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Meet Sair Del Toro: Hispanic evangelist extraordinaire

Los Angeles, Calif., Jun 24, 2018 / 12:15 pm (CNA).- If you ask Sair del Toro to tell you her story, she tells you the stories of other people. Women who have escaped abusive relationships. Gang members who have given their lives to Jesus. Teenagers who found healing after abortion.

She hardly mentions her role in those stories. But her role should not go unnoted. Those stories of conversion, or healing, or freedom, have one thing in common: Sair del Toro.

“I think when you give yourself freely to the Lord, beautiful graces and things come out, you can be a witness,” Del Toro told CNA.

Del Toro is director of Magnifica, the Spanish-language apostolate of Endow, a ministry that forms study and fellowship groups for women. She also hosts a daily radio show on Radio Guadalupe in Los Angeles, where she talks about theology, philosophy, Mary, the saints - “any subject.”

But Del Toro wasn’t always working for the Lord.

From wedding planner to bride of Christ

Although she grew up with a Catholic mother, Sair and her siblings withdrew from the faith. At one time she hated the Church, she said, because she was only paying attention to the bad news about it.

By the time she was 28, Del Toro was a well-known secular radio personality and wedding planner in Seattle, Washington. She drove a new Mercedes and had an apartment on the top floor with a view of the lake.

“Everything was perfect,” she said, “But I had something missing, I didn’t have love, I just had money. So every time that I was walking in my condominium I was like oh my God, I’m missing something.”

It was then that she started to ask God: “Where are you? Who are you?”

She started going back to church. Someone told her that if she wanted to find God, she should look to the Blessed Sacrament. So one day, she says she snuck into the adoration chapel to hug the tabernacle, wanting to see if God was really in “the little box.”

“I walked in there, I hugged Jesus Christ, and he came out and he hugged me. And I felt the presence of him in my heart and in my brain and in my soul - he was hugging me. It was the biggest hug of my life,” she said, and that love that she felt would forever change her life.

She left her high-paying job and swanky apartment and decided to join a convent in Omaha, Nebraska.

Del Toro’s mother was not so convinced of her quick conversion.

“My mom thought that I was crazy,” she said. So crazy, in fact, that she says her mother took her to be examined at a psychiatric hospital, which turned out to be run by nuns.

Del Toro said she was questioned by the doctor about whether she listened to God, heard his voice, loved him - questions she was afraid to answer honestly, if it meant she’d end up in a psych ward.

Still, she felt God urging her to tell the truth, so she responded - “Yes.” The doctor concluded that she wasn’t crazy - she was just in love with God.

After spending a few years in religious life, Del Toro felt God calling her to marriage. She left the convent and moved back to her home in Mexico, where she worked for several Catholic ministries, including the Mission for the Love of God, a ministry that aims to consecrate political leaders to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Over the course of three years, she says the ministry helped convince 75 percent of Mexico’s governors to consecrate themselves, their families and their work to Jesus.

“Most of the governors are secular, they’re totally opposite of what we do in the Catholic Church,” Del Toro said. “I used to somehow convince them to consecrate their work, family and all their soul to the Lord, which is crazy in Mexico because the majority of them are Masons.”

In 2013, Del Toro moved back to the United States to teach Theology of the Body to couples in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, before taking her current position with Magnifica.  

Converter of gang members

When Del Toro isn’t converting governors, she’s converting rooms full of hardened ex-gang members.

A few months ago, Del Toro was asked to give a presentation to a group in Houston - 200 people, mostly Hispanic men, who were hardened, tattooed ex-gang members and drug dealers.

“It’s very hard when you walk into a room like that,” Del Toro recalled. “I was thinking - ‘What is God going to do to me now?’”

She was scheduled to speak for two hours. She spoke for four - “because they needed more help than we were thinking.”  But by the end, she says, God had converted the room.

“We consecrated all of these people which was a miracle, because most of these people...have killed people, they were involved in very dirty and heavy business, they sold drugs, so for them to say yes to the Lord, it’s not like for you and for me, it’s a completely different thing,” she said.

“These people that we never thought would be consecrated to the Lord, they’re changing their lives and their families too,” she added. Del Toro said she looked for common ground with the ex-gang members, and told them that the hierarchy of the Church was much like the hierarchy of a gang - but on the side of the Lord rather than on the side of death and despair.

“So when you teach them how the church works, how God works, how the respect works, it’s actually the same thing but into the army of God,” she said.

“I’m telling them...your life is going to change, because you’re going to...be happier than ever, you’re going to be with the truth of grace, and you’re going to live forever. So they feel like they really have something now, they’re worth something...we give them the hope of life, of eternity,” she added.

Del Toro takes little credit for her own efforts - it’s the work of God, she says.

“I can’t convince them, that was God doing his work.”

