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Virgil Dechant, long-serving KofC Supreme Knight, dies at 89

Washington D.C., Feb 16, 2020 / 06:55 pm (CNA).- The longest serving Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus died Saturday at 89.

Virgil Dechant was Supreme Knight from 1977 to 2000. He died in his sleep Feb. 15.

“God has called home a good man and one of the Knights’ great leaders,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in a Feb. 16 statement.

“Virgil Dechant used to say that his goal was to leave the Knights better than he found it, and in myriad ways, he accomplished that. He leaves a lasting legacy and an excellent example of what it means to be a Knight and a fraternalist,” Anderson added.

The Knights of Columbus say Dechant was instrumental in helping to grow the Knights of Columbus, and fostering the organization’s collaboration with the Vatican during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II.

Dechant “forged a close relationship with the Vatican during the pontificate of St. John Paul II, leading the Order to sponsor numerous renovation projects – including of the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, and working with the pope to promote the faith in Eastern Europe, which was then behind the iron curtain,” the Knights of Columbus said in a press release.

He also “oversaw tremendous growth in the Order’s membership as well as in its assets and insurance business, while also opening the Order to greater involvement by the wives and families of its members,” according to the statement.

Dechant was a Kansas native who farmed, sold farm equipment, and owned a car dealership before he began working for the Knights of Columbus as Supreme Secretary in 1967. He became Supreme Knight ten years later.

In recognition of his committment to the pro-life movement, Dechant received the National Right to Life Award in 1998. He was also the recipient of several Vatican honors,

In 2005, he escorted President George W. Bush to the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 

In 2012, Anderson said that his predecessor “was the model of Catholic fraternalism for an entire generation."

Dechant is survived by his wife Ann, four children, and the couple's grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


McCarrick was a 'devourer of souls,' former priest secretary tells parish

Washington D.C., Feb 15, 2020 / 04:08 pm (CNA).- A priest who was the personal secretary of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick said he is sickened by manipulative fundraising tactics employed while McCarrick was Archbishop of Washington. The priest called McCarrick a “manipulator” and a “devourer of souls.”

“For a portion of my priesthood, I worked directly for the foremost fund-raiser in the Church – in the whole Church, the universal Church.”

“He was a master of the art, and knew every technique and tactic to its finest point. He paired with that an extraordinary, even preternatural sense of people, what they wanted and what they needed,” Monsignor K. Bartholomew Smith wrote Feb. 15 on a blog he maintains for parishioners of St. Bernadette’s parish in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“My stomach churns at the recollection, and not only because of how successful he was at this; but also because of what he obtained by this. He received the gratitude, the affection, and the emotional dependence of untold numbers of people high and low, rich and poor, because he made himself the bestower of the approval that they craved, told them that they were good and God Himself was grateful to them, and delivered them from the authentic demands of Jesus and His Gospel.”

“This is what their giving purchased, and what his fundraising obtained.  But he took more from them than just their donations, for he was a ravening manipulator of human affections, and a devourer of souls,” Bartholomew added.

The priest, who was ordained in 1998, was McCarrick’s private secretary in the early 2000s, before being appointed to serve in a similar role for Cardinal William Baum, who was then living in Rome.

Smith told his parishioners that “you would be hard pressed to find a person in our Archdiocese, Catholic or not, who did not fall for [McCarrick’s] seduction to some degree, or at some time.  We all want approval; we all enjoy gratitude. He offered Divine approval and God’s own gratitude, and many were the ones who did his bidding to obtain it.”

McCarrick, Smith wrote, “was a master of convincing folks of the pernicious delusion that God Himself needed, approved, and in fact was grateful to them for the difference that they were making in the world. This, in one line, is the snake-oil song of the ecclesiastical fundraiser, and he was the all-time virtuoso chanter and enchanter.” 

“Many good works were accomplished in this manner, and benefits from them still accrue to this day. But the cost, the cost in human lives and dignity, the cost to the integrity of the Faith, the cost to the fabric of the Church, is only recently become apparent to all,” Smith added.

Smith’s remarks came in the context of the annual archdiocesan appeal. He told his parishioners that because of his experience with McCarrick, “I beg your indulgence if I eschew fundraising techniques, and avoid tactics with proven records of success.”

“Instead of a fund raiser, I am charged by God to be a faith-raiser,” the priest added.

McCarrick served as Archbishop of Washington from 2000-2006, capping an ecclesiastical career in which he had also been the Archbishop of Newark, the Bishop of Metuchen, and an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of New York.

In June 2018, a report emerged that McCarrick had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor. That report was followed by a torrent of sexual abuse, coercion, and harassment allegations against McCarrick made by priests, former seminarians, and laypeople. McCarrick was dismissed from the clerical state in Feb. 2019.

Catholics in the U.S. are awaiting a Vatican report on McCarrick that is the result of an internal investigation into the former cardinal’s ecclesiastical career. While the report was initially expected to be released in the early weeks of 2020, Cardinal Blase Cupich told EWTN News this week that it might be released in March, but the exact date of release is still under consideration by Pope Francis.


'No different from the rest of us'- Priests and mental health care

Denver, Colo., Feb 15, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- After the suicide of a Missouri priest last month, psychologists talked with CNA about the issues priests can face when they need help with caring for their mental heatlh.

Fr. Evan Harkins of Kansas City took his own life in late January, leaving parishioners and friends across the country mourning the beloved priest.

Shortly after Harkin's death, Bishop Vann Johnston of Kansas City-St. Joseph said the priest had a “sunny” personality, but had begun to struggle with anxiety and his physical health.

The bishop said the priest's decision to end his life might have been connected to his medication.

He said Harkins had developed serious stomach and gastrointestinal issues, which seemed to cause him anxiety.

“He was given a prescription drug to deal with the anxiety and was experiencing some of the extreme negative side effects of this drug including terrible nightmares, among other things,” Johnston explained.

