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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A struggle with evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pietà offering peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Be Welcoming’

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

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

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

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

St. Michael the protector

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

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

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

Which U.S. states rank first (and last) in religious freedom protections?

null / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 23, 2022 / 07:00 am (CNA).

A nonprofit legal organization specializing in religious liberty cases has conducted a study comparing U.S. states on the basis of how free its residents are to practice their faith. 

Spoiler alert: Mississippi offers the most protections for religious freedom, while New York comes in last on the First Liberty Institute’s “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)” index.

The states are ranked according to how many laws are on the books that protect the free exercise of religion, with the states with the most laws providing safeguards for religious freedom ranked the highest.

Sarah Estelle, a research fellow with the Institute’s Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD) and associate professor of economics at Hope College in Michigan, directed the project. She analyzed laws in all 50 states and narrowed the index down to 29 separate laws, the majority of which offer protections for medical professionals, allowing them to opt out of providing abortions, sterilizations, and contraception.

Top-ranking Mississippi, for example, scored a 20 out of 20 on laws that allow health care workers to refuse to take part in procedures or services that go against their religious beliefs.

By comparison, New York at No. 50 scored only a 5 out of 20 on health care exemption laws. Doctors in the Empire State have no legal protections if they were to refuse to perform sterilizations or prescribe contraception, nor does the state protect them from criminal liability if they refuse to perform abortions.

Five states — Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Washington — have enacted “general conscience provisions,” which do not specify the type of medical care covered but offer protection to those who refuse to take part in any medical services that are contrary to their beliefs.

Estelle explained that these five states "can be considered models," for states considering enacting religious freedom protections for health care workers.

“The most extensive protection a state can provide to health care practitioners is a general conscience provision,” she told CNA.

A general conscience provision would protect health care practitioners who refuse to take part in transgender treatments, for example. Estelle said next year’s survey could conceivably reflect the public’s changing opinions about such treatments.

“If concerns about specific health care procedures spur changing laws in existing areas, say encouraging more states than the current five to codify general health care conscience provisions, then we’ll see that too as we update our data each year,” she said. 

Other safeguards included in the index are laws concerning absentee voting (whether states have laws that recognize religious holidays as a legitimate reason to vote by absentee ballot), childhood immunization requirements, and the freedom to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings.

Several areas of laws not included in the index are at the center of current legal disputes over religious liberty. The study notes that issues relating to state-funded scholarships for religious schools, adoption and foster care, employment discrimination, and the treatment of prisoners were not taken into consideration in the rankings.

In some cases, those issues involved federal laws, so state comparisons were not possible. For their inaugural index, researchers decided to narrow their criteria to a set of state religious freedom laws, which they note in the introduction to the index provides a “sketch” of religious liberty protections in the United States.

“To get an accurate understanding of religious liberty in America, we must start our sketch with the base level before we might move on to examine other phenomena that strengthen, weaken, or leave untouched these foundational elements,” Jordan J. Ballor, director of research at the CRCD, wrote in the introduction to the survey.

Here’s a look at why Mississippi ranks No. 1 and New York ranks No. 50 in religious freedom protections among U.S. states according to the RLS:

The First Liberty Institute's Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)
The First Liberty Institute's Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)
The First Liberty Institute's Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)
The First Liberty Institute's Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)

To view the entire study and learn about its methodology visit the First Liberty Institute’s website.

Benedict XVI writes about ‘inner drama of being a Christian’ in new letter

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Sep 23, 2022 / 05:29 am (CNA).

In a new letter, Benedict XVI praised the story of a woman who lived “the inner drama of being a Christian” and dedicated her life to the spiritual encounter with Christ in eucharistic adoration and other practices. 

The pope emeritus wrote that his own personal experience was similar to what Mother Julia Verhaeghe went through in a letter to the author of a new biography. 

The writer, Father Hermann Geissler, is a former official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a member of the Spiritual Family “The Work” that Mother Julia founded and Pope John Paul II designated as a family of consecrated life in 2001.

In his letter to Geissler, made available to CNA, Benedict did not hide the fact that he had “the fear that her life could be of little interest as a whole because it lacks any external drama.”

