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A major organ build in Virginia highlights the ‘multidisciplinary’ art of church organ-making

The new gallery organ sits under construction at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia. / Credit: Alexa Edlund

CNA Staff, May 29, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

“Much longer than any of us.” That’s how long Anne Kenny-Urban says the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart’s newly installed organ will last. 

Kenny-Urban, a board member of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Foundation in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, is part of the huge team of administrators and advocates that have spent nearly a decade planning and executing the replacement of the cathedral’s more-than-century-old gallery organ. The instrument was installed shortly after the cathedral was completed in 1906. Built by the John Brown Company of Wilmington, Delaware, it was reportedly the largest in the country at the time. 

Over the course of nearly 120 years, it received countless repairs, renovations, and upgrades in order to keep it running, including a complete rebuild in 1940 and a major renovation in the early 1990s. 

The original gallery organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia, 1931. Credit: Courtesy of the Diocese of Richmond
The original gallery organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia, 1931. Credit: Courtesy of the Diocese of Richmond

The departure of the cathedral’s longtime organist in 2015 led to an intensive search to fill that position. Over the course of that process, it became evident that the original organ had reached the end of its lifespan.

The church’s search for a new organ eventually led it to the Montreal firm of Juget-Sinclair, whose build of the new cathedral instrument is its largest project to date.

‘Every sort of trade imaginable’

Alex Ross, a sounder and organ builder with the organ company, told CNA that Juget-Sinclair’s organ-building process is highly “multidisciplinary.” The company was founded in 1994 by Denis Juget.

“In the beginning, it was mostly what we call ‘practice organs,’” Ross said. “So organs the size of, say, a China cabinet that organists can use at home to practice on.”

The fabricator “gradually worked up a reputation” via word of mouth. “And then eventually the first church organ was signed, and then another one, and then another one,” Ross said.

Considerable experience is necessary for a project the size of the cathedral’s new organ, Ross said.

“For a cathedral organ project like this, you wouldn’t want to hire a brand-new organ-builder who just set out under his own name and who’d only built a couple small organs,” he said.

Workers install the new gallery organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia, May 2024. Credit: Michael Mickle
Workers install the new gallery organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia, May 2024. Credit: Michael Mickle

“You want proof that a company is able to produce a large instrument like this. And so gradually our organs got bigger and bigger and bigger as more clients and more churches started putting their trust in us.”

“To date, this is the biggest organ that we’ve built,” Ross said. 

The organ itself is titled Opus 55 — the 55th organ the company has fabricated. The shop has also placed organs in Catholic and other Christian churches — in Wisconsin, New York, Texas, Vancouver, Florida, and numerous other locations, including as far away as Hong Kong. 

Some organ builders outsource much of the countless materials that go into making an organ, Ross said, but Juget-Sinclair does virtually all of its work in house. 

“In our philosophy, we try to build as much of the organ as we can ourselves,” he said. “So that means a lot of woodworking, it means tinsmithing to make the metal pipes. There’s ironwork, there’s welding, there’s electronics, there’s leatherwork. Just all kinds of different disciplines all packed into one.”

An organ the size of the cathedral’s has far more working parts than are visible from the outside, Ross said. 

“You see the part that you’re meant to see, but behind that there’s thousands and thousands of pipes,” he said. “The longest pipe is about 31 feet long, and it actually plays below the range of human hearing, so we can only hear the harmonics inside the sound, but you feel the fundamentals.”

Thousands of pipes line the interior of the new gallery organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia, May 2024. Credit: Alexa Edlund
Thousands of pipes line the interior of the new gallery organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia, May 2024. Credit: Alexa Edlund

“And the smallest pipe … from the mouth to the top of the pipe, is only a quarter-inch long,” he said. “It’s high enough that most people past the age of 50 might not be able to hear it anymore.”

The cathedral’s new organ ultimately utilizes over 4,300 pipes. Each one of those must be meticulously checked to ensure it works perfectly in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart itself.

‘It had to start with the sound’

The process of “sounding” the organ to ensure it works best with the cathedral’s acoustics is only the tail end of what has been nearly a decade-long process for the church to select and install its new centerpiece instrument. 

It was clear roughly a decade ago that the old organ was on its last legs. “We had an organ concert that was played on the old organ,” Roger Neathawk, a board member of the cathedral foundation, told CNA. “And the guest artist pushed a key down and the key stuck.”

“It was unpredictable,” he said. “You didn’t know whether it was going to work or not.”

Carey Bliley, the chair of the cathedral’s organ committee, said that the “No. 1 consideration for us was probably quality of materials.” 

“With all the problems we’ve had with the old organ and all the work that had been done, we wanted to make sure we had a builder that was going to build something that would last,” Bliley said.

“It had to start with the sound,” Kenny-Urban said of the searching process. “Did you want a crisp, clear sound? Did you want a rounder, more baroque sound? Because that would inform what makers we should talk to.”

A worker inspects the gallery organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia, May 2024. Credit: Daniel Payne/CNA
A worker inspects the gallery organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia, May 2024. Credit: Daniel Payne/CNA

The search committee gradually narrowed down possible fabricators until it developed a short list of three. “Then we just went and did site visits to see and hear their instruments,” Bliley said.

Front-and-center for the cathedral was how to responsibly use the considerable amount of money allotted for the organ project.

“It was not so much about what’s going to cost the least,” Bliley said. Rather, the committee was focused on “what’s going to be the best use of the resources that go towards the organ long-term.”

“People are making donations,” Kenny-Urban said. “How do we use these responsibly for something that will last centuries?”

‘The majesty and gentleness of God himself’

Before the organ can last centuries, it must be perfectly fitted to the cathedral’s majestic space and acoustics. That involves not just installing the organ correctly but “sounding” it, or ensuring that its thousands of pipes work correctly and interact with the church’s soaring architecture. 

“We have to go through every single one of those and make small adjustments so that it sounds its best in this particular room,” Ross said. “That process itself is two-and-a-half to three months of work.”

The sounders will work in teams of two to three people, 12 hours a day, six days a week, Ross said.

Stops line the newly installed gallery organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia, May 2024. Credit: Daniel Payne/CNA
Stops line the newly installed gallery organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia, May 2024. Credit: Daniel Payne/CNA

Robin Côté, the president of Juget-Sinclair who first started working at the shop in 2002, said the “magic [of organ-making] is in small details.” 

“The artist that is making a portrait of somebody; it could be well done, but it could [also] be really, really impressive,” he told CNA. “You know, the treatment of the light, or small textures on the face.” 

“It’s hard to define exactly what really makes a work of art outstanding,” he said. “So that’s what we are trying to do. We are searching for an idea. We have a musical idea in mind. We are searching for sound, searching for how the instrument reacts to our fingers.”

“We have a vision, but then we have to adapt our vision to the space,” he said of the sounding process. 

Father Tony Marques, the rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, told CNA that the organ’s “power, range, and finesse reflect the majesty and gentleness of God himself.” 

“The instrument also mirrors the Church’s response to God, as we praise him with all that he has given us: our longing for beauty and our ingenuity that produces mellifluous sounds,” Marques said.

