have to lie.”

‘What is God trying to tell me?’

The woman and twin boys were taken to the hospital. The babies were born prematurely, at 30 weeks.

The priest has visited them in the hospital, and they are doing well. He does not know the exact nature of the mother’s situation in life. She left the hospital a few hours after being admitted, and as far as anyone knows she has not yet returned.

“It’s a beautiful story on one side, but heartbreaking on the other,” said the priest, whose own beloved mother passed away earlier in the year.

“It was a surreal experience,” he said. “It was like something from a movie.”

“I was there holding a baby with my bloody hands, and the baby was all bloody as well, and I’m dressed in clerics. And I’m a priest in front of the shrine of Our Lady. And I was thinking, ‘What is God trying to tell me? What are you trying to tell me, God? What is this about?’”

He shared the experience at Mass the next day with parishioners, who also thought the priest was telling an “apocryphal” story that had no actual basis in reality.

But the reality is that there are two new babies who have come into this world thanks to his quick thinking and action. And, although they entered the world at a disadvantage, like Jesus, with “no place to rest their heads,” there is hope these children will be raised with love.

So, what might God have been saying to Mariscal through this experience?

Perhaps that life is precious and fragile, and that a Church that rallies around the disadvantaged, the homeless, the naked, the defenseless, and the vulnerable is the kind of Church that Christ intended to build.

Mariscal, who was ordained in 2018, said this story should be “about the mother and the babies and how they are. The twins and the woman are the protagonists of God’s love. They and people like them on the peripheries of our own communities are the ones God is calling us to embrace with our service and love for our neighbors.”

This story was first published Nov. 14, 2023, at Catholic Extension and is adapted and reprinted here with permission.

As home schooling soars in U.S., Catholic schools struggle to recover from pandemic

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CNA Staff, Nov 18, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).

As Catholic schools struggle to reach pre-pandemic student enrollment levels, Catholic home education appears to be enjoying a small renaissance, in keeping with trends showing an ongoing spike in home schooling across the U.S.  

The Washington Post last month reported that home schooling is by far the “fastest-growing form of education” in the United States, with double-digit increases in home-school enrollment seen in a majority of U.S. states over roughly the past five years. 

That increase crosses “every measurable line of politics, geography, and demographics,” the Post said, with the paper estimating “between 1.9 million and 2.7 million home-schooled children in the United States.”

“By comparison,” the paper said, “there are fewer than 1.7 million in Catholic schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association” (NCEA). 

Catholic school enrollment today

Margaret Kaplow, a spokeswoman for the NCEA, told CNA that the organization has “been seeing a two-year uptick in Catholic school enrollment, so we aren’t seeing a drop.” But data from the organization show Catholic schools still falling short of enrollment numbers that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kaplow shared the NCEA’s latest data brief, one that stated that “although 60 of the 175 Catholic school dioceses saw an increase of 1.0% or greater in enrollment since 2019-2020, nationwide Catholic school enrollment is still 2.6% lower than pre-pandemic levels.” 

The organization’s data show nearly 1.8 million Catholic school students in the 2018-2019 school year, which plummeted to about 1.6 million in the 2020-2021 year amid the start of the COVID-19 crisis, before rebounding slightly to just under 1.7 million this year. 

Kaplow said 2023-2024 data, currently gathered from about a third of dioceses, indicate “a less than 1% decrease in enrollment.”   

“Without a separate study, we can’t know the reasons for this,” she said, “but [we] likely are seeing a post-COVID shrinkage in enrollment.”

The NCEA’s brief noted that Catholic education enrollment “has varied widely since the pandemic, with Southeast region’s enrollment up 1.7% and Mideast region down 7.5% from 2019-2020.”

Mary Pat Donoghue, the executive director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat of Catholic Education, told CNA in a phone interview that Catholic schools “​​have lost enrollment really for the last five or six decades.” 

“That has been a long-term trend,” she said. “The pandemic was very devastating, as it was to many, many organizations, especially for schools that were sort of on the margins. So we lost a lot of schools all at once, to the tune of around 6.4% of enrollment.”

The uptick in enrollment after the pandemic, Donoghue said, was due in part to “the fact that Catholic schools prioritized a safe reopening.” 

“There was a priority to get kids back on campus and back in class,” she said. “I think that’s why you saw such a strong rebound.” 

“We hope it stabilizes,” Donoghue said of enrollment numbers. “I think long-term, what Catholic schools really need to recognize is the important role they play in forming people — children who will then be adults, with a Catholic worldview.” 

“I think that’s where our opportunity lies,” she said. “I think we need to dig into our own tradition, our treasury of culture, of art, of scientific discoveries, and work to strengthen that, so that when this generation of kids ages into adulthood they will have a sense of vocation and a sense of calling.”