Though the factors leading to his death are no doubt comlicated, the priest’s death has begun a discussion about the mental health needs of priests, and the stigmas that surround them.

Dr. Melinda Moore is a Licensed Psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University and has studied Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS).

Moore told CNA that suicide prevention steps are incredibly important. She pointed to studies that show how a single individual's suicide can have a devastating effect that ripples throughout the community.

“We've got 48,000 Americans who are dying by suicide every year. … [These are] Americans who are killing themselves and leaving entire families, networks, communities devastated by their deaths. We know that for every person who dies by suicide, there are 135 people exposed. Out of those 135, forty-eight people will be seriously impacted by the death.”

“What we know is these people who are impacted significantly, they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and another study showed suicide attempt. So not only are these 40,000 Americans killing themselves every year, they're leaving all this collateral damage that amounts to over 2 million people every year,” she said.

Suicide among priests, and pastors of other Christian denominations, occurs more commonly than expected, Moore said. However, she said religious leaders often face stigmas about seeking psychological help.

“Priests are no different from the rest of us. The difference is that priests and other clergy oftentimes are idealized and held to a standard where they feel like they can't ask for help. They are the individuals that other people come to for help, and so they themselves feel like they can't seek help.”

Moore said suicide is not always tied to mental illness. But she said people who commit suicide often encounter three feelings - not belonging, being a burden to others, and the sense that that could carry out lethal self-harm.

“They oftentimes feel like they’re a burden, and then they also sometimes feel like they no longer belong to a community that they once belonged to … It's like they really feel like people would be better off if they weren't alive, that they are a burden to their loved ones, ” Moore said.

“Lastly, there's this thing called acquired capability to enact lethal self-harm. It's sort of a fearlessness in the face of death. It actually takes a lot of courage to kill yourself,” she added.

Dr. Christina Lynch was director of psychological services at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver from 2007 until she retired about a month ago. Lynch is still a supervising psychologist for the seminary, and is an advisor for the Catholic Psychotherapy Association (CPA), which she previously served as president.

Lynch told CNA that stigmas among priests regarding psychology differ depending on several factors, like location, age, and community. She said counseling may be looked down upon by older generations, noting that millennials are more sympathetic to it.

Lynch also said a sense of shame about getting psychological help may worsen if the priest or seminarian does not view the therapy setting as confidential or safe.

Shame among priests about seeking help gets worse among priests if mental health care is not supported by the bishop or laity. Lynch applauded the decision of Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, who announced in December that he was taking a leave of absence to focus on mental health.

Lynch also said the laity have a unique opportunity to support priests, even through simple actions like inviting them over to dinner.

“If they don't have support from their bishop, they feel shame or they don't want to go to counseling. So the support they received from the bishop is really important. I'm sure you read the article by Bishop Conley. I've heard from so many priests since then that this just gave them courage.”

“The laity have a role to play with the parish priest. They need to be praying for them, be friends with them. A lot of times laity are afraid to be really friends with their priests … They need to be attentive to their priests and make sure they're supporting them … The more support a priest is going to get from everybody instead of criticism, the better it is going to be for them.”

Dr. Cynthia Hunt, a Catholic psychologist, is a board advisor for the Catholic Medical Association and has also served as Chief of the Department of Psychiatry at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.

Hunt said that stigmas about mental therapy are pervasive among clergy. She highlighted several reasons why priests might consider therapy a difficult process to access.

“There seems to be a shame surrounding the very human need for assistance in the mental health realm,” she said.

“Some difficulties which might bar priests from accessing therapy include their desire for more privacy (not wanting to sit in a waiting room), issues of shame, as noted above, as well as the desire to 'work things out on their own'.”

“Priests may consider their depression or anxiety a 'flaw' in their character. They also may not recognize the severity of their symptoms or realize that there is treatment,” Hunt added.

Hunt said that anxiety and depression can be as common among priests as it is among the general population. She said hereditary traits may contribute to a priest’s emotional issues, and addictions, like alcohol abuse, can exacerbate the problems.

The psychologist highlighted the options that priests can take to address these concerns.

“Priests may obtain therapy from a variety of disciplines including Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Marriage Family Therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other licensed professional counselors. The type of therapy can be tailored to the needs of the priest to include but not limited to psychodynamic Therapy, trauma-informed therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and affirmation therapy,” she said.

While rural areas may face a lack of counselors, Hunt noted, there has been an increase in telemedicine, where priests can access therapy through video-platforms.

Hunt said psychological healing is best addressed through a holistic approach - a combination of biological, psychological, social and spiritual efforts. She said that while medication is not always necessary, it can be helpful, especially when coupled with counseling.

However, she added that some medications, like Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), have an occasional side effect, and people may continue to have recurring anxiety and depression throughout their life.

“SSRIs improve many symptoms of anxiety and depression through their biochemical action on neurotransmitters such as serotonin and others … With more balance again in the neurotransmitter system, many symptoms improve including but not limited to panic, chronic anxiety levels, low mood, sleep or appetite issues, fatigue, lack of enjoyment of things once enjoyed and suicidal thinking,” she said.

“As with all medications, there can be side effects. In the case of SSRIs these tend to be quite mild and short-lived such as nausea and headache. There are very rare but serious effects which can include increased agitation, restlessness or suicidal thinking.”

In order to address the possibility of suicide among priests, Dr. Moore told CNA that dioceses should focus strongly on education regarding suicide awareness and suicide prevention methods.

She said the topic should be addressed at the pulpit, and dioceses should also make more resources available, including the suicide hotline number and health care professionals.  She also said priests should educate themselves through books designed to address their needs. Hunt mentioned “Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors” by Karen Mason.

For her part, Moore applauded initiatives the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky has begun to support suicide prevention and mental health. She the dioceses has provided resources and sought to be more sympathetic to the deceased and their families.