He pointed to Vatican Council II document Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which states that the pipe organ “is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.” 

“Significantly,” Marques said, “the case of the new pipe organ resembles the Cathedral’s façade — a reminder that the purpose of the instrument is to enliven the Church’s prayer.”

The new gallery organ sits under the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart's coffered ceiling. Credit: Alexa Edlund
The new gallery organ sits under the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart's coffered ceiling. Credit: Alexa Edlund

Ross stressed the intensive and demanding amount of work that has gone into drafting, constructing, assembling, and fine-tuning the organ. 

“Thirteen people spent two years of their life working full time to build this organ,” he said. “And so there’s a certain sort of attachment that comes with that, at least for me. I sort of see all the instruments that we build as having their own personality.”

Bliley said the basic construction of the organ is “based off of old-world technology that’s still working and playing” centuries after it was first built. The cathedral’s new organ, he said, “should be here for a long time.”

Marques, meanwhile, said the towering majesty of the organ will continually bring people closer to God.

“This grand instrument will almost touch the cathedral’s ceiling,” he said, “lifting minds and hearts upward, to heaven.”

New report shows fewer abuse claims brought against U.S. Catholic clerics

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks at the USCCB fall plenary assembly Nov. 14, 2023. / Credit: USCCB video

CNA Staff, May 28, 2024 / 18:15 pm (CNA).

A new report from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) shows that across the country from mid-2022 to mid-2023, just over 1,300 clerical abuse allegations came to light, while payouts to victims reached $284 million — tens of millions more than the prior year. 

This figure is down from 2,704 allegations brought the prior year, the report states, while some 4,434 allegations were brought in 2019.

Of those allegations, dioceses and eparchies deemed 229 of them credible; 71% of those allegations concerned incidents that occurred or began in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The total number of new allegations from victims who were currently minors in the studied year remained similar to the prior year, at 17.

“These numbers are not just numbers. The statistics are the many stories and accounts of the betrayal of trust and the lifelong journey towards recovery,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio, president of the USCCB, wrote in the report’s introduction. 

“I am most grateful to victim survivors for reporting the abuse they suffered, for holding all of us accountable, and for allowing us to journey alongside you.”

The 2024 report, released May 27, was produced in collaboration with an accounting firm by the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, a lay advisory body to the bishops established in 2002 on the protection of children and youth. 

The report covers a period between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023. All 196 Catholic dioceses and eparchies participated in data collection for the audit, but not all 196 dioceses and eparchies participated in an on-site audit, the report noted. Nevertheless, the report cited a “very high percentage of clergy, educators, seminarians, and employees who receive training in the area of child safety and abuse prevention, along with equally high numbers of those participating in background checks.”

“No other institution can readily provide and publish the body of knowledge and statistics as the Catholic Church does. The abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is a part of a larger societal problem of abuse,” Broglio continued. 

“What are we learning as a Church because of the abuse crisis? By acknowledging wrongdoing and communicating remorse and sorrow, the Church is taking ownership of her failure to protect. We are emphasizing the core value of relationships and encounters. We are putting in place steps and measures for safe environments and following up on near misses. The child or vulnerable person is at the center of these conversations.”

The figures

The number of clerics accused of sexual abuse of a minor during the audit period totaled 842. Of this total, 548 were diocesan priests, 122 belonged to a religious order, 34 were incardinated elsewhere, and 51 were deacons. Of the identified clerics, 45% had been accused in previous audit periods. Since 2019, the majority — two-thirds — of abuse allegations have been made known to a diocese, eparchy, or religious community through an attorney.

Out of the 1,308 allegations identified in this report, 17 involved people who were minors when they brought the allegations — four males, 11 females, and two were unknown due to a lack of detailed information. 

Taking a broader view, the report says that looking at all abuse allegations received in the U.S. from 2004 to 2023, 55% of all the credible allegations occurred or began before 1975, 41% occurred or began between 1975 and 1999, and 4% began or occurred since 2000.

Of those allegations, three were substantiated, seven were categorized as investigation ongoing, four were unsubstantiated, two were categorized as unable to be proven, and one was categorized as other, the report says. There were 44 allegations of abuse of minors brought in 2021, only four of which were substantiated. 

Of those accused, the report says, nine in 10 (91%) of them are deceased, already removed from ministry, already laicized, or missing. A further 5% of those identified during 2023 were permanently removed from ministry during that time; a handful were temporarily removed from ministry pending investigation of the allegations. None were returned to ministry or remain in active ministry pending the investigation, the report says. 

Forty-nine percent of alleged offenses occurred or began before 1975, 42% between 1975 and 1999, and 9% after 2000. Among the 228 victims where their gender was known, three-quarters were male.

Separately, the report identified 113 credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor committed by religious order priests, brothers, and deacons, made by 111 persons against 69 individuals. The alleged victims in this case were 80% male; only 63% of religious institutes provided information for the report, however.  

Similar to diocesan clergy, a high percentage, 91%, of accused religious are deceased, already removed from ministry, already laicized, or missing.

Costs

The report found that dioceses and eparchies that responded to the survey paid out $260,509,528 to victims between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023, a figure 66% higher than that reported for year 2022. In the past decade, only the years 2020 and 2019 respectively saw higher total payout amounts. The 2023 payout figure includes payments for allegations reported in previous years, the report notes. 

Insurance payments covered approximately $38,294,901, or 15%, of the total allegation-related costs paid by dioceses and eparchies. Money from savings, general operating budgets, loans or lines of credit, investments, bankruptcy filings, debt restructuring, property sales, staff reductions, and program or service elimination were also cited by dioceses as means of paying.

(As seen in the map below, numerous U.S. dioceses have declared bankruptcy in recent years amid mounting abuse lawsuits.)

In total, U.S. dioceses, eparchies, and religious communities reported paying out $284,043,825 for costs related to allegations between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023, a 41% increase over last year’s total of $201,973,695.

At the same time, U.S. dioceses, eparchies, and religious communities paid $43,747,179 for child protection efforts between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023. This is a 4% increase from the amount spent on such child protection efforts in the previous reporting year. 

Compared with fiscal year 2022, the amount of payments for attorneys’ fees for fiscal year 2023 was 23% higher. 

Harrison Butker doubles down on commencement speech at Catholic gala

Kansas City Chiefs' kicker Harrison Butker (left) and Kansas City Chiefs' punter Tommy Townsend watch the ball during Super Bowl LVII between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, on Feb. 12, 2023. / Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 28, 2024 / 17:10 pm (CNA).

Kansas City Chiefs’ kicker Harrison Butker doubled down on his May 11 Benedictine College commencement speech comments during a Catholic home schooling association’s gala in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday. 

“If it wasn’t clear that the timeless Catholic values are hated by many, it is now,” Butker, a three-time Super Bowl champion and the 2019 NFL scoring leader, said during the May 24 Regina Caeli Academy’s Courage Under Fire Gala.

Butker faced some pushback on social media and from commentators and celebrities for comments about gender ideology, gender roles, homosexuality, abortion, and other hot-button issues during the commencement speech.

Much of the criticism was in response to his warning to female graduates about “diabolical lies told to [them].”

“How many of you are sitting here now about to cross this stage and are thinking about all the promotions and titles you are going to get in your career?” Butker said at the commencement. “Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world, but I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world.”