Magnifica miracles

Del Toro says she gets a front-row seat to the work of God through her work with Magnifica. One woman, Rachel (whose name has been changed), approached Del Toro recently to tell her the story of her life.

When Rachel was just 14, she snuck out of her parents house to go to a party. That night, she was kidnapped and brought from Mexico City to the U.S. border, where she was sold to a man who kept her in captivity for 10 years.

Rachel had two little girls by her captor, and was never allowed outside. Eventually, a neighbor called the police, and Rachel and her daughters were rescued. She connected with Del Toro through her Theology of the Body classes, and is now finding help and healing in the Church through her Magnifica group.

“The beauty of this one is that they were never mad at anyone,” not even their captor, Del Toro recalled. “She’s always happy, always smiling, thanking God for everything.”

There are many other stories like this, of women like Rachel who have experienced domestic violence and don’t know where to turn until they start building trust with people like Del Toro. According to the National Latin@ (sic) Network, one in three Latinas have experienced domestic violence.

Another woman, Monica (whose name has been changed), approached Del Toro after meeting her through Magnifica.

Like Rachel, Monica had been kidnapped for several years by her ex-husband. He abused her and used her body to extinguish cigarettes; he also drove screws into her skin.

Although she was able to leave him, her second husband was also abusing her “almost every day,” recalled Del Toro. “Her body is completely destroyed, but you never see that because she’s always covered,” Del Toro said. “But every time that I think about her, I feel like she is like Jesus Christ, she was put...on that cross.”

Monica’s husband is now in jail, and she now works to help other women that she meets through Magnifica groups.

“She helps others with smaller problems without (talking about her past),” Del Toro said.

“She is absolutely amazing, and that’s when God shows you hope for humanity, because when you see someone in bad shape with that kind of problem, you’d think they would want nothing to do with God, but that’s not true,” she said. “These people want everything to do with God and they want to help others.”

“So there’s always hope out there,” she added, “and God through these programs has been giving us so much grace to help others without doing too much. He does his work and he does it well, so you just need to sit next to him and enjoy the miracles that he’s doing all around us in our Church.”

Del Toro said Magnifica groups have been specifically designed to meet the spiritual, and practical, needs of Hispanic women, especially those who are immigrants to the United States.

When she approaches Hispanic women about Magnifica, Del Toro first gets to know them, asking them about their families and their lives. Most women who begin attending Magnifica are looking for a community, she said. “We meet and read for an hour and a half and then we have food, we have a party, all of us together with the kids,” she said.

She also has to train her Magnifica facilitators to be prepared to help women who are dealing with domestic violence, post-abortion trauma, and other serious issues that are prevalent among women participating in Magnifica groups.

“Hispanic mothers, they have a harder time here, they’re coming from the low class... so we have to be patient, we have more single mothers in our program, we have more abortions,” she said, because abortion clinics often intentionally build facilities in lower class neighborhoods.

“I have to make sure my facilitators understand all of this, because they are not jumping into a regular reading group, we’re talking about serious problems,” she said. “And I always say to them, you might find out horrible things, but no matter what you find out, it’s always the Lord next to you, and next to them. That’s why these girls are walking into your group, so give thanks to the Lord because these girls are getting into your groups.”

Lessons for the Church

Del Toro’s ministry experiences with Hispanic Catholics offer lessons for the Church in the United States, which is increasingly made up of people of Latin American origin.

Hispanics made up about 40 percent of the Church in the United States in 2016, with especially large representation among youth and young adults: 50 percent of Catholics ages 14 to 29 are Hispanic; and 55 percent of Catholics under 14 are Hispanic. Though immigration rates from Hispanic countries have begun to slow in recent years, the percentage of Hispanic Catholics in the US is expected to continue growing during the next decade.

Del Toro is a leader with V Encuentro (Fifth Encounter) a national gathering of U.S. Hispanic leaders and ministers held in order to consult with Hispanic Catholics and respond to their pastoral needs, the next of which will be held in Texas in September.

“The culture is completely different,” Del Toro said of Hispanic/Latino culture versus white Americans.

For example, and as evidenced partly by her own success stories, “A Latin opens their heart very easily and they give themselves to the Lord right away,” she said. “They’re more affective than Americans, Americans have to think. A Latin is just like, this is what I feel, so I’m jumping, no matter if it’s right or wrong.”

There’s also a stronger cultural devotion to the faith - and particularly to the Blessed Virgin Mary - beginning in the home for many Hispanics, she said.

“You listen to your mother pray the rosary your whole entire life,” she noted. “Americans in general, they’re not very close to the rosary, but for us it’s normal to always have a rosary and pray it throughout the day your whole life.”

In fact, she said, Mary is usually the best place to begin the evangelization of Hispanics.

“Our Lady is always around us, Our Lady of Guadalupe is in every single street corner, you have her in houses, everywhere, we are very connected to her. So when you work through her, very few people will close the door to her...sometimes they reject Jesus, but if you work through Our Lady? Piece of cake.”