Catholic home schooling on the rise

The COVID-19 crisis disrupted nearly the entirety of the U.S. education system, with most schools throughout the country shutting down in the early spring of 2020 and reopening with either fully remote or “hybrid” learning setups for many months. 

Amid the protracted chaos of closures and reopenings, many families opted for home schooling, which, according to the Post, “remains elevated well above pre-pandemic levels.”

A growing number of families, meanwhile, are opting to take up specifically Catholic home education programs. Everett Buyarski, the academic services director for the Catholic home school organization Kolbe Academy, said the company has seen “an 11% growth in families this year over last year.”

Kolbe offers what it says is an “authentically Catholic, classical home education” program, giving enrollees access to an “orthodox curriculum and faithful faculty and staff.” Buyarski said a review of its recent spike in enrollment indicates “about a quarter of those came to us from Catholic schools.” 

“The largest portion are home schoolers choosing to enroll with us who hadn’t previously, about 60%, while 15% came to us from public schools,” he said. 

Buyarski said finances are often a “contributing factor” for a family’s decision to take up or leave home schooling, either for families who leave Catholic school to home school or when a home schooling parent has to return to work. 

“It can also be the case that families have found that the local Catholic school wasn’t a good fit for their family’s needs, for a variety of reasons,” he said. 

“The most common reasons we hear for families leaving public school are due to concerns with what is being taught at the school, or due to bullying or other behavioral/environmental considerations.”

Maureen Whittmann, the co-founder and co-director of the Catholic curriculum provider Homeschool Connections, told CNA that her organization is enjoying a long stretch of growth even after the upheaval of the pandemic cooled off. 

“During the pandemic, of course, we saw a huge spike,” she said. “Post-pandemic we expected to see a big drop. We figured people would stay, but many would go back. But we continue to grow. We did not see a drop after the pandemic. Our numbers held steady and we’re continuing to see growth post-pandemic.”

Whittmann said “disenchantment” with both public and, in some cases, Catholic schools is a large part of what’s driving new families to their program. 

“Once [families] get into home schooling they’re discovering they really love it,” she said. “They’re drawn into the family life.”

The pandemic, she said, “also made a lot of people realize that they could home school.”

“We saw at the start of the pandemic, parents who had been thinking about home schooling for a while and the pandemic forced them into it and they realized, ‘I can do this!’” she said. 

Recovering from the post-pandemic slump

Though enrollment numbers in 2023 were still markedly lower than before the pandemic, Catholic schools still enjoyed a slight recovery in student numbers between the pandemic crash and now.

An EWTN News/RealClear Opinion Research poll of Catholic voters last year suggested that dissatisfaction with several aspects of public education could help explain that bump.

The poll found that 74% of Catholic voters were concerned about children suffering from an educational “COVID deficit” caused by the shift to online learning during the pandemic. 

In its data brief, the NCEA pointed out that Catholic schools “have innovated in order to meet the needs of their communities.” Lincoln Snyder, the president and CEO of the NCEA, told CNA earlier this year that Catholic schools “work very hard to stay affordable.” 

“I think that parochial schools in general across the country have done a really good job of trying to keep tuition into that range of essentially a car payment,” he said. “I mean, a lot of people are surprised that they can afford a Catholic school.”

Snyder told CNA that Catholic schools “always have to be vigilant in guarding a strong Catholic ethos at the school” and that “protecting that identity always has to be first and foremost for our schools.”

In its latest data brief, meanwhile, the NCEA said Catholic schools must maintain high levels of innovation and support in order to continue their recovery from the post-pandemic slump.

“They will need to continue to support their students and communities in the future to maintain the positive enrollment trend” observed over the past two years, the NCEA said. 

Donoghue, meanwhile, said that Catholic schools as an overall institution “are fundamentally strong in this one sense: At a time when there’s been a lot of distrust in institutions, Catholic schools remain very well regarded.” 

“This is a great strength,” she said, “and it’s a great credit to the mission-driven people that have led them and staffed them for so long.”

Here’s what ‘border bishops’ think about the migrant crisis

Texans brought prayer candles, bottles of water, and religious icons to a makeshift memorial at the site where 46 migrants were declared dead in San Antonio, Texas, in June 2022. / Credit: Shutterstock

Baltimore, Md., Nov 17, 2023 / 18:20 pm (CNA).

Several Texas bishops are expressing grave concern about the ongoing migrant crisis and are underscoring the need for “comprehensive immigration reform” as the situation is untenable for their dioceses.

More than 2.5 million illegal immigrants crossed the southern border last year. Texas, which shares a border with four different Mexican states and makes up well over half of the total U.S.-Mexico borderline, has borne the brunt of the ongoing migrant crisis.

