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Faith in the Public Arena: When it comes to politics, everything is connected

Today, people working to advance Catholic social teaching often find themselves in opposing camps, divided along party lines. But the church’s political work is about putting back together what has been torn apart by a highly partisan culture. In his encyclical Laudato si,’ Pope Francis proposes integral ecology as a new framework for reunifying the church’s mission of public engagement.

A schism in Catholic social teaching
Sarah Spangenberg
Sarah Spangenberg
Faith in the Public Arena

Have you noticed how rarely all dimensions of Catholic social teaching coexist peacefully in the political engagement of many Catholics? How often are “social justice Catholics” working at cross-purposes with “pro-life Catholics”? Catholics who devote themselves to protecting the unborn or defending marriage don’t always see eye-to-eye with Catholics who prioritize serving the poor or caring for the natural ecology, and vice versa.

To be sure, the “life issues,” because they typically involve intrinsic moral evils, must have a certain priority in our social and political engagement. But to achieve short-term wins on the life issues, many are prone to dismiss concern over environmental destruction or the well-being of immigrants because those issues do not compare with the destruction of life brought on by abortion or assisted suicide.

Other Catholics emphasize the concrete needs of people in their midst and how to meet them. They are unpersuaded by what seem like moral abstractions — precisely because the life issues are often framed as mere opposition to some immoral action, not as a defense of the human person in light of the web of relationships in which we exist. And yet, isn’t there something common to the two perspectives? Isn’t it the very same “throwaway culture” which now populates our prisons, our landfills, and our graveyards? Our culture’s tendency to discard whatever — or whoever — is old or inconvenient is rapidly polluting both the earth itself and the human community. We need a more integrated way of approaching all the social issues as Catholics.

Principled, not partisan

At the Minnesota Catholic Conference, our policy positions do not fit neatly into the polarized, left-right framework that still dominates the political landscape. Instead, on our bill tracker (, you will find positions opposing assisted suicide and abortion, but you will also find support for clean water funding, and opioid epidemic response, immigrant driver’s licenses, and others.

This is not arbitrary. Nor is it the “mushy middle,” a way of pandering to both the right and the left. Rather, it is reflective of a consistent ethic of life that puts back together what our political culture has pulled apart. American politics have become disintegrated, and even while both parties get it right on some issues, neither has a consistent vision of social life capable of building a truly just society.

In light of these difficulties, we can look to Pope Francis, who offers a new way of looking at Catholic social teaching in Laudato si.’ In it, he proposes “integral ecology,” which means helping the natural and human ecologies to flourish while respecting both.

Integral ecology: a new vision for Catholic social teaching

A vision statement for integral ecology could be the chorus from Laudato si,’ “everything is connected.” When one aspect of our lives is out of sync with Gospel principles, whether in our personal lives or in our public engagement, the whole “spiritual organism” suffers.

It is the same way with the political ecosystem: We cannot address a social problem in a narrow or isolated manner, because our problems arise within a society of broken or disintegrated relationships and the failure, in some instances, to live our relationships with others well. That’s what the tradition means when it refers to structures of sin. And those structures can be dismantled only through personal conversion and addressing how they affect a whole ecosystem of social relationships. To get at downstream effects, we must see the source of the problem “upstream.”

Because of the significance of integral ecology for public policy engagement in the life of the church today, the bishops of Minnesota have approved the publication of a brand-new document by the Minnesota Catholic Conference titled “Minnesota, Our Common Home.” This resource is intended to help all of us grow in cultivating integral ecology within our families, in our daily lives, and in our call to be faithful citizens — all right here, in our home state.

You can download or order your own copy by visiting As you read and pray through this document, we pray you are challenged and encouraged in your call to care for our common home, whether in your own backyard or on Capitol Hill.

Sarah Spangenberg is the communications associate of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

Action Alert

Minnesota’s students deserve to attend schools that meet their individual educational needs. Parents, as the primary educators of their children, need to be enabled to enroll their children in the school that they feel best meets those needs. The good news is there is now legislation, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (SF 1872), that will provide families with access to the schools of their choice and ensure we have educational freedom in Minnesota. Let your senator know that you support opportunity scholarships for our kids! It only takes a few minutes to contact your legislators, and it will make a positive difference in the lives of our children. You can visit our action center ( to send your senator a message asking for the support of the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (SF 1872). You can also reach them on the phone by calling the Minnesota Senate’s main line at (651) 296-0504.

Father Nick Nelson: The church has definite ideals about music at Mass

I have been writing this column for less than a year, but you can probably tell that I have a passion for the liturgy. But this makes sense. As you “play how you practice,” you become how you worship.

Fr. Nick
Father Nick
Handing on the Faith

I didn’t always have a passion for the Mass. Even when entering the seminary, while the Eucharist as sacrament was important to me, the ars celebrandi, the “art of celebrating the Mass,” was not on my radar. You see, I grew up at your average Catholic parish, so that is what I was used to, and that was what I thought Mass was supposed to be.

But as I studied theology and the liturgical tradition of the church, and more importantly, as I attended beautiful Masses at seminary and in various other places, I realized that what our average parish celebrated on Sundays was not exactly what the Catholic Church had in mind. I’m not saying that what we have been doing is totally wrong or contrary to what the church says. I am saying that it’s not ideal.