“[I am] very pleased that the Diocese of Lexington, which is led by Bishop John Stowe, has been very much an ally in putting out messages around being attuned and being sensitive to people who are in crisis …  but then also those people who've lost a loved one to suicide, making sure that the loved one who died is not demonized, and that the loved ones are provided resources.”

Father Anthony Sciarappa, the parochial vicar of Holy Spirit Parish of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, told CNA about his experience with therapy and mental health. He said, during his first year of seminary, he struggled with anxiety and depression.

“We had lots of events as seminarians where we put on our seminary uniform and we were supposed to meet with people, talk with people and all that was overwhelming. I would be physically, like, ill and sick, just paralyzed with that.”

“I have been suffering from anxiety and depression and I thought that's just how everyone lives and that was just normal,” he said.

Sciarappa’s bishop lived at the seminary where he studied. About six months into Sciarappa’s formation, the bishop, having spoken with the seminary faculty, encouraged the young seminarian to enter into therapy.

“When the bishop told me, I think I just started crying and his office right there, because it was just so overwhelming to be faced with the fact that I do need help,” he said.

It was a difficult concept to grasp, he noted, because therapy and mental illness were not topics typically discussed during his childhood. He said, among other stigmas, he considered therapy to be a tool for crazy people.

“I didn't know anybody who had done this before. It wasn't something that was ever just talked about in my circles growing up,” he said.

He went to a therapist for about three years. He went back to counseling during major seminary in Washington D.C. He described therapy as both a difficult and valuable process.

During counseling, Sciarappa said, he had to work through “core wounds” and the issues affected by habits learned during childhood. He said, “going through that is really hard work.”

“There were so many days I'd be exhausted after everything, but once [I brought] those things into the light I could make more sense of my life.”

It got easier as he progressed through the process, Sciarappa  noted, stating that he began to acknowledge the fruits of therapy and witness its impact on his health. He said, because of therapy, he learned the tools and skills to cope with depression and anxiety. He said it helped to better understand himself and what to expect from these kinds of struggles 

“It was like mechanisms and how to cope and strategies,” he said. “Now we see what's going on with the problem and why that's going on. For me, finding out why I struggled with this then helped me deal with it more and more.”

When asked about how to best priests can maintain mental health, Sciarappa stressed the importance of outside support, including spiritual direction, close friendships, and a priest support group to which he belongs.

The priestly support group meets once a month at one of the member’s rectories. At each meeting, there are two moderators, one a trained therapist, to help the team keep on track.

He said the group discusses personal struggles, like loneliness, but also struggles particular to priests, including the clerical abuse scandals, and priest relocation. Sciarappa said it is significant to have peers to confide in. It is not appropriate to be as open with parishioners, he added, noting it is nevertheless valuable to have community among the laity. 

“It's so important to have a brother priest so he can talk honestly about stuff, about difficulties, about insecurities,” he said. “I'm not going to spill my guts out to the random parishioner-- that would be unhealthy for them and for me.”

“I think it's [valuable to have] supportive, close friends, priests, laypeople. That's the biggest thing,” he said. “I'll talk about different things in those different circles or talk about them in different ways, but that way nothing that is going on stays in the darkness.”

Sciarappa said it’s difficult to enter into suffering places, recognizing one’s need for help and therapy. However, he said the experience has also given him more empathy and allowed him to truly experience the grace of God.

“It's given me tools where I can recognize it in other people. The big thing … it's made me a more empathetic person,” he said.

“Going through that suffering and having Christ redeem it and heal me more and more, when I speak to people about hope, when I speak to people [about] how healing can happen, I can speak about it from a place of experience. It's not theoretical, I really mean it. And that's going to change the way you preach. That's going to change the way you talk to people.”

US bishops praise pope's 'clarion call' for nuclear disarmament

Washington D.C., Feb 14, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- The bishops of the United States released a statement on Friday calling for the United States and other nuclear powers to dismantle their arsenals and praising Pope Francis for drawing the world’s attention to nuclear weapons.

“The Committee on International Justice and Peace is grateful to the Holy Father for this renewed effort to bring about a world of peace and justice that is not based upon fear or the threat of nuclear annihilation but justice and human solidarity,” said the statement released Feb. 14. 

The statement was co-signed by the eight bishops who comprise the committee, as well as the two bishop consultants to the committee. The chairman of the committee is Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford. 

The bishops referenced Pope Francis’ November visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki while he was in Japan. Both cities were attacked with atomic bombs at the end of World War II. The bishops said the pontiff “spoke forcefully” on the issue. 

“Speaking at Nagasaki, he emphasized the need for a wide and deep solidarity to bring about security in a world not reliant on atomic weapons,” said the bishops.

They quoted the pope calling on “individuals, religious communities and civil society, countries that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not, the military and private sectors, and international organizations” to work together to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

In Hiroshima, the bishops recalled, Pope Francis stated that the use of nuclear weapons is always immoral, as is their possession.

“The words of Pope Francis serve as a clarion call and a profound reminder to all that the status quo of international relations, resting on the threat of mutual destruction, must be changed,” they said. 

The bishops noted that the continued existence of nuclear weapons “weighs on the consciences of all to find a means for complete and mutual disarmament based in a shared commitment and trust that needs to be fostered and deepened.”

“As such, we also call upon our own government to be part of and indeed renew its primary responsibility in that effort.” they said. In addition to the United States, the other nations possessing nuclear weapons “must take the lead in mutual reduction” of their stockpiles.  

“The international community [has] recognized the need to move away from the threat of mutual destruction and toward genuine and universal disarmament,” said the bishops. 

Currently, eight countries--the United States, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and the United Kingdom--are known to possess nuclear weapons. Israel is also believed to have nuclear weapons, but has refused to confirm the matter. 

The former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, along with South Africa, have all disarmed themselves of nuclear weapons.