The Texas bishops shared their concerns with CNA during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Plenary Assembly, which took place Nov. 13–16 in Baltimore.

While the bishops expressed different views about what exactly should be done, all said that the current U.S. immigration system is broken and has been causing incredible damage to the region and the lives of the migrants.

Here’s what the Texas bishops CNA spoke with had to say.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston 

“This is not fair, or just, or right,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston told CNA.

DiNardo said that “the immigration problem is affecting the state so intensely” and that the migrants themselves are often the ones who suffer the most.

“We have a completely distraught system of immigration. It’s not functioning right, so all kinds of horrors happen because of it,” DiNardo said. “Every other week, there’s a house or something in Houston, they open up and find 30 undocumented immigrants there in various stages of being enslaved.”

According to DiNardo, the sheer number of migrants illegally crossing the border has created a breeding ground for all manner of problems, including human trafficking, much of which is run through the city of Houston.

The city’s proximity to the border, DiNardo explained, has made it a “capital” for human trafficking, a problem he said will persist until something drastically different is done.

“It’s sad. Immigrants do come here with all manner of talents and desires and hopes,” he said. “You have to fix this immigration system. Until you do, we’re going to continue to have this.”

Though he said that he has “nothing but respect for our border agents,” who “process people as well as they can,” he said that there are days he believes the cartels “run what goes on at the border” and that “they’re in charge.”

DiNardo said that the cartels and traffickers “need to be dealt with” and that measures against them need to be “stern.”

Though he said it’s the government’s responsibility to deal with the cartels and crime at the border, he said it is the responsibility of citizens to get the government to act.

“Until the federal level really gets the sense that people want a change, they’re not going to change. It’s too convenient to put forward wild plans that will never be realized,” he said. “If you’ve seen the way the Democratic and Republican parties work, for instance, at the federal level, it seems to be they’re reduced to talking points on all issues; it doesn’t get so far.”

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, Archdiocese of San Antonio

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio told CNA that while every country “has a right to have secure borders,” what’s missing in the country’s immigration system is the recognition that migrants “are human people” and “have human dignity.”

“Jesus said, ‘Love God and love neighbor.’ So that’s our foundation in our relationship with migrants and refugees,” García-Siller said.

“As a Church, as members of the body of Christ, we believe that we have to do whatever is in our power and possibilities to help them.”

Central to reforming the immigration system, García-Siller said, is helping to alleviate the causes leading people to leave their home countries in the first place.

García-Siller said the border issue has become so politically charged because rather than Christianity or the social doctrine of the Church, “politics is directing almost every area of our society, including the conscience of our people.”

According to García-Siller, the city of San Antonio has been receiving an average of 1,500 migrants every day for the last month. That’s up from the 1,000 daily migrants it has been receiving since August.

Though he said his archdiocese and other nongovernmental agencies have been able to cooperate with authorities to give aid to the migrants, he doesn’t know how much longer they can sustain those numbers.

“Until today, I can tell you that we had been able to do it and do it well, treating them properly,” he said. “But we need the support of the city, of the state and the federal government.”

“We’re trying to do what is lacking; how long we can do it, I cannot tell you.”

Bishop Mark Seitz, Diocese of El Paso

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso also holds the influential role of chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, which makes the bishops’ official policy recommendations to send to Congress and the president.

“Our Holy Father has pointed out that we bishops need to be involved in immigration,” Seitz said. “And from what I hear from my brother bishops, I think there’s great interest in the topic and tremendous support for the responsibility we have as a Church to care for immigrants.”

“The problem very often is that we don’t know — just like so many citizens — we don’t know how we can help.”

“So, one of the roles that I have in the conference,” Seitz explained, “is to see if we can find ways to inform people better and to show them ways that they can really make a difference in the lives of those who have come among us.”

In El Paso, Seitz said his diocese operates five shelters and regularly collaborates with governmental and nongovernmental agencies to meet the needs of the record-high migrants who have come through his diocese.

The diocese’s shelters have been consistently full as the El Paso sector of the border has thousands of crossings daily.

Despite the numbers, Seitz has advocated for more lenient border policies, criticizing recent decisions made by the Biden administration to implement certain restrictions, some of which were originally imposed under the Trump administration.

To Seitz, comprehensive immigration reform involves establishing “a more orderly system” in which “there are clear lines” and “people are carefully vetted.” He also believes reform needs to be aimed at helping alleviate the root causes of mass migration.

“We as a nation, the United States, have a responsibility, certainly as Christians, but even as a nation, one can see where we have a moral responsibility to do what we can to assist those sending countries to overcome some of the things that are causing this instability and to do it in a way that respects the rights of the people there,” he said.