In her work with V Encuentro, Del Toro said she tells her groups to be aware of the different problems that Hispanic women face, like domestic abuse, increased rates of single motherhood, and abortion.

“They need help and they need big protection, because if we don’t protect these women, the next generation is going to become worse and worse, so this is the time to do something real.”

Del Toro said the two biggest mistakes she sees the Church making today, especially when it comes to evangelizing to Hispanics, are failing to be direct about sin, and not taking the time to develop real relationships with people. When Catholics stop talking about what “the Church” should be doing and instead focus on what they can be doing as Christians, it’s much more effective, Del Toro said.

“You think that a program will change them? No, they need to feel the love, and if you don’t feel the love from someone else in there, you’re not going to change,” she said. “Another thing is stop to talk about the Church only. Why not give the example? Why not live the life you’re supposed to live? Because to talk about the Church is very easy. But follow the Gospel? That’s the hard part.”

“Listen to them first of all,” she said, to understand them and their lives. Only after you listen can you talk to them about God.

“Give them a good example. Hug them. Ask them - what can we do for you? How can I help you? How often do we ask that?” she said.  “We don’t want to have the trouble, we don’t want to have one more thing because (we’re) so busy, so we forget very easy things that are the basic things. Simple things like that would make a huge change in the community.”

That’s what Del Toro has been striving to do during her many years in ministry.

“The people that know me know that what I do I do through my heart, otherwise I could be doing different things for a lot of money,” she said. “But my (goal) is heaven and I want to be a saint, I really want to be a saint. So I just relax, letting God do whatever he wants to do with me.”

But she’s called in a special favor from heaven. She needs Mary’s protection.

“I told Mary - don’t leave me alone my entire life!”

 

Why hundreds are still drawn to the powerful legacy of the 'Rosary Priest'

Easton, Massachusetts, Jun 24, 2018 / 06:38 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Nearly three decades after his death, Father Patrick Peyton still receives fan mail.

People from all over the world submit letters and electronic notes - intercessory prayer requests and stories of prayers answered in the name of Father Peyton - to the desk of Father David S. Marcham.

Marcham, who is now vice postulator for the Cause of Venerable Patrick Peyton and director of the Father Peyton Guild, first discovered the many prayer requests and gratefully triumphant notes during a chance visit to Holy Cross Ministries in Easton, Massachusetts. The prayerful notes inspired him to join the effort in spreading Fr. Peyton’s message by advancing his cause for sainthood.

“Fr. Peyton has the ability through his message and through his intercession to work on the level of our individual families, but also to work worldwide,” he said.

Father Patrick Peyton (1909-1992) was a dynamic advocate for family prayer and a trailblazer in radio broadcast and televised evangelization.

Like many Irish families, Peyton grew up praying the Rosary. His devotion to Mary deepened when he was healed of advanced tuberculosis with no explanation, shortly after his ordination. He credited the intercession of the Blessed Mother for his recovery, and became committed to spreading the importance of prayer through Mary.

In doing so, he caught the attention of Hollywood.

After World War Two ended, Peyton began a radio show to pray in thanksgiving for peace. His show reached wide audiences with his passionate calls for family prayer, and it featured prominent public figures, from President Harry Truman to New York’s Archbishop Spellman. A strong proponent of the Rosary and a firm believer in its power, Peyton had each guest pray the Rosary for the world to hear.

However, executives of the radio station wanted to explore the idea of bringing in Hollywood stars. Peyton ambitiously called Bing Crosby, who had just seen his big break in Going My Way--a movie about a priest who created a church choir to help a group of boys reorient their lives.

“After Father Peyton explained what he was doing, [Bing Crosby] said, ‘Of course I’ll be on the program!’” said Father Willy Raymond, the current Holy Cross Family Ministries president and previous director of Family Theater Productions, both of which Father Peyton began.

“With [Crosby’s] name on it, it really got the nation’s attention,” Raymond added.

Family Theater Productions continues Peyton’s legacy in the film industry, providing a community for Hollywood Catholics and producing spiritual content. One of its most recent efforts, The Dating Project, was recently released in April, and the program Catholic Central provides short, informative films geared toward young people.

Along with promoting prayer in his shows, Peyton held “Rosary Rallies” around the world - from Peru to the Philippines to Papua New Guinea - earning him the title that he still bears to this day of “The Rosary Priest.”

Last December, Pope Francis recognized the heroic virtues of Fr. Peyton, declaring him “Venerable.” The priest’s information is currently under review for further advancement toward canonization.

An event celebrating the declaration of Fr. Peyton as Venerable drew a crowd of around 700 people to Holy Cross Family Ministries in North Easton, Massachusetts earlier this month.