Alabama state Rep. proposes forced vasectomy law

Mobile, Ala., Feb 14, 2020 / 12:30 pm (CNA).- An Alabama state representative has introduced a bill that would require men of a certain age or state to have a vasectomy.

The legislation (HB 238) was introduced in the state legislature on Thursday by Rep. Rolanda Harris (D). It provides that a man must undergo a vasectomy “at his own expense” within one month of his 50th birthday or the birth of his third child, “whichever comes first.”

Harris tweeted on Thursday that her aim “is to neutralize the abortion ban bill” and “help men become more accountable as well as women” in family planning decisions.

Harris’s statements refer to the “Human Life Protection Act,” passed by the state legislature last year and signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey.

One of the strongest pro-life state law in the country, the measure outlaws abortion except in “cases where abortion is necessary in order to prevent a serious health risk to the unborn child's mother.”

The law also made performing or assisting in an abortion a felony offense for medical professionals; criminal penalties would not apply to mothers having abortions. Doctors performing abortions could be charged with a Class A felony and face up to 10 years in prison. No exceptions were made for cases of rape or incest.

The law has been the subject of legal challenges and was passed in part as an effort to force the reconsideration of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the U.S. The 1973 decision struck down state abortion bans and instituted a “viability” test where states could only regulate abortion when the unborn child is considered “viable.”

The 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision built upon that framework and said that states could not put an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to get an abortion pre-viability.

Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, stated his strong support for the 2019 Alabama law and expressed his hope to “eventually, to make the killing of unborn children in our country something that is no longer viewed as anything but the horrendous and inhumane killing of the most innocent among us that it is.”

In October last year, a federal judge blocked the law from going into effect.

Harris, on Thursday, said her bill aimed to “neutralize” the Human Life Protection Act by forcing men to sterilize themselves to cut down on the number of cases where abortion is considered.

“The responsibility is not always on the women. It takes 2 to tangle. This will help prevent pregnancy as well as abortion of unwanted children,” she tweeted.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2399 lists direct sterilization as one of the “morally unacceptable” means of the regulation of births, along with contraception.

Language & Conversion

I say I grew up bilingual, but the truth is more about loss than duality. My earliest language was Mandarin, spoken by caregivers in the Taipei foster home where I awaited adoption for the first nine months of my life. When I arrived at my parents’ home in California, Mandarin was replaced by my family’s southern village dialect of Cantonese—my first language extinction. Like many first-generation children of immigrants, my parents’ mother tongue carried me through age four, when I started school. English was introduced like an invasive species—devouring, crowding out, and multiplying through every television show and new friend. And yet, English did what it was supposed to do: provided access, made me less afraid. What do you call an invasive species that the ecosystem comes to depend on?

Even as language widened the gulf between us, my mom and I shared a linguistic intimacy: parallel ossification. Her English and my Cantonese grew bone-hard, losing the suppleness required to overcome recurring errors, blanks, or broken connections. With her, I now speak what Amy Tan calls a daughter’s dialect, able to express only what a child can express to a mother: hungry, tired, full, please.

In high school, I began learning Spanish. The grammar clicked in me. I could mimic friends’ accents, my tongue somehow agile in ways it no longer was with Cantonese. After four years of study, I started to describe myself as bilingual. A lesson in the first year haunted me: Our words for things are arbitrary. Words come from us, not the thing itself. The distance between me and my parents is an accretion of words. Yet words, and by extension our alienation, were randomly assigned. Words themselves did not contain the essence of daughter or nui, for that would make one word less true than the other. Words could not measure the distance between my parents asking in one language and my answering in another.

In 2015, my husband’s teaching assignment brought our family to his university’s Madrid campus for the spring semester. We arrived with our four-year-old and one-year-old, breathless before the city’s beauty, its pace and height. Hapless exchanges in Spanish with the super and a pharmacist on our first day sank my confidence. For the entire semester, I was unable to relax, constantly defensive and over-prepared, never knowing if my vocabulary would get me through the task at hand. Easily overwhelmed, I pretended to understand far more than I did, rehearsing every possible interaction, then retreating into silence as often as I could. My oldest threw tantrums whenever I held a conversation for more than a few moments, as if not being able to understand her mother was frightening.

For most of our time in Madrid, I was slow, tangled, and ungrounded. When I finally saw pictures from that time, I realized that we had managed to buy groceries, eat out, hire sitters, hail taxis, enroll in ballet and music classes. In truth, we lived well, and people were extraordinarily generous and patient. Still I’d felt lost and inadequate, slightly unreal. My weariness came from inhabiting a slightly different version of myself, waiting for the real me to return once we landed back home.

When I found it meaningless to hear I love you in Spanish, I thought of all the ways my mom needed her mother tongue for a sense of grounding and reality. She counted and measured only in Cantonese. Any words of care, from eat slowly to sleep early, came out in Cantonese, as did words of anger. And so her care and her anger, her superstitions and stories, all drifted on her side of the gulf. All of my words for desire and the future remained on mine. Each of our languages of intimacy was the other’s language of limitation. I wish I could say my empathy for my mom grew after living in Madrid. But my mind only raced ahead to our return to the states in May. For fifty years in her adopted country, my mom has held the desire for such relief.

I could feel something reverberating in me like all those mother tongues...a desire to turn and follow whatever was speaking to me and learn to speak back.

On the cusp of my conversion to Catholicism, I heard what I can only describe as a murmuring. I felt like my newborn daughter, craning to follow my sound everywhere, and like her sister, exploding with her first words, eager almost to the point of desperation to exchange something with us. For her biological needs, my oldest still cried. But talking seemed to be for something more, without which she could not fully become part of the world. I saw in my girls how instinct drives language acquisition, how in learning to speak, they became more themselves. I’d been propelled first toward Mandarin, then Cantonese, and finally English. Now I could feel something reverberating in me like all those mother tongues. Not just a new set of ideas or beliefs to take up, but a desire to turn and follow whatever was speaking to me and learn to speak back.