At the gala Friday evening, Butker acknowledged the backlash, saying “many people expressed a shocking level of hate” after his speech. He said, however, that “as days went on, even those who disagreed with my viewpoints shared their support for my freedom of religion.”

“The more I’ve talked about what I value most, which is my Catholic faith, the more polarizing I have become,” he added. “It’s a decision I’ve consciously made and one I do not regret at all. If we have truth and charity, we should trust in the Lord’s providence and let the Holy Ghost do the rest of the work.”

Butker reflected on the persecution faced by many saints and prophets, such as Daniel who was thrown into a lion’s den. Being “disliked” and “mischaracterized by some,” Butker said, are “not so bad.”

“Our love for Jesus and thus our desire to speak out should never be outweighed by the longing of our fallen nature to be loved by the world,” Butker added. “Glorifying God and not ourselves should always remain our motivation despite any pushback or even support. I lean on those closest to me for guidance, but I can never forget that it is not people, but Jesus Christ, who I am trying to please.”

The 28-year-old kicker, who holds the record for most career field goals in Super Bowl games, encouraged the faithful to be “unapologetic of their Catholic faith and never be afraid to speak out for truth, even when it goes against the loudest voices.”

“If heaven is our goal, we should embrace our cross however large or small it may be, and live our life with joy to be a bold witness for Christ,” Butker said.

Although the secular response to Butker’s speech was mostly negative, the response from Catholic figures has been predominantly positive.

Butker’s bishop, James Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, told CNA two weeks ago that he supported the athlete’s “right to share his faith and express his opinions — including those that are critical of bishops.” 

President of the Catholic League Bill Donohue said in a statement that the kicker “nailed it” and praised “his courage and his commitment to Catholicism.”

Reactions from within the NFL were mixed. Jonathan Beane, NFL senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, distanced the league from Butker’s comments, saying “his views are not those of the NFL as an organization.” 

However, Butker received support from Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and from the wife of the team’s owner, Tavia Hunt, and their daughter, Gracie Hunt. 

Catholic family dedicated to regenerative agriculture says farming and faith go together

Dan and Whitney Belprez run Two Sparrows Farms, named for God’s promise to care for his sons and daughters. The couple has grown the farm and a family while holding to the truth that God provides through every trial and triumph. / Credit: Photo courtesy of Dan and Whitney Belprez

Lansing, Mich., May 28, 2024 / 16:40 pm (CNA).

Two Sparrows Farms, named for God’s promise to care for his sons and daughters (see Mt 10:29-31), has provided abundant evidence that God is faithful to his word. Owners Dan and Whitney Belprez have grown their farm and family while holding to the truth that God provides through every trial and triumph.

With a “normal” suburban childhood, Dan said it was his mom’s faith and dedication to their family time that inspired him to seek a career that would allow him to spend his days with his wife and children. 

“My mom worked in Catholic schools, and having summers and holidays off is what allowed her to really put a strong emphasis on family time together. So, I initially went to college to study education,” he said. 

Like Dan, Whitney had no exposure to farming as a child, but she was always captivated by nature and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. After meeting in high school and then attending Grand Valley State University together, Whitney said their experiences and interests led her and Dan to learn more about their food sources and the small steps they could take to care for creation. 

Dan and Whitney Belprez of Two Sparrows Farms in Michigan are raising their four children on the farm, where the couple said they are grateful for the ups and downs they experience. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing
Dan and Whitney Belprez of Two Sparrows Farms in Michigan are raising their four children on the farm, where the couple said they are grateful for the ups and downs they experience. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing

“I interned at a small organic farm, and Dan worked at an orchard,” she said. “We became very interested in organic food and started reading and learning more.” 

Dan remembered that God was drawing the couple into a deeper faith life.

“My family has this overarching Catholic identity and culture, so no matter where we are individually, there is still that unifying force.” 

And, while Whitney’s family wasn’t religious when she was young, she said the example of Dan’s family became a powerful witness to her. 

“His mom was very inspiring in my faith journey,“ Whitney recalled. “She was one of the first people I met who truly lived her faith not just on Sundays — she walks the walk. Her faith informs every decision.” 

Dan and Whitney Belprez of Two Sparrows Farms in Michigan are raising their four children on the farm, where the couple said they are grateful for the ups and downs they experience. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing
Dan and Whitney Belprez of Two Sparrows Farms in Michigan are raising their four children on the farm, where the couple said they are grateful for the ups and downs they experience. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing

After Whitney entered the Catholic Church in 2008, the couple married and graduated, then Dan took a job at a large, conventional dairy farm.

“I liked the work but not the production method,” he said. “I started to think we might be able to do this differently.”

Dedicated to regenerative agriculture, Whitney explained that they aim to farm their land in a way that’s always improving it. 

“Compost manure is the only fertility we add to the land. We farm in unison with nature instead of in opposition to it,” she said. “We rotate our cows on pasture every 24 hours from April to December. We honor the cow as an herbivore and steward the land in the best way possible.” 

“Our 3-year-old comes out to milk no matter the weather,” Whitney Belprez said. “His ‘pay’ is the hot chocolate packet he brings out in his mug so he can pick the cow he wants to milk. Our kids have been a part of this their whole lives.” Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing
“Our 3-year-old comes out to milk no matter the weather,” Whitney Belprez said. “His ‘pay’ is the hot chocolate packet he brings out in his mug so he can pick the cow he wants to milk. Our kids have been a part of this their whole lives.” Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing

The couple took their first step into farming by renting 10 acres of land.

“We had meat — chickens and sheep — and started canning food and buying from local farmers’ markets,” Whitney recalled. 

They then purchased a 12-acre farm and launched their new business — grass-fed beef and dairy cows. 

In 2017, Dan and Whitney moved to a 40-acre farm and quickly outgrew it as word spread and their business expanded. The following year, they bought their current farm, which consists of 80 acres on which they raise their dairy cows for herd shares, along with beef and pork.

Dan and Whitney Belprez of Two Sparrows Farms in Michigan are raising their four children on the farm, where the couple said they are grateful for the ups and downs they experience. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing
Dan and Whitney Belprez of Two Sparrows Farms in Michigan are raising their four children on the farm, where the couple said they are grateful for the ups and downs they experience. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing

“Farming was initially how we sought to integrate faith and family into this life where we could spend our days together,” Dan explained. Now raising their four children on the farm, the couple said they are grateful for the ups and downs they experience.

“Every decision, we look through the lens of what’s best for our family and how we should be treating the land and discerning all of it,” he said. “We could do more on this land, but our kids are relatively young, and we want to enjoy them and not have them resent the farm. We don’t assume they’ll all end up farming, but they know where their food comes from and how it got here. And they know how to work hard.”

“Our 3-year-old comes out to milk no matter the weather,” Whitney Belprez said. “His ‘pay’ is the hot chocolate packet he brings out in his mug so he can pick the cow he wants to milk. Our kids have been a part of this their whole lives.”. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing
“Our 3-year-old comes out to milk no matter the weather,” Whitney Belprez said. “His ‘pay’ is the hot chocolate packet he brings out in his mug so he can pick the cow he wants to milk. Our kids have been a part of this their whole lives.”. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing

Whitney agreed.