Attendees - families, notable Catholic figures and international dignitaries alike - took part in the festivities. Auxiliary Bishop Arthur Colgan of Lima, Peru, celebrated the June 10 Mass. Raymond Flynn, former mayor of Boston and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, was also present, along with Shane Cahill, Irish Consul General in the U.S., and Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y.

Included in the celebration were three key parts of Father’ Peyton’s faith-based daily routine: a Eucharistic Procession, a celebration of the Mass and the praying of the Rosary.

“Every day, no matter how busy he was, Father Peyton prayed the Rosary many times during the day… he always made a holy hour with Eucharistic Adoration as a part of his day,” said Fr. Marcham. “And he also, every day, celebrated the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”

Everyone present at the June 10 prayer event was given a blessed Rosary, and many took Rosaries for their loved ones who could not make it, said Marcham. Each family was also provided with a Rosary prayer kit.

Marcham was inspired by the turnout at the event. He said many attendees found it “spiritually uplifting to hear that Father Peyton’s cause is progressing… they also found it was spiritually uplifting to be part of it.”

The sweeping commonality that “every one of us comes from a family” - along with the late priest’s zeal for holiness - is what still draws people to Fr. Peyton, said Marcham.

Many, he said, speak of the “realization of how something is going on in every person’s family - even the ones that look like they’re perfect from the outside.”

“Father Peyton offers a way for us to have God’s grace help us to reconcile, to heal, to move through challenges.”

Like the families of the post-World War era, modern families face difficulties, said Marcham.

“We basically have schedules and structures of life today that have family members going in all different directions,” he said, adding that many modern families struggle with high divorce rates, opioid addictions, misuse or overuse of technology and a demanding corporate culture.

“Making sure that God is welcome in the home is absolutely essential to give meaning and purpose to people’s lives,” Fr. Raymond added. When a family is rooted in prayer, he said, children “grow up knowing and trusting that God is real, that he’s present, that he loves them, and he’s going to be with them through thick and thin.”

Both priests recalled Fr. Peyton’s popular saying, “The family that prays together stays together.”

“We need the biggest promoter of this message we could get, and he’s the one,” Father Marcham said.

Marcham and his colleagues’ mission is “not to glorify Father Peyton,” he clarified. “It’s to make people aware of him and his holiness and his efficacy of his intercessory prayer. And really, the purpose of all this is to draw all of us and invite everyone to join...in this to grow closer to our Blessed Mother and our Lord.”

“I’m encouraging everyone and inviting everyone to join me.”

#BigFertility: New documentary aims to shed light on the surrogacy industry

San Francisco, Calif., Jun 23, 2018 / 04:40 pm (CNA).- Becoming a surrogate mother seemed like a natural option for Kelly Martinez, who enjoyed helping people and liked being pregnant.

Just 20 years old, she thought working with big surrogacy agencies was a safe way for her to help couples have a family.

Instead, however, she says she was instructed to lie to the French consulate about being the biological mother of the children she was carrying. She was told to sign legal papers in French, which she did not understand. She did not receive a copy of the documents, and no translator was offered to her.

Ultimately, Martinez says she was manipulated, lied to, locked in a legal battle, and left with a stack of medical bills. She now sees the surrogacy industry differently – as an industry centered on profit.

Martinez’s story is being turned into a feature-length documentary called #BigFertility, a film produced by the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, which aims to show the dangers behind the big money involved in the surrogacy industry.

“Kelly’s story is particularly unique because of the international dimension and how the industry exploited her over and over again,” said Jennifer Lahl, president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.

“Her story shows how she was lied to, lied about, financially ruined and almost lost her life,” Lahl told CNA.

Martinez became a three-time surrogate mother. She became a surrogate for a French couple and a Spanish couple, despite the practice being illegal in all forms in the couples’ home countries. She also became a surrogate mother for a couple in the U.S. Throughout the documentary, Martinez talks about the medical risks, exploitation, and abuse she says she faced during the surrogacy process.

“I have now had my eyes opened to the fact that this is really about money, not about the children,” Martinez says in the trailer for #BigFertility.

The international scope of Martinez’s experiences, Lahl said, points to the overarching concerns that surrogacy around the globe presents. Martinez has now become an advocate against “big surrogacy,” and has spoken at various events around the world about her experience, including to members of Spanish Parliament and the United Nations.

Surrogacy has long been a controversial topic because of its connection with exploitation, abuses, and ethical concerns. The #BigFertility documentary is hoping to bring more of these concerns to light through Kelly’s story and experiences.

“Pushing back on the false narrative that surrogacy can be regulated and prevent problems, #BigFertility will show that the industry cares most about profits and least about the women used as paid breeders,” Lahl said.

The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network is also running a kickstarter page to finalize and market the documentary, which will be launched this fall.

Pa. court indefinitely blocks release of clergy sex abuse report

Harrisburg, Pa., Jun 22, 2018 / 05:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The release of a Grand Jury report detailing cases of clerical sex abuse in six of the eight Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania has been blocked by the state’s Supreme Court for unspecified reasons.