Think of this example. It’s your wife’s birthday. So, you can get her a bottle of French Chardonnay or a bottle of Italian Chianti. The Chardonnay is your favorite, and she’ll be OK with it, but what she really loves and wants is the Italian Chianti. If it’s her birthday, and it’s about her, shouldn’t you get her the Chianti? A lot of what we have been doing at Mass is allowed, but it’s been more of what we want or what we think is best, rather than truly offering God what he wants.

Because we do know what God wants. The church is quite clear in some things as to how God wants to be worshiped. I wish to just offer a few examples in regard to music at Mass.

We are to sing the Mass and not just at Mass

The Roman Missal is the big red book that all the prayers are taken from for the Mass. In the instruction for it, which we call the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (at your cocktail parties, you can impress your friends by referring to it as the “GIRM”!), we find guidelines for singing. What we find is that the Mass itself should be sung, not just singing added to the Mass. The parts that primarily should be sung aren’t the opening song and the closing song, but rather the dialogue parts, the Mass parts. In the GIRM we read, “Every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation. In choosing of the parts actually to be sung, however, preference should be given to those that are of greater importance and especially to those to be sung by the priest or the deacon or the lector, with the people responding, or by the priest and people together” (40).

We are to sing the antiphons proper to each Mass

We are all most familiar with the “four-hymn sandwich,” in which the Mass is sandwiched between songs for four different points in the Mass i.e., the processional, the offertory, Communion, and the recessional. And while hymns are acceptable, the church actually has something else in mind during those processions, namely the antiphons (GIRM 48). Those who go to daily Mass are familiar with the entrance antiphon and the Communion antiphon. Those are usually said by the priest and the people. Well, every Mass has entrance, offertory, and Communion antiphons, and those have been set to music.

Consider the Fourth Sunday of Lent. we call that “Laetare Sunday.” Why? Because that is the first word of the entrance antiphon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, meaning “Rejoice!” So instead of picking a song to sing, imagine hearing that antiphon sung as the servers and ministers process into the sanctuary and immediately understanding why we call it Laetare Sunday. The antiphons are an integral part to the Mass. They bring out the particular theme and attitude proper to each Mass.

There are as many different preferences for music at Mass as there are people. But we must remember that the Mass isn’t about us. It is about God. We don’t go to Mass, and we don’t sing there, to get something out of it or to feel something. If we are concerned about getting something out of Mass, then we are missing the point, because the point of Mass is to glorify God as he wishes to be glorified.

When we realize that the Mass isn’t about us, that is when we are the freest and realize how good and gracious God is, that while it is all about him, he still blesses us during the Mass in so many ways. We do get so much out of Mass, most especially Christ himself! To be clear, we don’t need to start chanting the entire Mass or change our music repertoire overnight, but we should consider and work towards what the church has in mind regarding singing at Mass. Let’s not give God the Chardonnay when he really desires the Italian Chianti!

We are having a Sacred Music Workshop on Saturday, May 4, at Blessed Sacrament in Hibbing. Please consider attending if you are interested in learning more about music. Contact me for more information.

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]

Deacon Kyle Eller: When the accusation of hate is a weapon of hate

“Get used to replying to those poor ‘haters,’ when they pelt you with stones, by pelting them with Hail Marys.”

This quote from St. Josemaria Escriva seems useful these days when it is so easy to lose one’s peace.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

“Hate” is definitely one of the words of the moment, constantly being thrown around. This is often warranted. We have seen a resurgence in racism and other forms of bigotry (for example toward immigrants or particular religious groups). Too many horrors like the recent mass murder of Muslims in New Zealand come too easily to mind.

This truly is tragic and warrants our prayerful efforts at reconciliation and protecting the dignity of every human person, as well as our reflection on the causes, which I believe are to be found in a loss of a sense of God and therefore of meaning.

Yet it seems as if even more often the accusation of hatred is unwarranted. All too often the accusation is itself a form of hatred — a malicious lie meant to silence and demonize those with whom one disagrees.

To cite one prominent example among many, consider the Southern Poverty Law Center. Media darlings, this self-appointed tracker of “hate groups” is cited uncritically in countless articles.

Yet in 2012, a gunman shot up the office of the Family Research Council, wounding a security guard before he was overpowered and mass murder was averted. How did the domestic terrorist select this fairly ordinary evangelical Christian activist group as his target? He found it listed as a so-called “anti-LGBT hate group” on the SPLC website.

The SPLC’s claims that Christian beliefs about homosexuality and marriage don’t alone qualify one as a hater ring hollow with even a brief look at its website. Argue in public for the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church about human sexuality or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops position on religious liberty and the SPLC will find a way to lump you in with the neo-Nazis and KKK groups they also track.

Consider one egregious example, its “hate group” label for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Part of SPLC’s indictment is the group’s association with Princeton Prof. Robert George and Harvard Prof. Mary Ann Glendon.

I have followed George for years. Agree with him or not, he’s a paragon of reasoned civil discussion, even traveling the country with his friend, fellow professor, and ideological opposite Cornel West holding affectionate public debates. Glendon is a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See and an expert on human rights. Both are conspicuous for the way they uphold the dignity of the human person, including those with whom they disagree.