“Our 3-year-old comes out to milk no matter the weather,” she said. “His ‘pay’ is the hot chocolate packet he brings out in his mug so he can pick the cow he wants to milk. Our kids have been a part of this their whole lives. Their definition of ‘normal’ may differ slightly from most kids. We try to keep them away from electronics, and instead, they play with horses, calves, and ATVs, and they explore and make forts.”

Whitney explained that the driving factor in the life of the family and the farm is the faith that brought them to step into this life years ago.

“The first place we encounter God is in the family, so we’re always asking ourselves how we reflect that in the family,” she said. “The home is the center of our family and livelihood, not just for consumption. We talk about decisions in front of the kids because we want them to see that their values and faith should drive them, not what’s easiest or most convenient. Ultimately, farming is a journey of faith. There’s so much out of your control — it smacks you in the face. I can’t control when the rain comes. Farming is the best spiritual teacher; you have to relinquish the feeling that you can control and learn to roll with it.”

Dan and Whitney Belprez of Two Sparrows Farms in Michigan are raising their four children on the farm, where the couple said they are grateful for the ups and downs they experience. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing
Dan and Whitney Belprez of Two Sparrows Farms in Michigan are raising their four children on the farm, where the couple said they are grateful for the ups and downs they experience. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing

“Our kids know what sacrifice looks like, and that oftentimes we need to put other needs over ours,” she continued. “Love sometimes means something else has needs, and I’m here to help. This is the reality of farming: On Christmas mornings, our kids open presents and then we milk for three hours, or on any given day, breakfast might have to wait because a calf is being born.” 

Dan added: “We’ve all had such an opportunity to learn virtue: perseverance and patience, especially when things aren’t going well, and having gratitude when things are going well. The land teaches us the way things are by nature, God’s design is undeniable, and instead of trying to buck that, we do our best to work with it.” 

Ultimately, the couple has learned in practice what they knew in thought before they set out on this journey: Their faith is the unifying reality in their family and in their farming, and God keeps his promise to care for and provide for his sons and daughters. 

“God has created all of this and he’s in all of this. We recognize that this is something to be stewarded. Just like our children are on loan to us, the land was created by God and is on loan to us, and so we should care for it well,” Whitney said. “The best thing we can do in all things is aim to honor God by using what he has given us well.”

This article was originally published in Faith magazine and is reprinted here with permission. 

New Mexico priest dies by suicide amid child sex abuse investigation

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico. / Credit: Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

CNA Staff, May 28, 2024 / 12:05 pm (CNA).

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, said last week that a former priest charged in a child sex abuse case ended his own life ahead of a court hearing on the matter. 

The archdiocese said in a press release that Daniel Balizan had “taken his life” ahead of “a hearing in a child sexual abuse case.” Local media reported that Balizan’s body was found on Friday morning in Springer, New Mexico.

Balizan’s “tragic decision to end his life underscores the far-reaching and devastating consequences of the crime of child abuse — affecting victims, their loved ones, and even perpetrators themselves,” the archdiocese said in its Friday statement. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico announced Balizan’s indictment in June of last year. He was accused of coercing and enticing a child under the age of 18 to engage in sexual activity. The alleged abuse reportedly occurred between 2012 and 2022.

The prosecutor’s office said last year that Balizan “allegedly used text messages to coerce and entice a minor victim … to engage in sexual activity with him.”

The archdiocese said after his arrest last year that upon receiving the allegations in 2022 it “promptly reported” them to the authorities, “leading to Balizan’s immediate removal as the pastor of Santa Maria de la Paz in Santa Fe.”

Prosecutors and defense attorneys had announced at the beginning of May that Balizan had agreed to a plea deal in the case. Balizan requested “that he be permitted to remain out of custody pending the sentencing hearing,” the plea filing said.

The 61-year-old was facing a minimum of 10 years in prison on the charges.

Balizan was ordained in 1989 and had served at eight parishes in the Santa Fe Archdiocese before his arrest.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that the former priest had been released to the custody of his brother after being arrested. 

In the intervening months Balizan had “done bookkeeping, housekeeping, and groundskeeping work at the small family hotel,” his lawyer had said in a filing earlier this month. 

The former priest “also has been visiting and assisting his 89-year-old mother three days a week,” his attorney said.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe said in its Friday statement that it “reaffirm[ed] its zero tolerance and unwavering dedication to ensuring the safety and well-being of its community members, especially the vulnerable.”

The archdiocese further “emphasize[s] its ongoing commitment to transparency, accountability, and support for survivors of abuse.”

Report: Pro-life pregnancy centers provided over $367.9 million worth of services in 2022

A mom receives a donation of free gifts at ABC Pregnancy Resource Center in Lake Charles, Louisiana. / Credit: ABC Pregnancy Resource Center

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 28, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

A new report found that 2,750 pro-life pregnancy resource centers in the United States provided nearly $367.9 million worth of life-affirming pregnancy services and material goods to clients and their families in 2022.

The report, published this month by the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, estimates that the total monetary value of the goods and services provided in 2022 was more than one-third — over $100 million — higher than the total value provided in 2019. This includes diapers, baby formula, ultrasounds, health care services, and education among a variety of other goods and services.

According to the report, this total includes nearly $176 million in free medical services, more than $113.3 million in free education and support services, and more than $78.5 million worth of material resource items. The report found that the centers provided more than 16 million virtual and in-person sessions with clients.

One example of major growth from 2019 to 2022 was a 194% increase in material services and baby items delivered to families. Other areas of growth included a 41% increase in attendees for parenting and prenatal education programs and a 27% increase in testing for sexually transmitted diseases and infections.

The report also found an 18% increase in paid staff from 2019 to 2022 and a 26% increase in paid medical staff. About 27% of paid staff — 4,779 people — have medical licenses and about 12% of volunteers — 5,396 people — have medical licenses. It also found that more than 80% of the pregnancy resource centers provided medical services.

Michael New, a senior association scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, told CNA there has been more demand for services since the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022. He also said he has seen “an uptick in donations” and more funding from some state governments following the landmark 2022 decision at some centers, which has helped growth.

According to the report, the 2022 client exit surveys showed an extremely high satisfaction rate of 97.4%, which New said shows that clients “are happy with the assistance” they receive.

In spite of all of the services and goods offered — and the high self-reported rates of satisfaction — pregnancy resource centers have recently become targets of pro-abortion Democratic lawmakers and attorneys general. The most recent example is New York Attorney General Letitia James filing a lawsuit against 11 pregnancy resource centers.

The lawsuit against the centers accuses them of making “misleading” and “false” claims about the abortion pill reversal drug. Although several studies have found evidence that the drug can reverse the effects of chemical abortions in some instances, James referenced disputes about the drug’s effectiveness to assert the centers were making “misleading” and “false” claims.

The Charlotte Lozier Institute report noted that between 2019 and 2022, pregnancy resource centers provided 142% more abortion pill reversal drugs.

New told CNA that the Democratic Party has moved “sharply to the left” on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. However, referencing the high approval ratings pregnancy resource centers receive, New said that pro-abortion activists who accuse these centers of deceiving clients are “simply saying things that are untrue.” 