Benedict praised the author for making “the inner drama of being a Christian visible, writing a genuinely fascinating biography. The external path of this life, which leads from Belgium through Austria and Hungary to Rome, with a focal point in Austria, becomes a reflection of the interior path through which this woman was led.”

“In this way, the true drama of life becomes visible, which is found above all in the encounter with Paul and, through him, with Christ himself, allowing others to retrace it,” Benedict added. 

“All the external and internal drama of faith is present in her life. The tension described here is particularly captivating because it is similar to what I have experienced since the 1940s.”

The biography, titled “She Served the Church: Mother Julia Verhaeghe and the Development of The Spiritual Family The Work,” explores the period from 1950 to 2001, from the second postwar period to the recognition of the Family, four years after the founder’s death in 1997.

The book is divided into four parts and includes testimonies, excerpts from Mother Julia’s letters, and other archival documents. Furthermore, the book contextualizes the life and choices of Mother Julia, connecting them to the situations of the time, of which Mother Julia was a careful observer.

In the introduction, Father Thomas Felder and Sister Margarete Binder wrote that “the following pages tell of a woman who had neither a particular culture, nor good health, nor any economic means.” Yet, they added, “a fire burned in her heart.”

This fire is the basis of the encounters that formed her life: first of all, the one with St. Paul; then the one with Pope Pius XII, who appeared to her in a dream and who predicted the Second Vatican Council; finally, the encounter with Cardinal John Henry Newman, to whom “The Work” has a particular relationship.

These meetings and relationships are part of a spiritual path to encountering Christ. Geissler’s book tells of these encounters with delicacy, without sensationalism, demonstrating that prophecy comes only when one is open to listening.

From the meeting with Pius XII, a great intuition was born: the human and humanizing element of the Second Vatican Council will try to take over, going beyond what must be the center of the Church, namely the sacred.

In the face of growing secularization, the Spiritual Family “The Work,” guided by Mother Julia, emphasized eucharistic adoration. It is a daily habit in every house of “The Work.”

The book also describes how Mother Julia felt the same enthusiasm and concern for a unified Europe, just as Brussels was preparing to host the 1958 Expo. Her view was always one of spiritual renewal, of a return to Christ.

Perhaps there was no external drama, but the restlessness of Mother Julia’s soul that Benedict refers to is good, open to reflecting on the issues of the time. 

In Geissler’s book, one perceives the constant amazement before the mystery of Christ, which leads her, already elderly, to visit the Holy Land and experience the desert.

The life of Mother Julia told in this book is of a woman who could look at her times with the concreteness that comes only from contact with God.

Benedict XVI, who turned 95 in April, often spoke about the need for contact with God and said that the encounter with Jesus was the answer to the world’s challenges.

Cardinal O’Malley: ‘Padre Pio shows us the power of the cross’

Cardinal Seán O'Malley celebrates Mass in San Giovanni Rotondo for the feast of Padre Pio Sept. 23, 2022 / Screenshot of Youtube livestream from Padre Pio TV.

Rome Newsroom, Sep 23, 2022 / 04:20 am (CNA).

Padre Pio shows the world the power of bearing physical suffering with patience and love, Cardinal Seán O’Malley said at Mass for the Italian saint’s feast day on Friday.

O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, celebrated Mass on Sept. 23 in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, in the Church of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina.

“Padre Pio carried the burden of the stigmata for five decades, this and so many other physical sufferings were borne with love and patience. In a world where pain is seen as the greatest evil, Padre Pio shows us the power of the cross,” O’Malley said.

“He shows us that the greatest evil is not pain, but sin and selfishness,” the cardinal continued. “Pain can be a two-edged sword that turns us in on ourselves, leads to self-pity, anger, or despair. When the cross is born with love and in union with Jesus it is life-giving and leads to resurrection.”

O’Malley, 78, has been a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin since 1965. Padre Pio, one of the 20th century’s most beloved saints, was also a Capuchin friar.