The poet Pádraig Ó Tuama says that the first thing God does in the first chapter of Genesis is speak, thus making all words sacramental. I wondered which of my languages held the sacramental words—the one extinguished in infancy, the other lost one that cleaved me to family and culture, or the one with which I now make my way in the world and take in the Gospels? Language has always been transactional for me. With every English word I gained, a Cantonese one seemed to slip away. I carried new words like currency out into the world beyond my parents’ house. The ones I brought back I hid like a thief. I know they watched me grow my stash with confusion, fear, and an unmistakable flicker of relief.

There was something instinctual about my conversion, but something of a non-native speaker’s struggle for fluency as well. I grew up surrounded by second-language speakers, accustomed to the lilting Chinese tones in my family’s English. I could predict exactly how my mom would ask one of our regular restaurant customers, “You want you same all the time order?” I watched her repeat the same ESL homework year after year, unable to wrangle her tongue or her memory, berating herself for lacking discipline and education. As my daughters learned to speak their mother tongue, they delightfully misapplied grammar rules like all children do: The bad guy sworded the good guy. I jumped in this puddle because my shoes are waterable! These early errors are evidence of innate grammar systems developing. My girls needed no correction to never again utter these phrases. They will not remember conjuring wholly new language from the depths of themselves, proving that one’s mother tongue is not learned through imitation alone. But a second-language learner’s errors, like my mom’s inability to conjugate verbs, can be impossible to surmount.

Gaining a second language is not a simple act of acquisition. I learn amor and it changes how I understand love. But I also carry a primal dictionary of untranslatable Cantonese, like hahm toi, which means the particular smell of your home or the clothes you’ve been wearing. It is the word for the smell of you, and it connotes familiarity and intimacy, along with lazy hygiene and others’ disgust. Two languages require two systems to coexist and undergo continuous comparison. On the one hand, this lends the world dimension and nuance. On the other, it requires endless shifting, balancing, and choosing just to make meaning. The work is like trying to build your raft while keeping afloat. And then there are all the words I didn’t know I was missing. Like sobremesa, the unhurried conversation across a table cluttered with the meal’s dishes. When describing a dinner party to my spiritual director, I was unable to articulate the buoyant warmth of people who made me feel entirely at ease with myself. She offered me incarnation and consolation. I looked back and inscribed these new words over other memories: my first pregnancy sonogram, discovering a new career after being laid off, the first time I walked across my sprawling college campus. Other times got labeled desolation or acedia, as my past submitted to a kind of translation.

It’s sometimes impossible not to compare my life before and after conversion—what I’ve gained and what I’ve let go of, what’s grown harder or easier. In becoming Catholic, I imagined conversion could mean complete transformation, which in many ways I had wanted: a fresh start, even a do-over. But I also knew better than to think I could take up one seamless self. The word convert comes from the Latin com, meaning “together,” and vertere, meaning “turn.” Rather than complete transformation, my becoming Catholic has been a series of turnstoward an ultimate concern, toward reconciliation, toward a source. And the language of faith toward which I turn, whether by instinct or effort, does not rewrite me by erasure but by expansion. It moves me, past and all, out and into everything.

As with Spanish and Cantonese, I’ve sometimes felt a struggle toward fluency in the language of faith, as if I am speaking a mangled version of Catholic haunted by errors and blunted pathways I am too old to develop. But then I think of my mom’s English, created just as her new self was created: in this country and no other, under these circumstances and no others, for these reasons and for this life. Her English is not broken. It is both a string of errors and a thing unto itself. The idiolect of my new faith is, perhaps, such a thing too—a language of conversion that is not in conflict but negotiation, not evaluated for correctness but for expressions of becoming more myself. Every word carries an entire topography of experience and culture. Tectonic plates of past and present collide and reconfigure with each utterance. In these terms, fluency has always been ours, all of us language learners babbling and turning our heads, wanting to hear and be heard.


Not on the Same Page?

As of now the Catholic Church seems to be one of the last things standing between Jair Bolsonaro and the survival of the Amazon region—and with it perhaps the planet. The Brazilian president’s rapacious drive to develop the tropical rainforest would be catastrophic even if the world wasn’t already literally burning, from California to Siberia to Australia. Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis’s exhortation on last fall’s Synod on the Amazon, amounts to a papal love letter, a valentine to the Amazon. Released on February 12, the anniversary of the murder of Sr. Dorothy Stang in 2005 in the Brazilian state of Parà in the Amazon Basin, it expresses Francis’s dream for the region—socially, culturally, ecologically, and ecclesially. In one hundred and eleven paragraphs, and in a poetic language full of literary references (Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda, Vinicius de Moraes), Francis lays out his vision for a deep transformation of a part of the world facing no shortage of threats. The pope’s plea to protect the Amazon didn’t go unnoticed by Bolsonaro himself, who on February 13 lashed out in response: “Well, the pope may be Argentinian, but God is Brazilian.”

Querida Amazonia is a unique kind of post-synodal exhortation. Appropriately, since it follows a synod that itself differed significantly from others preceding it: dedicated to a particular region of the world and largely prepared by ecclesial and other groups from that area; strongly supported by lay Catholics and theologians who worked closely with their bishops before going to Rome; and touching directly on the neuralgic issues of married priests and of male and female deacons in positions of institutional leadership. Additionally, it was a major test after publication of a major reform of Paul VI’s Bishops Synod—2018’s Episcopalis Communio—which addressed issues of papal primacy and the preparation of final documents in an effort to shape a more synodal Church. Finally, it unfolded against a backdrop of intense anti-Francis sentiment and acts of racism directed against indigenous participants—one perpetrator of which was recently hailed by Rod Dreher as a “hero.” 