The report also found that the number of pregnancy resource centers that operate a maternity home nearly doubled from 24 to 46 between 2019 and 2023.

Bishops’ call to address ‘maternal health crisis’ highlights U.S. maternal death rate

null / Credit: Omurden Cengiz/Unsplash

CNA Staff, May 28, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

The U.S. bishops this month urged Congress to address the “maternal health crisis” in the United States, stressing that American women “face a high maternal mortality rate” relative to other countries. 

Long a cause of alarm among physicians and women’s advocates, the U.S. maternal mortality rate has regularly been posited as much higher than similar developed nations. Data from the CIA’s World Factbook, for instance, shows the “U.S. maternal death ratio” per 100,000 births as more than double that of countries such as France and Greece, and nearly triple that of countries like Switzerland. 

In their letter to Congress earlier this month, the U.S. bishops pointed to “data showing the maternal mortality rate has grown over the last two decades.”

“Women must … receive maternal health care that encompasses a wholistic view of their inherent dignity and value as expressed in the unique and God-given role of motherhood,” the prelates said. 

“Women face many obstacles in obtaining quality maternal health care,” the bishops wrote, pointing also to racial disparities in maternal mortality data, with nonwhite women facing higher rates of maternal death throughout the country.

The bishops urged Congress to “consider policies that, in line with our long-standing health care principles, provide health care formulated to meet the needs of mothers from every walk of life.”

Maternal mortality calculated by several factors

Classifying maternal mortality in the U.S. has long been something of a patchwork affair due to the autonomy that states have in determining such statistics. 

Jonathan Scrafford, an OB-GYN with Ascension Via Christi in Wichita, Kansas, told CNA that maternal health outcomes around the time of pregnancy “are tracked in several ways” in the U.S.

“‘Maternal death’ is a term describing the death of a patient occurring either during pregnancy, or within six weeks following the end of the pregnancy, and from causes related to the pregnancy, but excluding purely coincidental causes,” he said. 

The “maternal mortality ratio,” meanwhile, describes “the number of maternal deaths in a given time period, per 100,000 live births,” which is seen by statisticians as a reliable indicator of maternal mortality overall. 

Variations in classification of these deaths can result in divergent datasets between countries and even U.S. states, Scrafford said. 

“Most maternal deaths in the U.S. occur during the postpartum period,” he said. “About 1 in 5 occur at some point prior to delivery; and about 1 in 4 occur between the day of delivery and the first week thereafter.”

“As for the particular conditions related to pregnancy that contribute to maternal deaths, hemorrhage and infection are leading causes in both the U.S. and worldwide,” he said. Cardiovascular disease also plays a significant role in the statistics.

Overall, maternal deaths in the U.S. “most commonly occur in the few weeks following a delivery, often during a separate hospitalization, and in many cases due to causes not typically thought of as pregnancy-related,” he said.

‘Understand and address the high rates of maternal mortality’

The U.S. figures have been the subject of debate among statisticians and medical experts in recent years. Most recently, in March of this year, researchers in Canada and the U.S. posited that “high and rising rates of maternal mortality in the United States are a consequence of changes in maternal mortality surveillance.”

The researchers pointed to the relatively new use of a “pregnancy checkbox” on death certificates issued by U.S. states, which the researchers said led to “an increase in misclassified maternal deaths.” 

“Identifying maternal deaths by requiring mention of pregnancy among the multiple causes of death shows lower, stable maternal mortality rates and declines in maternal deaths from direct obstetrical causes,” the researchers said.

Advocates argue that maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are nevertheless too high, particularly among certain demographics. The Canadian researchers, for instance, noted that death rates “were disproportionately higher among non-Hispanic Black women.”

The U.S. bishops, meanwhile, similarly stressed “the racial disparities that impact women of color, particularly Black and Indigenous women,” with the prelates arguing that “poverty and economic stressors, racism, discrimination, family breakdown, and other forms of injustice” affect women and mothers throughout the country. 

“Women must have access to appropriate treatment for substance abuse disorders, mental illness, and mental health challenges, especially postpartum depression,” the bishops wrote, “and efforts must be made to understand and address the high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity.”

Health habits, poverty, family structure should all be addressed

Lester Ruppersberger, a retired OB-GYN and former president of the Catholic Medical Association, told CNA that women should prioritize consulting with physicians both before and during pregnancy to ensure healthy outcomes. 

“Once pregnant, early access and visits to OB-GYNs are important to evaluate/assess the health of the mother and identify risk factors and advise on how to have a healthy pregnancy and delivery,” he said. 

“We do have an ever-increasing overweight population compared to 20 years ago,” he said. “Drug and alcohol use/abuse, including marijuana, is still a problem.” 

“Maternal death rates are 2.5 times higher for Afro-American women and three times higher for Hispanic women overall,” he noted.

Scrafford, meanwhile, said that “many or even arguably most cases of maternal mortality are preventable.”

Many leading health authorities, he pointed out, opt for extreme measures such as abortion and sterilization to drive down the mortality rate. These options can create poor health problems of their own, he noted, while abortion itself creates “far more cases of mortality among unborn human beings than they reduce among women.”

He argued that “restoring fundamentals of health — at individual and family levels — would prove a more effective strategy for reducing maternal mortality than the aforementioned approaches which have already been failing for decades.”

“For individuals, improving nutrition, reducing sedentary lifestyles, and reducing stress are key components to reducing factors like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, which increase the risks of maternal mortality,” Scrafford argued. 

“Poverty and poor access to health care are already recognized as barriers to those changes; however, the importance of the intact nuclear family in overcoming those barriers must be more prominently recognized in public policy.”  

“In my opinion the broken family dynamics which have plagued the U.S. over the past few decades have driven many of the demographic changes, as well as trends in delayed childbearing, which prove to be risk factors for maternal mortality, and yet little has been done to protect the family as an essential health determinant,” he said. 

Physicians can help, he argued, by “emphasizing to individuals the importance of nutrition and exercise to maintain good baseline health,” by “encouraging women to consider childbearing during the age ranges in which their risk is lowests,” and by promoting “the importance of the intact family as a health determinant.”

‘He’s coming!’: Joyous Eucharistic pilgrimage visits New York, crosses Brooklyn Bridge

Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn holds the Eucharist as he enters Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn, New York, on May 26, 2024. The visit was part of the New York leg of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. / Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

New York City, N.Y., May 27, 2024 / 17:11 pm (CNA).

The eastern route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage marked one of its most anticipated early highlights Sunday in New York City, with stops at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the former home of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton before a scenic crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge.

On a breezy, sun-splashed day, the joyous, multilingual procession turned heads as it made its way through throngs of Memorial Day Weekend tourists — including sailors in their bright white uniforms taking in the sights during the city’s Fleet Week celebration.

Later in the day, pilgrims waiting outside the St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton Shrine on State Street reacted like star-struck celebrity spotters when they first caught sight of the procession approaching the Catholic landmark at the southern tip of Manhattan. 

“He’s coming! He’s coming!” several people shouted. “He’s here!”

When the monstrance finally arrived in front of the shrine, a group of pilgrims outside knelt on the sidewalk, some in tears.