Pio, born Francesco Forgione in 1887, made solemn vows with the Capuchins at the age of 19. His life was marked by illness and physical suffering, including receiving the visible stigmata — bleeding wounds corresponding to the five wounds Christ received at his crucifixion — in 1918.

A statue of Padre Pio in the Church of Saint Pio of Pietrelicina in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. Screenshot from Youtube livestream by Padre Pio TV.
A statue of Padre Pio in the Church of Saint Pio of Pietrelicina in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. Screenshot from Youtube livestream by Padre Pio TV.

His desire to create a hospital founded on the principle of caring for both the body and soul of the sick and suffering also led him to establish Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, or Home for the Relief of the Suffering, today a state-of-the-art private hospital and research center.

Padre Pio’s mission, Cardinal O’Malley said, “was a mission of mercy, to those who were sick physically or spiritually and, in that context, he announced the good news of the Gospel.”

“The confessional and the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza are just two of the ways Padre Pio manifested the loving mercy of God in the world convulsed by pain and suffering and sin,” he noted.

The cardinal quoted a line from the book “Padre Pio: The True Story.” The author, Bernard Ruffin, wrote that “Padre Pio made God real.”

“In a world of unbelief, the presence of holiness brings light and peace into a world of darkness and chaos,” O’Malley said in his homily. “The saints next door, and the saints that God magnifies with his graces, are a gift to increase in us a nostalgia for homeland yet unseen, for which we were created.”

Cardinal Seán O'Mally celebrates Mass for the feast of Padre Pio Sept. 23, 2022, in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. Screenshot from Youtube livestream by Padre Pio TV.
Cardinal Seán O'Mally celebrates Mass for the feast of Padre Pio Sept. 23, 2022, in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. Screenshot from Youtube livestream by Padre Pio TV.

He recalled when Pope Francis said that the two paths to holiness are prayer and community.

“Padre Pio,” he said, “is an outstanding example of this in a society that has largely abandoned prayer and the Sabbath observance, but this holy man teaches us that prayer brings the power of the cross into our lives and allows us to enter into the mystery of the Eucharist.”

Many people no longer attend Mass on Sundays because they do not know how to pray, Cardinal O’Malley said: “Today we stand in this holy place to ask Padre Pio to pray for us and teach us how to pray, to love, and to heal.”

“May he lend us that ladder that will allow us to climb the cross and lovingly pull out the nails from the hands of our brothers and sisters who are, as Mother Teresa used to say: ‘Christ in a distressing disguise.’”

“Today we stand before this great saint and say thank you for showing the world that God is real and that the only real success in life is holiness,” he said.

President Biden fundraiser remarks muddle Catholic teaching on abortion

President Joe Biden speaks during the Global Fund Seventh Replenishment Conference in New York on Sept. 21, 2022. / Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Denver, Colo., Sep 22, 2022 / 20:22 pm (CNA).

President Joe Biden on Thursday appeared to suggest — erroneously — that the Catholic Church makes exceptions for rape and incest in its condemnation of abortion.

Biden made the remarks at a fundraising event for the Democratic National Committee at a private home in New York City’s Central Park South neighborhood while discussing a Republican-backed congressional bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks into pregnancy. The president incorrectly said the bill has no exceptions for rape and incest.

“You have Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others talking about how they’re gonna you know, make sure that Roe is forever gone and Dobbs becomes a national law,” Bloomberg quoted the president saying.

“Talk about, what, no exceptions. Rape, incest, no exceptions,” Biden continued, according to Bloomberg. “Now, I’m gonna deal with my generic point. I happen to be a practicing Roman Catholic, my Church doesn’t even make that argument.”

Reporters with the Los Angeles Times and The Hill tweeted similar comments.

A White House spokesperson was not immediately available Thursday night to clarify what Biden meant. But any implication that the Catholic Church makes exceptions where abortion is concerned is incorrect.

“Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states. “This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed as an ends or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (No. 2271). 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also has addressed the difficult situation of a pregnancy conceived in rape.

“(A)ny woman subjected to sexual assault needs our compassionate and understanding care, including psychological and spiritual as well as medical support,” Richard Doerflinger, the then associate director of the pro-life secretariat, said in a July 2013 commentary on the U.S. bishops’ website.