To see in such people something akin to Klan members requires an extraordinary degree of malice or ideological blindness or both. Unfortunately that is now commonplace.

What’s important, of course, is not to hate. But what does that even mean, given we seem to have lost a common definition of the term? One way to think of it is considering how we are to love — love even to our enemies.

Love means recognizing people as being made in God’s image and likeness, as creatures he deliberately willed into being as gifts, and whom he loved all the way to the cross. In human terms, that means willing the good of each person. Their good includes the necessities of a dignified life, such as shelter, food, meaningful work in which they use their gifts to contribute to the common good, safety. It includes the communion with God and other people that is part of human nature — including the rights, duties, and relationships among family, friends, and one’s neighbors. It includes respecting a legitimate freedom to seek the good and live and speak it — those rights of conscience.

That good ultimately includes friendship with God forever in heaven, hopefully right alongside us.

This is what the Catholic Church teaches us to seek for everyone, from the holiest saint to the most notorious sinner.

If hatred is something like the opposite of that, it means things like shunning, no-platforming, and silencing people, or trying to render them social pariahs. It means trying to deny them meaningful work and the necessities of life by making them unemployable or preventing them from operating businesses. It means wishing violence, death, or even hell on them. It means attempting to coerce their consciences. Unfortunately, by this definition there are hateful people of all political persuasions and of every race, sex, age, and religion. But what is striking is how well it describes many of the self-professed “resisters of hate” among us — especially those more accurately described as anti-Christian bigots.

This can be disturbing. I admit I let it bother me more than I should.

That’s why I think that quote from St. Josemaria is so helpful. If we bring ourselves to trusting prayer when confronting these things, we can regain our peace, turn it over to God, and let him work. In that way, we also short-circuit the responses of fear and anger and bitterness that may make it more difficult to love those who wish to be our enemies.

So let’s do as St. Josemaria counsels and “pelt” them with Hail Marys.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]

School choice advocates drive home arguments

School choice advocates hope legislation that would establish a tax credit for donations to scholarship- granting organizations will be part of end-of-session negotiations.

“Parents should really make the decision of what is the best educational setting for their child,” said Chas Anderson, executive director of Opportunity for All Kids, or OAK, a nonprofit that advocates for school choice. “What we’re saying is that parents should have a wide range of options.”

Introduced Feb. 28, the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act (S.F. 1872/ H.F. 1894) would provide individuals or corporations with a state tax credit of 70 percent of a donation to a qualified scholarship-granting organization. Parents who do not earn more than twice the income eligibility for reduced priced lunch — around $90,000 a year for a family of four, according to OAK — could apply to the scholarship-granting organizations to help their children attend Catholic and other private schools.

The legislation would expand low- and middle-income families’ opportunity to choose the best school for their child, advocates say.

The bill’s chief author in the senate is Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes), chair of the Senate’s Taxes Committee, which held a hearing on the bill March 19. The bill was amended and slated for possible inclusion in the omnibus tax bill.

Among the Senate version’s four co-authors is Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa). Following the March 19 hearing, Chamberlain and Gazelka spoke at a news conference about the bill.

Standing against a background with the OAK logo and surrounded by students wearing yellow scarves, Gazelka said the bill “is a tool we hope to use to close the disparity gap among some of the schools that we have in Minnesota.”

He said Minnesota has one of the largest achievement gaps — “if not the largest achievement gap” — in the country. Standardized testing and other measures show a large disparity in public schools between students of color and their white peers.

“The Opportunity Scholarship will break down financial barriers for low- and middle-income families, allowing them to select the best schools based on the needs of their sons and daughters,” Gazelka said.

Attending the hearing and news conference were students from Ascension Catholic School, Risen Christ Catholic School, St. Helena Catholic School and Torah Academy, all in Minneapolis.

“What we’re really talking about is what’s best for kids,” said Ascension Principal Benito Matias at the press conference.

Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls) is the author of the companion bill in the House, where it was referred to the Education Policy Committee and has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. Opponents of the legislation say a tax credit to help students attend private schools would divert funds that could help public schools. They have also expressed concern over improving access to schools with less state control than public schools.

However, most studies on school choice have shown that students who use scholarships to attend a nonpublic school improve their test scores. Other studies have shown school choice improves school racial and ethnic integration, and that school choice programs correlate with an improvement in public school test scores, too.

Anderson said because tax credits are being used to fund the scholarship- granting foundations, “you have to make several jumps to make that inference that somehow public education is not getting this money.”

“If they [legislators] decided not to fund this tax credit, it doesn’t mean that that money is going to go into education,” she said, noting that tax credits are widely used to fund initiatives.

She added that the point of the legislation isn’t to pit public against private education but to expand parents’ options for their children’s education.

“Those parents pay taxes, and we should provide high quality options for students in the public, charter, and private sectors, and just let parents decide,” she said.

Similar legislation to the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act has been passed in about 20 states, and its constitutionality has been upheld in court, Anderson said.

The legislation would cap the amount individuals and corporations could donate annually; married joint filers, for example, would be limited to a $21,000 tax credit for a one-year donation of $30,000, and corporate filers would be limited to a $105,000 tax credit for a one-year donation of $150,000.

It would also cap the program’s overall annual donations at $35 million for tax year 2020.