The court released the unsigned order June 20, but did not state which individuals or groups had applied for the stay or the reason behind the application. It also does not state for how long the stay applies or when the report could be published in the future.

“And now, this 20th day of June, 2018, the Applications for Stay are granted. The Honorable Norman A. Krumenacker, III, and the Office of the Attorney General are enjoined from releasing Report No. 1 of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury pending further order of this Court,” the order, issued by the state’s Supreme Court, reads. Krumenacker is a Cambria County judge who has overseen the Grand Jury proceedings.

The stay indefinitely delays the release of a report that has been more than two years in the making, during which time victims of past abuse have recounted incidents of sexual abuse to the jury. Legal experts have told local news sources that the depth and breadth of this investigation is almost unprecedented among clerical sex abuse investigations that have taken place in the United States.

The two non-participating dioceses in the report, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, have already undergone similar investigations.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has headed the investigation, said in a May 21 statement that he believed dioceses and bishops were behind the push to block or delay the publication of the report.

However, the participating dioceses - Allentown, Erie, Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Harrisburg, and Scranton - and their bishops have all said that they did not apply for the stay, and that they support the publication of the report.

“We anxiously await the Supreme Court’s decision on this matter, and support the release of the report which will give victims a voice,” Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie said in a statement. “Until the report is released, we will continue our efforts to identify abusers and provide counseling and assistance to victims.”

“The contents of the report will be painful, but it is necessary for the report to be released in order for us to learn from it and to continue in our efforts to be responsive to victims and to create safe environments for our children,” the Diocese of Scranton said in its statement. “With regards to the stay, it's important that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court take all the steps it deems necessary.”

“The Diocese of Harrisburg has fully cooperated with the Office of the Attorney General. The Diocese and Bishop Gainer strongly support the release of the Grand Jury report and have not filed anything to cause the stay ordered (Wednesday),” spokesman Mike Barley said in a statement. “However, as we have stated before, it is critical that this report is accurate.”

Diocesan officials told CNA that they were unaware whether those who had applied for the stay had ties to the Church.

Ed Palattella, a reporter for the Erie Times, wrote that it is believed that those who filed for the stay petition were not diocesan officials, but others who were named in the report.

Because the majority of those named in the report would be priests, it is likely that a priest or group of priests named in the report filed for the stay.

According to an order from Krumenacker written earlier this month, anyone who is named in the Grand Jury report is given notice of their inclusion in the report and is allowed to file a rebuttal. However, once approved by a Grand Jury, written reports cannot be amended. All documents regarding the report remain sealed and so the identity of the party or parties who filed for the stay cannot be confirmed.

Victims said that the delay of the release of the report is causing further harm to those who have experienced clerical sex abuse.

State representative Mark Rozzi told The Inquirer that the stay order was a “travesty of justice and insult to all victims of childhood sex abuse.”

“It’s just like it’s been since Day One with me, kick us to the curb. Let the trash on the curb get old, maybe we’ll rot and die and go away. We’re not going away. I’m not going away, and I can promise that to all the victims across the commonwealth,” he said.

Last month, Krumenacker rejected an attempt by defense lawyers to stall the publication of the report. Defense lawyers said that the state’s interest in protecting their unidentified clients’ reputation and due process were enough to halt the publication of the report.

Krumenacker dismissed the request, arguing that “The commonwealth’s interest in protecting children from sexual predators and persons or institutions that enable them to continue their abuse is of the highest order.”

The request was appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, which ordered the stay June 20.

Murdered nuns' opposition to death penalty leads to life in prison for killer

Jackson, Miss., Jun 22, 2018 / 12:21 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A man convicted of the 2016 slayings of two religious sisters in Mississippi will not receive the death penalty and will instead spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Rodney Earl Sanders, 48, pled guilty on Thursday to murdering Sr. Margaret Held, SSSF, and Sr. Paula Merrill, SCN, as well as the theft of Held’s car. The two were found stabbed to death and sexually assaulted at their home in Durant, Mississippi, on August 25, 2016. They worked as nurse practitioners at a medical clinic near their home. Their bodies were discovered after they failed to arrive to work.

Sanders did not give a motive for his crimes. At the time of the murders, he was living in a shed across the street from the sisters’ home. He was arrested and charged the day after the crime. Police said he was a person of interest from the beginning of the investigation.

Held was a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis, which is based in Milwaukee, and Merrill was a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, from Kentucky.

While Sanders was indicted for the sexual assaults, those charges were not included in his guilty plea, according to the Associated Press. Sanders was eligible for the death penalty, but was sentenced to life in prison after the judge took into account the fact that Held and Merrill were opposed to the death penalty and would not want their killer executed.