“(A)ny child conceived in rape is, like his or her mother, an innocent victim. That child, too, has a right to life, and destroying the child does not punish the rapist or end the woman’s trauma,” he added.

The Biden administration is presently making a strong push against the proposed federal abortion ban, introduced by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham on Sept. 13. The bill would bar abortions nationwide except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger. 

The bill is called the Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act. It drew qualified support from pro-life leaders who described it as the “bare minimum.”

Biden is only the second Catholic to be elected U.S. president. He has repeatedly supported abortion rights despite the Church’s teaching that human life must be respected and protected from the moment of conception.

Biden has given conflicting statements over the years about when he believes life begins. At the 2012 vice presidential debate against Republican nominee Paul Ryan, he said “life begins at conception, that's the Church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life,” though he said he refused to “impose” this view on others.

In September 2021, after Biden reaffirmed his support for the now-overturned pro-abortion rights Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, said he did not agree that human life begins at conception.

Shortly after those comments, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington took issue with the president’s statement. “The Catholic Church teaches, and has taught, that life — human life — begins at conception,” he said. “So, the president is not demonstrating Catholic teaching.”

After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, Biden made a strong push to reassert legal protections for abortion at the federal level. On July 8, he issued a major executive order that aimed to protect access to abortion.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, said at the time that it is “deeply disturbing and tragic” that Biden would use presidential power “to promote and facilitate abortion in our country, seeking every possible avenue to deny unborn children their most basic human and civil right, the right to life.”

The pope himself soon addressed Biden’s stand, in response to a journalist’s question about Biden’s position and whether Catholic politicians who back abortion should be admitted to Holy Communion.

“Is it just to eliminate a human life?” Pope Francis said in an interview with Univision and Televisa broadcast July 12.

The pope said he left the matter of Biden’s defense of abortion to the president’s “conscience.”

“Let him talk to his pastor about that incoherence,” he said.

Ortega dictatorship expels another religious congregation from Nicaragua

null / Image credit: James (Unsplash)

Denver Newsroom, Sep 22, 2022 / 16:30 pm (CNA).

The dictatorship of President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua has expelled the Religious Sisters of the Cross, thus continuing its attacks against the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.

“Today, victims of the harassment and threats of the dictatorship, the Religious Sisters of the Cross (founded in Mexico) who had been in Matagalpa for years doing spiritual work left the country,” Nicaragua Informa reported Sept. 18 on Facebook.

The nuns of this congregation describe themselves on their website as “eucharistic contemplative women.”

The nuns served in the Diocese of Matagalpa — whose bishop, Rolando Álvarez, is under house arrest in Managua — and dedicated themselves to praying the rosary in the cathedral and promoting adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Mexico-based congregation reported yesterday on Facebook that the last nuns had arrived from Nicaragua.

A source close to the congregation, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said that “their departure was due to the pressure exerted by government workers to know where each contribution the sisters received came from, even the smallest small donations.”

The source said the demand was absurd, because the nuns, like the parishes, subsisted “from the offerings that our faithful give.”

In addition, “the residence permit of the foreign sisters was not renewed and they had to leave the country” before the rest of the sisters.

The source explained that “the religious community, which leads a semi-contemplative life, couldn’t sustain itself with just three sisters, since their charism is to maintain constant adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. For this reason, their superiors saw that it was best to close the house they had here in Matagalpa.” 

The source said that “the only three sisters that remained are the three in the photo that was uploaded a short time ago.”

“There were always between six or more nuns. They had begun leaving months before, especially those whose residence permits were not renewed,” the source added.

This is the second religious congregation expelled by Ortega. In July, the Missionaries of Charity were forced to leave Nicaragua.

In March of this year, the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, was expelled.

The former auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Baez, has been living in exile in the United States after it became known that Ortega’s government had very probably ordered his assassination.

In recent months, several priests have been arrested and others continue to be harassed by the regime, which hasn’t hesitated to ban religious processions.