The bill also excludes the participation of for-profit schools, and it would require participating schools to adhere to the state’s Human Rights Amendment and administer an approved reading and math assessment in certain grades.

With the exception of small changes reflecting the modified federal tax structure, the legislation mirrors a bill introduced during the 2017 session, Anderson said.

Although Gov. Tim Walz has said he will not support the legislation, Anderson said she feels hopeful about its passage because Gazelka has made advancing it a priority.

“We know that school choice initiatives basically take a multi-year effort,” she said. “It really comes down to end-of-session negotiations between the Legislature and the governor.”

Federal legislation has been introduced to create similar scholarships, but Anderson is not optimistic about its passage. That legislation also puts the decision whether or not to implement the bill in the hands of governors, which she said is ineffective tax policy.

Statewide survey results show school choice has bipartisan support among voters, particularly among minority communities, Anderson noted.

Among OAK’s member organizations is the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops. In addition to faith-based communities that have traditionally supported the bill, education advocacy organizations EdAllies and Minnesota Comeback have added their backing, Anderson said, which allows OAK “to show more broad support in the community for the tax credit.”

— By Maria Wiering / The Catholic Spirit

Bishop Paul Sirba: This Lent has a providential significance for our diocese

“Way up North” in the Diocese of Duluth includes parishes like Our Lady of the Snows in Bigfork, St. Michael’s in Northome, and St. Catherine’s in Squaw Lake. The parish cluster straddles Itasca and Koochiching counties and demands a 100-mile round trip for the pastor, Father Thomas Galarneault, to provide Mass and confessions each weekend. Like other places around the Diocese, the faithful are amazing!

Bishop Paul Sirba
Bishop Paul Sirba
Fiat Voluntas Tua

This Lent, I had the privilege of holding a Prayer Service of Atonement and Healing at St. Catherine’s parish in Squaw Lake. It is the place where the sexual abuse by Father J. Vincent Fitzgerald, OMI, took place many years ago. His actions were criminal and horrific. He betrayed his sacred trust as a religious priest. A young boy was abused there, and this court case (Doe 30) led the Diocese to enter into bankruptcy, so as to compensate the 125 victims of abuse who came forward as fairly as possible.

At the service, like others I have been privileged to pray across the Diocese, I offered my sincere apology to the victims on behalf of the Church, we prayed before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and we had an open forum and fellowship. Available to the participants were two advocates from the Crisis Response Team from Grand Rapids. I am so grateful they were there.

I asked those present: Who can bring healing, reconciliation, and hope to victims of sexual abuse? Who can bring peace? There is only one Person I know, and that Person is Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who came to heal broken hearts. He will never let us down. His mercy is His love where we are hurting. Jesus is never afraid of approaching us, no matter what shape we are in.

Faithful came forward and spoke about abuse that had happened to them at the hands of a Christian Brother, a policeman, a doctor, and a family member. The wounds of sexual abuse have been caused by priests, teachers, coaches, lawyers, and family members. No profession or relation is exempt. The faithful demanded accountability and transparency and expressed gratitude for the prayer service and our recent efforts to bring healing.

Our Diocese has fought insurance companies these last three and a half years to contribute to a fair settlement for victims. We settled with the last insurance company, Liberty Mutual, on March 7. Now we are in mediation for the contribution of economic and non-economic demands to exit the bankruptcy for which our Diocese will be responsible.

While this process has been purifying and painful, I have hope that we can help victims who have been hurt to heal and that we can educate about and prevent abuse, making our parishes, schools, religious education programs, and youth activities the safest places for our young people to be, and to hold accountable those who have harmed children, including bishops. Out of this terrible tragedy, Jesus brings hope, healing, and peace.

Like other Lents we have entered into, this one has a providential significance for our Diocese. God is ever faithful to His pledges and will guide us into our future purified and renewed.

As we make our final preparations for Easter, I invite your ongoing prayers for a resolution to our bankruptcy. If you have not already done so, go to confession. I invite you to the Chrism Mass, Monday of Holy Week. I encourage your participation in the Sacred Triduum at your parish. Please attend the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday’s liturgy of the Passion of the Lord, and the Easter Vigil. We are welcoming new Catholics into our family this Easter because Jesus Christ is Risen!

Bishop Paul Sirba is the ninth bishop of Duluth.

Father Michael Schmitz: Do I have to always obey my conscience?

I have heard that people are obliged to follow their consciences, even if it goes against the Bible or the church’s teaching. Is this true?

This is a good question. In order to get to the answer, it could be helpful to note a couple of things about human nature first.

Fr. Mike
Father Michael 
Ask Father Mike

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to avoid meat on Fridays during Lent? Or how difficult it is to fast on the only two fast days that the church requires (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday)? Honestly, it shouldn’t be a burden in any way whatsoever. When we consider that the church considers a “fast” to be only eating two small meals and one regular-sized meal that isn’t larger than the two smaller meals combined, is that even really a sacrifice?

In the developed world, our “fast” can involve more food than the majority of the world eats on a feast day!

But it is still tough for many people to abstain from meat or to fast. Why?

I think that the only truly hard part about fasting is the fact that someone else has told us that we have to. The fast itself is of such little difficulty; the challenge is submitting one’s will and desires to the will of the church. Again, let’s be truthful with ourselves here. We want what we want, and the fact that the church gets to tell us what to do in this area grates on our ego and self-will.