The U.S. currently devotes $25 billion to border security, according to a March statement by the White House. Seitz said that “if even some of that were directed more towards the situation in sending countries and investing that in ways that really have an impact, we think we could change considerably the situation, the numbers of people who are seeking refuge.”

“Frankly,” Seitz added, “we bear some responsibility because of the fact that we’re the main ones that are supporting organized crime in these countries by our use of illegal drugs.”

Bishop James Tamayo, Diocese of Laredo

Bishop James Tamayo of Laredo, a city with a population that is over 95% Hispanic, said that migrants’ “concerns and their realities are something that can’t wait.”

“People are being killed, people are being threatened, people have no food, no educational opportunities or families.”

Tamayo said that he is grateful for how the faithful in his diocese have responded to the crisis, helping to give temporary shelter, food, and help getting to their U.S. sponsors.

Though Tamayo said that he understands many people are fearful about the record numbers crossing the border, he said that “in the Diocese of Laredo, I’ve always reminded our people [to] look at your ancestors and where did they come from? Where are your cultural roots, and then what have they contributed?”

“Look at the way we live today. Look at our society that we’re living in. Who built this up? What gave you the opportunities? It was those same immigrants that settled here that cared not only for their family and themselves, but for the community, and it opened up doors for all of us.”

Bishop Michael Olson, Diocese of Fort Worth

“At the heart of it,” said Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, “is compassion, but also a sense of justice.”

“You can’t talk about the migration and refugee problem without talking about human trafficking,” he said, explaining that his diocese sits right amid “the main thoroughfare for human trafficking.”

Though Olson said that his diocese has worked extensively to help protect unaccompanied migrant children from trafficking by reuniting them with their parents, he believes that the first step to solving the issue is ensuring that there is a secure border.

“We need a sound border,” he said. “The Holy Father spoke to us [Texas bishops] … and he said: ‘Where the devil is most active today is in human trafficking, this slavery, this trade.’”

“We have to hold ourselves accountable and politicians accountable because there’s been no incentive for politicians from either party to make legitimate changes,” he explained.

“The Church is very pro-immigrant, especially here in the United States,” he went on. “The problem is, without a border and without a clear process, we can’t serve anybody.”

Target doesn’t shy away from controversy with sale of ‘Pride Nutcracker’

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CNA Staff, Nov 17, 2023 / 17:40 pm (CNA).

The retail giant Target is once again at the center of controversy for another LGBTQ+ product: a “Pride Christmas Nutcracker Figure.”

Target has been the subject of a national boycott because of its “pride collection,” likely contributing to declining sales for the last two fiscal quarters.

“Bring uplifting flair to your holiday decor with this Pride Nutcracker Figurine from Wondershop™,” a description of the product says. 

“This charming nutcracker figurine with a light purple beard and hair wears a blue and white jacket with golden trim and rainbow lapels, black and blue dress pants, and a rainbow hat, and it also holds a Pride flag in hand,” it says. 

The ornament holds a “progress” pride flag, which features white, pink, and blue stripes representing transgender people. Black and brown stripes represent marginalized people with black or brown skin color.

Conservative and Christian commentators began calling for boycotts following news of Target’s pride merchandise and partnership in May. Calls for a boycott have continued by commentators and online since then. 

Some commentators and social media posts criticized Target because of the nutcracker figure, which has been sold in the past, according to Queer News Tonight.

Target waded into controversy in May after it promoted adult women’s-style swimwear intended to help transgender-identifying men conceal their genitals as well as a children’s swim skirt with a tag describing itself as fit for “multiple body types and gender expressions.”

But part of the anger toward Target was stoked by its partnership with a U.K.-based designer who creates items with Satanic imagery. 

Bud Light and its parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev were also the subject of a boycott this year after the company announced a partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney in April.

“All Christians and religious need to boycott Target. We need to send a message to these woke companies that choose evil as their marketing tactic. It’s just sick,” said conservative media personality Mercedes Schlapp.

In May, Target released a statement saying that there have been threats made to its staff since releasing its Pride Month collection. 

The retailer said that it would be removing certain items “that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.”

“Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year,” that statement said. 

NBC News reported in May that in some stores in the South, pride displays were moved to less visible areas of the shopping center. 

Target said that comparable sales declined 5.4% in the second quarter. The company said this month that in its third quarter, comparable sales declined 4.9%. 

Target’s stock has taken a significant hit since May, but it had a jump of about 20% over the past five days.

Following its decline in sales during its second quarter, Target CEO Brian Cornell told investors that the financial hit was due to both inflation and “negative guest reaction to our Pride collection,” according to Newsweek.