In a statement at Sanders’ plea hearing, Sister Susan Gatz, president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, said that the two sisters were “two of the most gentle persons you could ever know,” who based their lives on “peace, justice, and the love of God.”

Gatz said the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were in favor of the plea agreement as it took away the possibility of the death penalty for Sanders.

“We have longed for justice with regard to our two beloved sisters,” she said. “And so, we support this plea agreement for life in prison without parole. It is justice that recognizes all life is valuable. It is justice that holds out hope, always, that love can break through the hardest barriers.”

Speaking directly to Sanders, Gatz said that her congregation would “never forget what you did to them,” and that many people had suffered as a result of his actions.

“But, because we believe in Christ and his gospel, we forgive you. We have learned over these couple of years that your life has had much turmoil and pain. We want you to know that we will pray that you can find peace.”

Held and Merrill were “examples of goodness, examples of Christ-like love,” said Gatz, “and nothing and no one can ever take that away.”

Des Moines diocese defends legality of school grants

Des Moines, Iowa, Jun 22, 2018 / 10:49 am (CNA/EWTN News).- After reviewing $844,000 worth of grants that were given by Polk County, Iowa to local Catholic schools a few years back, the Diocese of Des Moines said that it believes the grants complied with state law.

“The Roman Catholic Diocese of Des Moines has concluded that there is nothing improper associated with the technology grant,” the diocese said in a June 21 statement.

It added that after reviewing the relevant facts and law involving the Polk County grant, “We agree completely with Polk County that the Community Development Grant was entirely legal and proper.”

Iowa state law says that government officials “shall not appropriate, give, or loan public funds to, or in favor of, an institution, school, association or object which is under ecclesiastical or sectarian management or control.”

In 2011, after the Polk County Board of Supervisors learned that it could not give grant money directly to church-affiliated schools, Catholic school supporters formed a separate corporation through which to route the grant money.

Called Education for the 21st Century, the corporation is now defunct. During its two years in operation, 100 percent of its reported revenue came from Polk County grants, according to the Des Moines Register.

The grant money was taken from gambling revenue accrued by the Prairie Meadows Casino and Hotel.

The Polk County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 in 2012 to give $400,000 to the corporation. The year after, the board approved $444,000 to the corporation.

With the money, new technology equipment was bought for St. Anthony, St. Joseph, St. Augustin, St. Pius X, St. Theresa, Christ the King, Holy Trinity, Holy Family, and Sacred Heart schools. The money was used to purchase iPads, cameras, computers, projectors, and whiteboards.

“If Iowa taxpayer money was, in fact, intentionally funneled to religious schools, that is unacceptable and a misuse of the taxpayers' public dollars,” said Mark Stringer, executive director of ACLU Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register.

However, county supervisors have defended financial assistance to Catholic schools. They say that going forward, such assistance can be given directly to the schools, thanks to a 2017 Supreme Court ruling which held that states cannot discriminate against religious schools by making them ineligible for non-religious amenity funding programs.

The Diocese of Des Moines stressed that the Catholic Church “did not manage or control the foundation that received the grant,” and that grant money was not used for religious purposes, but “for purchasing learning technology that was provided to Christian and parochial schools.”

The diocese noted that Catholic schools already receive state funding for transportation and textbooks, “in recognition of the fact that families choosing a religious education are taxpayers.”

“Providing this form of support that does not directly advance religion is entirely consistent with the law,” the diocese said. “In fact, as the US Supreme Court has recognized, a law or policy that expressly discriminates against an otherwise eligible recipient and disqualifies them from a public benefit because of their religious character, is a clear violation of the United States Constitution.”

The former legal advisor for Polk County’s School Board, Michael O’Meara, told the Des Moines Register that he had told the board that they could only support Catholic schools if they did so via an entity that was not under ecclesiastical control.

State Auditor Mary Mosiman said she will not review the case. Her chief of staff and legal counsel noted that the county attorney appeared to have been consulted and approved the grants.
 
 
 

 

Study finds mounting global restrictions on religion

Washington D.C., Jun 22, 2018 / 12:06 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Government restrictions on religion continued to rise across the globe in 2016, according to a recently released Pew study, which linked the stifling of religion to nationalist parties and organizations.

“This marks the second year in a row of increases in the overall level of restrictions imposed either by governments or by private actors (groups and individuals) in the 198 countries examined in the study,” said the Pew report.

The research found that 42 percent of countries experienced high or very high levels of overall religious restriction, which included hostile acts by government or private individuals or groups. This number is up from 40 percent in 2015, and 29 percent in 2007.

“This marks the biggest number of countries to fall in this top category since Pew Research Center began analyzing restrictions on religion in 2007,” Pew said.

“The share of countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of government restrictions…rose from 25 percent in 2015 to 28 percent in 2016,” the study found. “Meanwhile, the share of countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of social hostilities involving religion…remained stable in 2016 at 27 percent.”