Sunday’s procession signaled the start of the second full week of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, an ambitious, first-of-its-kind event spanning two months that culminates in mid-July at the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis. The undertaking, aimed at reviving devotion to the Eucharist among U.S. Catholics, began on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, with pilgrims setting out from launch locations in Connecticut, Minnesota, Texas, and California.

After passing by Yankee Stadium and traveling through Central Park earlier in the weekend, the pilgrimage resumed Sunday with matins and lauds at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on the Upper East Side and from there to St. Patrick’s for Trinity Sunday Mass with Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan stands at the altar during Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Cardinal Timothy Dolan stands at the altar during Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

In his homily, Dolan spoke about the Eucharist as a gift that invites believers to deepen their participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.

“Every time we worthily receive our Lord in holy Communion we put another log on the fire of God’s life within us,” the cardinal said. 

“Every time we might feel somewhat listless or weak, sinful, worried, or desperate, we fan into a flame the wavering flicker of God’s life within [us] by receiving the second person of the Most Blessed Trinity, God the Son, Our Lord and Savior, in the most holy Eucharist,” he continued. 

“And … when we ask for an increase of sanctifying grace, our prayers are especially effective … when offered before the real presence of Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament,” Dolan noted.

After Mass, the Eucharist was processed in a monstrance outside the cathedral to the front steps on Fifth Avenue, where Dolan knelt in prayer and then gave a benediction. 

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York holds the Eucharist aloft as he blesses pilgrims outside the entrance to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on May 26, 2024. The landmark church was a stop on National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York holds the Eucharist aloft as he blesses pilgrims outside the entrance to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on May 26, 2024. The landmark church was a stop on National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

A day of ‘great joy’

With Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, holding the monstrance aloft, the procession headed south from St. Patrick’s for another two hours to St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street.

There, pilgrims rested in the pews while Father Roger Landry, a regular contributor to EWTN News, gave a short talk on St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who converted to Catholicism there in 1805, and Venerable Pierre Toussaint, another heroic parishioner who lived in the early 1800s.

With Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, holds the monstrance carrying the Eucharist during a procession through New York City on May 26, 2024. The event was part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
With Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, holds the monstrance carrying the Eucharist during a procession through New York City on May 26, 2024. The event was part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

In addition to being a designated Eucharistic preacher as part of the nationwide revival campaign, Landry is one of 23 “perpetual pilgrims” who have committed to completing the entirety of their respective pilgrimage route.

“It was a great emotion when we arrived at St. Peter’s Church,” said Sister Cecilia of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Infant Jesus, a nun from Bologna, Italy, now based in New Jersey.

“I have done many pilgrimages, and there is always this great joy when you arrive at one of these places. Every pilgrimage place is different. It gives hope in your spiritual life,” Sister Cecilia told CNA.

Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, blesses pilgrims with the Eucharist outside the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton in Lower Manhattan on May 26, 2024. The shrine was a stop on the New York City leg of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, blesses pilgrims with the Eucharist outside the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton in Lower Manhattan on May 26, 2024. The shrine was a stop on the New York City leg of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

The next stop was the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, where the future American saint — for whom the eastern pilgrimage route is named — lived from 1801 to 1803, after the bankruptcy of her husband William’s business. Sister of Life Gianna Maria spoke inside the packed shrine about about the saint as a model of perseverance in suffering and trust in divine providence.

On to Brooklyn

From there, the procession made its way to the Brooklyn Bridge. A crowd of about a thousand people moved through the streets of the Financial District singing behind the monstrance: nuns and priests from different orders, young people, the elderly, and mothers and fathers pushing baby strollers. A large percentage of the crowd was Hispanic, with groups singing in both English and Spanish.

Pilgrims cross the Brooklyn Bridge during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Pilgrims cross the Brooklyn Bridge during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

As the pilgrims crossed the iconic bridge, U.S. Navy ships could be seen in nearby New York Harbor.

At the midpoint of the span, the procession paused for a benediction, after which Colacicco handed the monstrance to Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, the procession stopped briefly at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral. 

“We came with over 300 pilgrims from Long Island with Bishop John Barres [of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York]. Most of our pilgrims traveled on public transportation to get there. This was a community of our local Church joining with our universal Church,” said Father Matthew Browne, director of the office of evangelization and catechesis for the Rockville Centre Diocese.

Bishop Gerardo Colacicco of the Archdiocese of New York hands a monstrance to Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession across the Brooklyn Bridge on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Bishop Gerardo Colacicco of the Archdiocese of New York hands a monstrance to Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession across the Brooklyn Bridge on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

“Our world does not understand the nature of true love. When we bring Christ in the Eucharist to the streets, we are bringing true love into the world that desires true love, even though they cannot name it,” Browne said.

Robert Bruder, another participant from Long Island, said he came back to the Catholic faith last year.

“It was very encouraging to see so many people witnessing to the truth of our faith, people of different backgrounds and cultures,” he said of his experience Sunday. 

“The world needs Christ and a strong Catholic Church to bear witness to the truth. Eucharist processions will encourage those who have lapsed in the faith to come back,” he said.

For Sister Cecilia, the Eucharistic procession across the Brooklyn Bridge was inspiring.

“People were very welcoming. Priests, nuns, families, the young, bishops, walking together is always a moment that generates closeness and the helping of each other — even if you don’t know each other,” she observed.

“I helped a woman push a baby stroller. Another person gave me a bottle of water. Becoming a pilgrim means being a Church on the outside. Normally, we are inside in adoration and our many activities as nuns,” she said.

“But today we were on the outside. We were with Jesus in the Eucharist. People became interested. They asked prayers from me. Some nuns gave out prayer cards. Others made the sign of the cross. This makes our group become bigger,” she said.

Pilgrims walk through Lower Manhattan during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession through New York City on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Pilgrims walk through Lower Manhattan during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession through New York City on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

“New York City is a city which is far from spirituality, but today we were a part of something extraordinary,” said another pilgrim, city resident Maria Baldi.

“We had the opportunity to encounter Jesus among the people, among the tourists — not hiding inside a church or within a small group. We became witnesses with Jesus,” she said.

She noted how the procession that crossed the Brooklyn Bridge had to stay on one side of the bridge, while tourists crossed in the opposite direction.

“They saw people in prayer, and they saw the Blessed Sacrament. This generates curiosity and questions,” she said. “It makes you think. It made people stop and look.”

On Monday, Memorial Day, a small delegation including a handful of perpetual pilgrims was scheduled to travel with the Eucharist by boat for a blessing at the Statue of Liberty before continuing to Perth Amboy in New Jersey.

Where children are hungry: famine hot spots and Catholic groups that are helping

A woman and a girl in Tigray walk with supplies. The founder and CEO of the global school-feeding charity Mary’s Meals visited northern Ethiopia in March and confirmed reports of a widespread hunger crisis unfolding rapidly in Tigray in the aftermath of a two-year civil war and ongoing drought.  / Credit: Armstrong Studios/2024

CNA Staff, May 27, 2024 / 08:00 am (CNA).

Every night around the world approximately 350 million people, including a vast number of children, go to bed hungry. 

That’s according to the World Food Program (WFP), a major aid organization within the United Nations, which further estimates that nearly 49 million people are “on the brink of famine.”