Because of this, if there is an “escape clause” regarding the church’s teaching, most of us are sorely tempted to take it. This is where the teaching on conscience comes in. If a person must “always obey their conscience,” then I can always “do what I want,” right?

If the church taught that conscience is the “aboriginal vicar of Christ” (as Blessed John Henry Newman maintained), does it mean that it must always be followed? The Second Vatican Council has stated that, “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.” This means that one’s conscience has weight; it has a certain amount of binding force.

But what is conscience and what is it not?

First, we need to note that conscience is not a person’s personal preferences. Conscience is not a person’s own desires, opinions, or attitudes. In fact, a well-formed conscience will more often convict a person of where they need to repent and reform their lives rather than affirm and validate their choices. Conscience can be understood as the “voice” that comes from a living and active relationship with God. If someone does not find themselves investing deeply in spending time with God in prayer and feeding their mind on Scripture, it is likely that they do not have a well-formed conscience.

Let’s stay there for a moment: Due to our fallen human nature, we automatically are out of relationship with ourselves and God. A conversion (real change) must happen that brings us under the dominion (lordship) of Jesus Christ. The Bible talks about this in an extreme way: our old self must be “put to death.” In addition, almost every serious spiritual writer in the Christian tradition states that one of the critical attitudes of those pursuing Christ is “distrust of self.”

This isn’t being cynical, it’s merely being realistic. We are often our own worst enemy. Our fallen human nature gets us into more trouble that any outside force. Therefore, to imagine that one’s conscience is “naturally trustworthy” or that it doesn’t need formation would be the height of self-deception and hubris.

Conscience more often “binds” a person to action rather than “releases” them. In other words, conscience is often more concerned with duties than it is with rights. A well-formed conscience comes from a living prayer life and intentional seeking after God’s will more than one’s own will. A healthy conscience is therefore more preoccupied with “what does God want?” than “what do I want?” To try to quantify it, a person who does not spend significant time in prayer and study of Scripture and church teaching (as well as find themselves convicted on a regular basis of their sin) ought not to imagine that they have a healthy and well-formed conscience.

Lastly, the church does not teach that we must obey our conscience, but that we must not disobey our conscience. The difference might seem subtle, but it is crucial. If my conscience and a church teaching collide, I must obey the church. The only time I would follow my conscience over and against a church teaching would be if I was absolutely convinced that it would be evil for me to not follow my conscience. A scenario could be something along these lines: I am convinced that it would be evil for me to not eat meat on a Friday in Lent. In order to choose God, I have to eat meat on that day.

This is vastly different than, “I just don’t think there is anything wrong with eating meat today ….”

Nonetheless, conscience is not independent of others or of the church. It is a gift, but it can be wrong. And in the words of G.K. Chesterton: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]

Co-creators of pro-life film say God planned film 'for such a time as now'

As introductions were made and basic information was gathered, the voices of Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon were jovial and lighthearted.

But in telephone interview with The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, their sound changed as they began discussing their most recent film, "Unplanned," to be released nationwide March 29. It tells the true story of Abby Johnson's conversion from being "pro-choice" to pro-life as told in her 2011 book, "unPLANNED."

Konzelman and Solomon are the film's co-writers, co-producers and co-directors. The two have been best friends since growing up next door to one another in New Jersey. They are both Catholic, live in Los Angeles and have years of experience in Hollywood.

Solomon noted that he and Konzelman are a bit like the television duo Penn and Teller, where "I'm Penn, the one who talks," he admitted with a laugh.

The two worked together on the secular side of the film industry for about 17 years, writing for major studios such as Warner Brothers, Paramount, Sony-Columbia and 20th Century Fox, for well-known producers Joel Silver and Stan Lee and others, and for famous actors, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone.

In 2008, they felt called to "come over to serve the Lord" with their talents, said Solomon.

Since then, they've co-written and/or co-produced numerous faith-based box office films. Movieguide listed their 2010 film "What If ..." as one of the year's top-10 family movies, and their 2014 movie "God's Not Dead?" ranked among the top-35 grossing films that year. It also won Movieguide's top award in 2015. Their last film prior to "Unplanned" was "God's Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness" in 2018.

Solomon recalled when, six years ago, he and Konzelman were "at our usual haunt, a coffee shop, talking about what we'll do next," when a woman approached them.

"(She) tells us to read this book ('unPLANNED') and says we need to make it into a movie. I thought, 'Yeah, sure -- a chick flick! What do I know about being pregnant?'" Solomon said with a laugh.

But they took the book anyway.

The next day, Konzelman "came into the office with one of those looks," said Solomon. "I said, 'Are you OK?' And he said, 'You need to read this (book).' The way he said it I could tell something divine had happened. I read it, and I agreed it was definitely a story that needed to be told" on film.

Konzelman and Solomon prayed about the project, but the Lord told them "'not yet,'" Solomon recalled. "I said, 'What do you mean, not yet! Babies are dying!' We were bummed out -- we were ready to go."

Then Solomon heard: "Not yet doesn't mean 'no.' It means, 'Not yet."

Four years later, working in the office of their production company, Believe Entertainment Inc., they looked up at one another and "knew at that very moment" it was time to make the film, said Solomon.