The outrages of former guerrilla fighter Ortega were condemned in a resolution approved Aug. 12 by the Organization of American States. The Ortega regime withdrew from the OAS in April.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Florida priest and parish administrator embezzled $1.5 million from parish, police say

Deborah True was investigated on suspicion of embezzling church funds at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Vero Beach, Florida. Police say the former pastor, Father Richard “Dick” Murphy, who died on March 22, 2020, was also involved in funneling money from the parish. / Indian River County Jail/ YouTube screenshot of Murphy

Boston, Mass., Sep 22, 2022 / 15:30 pm (CNA).

A priest along with the former parish administrator of a Catholic church in Florida funneled nearly $1.5 million in parishioners’ donations into a secret bank account for personal use, Vero Beach police said Tuesday.

The former pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Vero Beach, Father Richard “Dick” Murphy, died on March 22, 2020, at the age of 80. The administrator, 69-year-old Deborah True, “turned herself in” to the Indian River County Jail in Vero Beach on Sept. 19, police said in a statement posted on the Vero Beach Police Department’s Facebook page

The Diocese of Palm Beach contacted the police department in December 2021, raising concerns about a fraudulent bank account and the misappropriation of church funds that took place over the course of five years.

After a nine-month investigation, police concluded that from 2015–2020, $1.5 million in parishioner donations was funneled into a bank account called “Holy Cross Catholic Church” that was opened by Murphy and True in 2012. The account was hidden from the Diocese of Palm Beach, police said. 

Between 2015 and 2020, True paid off her personal debts with over $500,000 of the funds, police said. True transferred an additional $147,000 from the fake account into her checking account, police added.

According to the police statement, the late priest “personally benefited from the funds in the account.” It is unclear whether the entire $1.5 million in the fake account was spent. Police did not respond to a phone call inquiry on Thursday afternoon.

Police said that a criminal investigation has not been opened against Murphy because of his death. True “turned herself in at the Indian River County Jail on one count of Organized Fraud over $50,000,” and was released the same day on bond for $25,000, according to the police statement. According to veronews.com, True is scheduled for arraignment on Nov. 3 at 8:45 a.m.

In a statement to CNA, the Diocese of Palm Beach said: “Criminal charges were recently filed by the state attorney’s office related to financial irregularities discovered last year by the Diocese of Palm Beach at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Vero Beach.”

“The Diocese of Palm Beach reported concerns to local law enforcement after discovering these irregularities and has fully cooperated throughout their investigation. The diocese understands that an arrest has been made of a former employee,” the statement said. 

“The Diocese of Palm Beach is committed to financial accountability in all of its parishes and entities and will continue to cooperate in this process,” the statement said. “This matter does not involve the current pastor at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Vero Beach.”

According to Murphy’s obituary, True was his “longtime” secretary and his caregiver. Murphy was the pastor at Holy Cross for almost 23 years, from 1997 to 2020, True told veronews.com at the time of Murphy’s death. 

True told the outlet that Murphy was a “fantastic leader” and that “he cared about the parishioners and they cared about him.”

“He believed we needed to reach out to people in the community whenever there was a need,” True said.

True added that “he really cared about Vero Beach” and said that “he was a private person who didn’t like accolades or awards. He did stuff from the heart.”

According to Murphy’s obituary, he was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1939 and was ordained in Ireland. He then served as a priest in Miami and at various parishes in South Florida, including St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Pompano Beach, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth, St. Brendan Catholic Church in Miami, and Sts. Peter and Paul in Miami. 

Murphy then served as the pastor of Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Stuart, and finally Holy Cross in Vero Beach.

Murphy served as the bishops’ delegate in the building and real estate development department for the diocese and as president of the affordable housing for seniors at Catholic Charities, the obituary said.

“He always relished being a pastoral priest,” the obituary said.

Methodist-linked university’s Christian conduct code under fire from LGBT advocates

Hand wearing gay pride rainbow wristband making a power fist gesture in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Via Shutterstock / null

Denver Newsroom, Sep 22, 2022 / 14:30 pm (CNA).

Do church-affiliated universities and Christian moral codes have a place in higher ed?