Target says it has been executing a gay pride agenda for over a decade. The company has published a “Pride Manifesto,” a video that celebrates homosexual relationships and shows couples of the same sex kissing, embracing, and in marriage ceremonies.

Just last year, Target said it would be celebrating Pride Month during the month of June but that the celebration would go “all year long.”

Annual collection for retired religious to fill a dire need

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CNA Staff, Nov 17, 2023 / 16:50 pm (CNA).

Religious communities in the U.S. lack the funds necessary to care for their elderly, the U.S. bishops said ahead of the annual collection for the religious retirement fund.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said in a statement this month that on the weekend of Dec. 9–10, “participating dioceses will take up the annual collection that benefits approximately 24,000 elderly religious sisters, brothers, and religious order priests across the United States.”

“Numerous religious communities in the United States are experiencing challenges with providing for their elderly members and are confronting a sizable disparity between available funds and the costs of care,” the bishops said.

The bishops said the Retirement Fund for Religious collection is “vital” for supporting thousands of elderly religious men and women around the country who have “insufficient” funds on which to retire.

John Knutsen, the director of the U.S. bishops’ National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO), told CNA this week that the vast majority of religious communities lack the funds to support the retired religious.

“Just over 6% of the communities that provide data to us are adequately funded for retirement,” he said. “Forty-two percent of them have 25 or fewer members.”

“For most of their lives, elder religious worked for little or no pay,” Knutsen said. “There were no 401(k) plans or pensions, and what stipends they received were very modest,” he said.

“And also of course they take a vow of poverty,” he said. “Religious in a sense never really retire. They often remain very active in ministry as they are able.”

High numbers of elderly retirees, relative to younger members, are helping to drive the retirement shortfalls, Knutsen said. “Overall, those religious who are past age 70 currently outnumber those under age 70 by nearly 3 to 1,” he told CNA. He pointed out that “so many members are living longer now.”

“Religious communities are financially responsible for the support and care of all their members,” Knutsen said. “Often they can’t rely on private donations alone, and their finances are managed separately from the parish and diocesan structures of the Church. As a result, hundreds of religious communities face a wide gap between the needs of their elder members and the funds they have to support them.”

The retirement fund “exists to help them bridge that gap,” he said.

In addition to direct financial assistance, Knutsen said, the annual fund “underwrites educational programming, services, and resources that enable religious communities to evaluate and prepare for long-term retirement, so we actively assist them with all their retirement planning needs.”

“We can help them assess their financial situation now and plan for the future,” Knutsen said. “And that may be looking at property issues, it may be looking at finances, it may be looking at their cost of care. Maybe a community’s cost of care is significantly higher than the national average, for example. So we can provide consultants to help them find ways to bring that down.”

However the challenges are addressed, Knutsen said, the annual collection is “a huge part of it.”

“The collection has been around since 1988,” he said. “It’s an enormous source of support for them as well, and it’s only possible because so many generous donors have been so steadfast in their support of this collection over the years.”

The USCCB in its press release this month noted that, traditionally, Catholic religious have “dedicated their lives to Church ministries such as parishes, schools, and health care institutions, usually with little to no compensation.”

“Consequently, a significant number currently have insufficient retirement funds, combined with escalating health care costs,” the press release said.

The U.S. bishops established the Retirement Fund for Religious collection, the press release noted, to “address this serious retirement funding need among U.S. religious orders.” Last year the NRRO raised more than $27 million to that end.

Catholics in the U.S. have donated nearly $1 billion to the fund since its inception, the bishops said; more than $800 million has been “distributed to support the day-to-day care of thousands of elderly sisters, brothers, and religious order priests.”

Knutsen said religious men and women “have been, and continue to be, on the front lines in so many ways, serving everyone, and they deserve to be cared for in their elder years.”  

“By supporting the Retirement Fund for Religious through the annual parish collection,” he said, “we can show our appreciation for the lifetimes of service given by senior religious and gratefully recognize their great dedication to the communities in which they served.”

Explainer: Why can’t a Catholic join the Freemasons?

Statue of St. Peter in front of St. Peter's Basilica. / Credit: Vatican Media

CNA Staff, Nov 17, 2023 / 15:06 pm (CNA).

The Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) in response to a question from a Filipino bishop recently reaffirmed the long-standing position of the Catholic Church that being an active Freemason constitutes a grave sin.

“Active membership in Freemasonry by a member of the faithful is forbidden,” said the letter, signed by Pope Francis and DDF Prefect Cardinal Victor Fernández. 