Widespread hunger crises in some countries have lasted for many years, such as those in places like Ethiopia and Yemen. Other widespread hunger crises have exploded in some countries, such as Ukraine and Gaza, relatively recently. Regardless, famine and starvation remain largely underreported given the seriousness and breadth of the problem. 

Large Catholic aid organizations such as Catholic Relief Services have sounded the alarm about the danger of famine for years. CNA spoke with several other Catholic groups tirelessly engaged in feeding the hungry about the causes of and solutions to famine. 

‘God’s given us an abundance’ 

“Famine,” along with the commonly used term “food insecurity,” can be abstract concepts to grasp.

Food insecurity — defined by the WFP as the lack of regular access to enough nutritious food for healthy growth and development — can, of course, strike people anywhere in the world, even in highly developed nations like the U.S. But certain countries or regions in the world have a high proportion of their population that is food insecure for extended periods of time, leading in many cases to widespread deaths.

The United Nations uses a classification system to determine which countries fit the definition of “famine.” A famine classification is the highest on the scale — Phase 5 — and occurs when at least 20% of the population face extreme food shortages; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30%; and two out of 1,000 people die from starvation on a daily basis. This means that even before a famine is declared, people are dying of hunger.

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is the founder of Mary’s Meals, a Catholic organization that provides meals to more than 2.4 million children every school day in 17 countries across the globe. 

After being pushed out by conflict in the region, Mary’s Meals recently resumed the provision of thousands of free meals daily to schoolchildren in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, in a country where more than 20 million people rely on food assistance. Ethiopia’s government claimed as of January that at least 400 people had starved to death in Tigray and Amhara regions in recent months. 

It is estimated that 600,000 people died in the recent war in Tigray in an area that is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian. 

MacFarlane-Barrow told CNA this week that despite many years of improvement, hunger crises around the world have gotten more acute since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I can’t remember a time in all the years of Mary’s Meals when it felt like there were so many simultaneous food crises unfolding at the same time,” MacFarlane-Barrow told CNA. 

“All over the developing world, we see millions of people who are on the edge … because of rising food prices and because their income is not going up at the same pace, they’re falling over the edge. They simply can’t afford food … so much of it comes back to poverty.”

A boy about to be served a meal at Tsehafe Werdi Primary School, in Tigray, Ethiopia. The Daughters of Charity, supported by Mary's Meals, has provided meals to thousands of children through a school feeding program since 2017. March 2024. Armstrong Studios // 2024
A boy about to be served a meal at Tsehafe Werdi Primary School, in Tigray, Ethiopia. The Daughters of Charity, supported by Mary's Meals, has provided meals to thousands of children through a school feeding program since 2017. March 2024. Armstrong Studios // 2024

Mary’s Meals largely operates in what MacFarlane-Barrow calls “the darkest places, the places where children are suffering the most — where children are suffering most acutely from malnutrition.” 

They use locally sourced ingredients whenever possible and rely heavily on the local Daughters of Charity to cook the food, but human conflict and climate events such as droughts and floods can seriously hamper their work. 

MacFarlane-Barrow said the schools where they operate in Tigray and elsewhere provide hope, and providing free meals at the schools helps to provide an incentive for students to get educated. This leads to positive ripple effects that they’ve seen have enormous impact through generations, he said. 

“None of this hunger we’re talking about, none of it is inevitable … There’s no reason why any single child in this whole world could go a day without food or be hungry in this world of plenty, in this world where God’s given us an abundance, more than we need,” MacFarlane-Barrow said. 

“When we give, when we share what we’ve been given with other people in need, it makes us more fully human. I think it helps us become more the people God made us to be.”

‘The difference between life and death’

Landlocked and slightly smaller than Texas, the majority-Christian nation of South Sudan consistently ranks near the very bottom on the list of most developed countries. Despite the rich agricultural potential of the region, hunger is widespread. Conflict, corruption, and widespread poverty make for enormous challenges in the young country — young not only because it was formed only in 2011 but also because the life expectancy is a mere 59 years. 

South Sudan has the largest refugee crisis in Africa with more than 2 million IDPs (internally displaced people) due to conflict, insecurity, and environmental challenges, the U.N. Refugee Agency reported in 2022. Thousands of homeless children — most orphaned by the war — roam the streets of South Sudan’s major cities. There are also more than 2 million South Sudanese refugees living in neighboring countries. 

Pope Francis’ historic visit to South Sudan in early 2023 was a galvanizing event that shed an international spotlight on a beloved but severely ailing country

Matt Smith, vice president of strategic partnerships and development at the Washington, D.C.-based Sudan Relief Fund, which has worked in the region for the past 25 years, told CNA last week that South Sudan has recently been hit by alternating weather extremes — severe drought followed in many cases by severe rains. 

“Food insecurity, especially in a place like South Sudan, is still the difference between life and death,” Smith noted.

“Often, even if there is not an official designation of famine per se, the sheer volume of people in certain communities that are food insecure still, I think, necessitates urgent action just as much as if there were an official famine designation.”

Clean water well supported by the Sudan Relief Fund. Sudan Relief Fund
Clean water well supported by the Sudan Relief Fund. Sudan Relief Fund

After devastating civil wars from 1955–1972 and 1983–2005, fighting began again in 2013 following the country’s 2011 independence. Both sides have been accused of serious atrocities over the course of the conflict, including the raping of women, killing of civilians, and recruitment of child soldiers.

Many people in South Sudan have been internally displaced by the fighting repeatedly and have had to start their lives over multiple times. They often simply need access to simple farming tools and resources to do their jobs and feed their families, Smith said.

“South Sudan, especially in the western part of the country, has incredible access to land that should be able to be used to grow crops, to feed people en masse … There’s a deep history amongst many of the peoples across South Sudan that know how and have survived off the land for many years. It’s just a matter of making sure that they have proper tools and resources available to them … in spite of some of these challenges like the fighting and the droughts and the flooding and things like that,” he said. 

Pan Ngath Orphanage (run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity) in Rumbek, South Sudan. Sudan Relief Fund
Pan Ngath Orphanage (run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity) in Rumbek, South Sudan. Sudan Relief Fund

In their relief work, Sudan Relief Fund’s main partner is the local Catholic Church, whose leaders are able to act as effective, credible partners to deliver aid dollars where they are most needed, responding to urgent needs on the ground. But because basic infrastructure in South Sudan is incredibly underdeveloped and much of the terrain is challenging, their work isn’t easy. 

Still, Smith said it is always inspiring to him to visit the country and see the joy and resilience of the people. 

“What stood out to me was just the incredible resilience of people in this part of the world and the mental and physical strength in some of the harshest conditions on earth,” he said. 

“And yet still there’s a smile on their face and still they’re willing to talk to me and still they’re willing to share their story with me. And so I think [that is] one of the things that’s shown through.”

‘Do something that is going to be lasting’

Food insecurity and hunger can strike even in countries where famine hasn’t been declared. In those countries, long-term assistance is often needed to help people build resilience and feed themselves and their families. 