Querida Amazonia is unique as well in that it doesn’t directly engage the final document voted on and approved by the Synod, including the paragraph calling on Francis to consider priestly ordination of married men (which passed with two-thirds of the vote). In previous cases, especially in Amoris Laetitia, Francis included parts of the final documents in his post-synodal exhortations. But not this time. In fact, he states explicitly and early on in Querida Amazonia that he will not do so. Yet he does not actually contradict the final document; he simply offers his own conclusions, and opts not to adopt the decisions concerning married priests. So we are left with two different documents, both fruits of the synodal process. It’s the ultimate application to the magisterium, in these extraordinary times, of the Catholic principle of et et: “both and,” not “either or.”

Think of it in keeping with Francis’s reinterpretation of papal primacy for a synodal Church, but also his way to deal—for the first time—with his genuine disagreement with the Synod’s majority. His language on the priesthood, in Chapter 4, at times conveys more a pre-conciliar than conciliar or post-conciliar theology of the ordained ministry, with the focus on what is unique to the priest and his exclusive identity (par. 87-88). The most important sources of this section owe all to the John Paul II era; the great emphasis on what the laity can do works to preserve the clerical system just as it is. Rather than receive the synodal proposals on ordination of the viri probati to the priesthood, Francis’s solution is to pray for vocations and more efficient deployment of the clergy. There is a small opening on the possibility of an Amazonian rite—very small, however, compared to the proposal in the final document. And Francis’s language on women is typically and woefully inadequate, while his effusive praise of the “feminine” is counterproductive. What he says here fits the pattern of what he has always said on these issues. One wonders what will happen to the pontifical commission for the study of women diaconate—if it will be reconstituted or not, and on what basis.

Does his reluctance to accept the Synod’s conclusion reflect a fear splitting the Church in two? This has not stopped him before. And it’s worth noting just how much the concept of inculturation comes up (paragraph 82 includes an interesting self-critique on the Church’s lack of inculturated liturgies). There are also some interesting openings on ecclesial base communities, which is one of the great reversals of Francis’s pontificate when it comes to the life of the Church in Latin America. Synodality has become possible with the rehabilitation of inculturation by the papal teaching.

Querida Amazonia is not like Humanae Vitae. Yet somehow the space between Querida Amazonia and the synod’s final document needs to be filled.

The big question is what happens next. Is this document the end of the line for the Synod’s final document? Or is it just a pause in the process? As an Italian colleague said to me: “Roma locuta, causa infinita”—Rome has spoken, the discussion is never-ending. The synodal process is by definition open and never-ending. Fr. Antonio Spadaro, writing in Civiltà Cattolica, emphasized the spaces for the reception of the Synod opened by Querida Amazonia. In the introduction of the exhortation, paragraph 4 is important in inviting the local churches to take initiative. In paragraph 97, it invites the creation of what could be an “ecclesial supranational” organ for implementing new ministries and rites. The new ministries for women (paragraph 103) will be created under the “institutional” criteria of “stability, public recognition and stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop.”

Certainly, synodality is not only about papal documents, but also about the impact of the synodal events themselves. And there is no way to muzzle the synodal expectations in today’s Church. A parallel question emerges about what this means for local synodal processes in churches around the world, especially for the “synodal way” in Germany and the “plenary council” in Australia. What kind of message does an atypical exhortation like this send to church and lay leaders active in these processes?

Future church historians may well be interested in knowing just who wrote Chapter 4 of Querida Amazonia. There were clearly different hands at work here—and different from those who worked at the Synod. It also would be interesting to know what happened after the Synod, between November and January, that necessitated so rapid a papal response. This is the shortest time gap between the conclusion of a synod and the publication of the post-synodal exhortation. What we can say now is that the Amazon Synod and Querida Amazonia represent a watershed because they reveal the complexity of the transition from a papal-episcopal Catholic Church to a synodal Catholic Church. We now have clearer insight into the unresolved problems between papal primacy and synodality. And what we see with Querida Amazonia might suggest a betrayal of the Amazon Synod at least in terms of what it means for institutional Church reforms. Francis did not approve the final document, and so it did not enter the magisterium (according to Episcopalis Communio). By the traditional hierarchy of sources, only Querida Amazonia is part of the ordinary magisterium of the pope. And yet even this isn’t the whole story, since Francis himself says that Querida Amazonia does not substitute the final document of the Synod.

The hope that Querida Amazonia would open a process similar to that with Amoris Laetitia could amount to wishful thinking—not because of the opposition of local episcopates, but, this time, because of Francis’s own opposition, not to mention the resistance he continues to face in Rome and elsewhere. Moreover, Francis’s positions on the issues of the 2014-2015 Synods aligned with those of the synodal majorities. This time, they don’t, and perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising: since 2013, Francis has repeatedly made clear his thinking on celibacy and married priests, deacons and women deacons, and women in ministry.

Francis’s one major institutional reform—the Bishops’ Synod and synodality—now shows a systemic weakness: Catholic synodality still revolves institutionally and canonically around the Bishops’ Synod, which was conceived in 1965 as an instrument of papal primacy to co-opt elements of episcopal collegiality. In 2020, fifty-five years after the foundation of the Bishops’ Synod by Paul VI, the proposals of the bishops still depend on papal fiat, even when there is a large consensus as with the Amazon Synod. Secondly, the institutional arm of Catholic synodality still doesn’t know how to receive the participation of the people of God, or in what form: How can el pueblo fiel de Dios be represented and heard and contribute to decision-making? But there’s no way to go back. Papal teaching has acknowledged the need to take the sensus ecclesiae into account.

Querida Amazonia is not like Humanae Vitae. Yet somehow the space between Querida Amazonia and the synod’s final document needs to be filled. Francis likes to say that “time is greater than space.” Time is also greater in Rome than in the global Church, where the sense of many Catholics is that this might be the last best chance for institutional reform—and that this also might be the last generation of Catholics willing to believe it’s possible. The moment is a crossroads for the Francis pontificate.