The dicastery sent the letter to Bishop Julito Cortes of the Diocese of Dumaguete, who asked the Vatican for guidance on how to approach the “very significant” number of Filipino Catholics enrolled in Freemasonry and “a large number of sympathizers and associates who are personally convinced that there is no opposition between membership in the Catholic Church and in Masonic lodges,” according to the dicastery document.

In addition to reaffirming the Church’s teaching on Freemasonry, the dicastery encouraged Filipino bishops to conduct catechesis explaining why Catholicism and Freemasonry are irreconcilable.

Why is the Church against Freemasonry?

The first papal condemnation of Freemasonry came from Pope Clement XII in 1738, but it has been reiterated by numerous popes over the past three centuries. The pronouncement was in Clement’s papal bull titled In Eminenti.

In this bull, Clement commented on the secrecy of Masonic lodges and the “host of grievous punishment” received when violating the oath of secrecy. The bull did not delve into many specific objections to Masonic practices but concluded, based on “certain knowledge and mature deliberations,” that “all prudent and upright men have passed the same judgment on them as being depraved and perverted.”

Pope Leo XIII greatly expanded on the Church’s teaching nearly 150 years later in his 1884 papal encyclical Humanum Genus. The encyclical detailed why Freemasonry is irreconcilable with Catholicism and accused the Freemasons of “planning the destruction of the holy Church publicly and openly” and holding to doctrines that contradict Church teaching.

According to Leo, Freemasonry adheres to naturalism, which he says is the idea that “human nature and human reason ought in all things to be mistress and guide.” He adds that “they deny that anything has been taught by God; they allow no dogma of religion or truth which cannot be understood by the human intelligence, nor any teacher who ought to be believed by reason of his authority.”

The encyclical expands on the naturalism of Freemasonry, noting that people of all religions can become freemasons and that religion is “held as an indifferent matter and that all religions are alike,” which ruins “all forms of religion, and especially of the Catholic religion, which, as it is the only one that is true, cannot, without great injustice, be regarded as merely equal to other religions.”

Leo says that Freemasons desire to secularize marriage as simply civil contracts, desire that children be left to choose their own religion when they come of age instead of receiving proper religious instruction, and desire that governments refuse to recognize God. He adds that this proposed secularization seeks to eliminate fundamental truths from society.

“If these be taken away, as the naturalists and Freemasons desire, there will immediately be no knowledge as to what constitutes justice and injustice, or upon what principle morality is founded,” Leo says. “And, in truth, the teaching of morality which alone finds favor with the sect of Freemasons, and in which they contend that youth should be instructed, is that which they call ‘civil,’ and ‘independent,’ and ‘free,’ namely, that which does not contain any religious belief.”

Which Freemason actions and practices promote naturalism and indifferentism?

Freemasons do not consider Freemasonry to be a religion; rather, they accept members from various religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Yet, Freemasons do have altars at their lodges, they engage in secret rituals, and they say prayers to a generic conception of God, which they often call the “Great Architect of the Universe.” 

This practice itself promotes religious indifferentism, but Freemasonry is very decentralized and does not adhere to a specific body of texts that declare all religions to be equal. Some prominent and influential Freemasons, however, have more clearly articulated support for indifferentism toward religion.

Albert Pike, who was the sovereign grand commander of the supreme council of the southern jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in the late 1800s, wrote a book called “Morals and Dogma,” which was given to 14th-degree Masons under that jurisdiction for about a century. His writings draw supposed connections between various religions and promote indifferentism.

“We do not undervalue the importance of any truth,” Pike says. “We utter no word that can be deemed irreverent by any one of any faith. We do not tell the [Muslim] that it is only important for him to believe that there is but one God, and wholly unessential whether [Muhammad] was his prophet. We do not tell the Hebrew that the Messiah whom he expects was born in Bethlehem nearly two thousand years ago; and that he is a heretic because he will not so believe. And as little do we tell the sincere Christian that Jesus of Nazareth was but a man like us, or his history but the unreal revival of an older legend.”

Freemasonry has also used political influence throughout Europe and the Americas over the centuries to push a secularization of society and to diminish the influence of the Catholic Church.

For example, in his 1873 encyclical Etsi Multa, Blessed Pope Pius IX detailed Masonic political attacks on the Church in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. He referred to the Masonic “deceits and machinations” as forming “the synagogue of Satan” in reference to the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation.

The encyclical touches on attacks against Catholic education, specifically the Gregorian University in Rome being “suppressed and abolished.” Regarding Switzerland, it discusses the passage of anti-Catholic laws, state intrusion into Church matters, and “the violent banishment of our venerable brother Gaspar, bishop of Hebron and vicar apostolic of Geneva.” It also details the “persecution set in motion” against Catholics and the suppression of religious freedom in the German Empire, particularly in Prussia. 