To write the script, Solomon said interviews with Johnson were done early on. They relief on her eight years of experience working in the abortion industry for the technical information.

For authenticity, even the actors portraying the abortion doctor and nurse in the film are an actual former abortion doctor and nurse who, like Johnson, "had already ceased doing that work and come to the Lord," said Solomon.

When asked how the filming of "Unplanned" differed from their other Christian movies, Konzelman said, "None of the other projects needed privacy. Usually when you're filming, particularly a faith movie, you look for all the publicity you can get.

"But we knew there was a strong possibility of protests or sabotage, so we shot the film under an assumed name, and we filmed in secret" in a studio in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

"Somehow by the grace of God, in an age of social media," there were no leaks about the film, Konzelman said, despite a cast and crew of 1,000 people.

Added Solomon: "From day one in the office to when we were on set we had miracles, healings, conversions. We could make a movie about making the movie."

For example, Solomon talked about a woman who was "pro-choice and very, very sick with lupus," who had somehow gotten hold of a screenplay of "Unplanned," and after reading it "she became pro-life and desperately wanted to be involved in the film," he said.

But when she arrived at the set, the woman suddenly began to cry. One of the many priests and ministers frequently present on the set was called over -- and the woman confessed to having an abortion at 19.

"She was just standing there crying about this abortion -- and right then and there, she was miraculously healed" of her illness, Solomon said with a bit of awe in his voice. She did go on to do office work for the project.

Solomon's favorite conversion story hits closer to his heart.

"My dad is 84, an atheist, liberal, pro-choice, far left, get-along-go-along, everything-is-allowed-and-permissible kind of guy," he explained.

He asked Solomon to send him a clip from the film, which was still being shot. Solomon sent his dad a 10-second clip from a scene of pro-life advocates holding their hands through a Planned Parenthood fence, praying over a barrel of dismembered baby parts.

"The next day he called," Solomon recalled. "He said -- and he just doesn't talk this way -- he said, 'The clip you sent me, this movie is going to change the world. You've shown us what we didn't want to see. ... We need to make the Lord put an end to this abortion thing."

The movie itself almost came to an end one day when its account had a mere $13.17 remaining, with filming yet to go.

"Before 5 p.m., the phone rang," said Solomon. "The person says, 'Hey, what's your routing number? Where I can wire you some money?' I said, 'Who is this?'"

The man was Michael Lindell, inventor of My Pillow and CEO of My Pillow Inc. More importantly -- and a devout Christian. He said he had been praying and felt called to make a $1 million donation to the directors -- one-sixth of their $6 million budget.

The film has been shown to sample groups hundreds of times, Solomon said. "Not one person said it's not good. Not one." Some cried, he added, "even men -- they're just as affected if they were involved in an abortion. And they say they feel freed, healed."

Konzelman credits such feelings to the film's overall message: "That there is grace and forgiveness, hope and healing and redemption no matter what you've done, and particularly for post-abortion women and men."

He hopes those scarred by abortion will find healing through the film, then will become pro-life advocates and tell those considering abortion. "This is the mistake I made. I suffered tremendously for it. You don't need to make the same mistake. If you find yourself in a crisis pregnancy, let's find another way to handle it.'"

"The great lie," Konzelman continued, "is that you can walk into an abortion center, they can erase the baby and you can walk away and forget about it. There's grief the rest of their life, and this movie helps them get passed that."

Solomon said, "If the world doesn't end abortion, the Lord will. And we are not going to like how he does it."

- By Natalie Hoefer / Catholic News Service
Hoefer is a reporter at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Convert now, don't be spiritually lazy, pope says

God is patient and merciful, but people should not put off their conversion because they never know how long they will live, Pope Francis said.

"We can have great trust in God's mercy, but we must not take advantage of it. We must not justify spiritual laziness but increase our commitment to quickly responding to that mercy with a sincerity of heart," Pope Francis said March 24 before reciting the midday Angelus prayer.

In his Angelus address, the pope focused on the parable of the fig tree from the day's Gospel reading. In the story, a landowner wants to chop down a fig tree that has borne no fruit in three years, but the gardener persuades him to allow him to fertilize it and give the tree another year.

"The landowner symbolizes God the father and the gardener is the image of Jesus while the fig tree is the symbol of an indifferent and arid humanity," the pope said. "Jesus intercedes with the Father on behalf of humanity -- and he always does -- and he begs him to wait and give more time so that the fruits of love and justice emerge."

Lent is a time for all Christians to take the needed steps in their ongoing conversion, the pope said. But "the possibility of conversion is not limitless. It is necessary to do it now, otherwise it could be lost forever."

"We might think in Lent this year, 'What do I need to do to draw closer to the Lord, to convert, to 'prune' those things that aren't right? But, no, no, I'll wait until next Lent.'"

Such people, he said, also should ask, "But will I be alive next Lent?"

On the other hand, the pope said, when one sees another person doing wrong or struggling, the appropriate response is "to imitate the patience of God, who trusts in the ability of everyone to get up again" and return to following him.

"God is a father and will not extinguish a weak flame, but accompanies and cares for those who are weak so that they get stronger and can make their contribution of love to the community," the pope said.