More wives, fewer penalties? Utah debates partial decriminalization of polygamy

Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb 13, 2020 / 09:40 pm (CNA).- The Utah Senate will consider a bill that would partially decriminalize polygamy after a state senate committee passed it unanimously, drawing strong views on both sides.

“The diocese is not taking a position on this bill, but I will say that we find the sponsors’ statements that the bill could help individuals come out of the shadows of polygamy to be very credible,” Jean Hill, director of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, told CNA Feb. 13.

However, Ora Barlow, who grew up in a polygamous community, opposed changes in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Salt Lake City Tribune reports.

“The law is there for a reason,” she said. “And it’s for people like me who feel trapped.”

Barlow said she felt free when her church’s leaders were imprisoned and prosecuted. That action made her realize that she had been treated like property all her life.

Nicole Van Tassell-Henderson, a former member of a plural marriage, said lightening the legal penalties for polygamists will give “power and control” to community leaders, the Salt Lake City television affiliate Fox 13 reports.

Utah law presently punishes polygamy as a felony with a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Senate Bill 102 would treat polygamy among consenting adults as an infraction penalized less severely than many traffic offenses. Those cited for polygamy could be punished by fines of up to $750 and community service if the bill becomes law.

Polygamy could still be punished if the defendant is also convicted of fraud, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, human smuggling, or human trafficking. In these situations, polygamy is penalized by up to 15 years in prison.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons, is the predominant religion in Utah. Its leaders supported the practice of polygamy in the 19th century, but ordered an end to plural marriages in the late 1800s, under heavy pressure from the federal government.

Some breakaway groups still continue the practice of plural marriage. An estimated 30,000 people live in polygamous communities in the state.

“The polygamous community is small, and very insular, with a few notable exceptions,” Hill told CNA. “The Catholic Church does not have many dealings with these communities and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not affiliated with the polygamous groups.”

“Catholic teaching does not recognize polygamy as a valid relationship,” Hill said, citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism teaches that “conjugal love between husband and wife is part of God’s plan for humanity.” It is a “a lifelong communion of a man and woman” that is a blessing to the couple, the Church and the world when it is “faithful, exclusive, and open to life.”

Sen. Deidre Henderson, a Republican sponsor of the Utah bill, told National Public Radio that strict enforcement of the anti-polygamy law in the mid-20th century did not deter plural marriage. She said polygamous families have been driven underground “into a shadow society where the vulnerable make easy prey.”

Henderson argued that the current law is unenforceable if there are no other crimes. She said the law has created a “full-blown human rights crisis” that makes victims of abuse and fraud afraid to come forward and which criminalizes citizens who otherwise follow the law, the Salt Lake City Tribune reports.

She also argued that the bill codifies current practice of the Utah Attorney General to prosecute only when other serious crimes are being committed.

Henderson said people in polygamous communities “long to feel part of society.”

“They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens,” she said. “They feel like Utah has legalized prejudice against them. They want to be honest people, but feel like they have to lie or teach their children to lie about their families in order to stay safe.”

Shirlee Draper, who grew up in a polygamous family in Colorado City, Arizona, told the Senate committee she was taught never to speak to law enforcement. Her father and other adults would warn children of raids on polygamous communities, which encouraged fear of outsiders as “kidnappers.”

Draper, a victim advocate who backs decriminalization, said abuse and violence cases come from a variety of family and religious backgrounds. She suggested that nobody argues that “it’s the family structure that causes those abuses.”

She said polygamous families are wrongly assumed to be committing illicit acts.

Other backers of the bill include the ACLU of Utah and the Statewide Association of Prosecutors.

Easton Harvey, speaking to the Senate committee on behalf of the polygamy critics Sound Choices Coalition, said members of these communities are afraid to report abuse because they fear ostracism from their community or divine punishment.

Angela Kelly, director of the Sound Choices Coalition, said polygamy is comparable to organized crime and slavery. Reducing criminal penalties would encourage more polygamous households and send the message that it is “an okay lifestyle.”

The coalition denies that polygamy is a choice, National Public Radio reports. It accuses fundamentalist Mormons of using their scriptures “to justify crimes and deviant behaviors” and “to subvert and oppress their wives and their numerous offspring who have been indoctrinated from birth into believing that a loving God commanded such suffering and disparity.”

The Sound Choices Coalition says that in polygamous practice, young men are pushed out of polygamous communities so that older men may monopolize young women as wives. It contends the practice is linked to child brides, incest, and the extortion of money in exchange for the promise of religious salvation.

Republican Sen. Dan Thatcher, the only member of the Senate committee who did not sponsor the bill, said he was not interested in hearing about the badness of polygamy because it would not cause him to vote against the bill.

“This is better than what we are doing now, and I have not heard a single person bring forward a better solution,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the prohibition on polygamy.

In 2019 the American Psychological Association launched a special task force to counter what it said was the “stigmatization” of people who practice consensual polygamy.

In 2017 a Gallup poll found 17% of Americans find polygamy to be morally permissible. Support had particularly increased among non-religious Americans. The change in opinion followed the 2010 launch of the reality show “Sister Wives,” which presents a sympathetic portrayal of a polygamous family. Pollsters also attributed the shift of the popular concept of polygamy from patriarchal and masculine centered family to a gender-neutral definition.

Kody Brown and his four wives, featured on the television show “Sister Wives”, had challenged a polygamy ban.

A lower court initially said the law violated their right to privacy and religious freedom. In April 2016, an appellate court ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the law because they were not charged under it.

When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 struck down anti-sodomy laws that criminalized same-sex sexual relations, critics warned that it set the stage for recognition of same-sex unions as marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court then mandated the nationwide legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2015.