“Apply all your effort to protect the faithful committed to your care against the snares and contagion of these sects,” Pius urges the clergy. “Bring back those who have unhappily joined these sects. Expose especially the error of those who have been deceived or those who assert now that only social utility, progress, and the exercise of mutual benefits are the intention of these dark associations.”

Pius adds that these decrees are “not only [in reference] to Masonic groups in Europe but also those in America and in other regions of the world.”

In Mexico as recently as 2007, the Masonic Grand Lodge of the Valley of Mexico fought efforts against the Church gaining authority over its own schools and communications. Prominent Freemasons played a major role in the Mexican revolution and other Latin American revolutions that diminished Church influence.

What does canon law say about Freemasonry?

Prior to 1983, the Code of Canon Law explicitly stated that if a Catholic joins the Freemasons, that person incurs an automatic excommunication that can only be lifted by the Holy See. This applied not just to the Freemasons but to any group that engages in plots against the Church. 

“Those giving their name to Masonic sects or other associations of this sort that machinate against the Church or legitimate civil powers contract by that fact excommunication simply reserved to the Apostolic See,” canon 2335 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law reads.

The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law avoided a specific mention of Freemasonry and removed the penalty of automatic excommunication but maintained its ban on joining any groups that plot against the Church.

“A person who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; one who promotes or takes office in such an association is to be punished with an interdict,” canon 1374 of the current Code of Canon Law reads.

Although the new canon did not explicitly reference the Freemasons, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a declaration on the Freemasons within the same year, clarifying that despite a change in the wording, there has been no change to the Church’s opposition to Freemasonry and that joining any Masonic association is still a grave sin that bars one from receiving communion.

“Therefore the Church’s negative judgment in regard to Masonic association remains unchanged since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and therefore membership in them remains forbidden,” the document reads. “The faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive holy Communion.”

‘Anti-Christian hate crimes’ in Europe up 44% in past year, watchdog group says

The Cross of San Lázaro of Seville, Spain, sculpted in the 16th century, was vandalized on the night of Oct. 21-22, 2023. / Credit: Emergencies Seville

CNA Staff, Nov 17, 2023 / 13:28 pm (CNA).

Europe has witnessed a 44% jump in anti-Christian hate crimes across more than two dozen European countries over the past year, according to a group that monitors discrimination against Christians. 

The Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe (OIDAC Europe) on Thursday released its annual report detailing the spike in anti-Christian incidents, which it said is “connected to a rise in extremist motivation and a higher acceptance of the targeting of churches.”

OIDAC Europe says on its website that it researches, analyzes, documents, and reports “cases of intolerance and discrimination against Christians in Europe.” 

The group’s surveys of “intolerance and discrimination” against Christians reported “physical attacks and threats against individual Christians or Christian communities, desecration and vandalism of Christian sites” and “violations of freedom of religion, expression, association, and conscience,” among other incidents. 

In its release on Thursday, OIDAC Europe said “arson attacks on churches” increased by 75% between 2021 and 2022. The report also revealed “legal discrimination against Christians who expressed traditional Christian worldviews.”

The top five countries for anti-Christian hate crimes, the report said, were Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and Poland. The United Kingdom and Austria were also near the top of the list.

Overall, “in 2022, OIDAC Europe documented 748 anti-Christian hate crimes in 30 different countries, which ranged from arson attacks, graffiti, desecrations, and thefts to physical attacks, insults, and threats,” the release said.

The group noted that those numbers align closely with those reported by the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE “found 792 anti-Christian hate crimes in 34 European countries,” the group said, “making Christians the most targeted religious group after Jewish believers.”

The report also examines instances of Christians who reportedly “lost their jobs, faced suspension, or criminal court cases for expressing nonviolent religious views in public” as well as “violations of parental rights to educate children in accordance with one’s religious convictions.”

Notably, the release said that more hate crimes last year “were perpetrated by radicalized members of ideological, political, or religious groups that follow an anti-Christian narrative.”

Regina Polak, a professor and the head of the Department for Practical Theology at the Catholic-Theological Faculty at the University of Vienna who also works with OSCE, said in Thursday’s press release that the “increasing number of anti-Christian hate crimes in Europe” detailed by the report is “deeply worrying.”

“It is highly necessary to raise both governmental and societal awareness for this problem,” Polak said in the release, “and undertake political measures to tackle and combat it decidedly.”

The full report can be found here.

Elderly pro-life activist with ‘significant medical issues’ convicted on FACE Act charge

Washington Surgi-Clinic on F St. NW in Washington, D.C. on April 7, 2022. / Credit: Katie Yoder/CNA

CNA Staff, Nov 16, 2023 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

An elderly woman could face up to 11 years in prison after she was found guilty Thursday of participating in a pro-life blockade of a Washington, D.C., abortion clinic in 2020.