The Middle-East and North Africa experienced the highest median level of government restrictions on religion, while Europe and the Americas were the only areas to experience an increase in median levels of social religious hostility.

Additionally, the research pointed to nationalist groups’ role in the rise of religious restrictions, particularly through targeting specific ethnic and religious minorities.

“In many countries, restrictions on religion resulted from actions taken by government officials, social groups or individuals espousing nationalist positions,” the Pew study noted.

Around 11 percent of countries saw government actors who “at times used nationalist, and often anti-immigrant or anti-minority, rhetoric to target religious groups in their countries in 2016,” – a 5 percent increase from the previous year.

European countries experienced this attitude most strongly, with around 33 percent having nationalist parties making statements against religious minorities, while 12 percent of Asia-Pacific countries shared a similar experience.

“Typically, these nationalist groups or individuals were seeking to curtail immigration of religious and ethnic minorities, or were calling for efforts to suppress or even eliminate a particular religious group, in the name of defending a dominant ethnic or religious group they described as threatened or under attack.”

Additionally, there was a 5 percent increase in countries where organized groups aimed to overtake public life at the expense of a religion.

The most popular targets for religious restrictions were Muslims, Christians and Jews.

“Looking at religious groups, harassment of members of the world’s two largest groups – Christians and Muslims – by government and social groups continued to be widespread around the world, with both experiencing sharp increases in the number of countries in which they were harassed in 2016,” the study said.

This research, which included 198 countries making up 99.5 percent of the world, comes from Pew’s ninth annual study of global restrictions on religion, which analyzes the “extent to which governments and societies around the world impinge on religious beliefs and practices.”

These levels were measured by government laws and policies, acts of individual or group hostility against religion, including armed conflict and terrorism. Harassment of religious groups was gathered by data relating to physical or verbal assaults, arrests, detentions, desecration of holy sites, and discrimination against religious groups via employment, education and housing.

The 2016 year was the most recent year in which data was available.

 

Farm bill with SNAP restrictions passes narrowly in House

Washington D.C., Jun 21, 2018 / 04:59 pm (CNA).- On Thursday evening, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the 2018 farm bill, H.R. 2, which included controversial changes to food assistance programs that Catholic leaders had voiced concern over.

The Farm Bill is the main agricultural and food policy guide for the country. It provides funding for a number of programs and regulations in the food and agriculture industries.

The party-line vote was 213-211. No Democrats voted for the bill, and 20 Republicans voted against it. The same bill failed in May, when 30 Republicans voted against the legislation.

The most controversial element of the bill was a provision to change the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, previously called food stamps.

The farm bill would tighten restrictions on eligibility for SNAP. It would require people between the ages of 18 and 59 who receive SNAP to either have a job or participate in a job training program for 20 hours per week. Adults with disabilities or young dependents are exempted from this requirement.

Penalties for not complying with work requirements increase under the bill, from one month ineligibility to one year for a first violation, and from three months to three years for a second violation.

When the farm bill was being discussed in April, representatives from the U.S. bishops conference, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Rural Life, and the National Council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul wrote a letter to leaders of the Congressional Agriculture Committee.

“Efforts to improve state workforce training programs by providing case-management, streamlining workforce programs, providing increased training slots and setting minimum standards are welcomed,” they said.

"However, the new workforce training program appears to lack sufficient investment to meet the additional demand for meaningful job training and skill building that will be generated by the new requirements,” they said in the April letter. The letter noted that the majority of SNAP recipients currently work.

“Moreover, rural communities may find compliance especially challenging given that job training programs are often located far away, and there is insufficient access to transportation,” the letter said.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said the passage of the farm bill was a step “moving toward a poverty-fighting system,” where Americans will be able to move out of a cycle of poverty.

“This is a big deal,” said Ryan in a statement published on his website.

Ryan referred to the SNAP reforms as “critical,” saying they will “close the skills gap, better equip our workforce, and encourage people to move from welfare to work.”

“These reforms will return agency to people, rather than keeping it in government, empowering individuals to reach their full potential and make the most of their lives.”

President Donald Trump, posting on Twitter, said that he was “so happy to see work requirements included” in the version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives.

“Big win for the farmers,” said Trump.

The bill now moves on to the Senate, where a bipartisan compromise bill is expected to be debated next week.

The Catholic Church's long history of resettling refugees in the US

Washington D.C., Jun 21, 2018 / 04:26 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Catholic Church has resettled nearly one-third of all refugees received by the United States since 1980 through a public-private partnership with a high rate of successful integration of refugees into society, according to a report released in June 2018.

The Center for Migration Studies report examines data on 1.1 million of the refugees resettled in the U.S. from 1987 to 2016. These refugees came from more than 30 countries, including Ukraine, Iraq, Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia and Burma.