In central Kenya, several years of drought plus recent torrential flooding has exacerbated food insecurity. Based in the town of Meru, Wanjiku Marius is a coordinator for Unbound, a Catholic-founded U.S. charitable organization that assists 6,400 beneficiaries in the region, mostly mothers. 

Ninety percent of those beneficiaries live in a semi-arid region, and most families have small-scale farms that they use to feed themselves. They rely heavily on rainfall, and drought conditions have affected the farmers’ ability to grow the staple crops of maize, bananas, and beans as well as the availability of farm jobs. 

Marius said Unbound facilitates cash transfers to the mothers to assist with nutrition, home repair, and education and that they encourage the farmers to plant drought-tolerant crops like sorghum and millet. The biggest need, she said, is water. 

“The families in that region are very hardworking. It’s a very hardworking community. So what they lack is just that basic necessity,” she said, adding that Unbound is able to “do something that is going to be lasting” by assisting with the pumping of water from wells. 

A big problem at the moment, however, is an excess of water from the recent flooding. Marius said “maybe about 100 people” out of their beneficiaries have been affected by the recent flooding, which has destroyed homes, crops, and infrastructure vital for mobility. 

Peter Ndungo, who also works for Unbound as program coordinator for its Nairobi project, currently oversees the serving of 12,174 beneficiaries in 11 regions, the furthest of which is four hours from Nairobi. He said the big capital city of Nairobi depends heavily on the “breadbasket” of Kenya, where many of Marius’ beneficiaries live. 

He requested prayers for those devastated by the drought and floods, and said Unbound is able to help the families they serve in part through a savings and credit cooperative that allows people without access to credit to get low-interest loans. The co-op is funded through money from Unbound’s sponsors.

“Sponsorship money will help them balance between educating their children and also having a well-balanced meal,” Ndungo told CNA. “Food security is a major problem in our city and also in areas where we serve the rural communities.”

No reason to be cynical about celebrity conversions, Bishop Barron and others say

Russell Brand, Candace Owens, and Shia LeBeouf. / Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Jason Davis/Getty Images; and Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 27, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

The phenomenon of celebrity conversions to the faith has taken center stage, especially on social media, and they have been widely welcomed by prominent Catholic clergy and commentators.

Going viral on X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms has been news about popular actors and political activists, among others, who have joined the Catholic faith or otherwise announced their conversions to Christianity.

Their ranks include actor Shia LaBeouf, who was raised by a Jewish mother but entered the Catholic Church in 2023 and was confirmed by Bishop Robert Barron. LaBeouf, 37, played the title character in “Padre Pio,” the 2022 movie about the famed Italian friar who received the stigmata. Political commentator and media personality Candace Owens, 35, who has recently faced accusations of antisemitism, also announced last month on X that she had “come home” to the Catholic Church.

The phenomenon has not been limited to well-known Americans such as LaBeouf and Owens. They also include Dutch lawyer and activist Eva Vlaardingerbroek, 27, who has termed the Catholic faith as the “most powerful weapon” to allay moral relativism, and 48-year-old British actor Russell Brand.

As Vlaardingerbroek became involved in politics in her native Netherlands, she said in an April 2023 interview with National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner: “I wholeheartedly realized that we aren’t just fighting a political fight (right vs. left), but that we are dealing with a spiritual fight (good vs. evil).” She cited Professor Peter Kreeft among those who inspired her in her conversion. 

In the case of Brand, he announced on social media that he was baptized in England’s River Thames on April 28, sharing a photograph of his baptism, where he was accompanied by media personality and evangelical Christian Bear Grylls. He did not reveal who baptized him. Catholics and Orthodox Christians are typically not baptized in bodies of water such as rivers. According to canon law, “apart from a case of necessity, the proper place of baptism is a church or oratory.” 

The news of Brand’s conversion was also met with controversy because it came just months after he was accused of rape and sexual assault by several women in reports filed by British media. Brand denied the accusations during an interview with U.S. media personality Tucker Carlson. 

In a recent video, Brand was seen praying the rosary, saying that it had been given to him by his friend “Joe,” who also taught him the prayers. Brand’s wife of six years, author Laura Gallacher, is a Catholic. Along with fellow actors Mark Wahlberg and Jonathan Roumie, Brand has promoted the Catholic prayer app Hallow. He has also said that he has watched videos by Catholic priest Father Mike Schmitz.

Brand said he was “changed, transitioned” by the baptism but realizes that some observers may be cynical about his profession of faith because “people see me as a celebrity.” 

CNA reached out to several Catholic observers of the phenomenon, themselves prominent in social and other media, for their take. Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire and one of the most-followed Catholics on social media, told CNA that when he heard of Brand’s conversion and baptism, he was reminded of the parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel of Luke, in which Christ concluded “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than 90 righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Noting that Brand is a public figure, Barron said that it is “not really shocking that his conversion is a public matter, and given, again in Brand’s own words ‘for someone like me associated with a decadent, hedonistic lifestyle, a move like this is surprising.’”

Barron went on to say: “I would add for some, it is also unsettling because it reminds us that Christ himself revealed that his primary mission is the reconciliation of sinners, and as such this is the mission of Christ’s followers as well. The Church is not a closed society for the perfectly virtuous, but it is instead a refuge for sinners.”

Barron said he found Brand’s explanation for religious awakening to be “striking,” quoting the Englishman’s statement that “‘the figure, the personage, the presence of Christ became overwhelming, unavoidable, welcome, and necessary.’ This apparent quickening of faith in the Lord Jesus compelled him to seek baptism.”

“Many Christians will recognize in Brand’s testimony a similar experience,” Barron said. “But they will also see in Brand’s acknowledgement of his own continued imperfections the truth that we are all sinners who are the recipients of an amazing, undeserved grace.”

In an interview with CNA, Monsignor Charles Pope — a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and regular contributor to the National Catholic Register — said: “We shouldn’t be cynical. Sometimes when negative things happen in their lives, that’s when they turn to God. So I would first assume good faith on their part.” 

As to the reason for the uptick in the number of prominent figures joining the Catholic Church, Pope said: “I think it comes down to the current situation in the world today that is spiritually empty. People are searching for meaning because man is a religious animal. Some are returning to the sources that we hold most sacred. I think that’s where it comes from.”

Pope added: “After a while, after all the faddishness, movements, and things coming and going, people begin to say, ‘Well, things seem to change every six months. Why don’t I stick to  something more stable’ as they look for deeper meaning. That’s how I understand these kinds of conversions. For all our troubles in the Church, we have a solid base of meaning.”

Meanwhile, Rob Corzine, vice president of academic programs at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and host of EWTN’s “Genesis to Jesus” with Dr. Scott Hahn, offered a nuanced analysis. “There are two dangers to beware of. First, some are inclined to be cynical about celebrities’ sincerity. We should avoid that and rejoice over the conversions of the famous just as we would anyone else,” Corzine said.

“However, the second trap is to rush a brand-new convert onto a stage and try to make them a spokesperson for the faith, to exploit their platform or access to media. That too we must avoid,” Corzine cautioned. “There is always a great deal of learning and growing to do for new Catholics. In the public eye is not really the best place for that.”

Brand himself seemed to echo Corzine when he said: “This is new for me. I’m learning. And I will make mistakes. But this is my path now. And I already feel incredibly blessed.”