Catholics leaders in US call for nationwide limit on payday loan interest

Washington D.C., Feb 13, 2020 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- Catholics in the US are pushing for a national, bipartisan bill that would limit the interest rate on payday and car title loans.

“Payday lending is modern day usury. These short-term, high-interest loans prey on the financial hardship of poor and vulnerable consumers – all for the sake of big profits, which only come when consumers fail,” the Montana Catholic Conference said in a Feb. 12 statement.

“This practice directly contradicts our Catholic understanding that the role of the economy is to serve people, not the other way around.”

The conference is urging Catholics in Montana to contact U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who represents Montana’s at-large congressional district, to urge him to support the Veterans and Consumers Fair Credit Act of 2019. (H.R.5050).

Introduced by Jesús "Chuy" García (D-IL) and Glenn S. Grothman (R-WI), the bill would expand the 2006 Military Lending Act rate cap - which only covers active military members and their families - to all consumers. The bill would cap all payday and car-title loans at a maximum of a 36% APR interest rate.

“That means that payday loan sharks would not be able to charge sky-high, triple-digit interest rates on their deceptive loans,” the conference further added.

It was introduced to the House of Representatives last November. In the near future, a companion bill will be introduced to the U.S. Senate by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jack Reed (D-RI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

According to a statement from Grothman, 12 million Americans take out payday loans per year, and the average interest rate is currently 391 percent. As online loans have continued to exacerbate the problem, states have had a more difficult time regulating payday loans.

“We already protect military service members under the Military Lending Act, which means that we have recognized the predatory nature of high-interest loans to our men and women in uniform. This raises the question – if it is wrong to allow predatory lenders to target our service members, why is it right to let them target the rest of the community?” he wrote.

Last month, the US bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development signed a letter supporting the bill which was sent to the House Committee on Financial Services.

The Jan. 10 letter from the Faith for Just Lending coalition said that nearly 16,000 payday or car title loan stores operate within the United States taking advantage of loopholes and circumventing traditional usury laws.

“Each year, many households face financial crises. Over the last several decades, high-cost lending to those in need has increased significantly,” the letter said.

“Far too often, the result is families trapped in a cycle of debt with even less ability to pay the bills, keep food on the table, save for the next emergency, or provide for their children,” they said.

There are already 16 states, as well as the District of Columbia, who have capped the interest rate at 36% percent or lower, they said, noting that residents of these states now “use various methods to address budgetary shortfalls – such as utility payment plans and credit cards.”

As usury is often condemned in the Bible, they said, the issue is a concern of the Church. They urged parishioners, Church leaders, and government officials to take a stance against payday loans. They said actions should be taken to educate people on stewardship and responsible credit use.

“Scripture condemns usury and teaches us to respect the God-given dignity of each person and to love our neighbors rather than exploiting their financial vulnerability. Thus, just lending is a matter of Biblical morality and religious concern. Fairness and dignity are values that should be respected in all human relationships including business and financial relationships.”

The Church has consistently taught that usury is evil, including in numerous ecumenical councils.

In Vix pervenit, his 1745 encyclical on usury and other dishonest profit, Benedict XIV taught that a loan contract demands “that one return to another only as much as he has received. The sin rests on the fact that sometimes the creditor desires more than he has given. Therefore he contends some gain is owed him beyond that which he loaned, but any gain which exceeds the amount he gave is illicit and usurious.”

In his General Audience address of Feb. 10, 2016, Pope Francis taught that “Scripture persistently exhorts a generous response to requests for loans, without making petty calculations and without demanding impossible interest rates,” citing Leviticus.

“This lesson is always timely,” he said. “How many families there are on the street, victims of profiteering … It is a grave sin, usury is a sin that cries out in the presence of God.”

Virginia bishops join second annual state March for Life

Richmond, Va., Feb 13, 2020 / 06:00 pm (CNA).- Bishops Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Barry Knestout of Richmond each spoke at events associated with the second annual Virginia March for Life on Thursday, Feb. 13. 

The commonwealth's two bishops concelebrated a pre-march Mass, and Burbidge spoke at the rally held immediately before the march. 

Knestout, who delivered the homily at the Mass, said that the Virginia March for Life is “a day of prayer and advocacy for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life in Virginia,” as well as “a day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person” which were incurred by abortion.

“Today is not just a day to march but also to pray and fast for the recognition and dignity of human life in the Commonwealth,” said Knestout. “God fashioned each of us in his own image and we have a dignity that no other beings on earth can claim.”

During the homily, Knestout praised the work of pro-life groups and other individuals “who act with compassion and practical help” to assist those who are grieving. 

“As a human and Christian family, we grieve the loss of so many lives,” he said. “And yet, even in our grief, we know there is hope.” 

After the Mass, the marchers moved to the Virginia Capitol building for a rally. The rally featured numerous pro-life figures, including March for Life President Jeanne Mancini. 

Burbidge opened the rally with a prayer, and thanked the members of the state’s Senate and House of Delegates who were present at the event. 

"Each life welcomed into this world must be welcomed with thanksgiving, and shown a love and joy that resembles (God's)," said Burbidge. "Sadly, as we mark the anniversary of the legislation of abortion in our country, instill in us the courage to continue working on behalf of the unborn and vulnerable, despite the challenges before us." 

Burbidge prayed that those at the March on Thursday would be inspired "to be renewed in the faith, and rededicated to ending abortion and all other acts that deny and offend the inherent dignity of the human person." 

The Arlington bishop also prayed for expectant mothers, particularly those who are in less-than-ideal situations. He said he hopes they "will be given the courage and strength to bear the precious gift within them, in the midst of their hardships."

He hoped God would bless elected officials to work towards the common good, adding, "there is no good to be found in abortion." 

"Help our elected officials, especially here in Richmond, to see your light and exhibit the political will to do what is right and just and holy," said Burbidge.