Critics of the Methodist-linked Seattle Pacific University, it seems, think the answer is no. They have filed a lawsuit against the university’s board of trustees after it reaffirmed that full-time employees may not be in same-sex relationships.

The controversy could have broad implications: Catholic and other Christian educational institutions have faced similar lawsuits over their religious identities and expectations for faculty and staff.

“Seattle Pacific is fighting to protect its freedom, as a religious university, to have religious standards in hiring,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket legal group, which is representing the school in a separate, related legal dispute over the university’s conduct code with the state attorney general.

“The First Amendment protects the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide what they believe and who should lead them,” she told CNA. “If Seattle Pacific loses that right, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and other faith groups will lose it, too.”

Multiple undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and faculty and staff of Seattle Pacific University filed a lawsuit against the university’s trustees on Sept. 11 in Washington state superior court.

Their complaint is pointed in its criticisms of the trustees and the university’s affiliation with the Free Methodist Church, whose members founded the school in 1891. It alleged that the reaffirmation of the conduct code is a breach of fiduciary duty.

The lawsuit accused the trustees of “placing their personal religious beliefs above their fiduciary duty” to the university and its people. It claimed that the board is “rogue” for various actions, including its consultations with the Free Methodist Church, and demanded the appointment of a new board.

“These men treat the university and its assets like a personal weapon and war chest to fight the sectarian battles of the Free Methodist Church USA,” said the lawsuit.

The Free Methodist Church USA, headquartered in Indianapolis, has about 68,000 members in under 850 churches in the U.S. However, the Protestant denomination has more than 1.2 million adherents globally, with its largest church membership in India and Burundi. The denomination has five other universities and a seminary in the U.S.

The lawsuit characterized the church as “a denomination with a small domestic constituency” that is “openly hostile to the LGBTQ+ community.” The lawsuit claimed the trustees have “pledged their primary allegiance” to the Methodist denomination. The lawsuit characterizes the link between the university and the denomination as “voluntary” and “informal.” 

The lawsuit objected that the university’s hiring policies “advance the interests of a religious denomination at the expense of the students, alumni, staff, and faculty of the university.”

Some trustees leave, but board stands firm

The university’s board of trustees reaffirmed the conduct code in May, in part due to concerns about preserving its affiliation with the Free Methodist Church USA. In reaction, some students and staff held protests and called for the board to be removed. About 80% of the faculty voted to back the employment of people in same-sex marriages.

The university’s bylaws require the president and at least one-third of all trustees to be members of the church, according to Becket. Each year, each trustee must reaffirm his or her commitment to the university’s mission and faith statement.

The six trustees named as defendants include Dr. Matthew Whitehead, currently the lead bishop of the Free Methodist Church who oversees the denomination in the Western U.S., Africa, and Asia. Another defendant is Mark Mason, who serves with Whitehead on the Free Methodist Church Board of Accountability. Seven of the board’s 14 trustees have resigned since last year, with some voicing objections to the conduct code.

“Seattle Pacific University is aware of the lawsuit and will respond in due course,” Tracy Norlen, director of public information at the university’s Office of Communications, told CNA Sept. 19.

The lawsuit against the trustees has a financial aspect. It contends that the board “derives power from its ability to control the highly valuable assets of both the university and its foundation.” The complaint claimed that the university is “financially and structurally imploding” and that these assets will go to the Free Methodist Church if the university dissolves. University assets, land, and buildings exceed $500 million in value, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged that the board of trustees now lacks the minimum number of members required by its bylaws. It asked the court to remove the trustees and university officers and put the university into receivership so that new trustees can be elected.

The university faces a $10 million deficit and an enrollment decline since 2015 from 4,175 students to 3,400 last fall. Cedric Davis, a former chair of the board of trustees who resigned over his disagreement with the sexual conduct statement, told the Seattle Times some of the enrollment decline is due to broader trends in higher education. He disagreed with the lawsuit’s claim that the university is “imploding.” Rather, he suggested the school will become smaller and more conservative.

Paul Southwick, the attorney representing the student and faculty plaintiffs, is director of the Portland, Oregon-based Religious Exemption Accountability Project. The project is sponsored by Soulforce, an LGBT advocacy group that has for more than a decade rallied opposition against sexual conduct codes at religious colleges and universities, including Seattle Pacific University.