“What we've found is that they are integrating, contributing, and accomplishing a lot in the United States after starting from basically nothing. Not surprisingly, we found that refugees with the longest residence have integrated the most fully in the country, and we provide statistics on how that progresses over time,” said Donald Kerwin, the primary author of the report, at a World Refugee Day event at the U.S. Capitol building.

Frances McBrayer has seen this successful integration firsthand in her experience as senior director of refugee services of Catholic Charities Atlanta.

“More than 90 percent of the refugees that we have resettled through Catholic Charities Atlanta were self-sufficient in 2017 within 6 months of arrival,” said McBrayer at the June 20 event.

“That means they are working, paying their own bills, and they are not receiving government cash assistance,” she continued.

This rapid success can be partially attributed to the committed volunteer efforts of local communities, according to McBrayer, who said that Catholic Charities Atlanta had 874 volunteers working with refugees last year.

Parish volunteers are matched with incoming refugee families, whom they accompany in everything from English practice and job applications to American grocery shopping.

In partnership with its affiliates, the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services resettles approximately 30 percent of refugees arriving in the U.S. each year through a network of more than 100 diocesan offices.

“In the United States, we offer a model public-private partnership,” said Ashley Feasley, director of migration policy for the U.S. bishops, at a congressional briefing co-hosted by Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, and the U.S. bishops conference.

The U.S. also has one of the safest refugee programs in the world, Feasley said, as each refugee is required to go through extensive vetting, including a series of very rigorous interviews by the Department of Homeland Security.

“They will have their information checked by the FBI. They will have their information checked by the NSA. They will have much of their biographical information verified as well as going through a security check and a health check. All of this will occur before a refugee is ever finally selected to be admitted to the United States.”

Feasley explained how the U.S. refugee resettlement program as we know it today emerged out of the ad hoc charitable actions of faith-based groups in response to the Vietnam War. As a result, Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980, which laid out a definition of who counts as a refugee and how resettlement would work.

The American Catholic involvement with refugee resettlement dates back even earlier, as documented in an archive exhibit at The Catholic University of America on the American Catholic Church’s refugee aid from the late 1930s to early 1950s.

Despite this history, the U.S. is on pace this year to resettle the lowest number of refugees in the history of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, according to the 2018 CMS report.

There are currently some 25.4 million refugees worldwide who have fled their countries to escape conflict or persecution, according to statistics released by the UN refugee agency on June 19. This constitutes the largest increase in refugees in a single year that the UN has ever documented.

Bishops' video series encourages prayer, action for Religious Freedom Week

Washington D.C., Jun 21, 2018 / 12:33 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has posted a video series for Religious Freedom Week 2018, inviting Catholics to pray and act in support of religious liberty.

“We have a duty to treat all persons with charity and justice, we have a duty to seek common ground in public life whenever possible,” says Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia in one video.

“But we also need to work vigorously in law and politics to protect our faith and to form our culture in a Christian understanding of human dignity and the purpose of human freedom. To do that, we need to defend our religious liberty.”

An eight-video YouTube series offers reflections on the importance of religious liberty.

The videos feature members of and consultants for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ standing committee for religious liberty.

Each day, a different bishop challenges Catholics to reflect on how religious freedom is connected to elements of the public square, such as medicine, immigration, and education. Other topics discussed in the video series include Christian persecution in the Middle East, and the importance of publicly proclaiming one’s faith.

Religious Freedom Week, held by the U.S. bishops’ conference, is observed this year from June 22-29. The theme for this year is “Serving Others in God’s Love.”

The conference website includes a list of suggested reflections, prayers, and actions that may be followed by parishes, families, and individuals during the week.

In the second video of the series, Archbishop Chaput highlights the importance of truth in politics, saying “dishonest language leads to dishonest politics, and dishonest politics leads to bad public policy and bad law.” He urges Catholics defend truth in the public sphere.

“As Catholic citizens, we owe it to our country to speak and to act in a spirit of truth and to insist on the same behavior from other people, including our elected and appointed leaders.”

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska says that Catholic education is a key part of the Church’s mission.

“But there are forces in our society and culture which would like to inhibit our freedoms…to be able to teach what we believe is the truth about the human person, about the dignity of life as well as God's plan for marriage between a man and a woman,” he says, emphasizing the need for religious freedom in education.

Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ committee on migration, notes the role that the Church plays in immigration and refugee resettlement.

“The Church has long sought to serve the unique needs of people on the move: from providing for basic needs, to assisting with resettlement, to offering legal services to help newcomers navigate the system of their host country.”

However, he warns, in recent years, Catholic entities have faced legal challenges because they will not facilitate abortions as part of their work with migrants.

“Those that try to force the Church to choose between unborn children and migrant children are undermining religious liberty,” Bishop Vasquez cautions.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who chairs the religious freedom committee, concludes the video series by appealing to viewers “to pray that we might continue to take steps to make room within our culture for the exercise of religious freedom” and “to use that religious freedom in the public square well.”