Moose, Mountains & The Midnight Sun: Shining The Light Of Christ On the Last Frontier

Whale Bone Arch Barrow AK

Whalebone Arch, Barrow, Alaska: The jawbones of a bowhead whale form an arch that marks the gateway to the Arctic Ocean. Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States as well as in Alaska. The beach above also boasts the shells of whaling boats and other bones.

He’s one of 18 priests serving 46 parishes in a land mass the size of “two Texases.” Most of the parishes he serves can only be accessed by air, snow machine or boat, which is one of many reasons this is the last international mission diocese in the United States. If you haven’t guessed by now, we’re talking about a priest serving the Diocese of Fairbanks, which takes up the entire northern section of the great state of Alaska.

The priest who shared these facts is Father Robert Fath, the diocese’s “first homegrown priest” as well as its vocation director, the chaplain for the diocese’s only Catholic school, the director of faith and family formation, and the civilian contract chaplain for the Air Force base. Oh, and in his spare time, he serves as chaplain for the University of Alaska Fire Department and the Alaska State troopers and, of course, in the summer, he works on his canon law degree! And you think you’re busy!

Serving as a priest in Alaska isn’t easy, but as a native Alaskan, who tested the waters in the “lower 48” but returned to his roots, Father Fath, who recently visited EWTN, said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alaska Father Fath on EWTN Live set

Father Fath of the Diocese of Fairbanks on the set of “EWTN Live” with Host Father Mitch Pacwa. WATCH the interview: http://bit.ly/FairbanksFatherFath.

“Alaska is a state where you either love it or hate it – no in between. For those who have chosen to live there, you see God in everything. One Christmas, walking out of the church after Midnight Mass, the whole sky was filled with the aurora. You had a sense that this is what the first Christmas must have been like!”

Father lives at the house of vocational discernment on the Cathedral property the city of Fairbanks. He says: “I had five moose living on the property most of the winter. When you leave the house, you look both ways! I’ll pull the shades up and see mama and baby munching on a tree next to the window.”

Fairbanks is one of three dioceses in Alaska. The other two are in Anchorage and Juneau, but unlike Fairbanks, they are not mission dioceses, which presents special challenges.

“When you look at our population (about 14,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Fairbanks) and number of priests (18), on paper it looks like a good number of priests,” Father Fath said.

Sunday Morning Emmonak

Parishioners arrive for Sunday Morning Mass at Emmonak in the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska.

However, because all but eight parishes are located in native villages, which cannot be accessed by road, it is often only possible to offer Masses, funerals, confessions and other sacraments every four to six weeks.

This means deacons and the laity must be trained to read the liturgy and give out communion with hosts that were consecrated when the priest was in town.

“A lot of people in the villages die without the sacraments,” Father Father said. “Because they are so isolated, even funeral rites are done by laity and deacons.”

While a Memorial Mass will be celebrated when a priest arrives, Father Fath says the body must be buried relatively quickly depending on the time of year.

“The body is laid out in the family home,” Father said. Women clean the body and dress the individual in traditional clothing. The wake lasts for several days depending on the weather. The men build the casket and dig the grave – even in winter at 50 degrees below [zero]. They start a fire, melt the ground, dig until they hit ice. They keep moving the fire to get down to the depth they need.”

Afterwards, the family has a “potlatch,” which Father says is the equivalent of our funeral reception but with native dancing.

Father Fath says there is nothing more exciting to him than listening to the village elders tell stories.

Confirmation in Kotlik

Bishop Chad W. Zielinski after a confirmation in Kotlik, a Central Yup’ik Eskimo village, which is part of the vast Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska.

“[A native Alaskan elder named] Benedict Tucker passed way last year. He called himself the last real Eskimo. When I first met him, he told me he was 98 years old. His family said he was probably over 100 because he remembers the missionaries coming to his village.”

Does this mean that Eskimos and other native Alaskans live longer? Father believes the people who have kept to a traditional or semi-traditional lifestyle may live a bit longer. But he says the problems in Alaska are the same as in the lower 48. They are compounded because food costs are astoundingly high.

“I was in a village that had a flood,” Father said. “They were paying $8 for a gallon of water. Surprisingly, a soda only cost a couple bucks. It makes it easy for kids to indulge in that.”

This makes hunting and fishing tremendously important. Father says his seminarians, whose lives have revolved around formal seminary training, vacation bible school, and helping with Masses, frequently ask what they will be doing when they get out into the villages.

Father Fath laughs. “Because of the importance of the subsistence lifestyle, they will have to help hunt and pick berries when those things are around. A couple summers ago, commercial fishing opened right in the middle of Sunday Mass time. We celebrated Mass when it was scheduled, but we got on the CB radios and announced we would do an additional Mass so people had the opportunity to come, but could also make a living.”