Soulforce also backs a federal lawsuit that seeks to end federal funding of “any university that discriminates and abuses LGBTQI people.” 

University pressured by attorney general

The office of Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson also is involved in the legal controversy.

After receiving complaints from students and faculty about the conduct code, Ferguson’s office sent a letter to the university in June saying the policies may violate state anti-discrimination law. The letter sought detailed information about how the university applies the policies. Additionally, it sought contact information for those affected by the policies and job descriptions of every position at the school.

Ferguson’s involvement prompted the Becket legal group’s federal lawsuit, filed July 27 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, challenging the attorney general’s actions.

“If the university changed its employment policies to permit employment of Christians in same-sex marriages, the university would be automatically disaffiliated from the Free Methodist Church. The university would no longer be a denominational institution,” Becket’s lawsuit states.

The university can fulfill its mission, it adds, “only with a faculty of Christians who affirm the university’s Statement of Faith, who affirm the university’s mission, who live out their Christian faith, and who bring their faith into all aspects of their lives, including their teaching and scholarship.”

The U.S. Constitution protects the university’s right “to decide matters of faith and doctrine, to hire employees who share its religious beliefs, and to select and retain ministers free from government interference,” the Becket lawsuit states.

It accuses the attorney general’s probe of violating the constitution’s “clear prohibition on interference in matters of church governance, including entangling investigations of religious employment decisions and the selection of ministers.”

The probe “inquires into confidential religious matters and is beyond the scope of authority granted under state law and the federal constitution,” the lawsuit argues. It alleges that Ferguson is “wielding state power to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with.”

Just days after Becket filed the lawsuit, Ferguson announced on July 29 that his office was investigating alleged discrimination charges against the university. He characterized the religious freedom lawsuit as a demonstration “that the university believes it is above the law to such an extraordinary degree that it is shielded from answering basic questions from my office regarding the university’s compliance with state law.”

“Seattle Pacific University’s attempt to obstruct our lawful investigation will not succeed,” Ferguson said. “My office protects the civil rights of Washingtonians who have historically faced harmful discrimination. That’s our job — we uphold Washington’s law prohibiting discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.”

“My office respects the religious views of all Washingtonians and the constitutional rights afforded to religious institutions,” Ferguson said. “As a person of faith, I share that view. My office did not prejudge whether Seattle Pacific University’s employment policies or its actions are illegal.”

Ferguson’s biography on his office’s website notes his personal involvement in successfully suing a florist who declined to serve a same-sex wedding ceremony on religious grounds.

Other legal cases in the state could have an impact. Last year the Washington Supreme Court allowed a bisexual lawyer to proceed with a discrimination lawsuit against a Christian nonprofit that serves the homeless. The organization had declined to offer him a job because he was in a same-sex relationship and rejected its Christian code of conduct.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has a “ministerial exception” for many religious nonprofits’ employee policies, the state Supreme Court said a trial court must answer the “open question” of whether a staff attorney for the nonprofit qualifies as a minister.

Another Methodist body, the United Methodist Church, agreed to split over disagreement on LGBT issues, though plans for the separation have fallen through after delays from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Blessed Sacrament found intact in tabernacle of church burned by armed men in Cameroon

null / Sidney de Almeida/Shutterstock

Denver Newsroom, Sep 22, 2022 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

In the aftermath of the fire that gutted a church in Cameroon, Bishop Aloysius Fondong of the Diocese of Mamfé entered the ruins to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament and found the sacred Hosts and the ciborium containing them to be intact.

On the night of Sept. 16, armed men set fire to St. Mary’s church in the town of Nchang, located in the Diocese of Mamfé, and kidnapped five priests, a nun, and three lay people.

In a video released Sept. 21 by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Fondong is seen entering the burned-out church and making his way through the rubble until he reaches the tabernacle, placed on a wall next to a cross.

After opening the tabernacle, the prelate genuflects and proceeds to remove the ciborium containing the consecrated Hosts from the tabernacle.