Paulette Harlow of Kingston, Massachusetts, 75, was convicted of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act and was found guilty of conspiracy against rights. She and nine other pro-life activists have been charged with crimes related to the Oct. 22, 2020, sit-in in which they blocked access to the clinic’s abortion services, according to prosecutors.

Harlow suffers from significant health issues and was not immediately detained following her guilty verdict in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

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.” It is the same law that pro-life father of seven Mark Houck was charged and acquitted under earlier this year.

Passed in 1993, the FACE Act was written to prosecute crimes at both abortion clinics and pro-life pregnancy facilities. Despite its broad areas of protection, it has been used almost exclusively against pro-life activists.

Because of Harlow’s health issues, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who presided over the bench trial, allowed her to remain under house arrest until her sentencing hearing on March 19, 2024, Allen Orenberg, her defense attorney, told CNA on Thursday.

The penalties for her conviction could land her with a sentence of a maximum of 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000.

Although the nine other pro-life activists are currently either serving time or awaiting their sentences, Orenberg said, “I’m optimistic that the judge will fashion a sentence of home detention.” 

“Mrs. Harlow has some significant medical issues that need to be addressed on a regular basis. And the judge said on the record that this will allow her to see her doctors rather than having to deal with the Bureau of Prisons at this stage where the level or the quality of medical care may not be the same,” he said.

CNA inquired about Harlow’s health issues, but Orenberg declined to comment to protect her privacy.

During the blockade of the clinic, which was livestreamed on Facebook, some of those who sat inside the clinic can be seen praying the rosary and singing hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary while refusing to leave.

“Pro-life rescuers are entering the doors of an abortion clinic and saving babies from death. This is very risky for the rescuers, but it’s about time we got serious about ending abortion again,” a description of the video reads.

The video of the protest is below.

In a press release Thursday, the Department of Justice said that evidence during the trial showed that the protesters “used social media, text messages, and telephone calls to organize the blockade, and several defendants traveled from northeast and midwestern states to participate in the clinic invasion.”

Before the protest, the defendants “met with other co-conspirators to formulate their tactics, which included making a fake patient appointment to ensure the group’s entry into the clinic, using chains and locks to barricade the facility, and passively resisting arrest to prolong the obstruction.”

“At the outset of the invasion, the defendants forced their way into the clinic, injuring a clinic nurse. The blockade forced one patient to climb through a receptionist window to access the clinic, while another was denied entry as she lay in physical distress in the hallway outside the clinic,” the DOJ said.

The judgment and verdict document says that per the FACE Act count, “the court further finds that defendant Paula ‘Paulette’ Harlow intentionally injured, intimidated, and interfered with Patient A and clinic employees through force and physical obstruction.”

Patient A refers to an individual who was “seeking to obtain reproductive health services” at the clinic on the day of the protest.

Orenberg told CNA that “Mrs. Harlow is very pleased that the judge agreed to let her remain on her conditions of release pending sentencing.”

The Washington Surgi-Clinic is operated by Dr. Cesare Santangelo, an abortion doctor who was secretly recorded by the pro-life group Live Action in 2019, during which he said that he would allow a child who survived an abortion attempt to die if the child was born during the procedure. 

In April 2022, about two years after the protest, the group Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU), a secular organization that demonstrates against abortion, said that it obtained 115 aborted babies from a medical waste driver who was leaving Santangelo’s clinic. 

PAAU, several lawmakers, and dozens of pro-life activists have pointed out that five of those aborted babies appeared exceptionally developed and have called for an investigation into whether federal abortion law was violated by the clinic, particularly the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

In September some of the other protesters, Jonathan Darnel of Arlington, Virginia; Jean Marshall of Kingston, Massachusetts; and Joan Bell of Montague, New Jersey, were convicted under the same charges as Harlow and are currently detained awaiting sentencing. 

Darnel told CNA the night before his sentencing that “FACE is a crime, but it shouldn’t be a crime because abortion shouldn’t be tolerated.”

“It’s an honor to be taken like so many others,” he added.

In August, Lauren Handy of Alexandria, Virginia; John Hinshaw of Levittown, New York; Heather Idoni of Linden, Michigan; William Goodman of Bronx, New York; and Herb Geraghty of Pittsburgh were also convicted under the same charges and are awaiting sentencing.

Jay Smith of Freeport, New York, who also participated in the protest, pleaded guilty to a felony FACE Act charge in May. He was sentenced in August to 10 months of incarceration followed by 36 months of supervised release and a special assessment of $100. 

Handy’s lawyers say they plan to appeal her conviction.