Pope Francis also used his Angelus address to join the annual commemoration of "missionary martyrs," the bishops, priests, religious and lay church workers killed in the church's mission territories.

In the past year, the pope said, 40 had been killed, "almost double the number of the previous year."

"Remembering this contemporary Calvary of brothers and sisters persecuted or killed for their faith in Jesus is an obligation of gratitude for the entire church," he said, "but it also is a stimulus to witnessing with courage our faith and hope in him, who on the cross defeated forever hatred and violence with his love."

- By Cindy Wooden / Catholic News Service

Counselors offer 'loving sources of hope' for women seeking abortions

Two women stood near the busy road on a chilly February morning in Indianapolis. A steady, penetrating mist -- and sometimes an icy splash from a speeding car -- made for a dampness that digs deep and lingers despite layers of clothes. The temperature hovered just above freezing.

"It's always 10 degrees colder here than anywhere else," Sheryl Dye said with a patient grin. Her companion, Ann Clawson, nodded in agreement.

Ann Clawson stands outside outside the Planned Parenthood abortion center in Indianapolis Feb. 20, 2019, holding a "blessing bag" filled with information and resources. She was ready to present it to anyone pulling in to the center for an abortion if the person had stopped. (CNS photo/Natalie Hoefer, The Criterion)

By "here" she meant the entrance of the driveway of the Planned Parenthood abortion facility on the northwest side of Indianapolis. It is the state's largest abortion provider.

Dye and Clawson are committed to standing, praying and hailing approaching cars with a wave and a smile for at least two hours there every Wednesday morning.

They are members of the Indianapolis North chapter of Sidewalk Advocates for Life. Per its website, the organization's mission is to train and support volunteers "to be the hands and feet of Christ, offering loving, life-affirming alternatives to all present at the abortion center, thereby eliminating demand and ending abortion."

Dye and Debra Minott established the chapter in 2016 and currently serve as its coordinators.

Sidewalk counselors have been there for 13 years, since the facility opened in 2006, said Dye, 54. "It started as a grass-roots effort. ... Deb and I used to counsel together. We started talking about the need for more comprehensive training and getting more people involved. Sidewalk Advocates has a great training program."

Each chapter designates the abortion facility it will cover. A chapter also exists in Bloomington, covering the Planned Parenthood abortion center near Indiana University.

Being a sidewalk counselor does not require any kind of degree or persuasive ability, said Minott, 63, told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

"First and foremost (it requires) a very strong faith," she said. "Because to be successful, you need to recognize you are an instrument of the Holy Spirit, and it's not anything you're doing.

"Second is a passion for life. If you're not there believing that this is a life to be saved, it's going to come through to the person you're talking to."

Having "thick skin" is needed, too, "because some of the things people say aren't very nice," admitted Minott, a member of St. Marie Goretti Parish in Westfield, Indiana, in the Diocese of Lafayette.

Both agree on several misconceptions about what sidewalk counselors do -- that they are there to yell and protest against the abortion center, or there to shame the women as they drive in.

"No matter what is said to us, no matter what goes on, we are peaceful, loving sources of hope," said Dye, a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. "Our goal is to let (the women) know there's help, that there's pain that can come with abortion, and that they're better than that and don't have to experience that."

One might say the counselors' first goal is to get a car to stop.

"We just wave and offer a big smile and make eye contact," Dye said of the counselors' approach to cars entering the drive.

"There are times when you get no one to stop, then sometimes you get eight cars to stop" during the two- to two-and-a-half-hour shifts, Minott added.

When a car does stop, a counselor offers the driver brochures and information on alternative pro-life organizations that will help them at no charge. For instance, 1st Choice for Women is a pregnancy clinic less than a mile from the abortion center. It is a ministry of Great Lakes Gabriel Project, which also sponsors the north Indianapolis Sidewalk Advocates chapter.

Counselors also offer to walk over immediately and meet the woman at the Women's Care Center that abuts the north boundary of the Planned Parenthood property.

"Even if I talk to someone for a minute -- and that's really about all the time you have -- and they still go in (to the abortion center), I believe my prayers have an impact," Minott said of what counselors spend most of their time doing by the drive: praying.

Counselors often use a rosary booklet with tailor-made intentions Minott designed. But with volunteers from different faith backgrounds, any and all prayers are welcome, she said.

"If I didn't have faith that being there praying was having an impact, I couldn't go on doing it because there's just not enough tangible rewards coming back to you," Minott said.

Occasionally there are tangible rewards, though. Dye told the story of a woman who stopped not long ago to talk to a specific counselor.

"This woman said she had been driving up and down Georgetown Road for a year trying to find the counselor," Dye said. "She wanted her to know that even though she went on in for her abortion after the counselor talked with her, she changed her mind, and she was now the mother of a healthy baby boy."

At 69, Larry Clark has been a sidewalk counselor at the Planned Parenthood abortion center in Indianapolis for about 10 years. He, too, knows the joy of seeing a woman choose life for her baby.

"I've got to be here -- it's the right thing to do," said Clark, a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Carmel, Indiana, in the Lafayette Diocese. "(The clients) need somebody -- not only the children, but the moms and dads need us, too. ... There's nothing more cheering and exciting than when someone chooses life here in this driveway."

Dye and Minott agree the mission of sidewalk counselors has become more urgent.