“What happened is abominable. They are testing the patience of God,” the bishop said, according to a tweet from ACN.

A Vatican News article said that Radio Evangelium of the Diocese of Mamfé reported that some 60 armed men attacked the Catholic community in Nchang the night of Sept. 16 and kidnapped five priests, a nun, a cook, a catechist, and a 15-year-old girl living with the nuns.

According to the Vatican news agency Fides, the archbishop of Bamenda, Andrew Nkea Fuanya, said that the kidnappers have demanded a ransom. The prelate commented that there are groups that see the Church as an “easy target to make money.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Leading theologian sees a ‘rise in interest in Aquinas’ among young Catholics

Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P. / Pontificia Università di San Tommaso d’Aquino via Flickr.

Vatican City, Sep 22, 2022 / 12:15 pm (CNA).

A new generation of young people are deeply invested in the study of St. Thomas Aquinas, according to Father Thomas Joseph White.

The Dominican theologian and rector of the Angelicum in Rome said that he has witnessed both a new academic emphasis on historical accuracy regarding the 13th-century saint and attention to his potential contemporary relevance.

“We’re seeing a modest renaissance of Thomism in the Church, particularly in the English-speaking world,” White told CNA on Sept. 22.

“And this is something that people are now paying more attention to in the academic world because we’re seeing that there is a rise in interest in Aquinas that is not related to past ideas of magisterial homogeneity. It’s really more about people on the grassroots level, trying to think through the doctrine of the faith and bring theology to their local communities and to the broader Church through rigorous investigation and responsible reflection.”

White spoke as the 11th International Thomistic Congress is taking place in Rome Sept. 19–24.

“I think it’s the most important Thomistic conference internationally to take place in decades,” he commented.

Featuring more than 130 speakers, including Father Simon Gaine, Father Wojciech Giertych, and Father Gilles Emery, the congress has covered a wide range of topics from historical reflections on St. Thomas Aquinas to contemporary philosophical topics in metaphysics and ethics.

“It’s been an amazing last few days because we have had speakers from all over the world, from the Far East, from the United States, a healthy representation from Central and South America, Africa, India, and of course, Europe. It shows the kind of catholicity of engagement in Aquinas as a common doctor for Catholic thought,” White said.

Pope Francis received participants from the International Thomistic Congress in an audience in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace on Sept. 22.

Speaking entirely off the cuff, the pope underscored the importance of contemplation in intellectual life.

Pope Francis greets participants in the 11th International Thomistic Congress on Sept. 22, 2022. Photo credit: Vatican Media
Pope Francis greets participants in the 11th International Thomistic Congress on Sept. 22, 2022. Photo credit: Vatican Media

“Before talking about St. Thomas, before talking about Thomism, before teaching, we must contemplate,” Pope Francis told the Thomists.

In a written reflection distributed to the congress participants, Pope Francis wrote that St. Thomas Aquinas’ “search for the truth about God was impelled and permeated by love.”

Ahead of the papal audience, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, offered Mass for the congress participants in St. Peter’s Basilica. A schola made up of students from the pontifical university sang for the liturgy.

The 11th International Thomistic Congress, jointly organized by the Thomistic Institute and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, is the first congress of its kind to be hosted by the pontifical university in Rome in nearly 20 years.

Father Dominic Holtz, the vice dean of philosophy at the university, told CNA that the congress has addressed new questions on “Thomistic engagement with neo-Confucian philosophers and transhumanism — sorts of things that we probably would not have even thought of asking 20 years ago.”

Father Dominic Holtz. Photo credit: Courtney Mares
Father Dominic Holtz. Photo credit: Courtney Mares

Holtz added that “a hallmark of Thomism is that it remains both able to engage new situations and retains a life in the classic perennial questions that every generation has to wrestle with.”

“For instance,” he continued, “there was a talk yesterday about how we understand Revelation. What does Revelation mean and how does it work when we engage the Sacred Scriptures? … And philosophical questions, like just what is the state of the human soul after death?”

“Those sorts of questions will always remain with us and they are being asked with new and interesting perspectives in light of what has been looked at before,” he said.