Dye said that in the six years since she's been a counselor outside the abortion facility, "it's getting harder to get (the women) to see that it's something that could potentially cause harm to them. It's hard because society tells them it's no big deal."

And with only 13 full-time sidewalk advocates, about 10 part-time and substitute volunteers, and the need to always have two counselors on each shift, the task is even more challenging, said Minott.

There is no "typical" counselor, said Dye, who is the mother of two grown children and a teacher at Lumen Christi Catholic School in Indianapolis.

"We have women and men, people who are outgoing and people who are more quiet, people who work and people who don't work or are retired," she said.

Minott also is married with two grown children. She is retired, running for the Carmel City Council, and has "a lot of other things going on."

Clawson, a retiree in her mid-60s who also worships at St. Maria Goretti, is in her third month of volunteering.

She had a "save" on her first day of counseling -- a woman she spoke with who decided to go to the Women's Care Center instead of Planned Parenthood.

"That's like being on cloud nine," she said with a smile. "Those are the things that keep you coming."

-By Natalie Hoefer / Catholic News Service
Hoefer is a reporter at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis

With heavy hearts, U.S. bishops condemn mosque attacks

U.S. Catholic bishops condemned the two mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15 that left at least 50 people dead and 50 seriously injured, and they also pledged their solidarity with the Muslim community.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was "deeply saddened by the senseless attacks" and joined with New Zealand's bishops in "expressing solidarity with the Muslim community and in calling Catholics to join in prayer for the victims of this shooting, their families and the Muslim community that was directly targeted."

mosque attacks
People leave flowers at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York in New York City March 15, 2019, after the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand. Forty-nine people were assassinated and at least 40 more are being treated for gunshot wounds following the terror attacks. (CNS photo/Rashid Umar Abbasii, Reuters)

"May almighty God change the hearts of those who hate to recognize the inherent dignity of all people and bring consolation to all those affected by this heart-rending loss," he said in a March 15 statement.

The cardinal also said he agreed with the New Zealand bishops, who said they were "particularly horrified that this has happened at a place and time of prayer."

Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik similarly expressed sadness and shock over the shooting, recalling what his own community endured five months ago when a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue killing 11 and wounding six others.

"Together with so many others, my heart hurts to learn of yet another mass shooting in a place of worship," he said. "The senseless taking of innocent life is only made more disturbing when people are targeted because of their beliefs and as they gather to pray."

The bishop said his local community "knows all too well the shock and horror of a massacre such as this. Yet, an act intended to tear people apart can instead build up a community that is 'Stronger than Hate.'"

In his March 15 statement, he said he hopes the Muslim community in Christchurch will "know the love and support of their neighbors near and far in the face of the evil they have experienced."

He also pledged prayers from Catholics in Pittsburgh for those killed and injured in the attacks and said he especially extends support to the Muslim community in southwestern Pennsylvania.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called the attacks on the mosques "one of New Zealand's darkest days," noting that many of the victims were likely migrants or refugees.

Brenton Tarrant, 28, of Australia has been arrested for the attacks and will appear in court April 5. Before he started the attacks, he posted a 74-page manifesto online and also sent it to government offices just minutes before the shootings.

He livestreamed his attack on worshippers at Christchurch's Al Noor Mosque, where 42 people were killed before moving on to Linwood Mosque about three miles away, where seven died at the scene and one person died later in the hospital. The video of the shootings was deleted from social media but had already been widely seen before it was taken down.

Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich said the root of this attack was hatred, fear and ignorance of the 'other,' which he said: "fuels attitudes that dehumanize whole communities and blame them for perceived ills in society."

"Let this horrific affront to decency be a call to action by all people who cherish our common humanity. Religious, civil and political leaders have a responsibility not only to condemn these criminal acts, but to hold each other accountable for combating the attitudes which breed them. Let us recommit ourselves to this task today, welcoming one another as 'brother' or 'sister' whenever we encounter them."

The cardinal said "with a heavy heart" he urged Chicago's archdiocesan parishes to offer prayers for those who died in New Zealand and for their Muslim neighbors locally.

"Also, in all hope and humility let us pray for the perpetrators of this violence and those who harbor hate toward others based on race or religion. May they come to see the humanity in their brothers and sisters and release the hatred," he added.

Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley likewise reached out to the local Muslim community, saying: "To our Muslim friends in Boston and throughout Massachusetts, in this dark hour know that you are not alone, we join together with many others in the religious and civic communities who embrace you in concern and support."

The cardinal also addressed our "Muslim brothers and sisters in New Zealand," telling them: "We stand with you in condemning this horrendous assault on human dignity."

In a March 15 statement, he stressed the importance of not letting this tragedy have the last word. He said the ideology of hate and the violence "causes untold suffering and pain, but it must never be allowed to defeat our efforts to work together for the betterment of all people throughout the world."

Bishop Nicholas Dimarzio of Brooklyn, New York, similarly offered prayers for those who died and pointed out that the shootings were "an unsettling reminder that the right to religious freedom is under attack throughout the world."

On Twitter, Dallas Bishop Edward J. Burns, also pleaded for prayers March 15 and showed solidarity with the Muslims who had gathered in prayer.

"An attack on one faith community is an attack on all faith communities," he said.

-By Carol Zimmermann / Catholic News Service