While this kind of living is hard, Father said it leads people to be grateful for the earth’s bounty and to an understanding of the necessity of sharing what you have – the most Catholic of virtues.

Bishop Z Moose

Bishop Chad W. Zielinski of the Diocese of Fairbanks in Northern Alaska bagged this moose, which will feed an entire village, including many of its widows.

“It’s not unusual in the fall to see someone get a moose, throw a leg on back of a four wheeler, and take it to a widow’s house. Even our own bishop did that last fall. He got a rather large moose. He left several hundred pounds in the village and personally delivered it to several of the widows.”

Father said he often sees a sealskin hanging in front of a family’s wood stove. The wife uses the skin to make boots for her husband. In another village, he might see someone delivering muktuk, 12×12 chunks of whale skin and blubber in a cardboard box. “People eat it raw.”

The weather can also change a priest’s plans in an instant. Three or four years ago, Father said, one of the diocese’s priests traveled by helicopter to an island in the Bering Sea to celebrate a funeral mass. He planned to be there three days. “But between the weather and a broken helicopter, he was there for 39 days. His personality is such that he adapted and was perfectly content!”

Overlooking Nulato & Yukon River

Overlooking the City of Nulato, Alaska and the mighty Yukon River.

While Father Fath loves the uncrowded beauty of his state, the isolation and poverty by lower 48 standards leads to high rates of suicide, domestic abuse, and alcoholism, which he said is a challenge for the Church.

Many think the solution is technology, but Father says Internet access in the villages is not good enough to stream data, and while cell phone use is growing, the villagers – especially teens who would like to use it – can’t afford the exorbitant cost of even a small amount of data.

“As a mission diocese, over 90 percent of our operating funds come from outside. Of the 46 parishes, only six are self-supporting. A lot of the finances and funding goes towards getting the priests and religious where they need to be and to the basics of keeping the heat and lights on in a parish. It is cheaper for me to fly from Fairbanks to Alabama than from Fairbanks [in the interior of Alaska] to Emmonak [pop. 762], out on the West Coast. So every time a priest goes out to a village, we can expect to pay an average of $1,000 per roundtrip.”

Alaska’s Catholics benefit from three EWTN radio affiliates: 94.1 in Anchorage, 88.3 FM in Kodiak, and (drumroll) 92.7 FM (KQHE) in Fairbanks. Father says the Diocese of Fairbanks is working on getting more local content. To that end, the diocese recently hosted a “Families Fully Alive Conference,” which took two years to plan. They expected 250 to 300 people, but almost 700 showed up.

“We’re hoping to use the talks from that conference, which included Dr. Ray Guarendi, Archbishop Charles Chaput, Dr. Steve Ray, and Fr. Leo Patlinghug, among others,” Father said. “KQHE did interviews with people during the conference. We can forget that the Diocese of Fairbanks isn’t just the city of Fairbanks, but also people in the bush. Hearing stories from each other helps to build the community of faith.”

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The jaw dropping Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.

Curious as to what the parishes in the Diocese of Fairbanks look like? For a bio and photo of all 46 parishes, to donate, and much more, check out the diocese’s website, http://dioceseoffairbanks.org/.

Father’s message to those of us in the lower 48 can be summed up like this: “Pray for us! Support us! Pius XII, the Pope who established Fairbanks as a diocese, said some support the missions by going; others support the missions by giving. That’s WHY we’re there and HOW we’re there.”

Father Fath is one priest who has chosen to live and work in Fairbanks because he (and his parents) love it. “On occasion, we say to people: ‘This is heaven. We know because we can walk on water year round! If you don’t visit in this life, hopefully you’ve been good enough to see it in the next!’”

May the Lord continue to bless Father Fath and the Diocese of Fairbanks!

WATCH: Father Fath on “EWTN Live” with Host Father Mitch Pacwa: http://bit.ly/FairbanksFatherFath.

 

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You Can Help Save Souls and Bring Peace to the World: Here’s How

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Magnificent Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal.

Have you been looking to do something important with your life? Our Lady of the Rosary at Fatima has a request to make of you!

Hear all about it when EWTN’s Jim and Joy interview Katrina Leyden, PhD, President and Co-Founder of the Communal First Saturdays Apostolate. The program airs Part at 1 p.m. ET, Wednesday, May 2, and Part 2 at Friday, May 4 – just in time for the May First Saturdays Devotion.

fatima_fbSo why should you tune in and what do you need to know about this? A little over 100 years ago, Our Lady told the three Fatima seers:

“You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. In order to save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If you do what I tell you, many souls will be saved, there will be peace….I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of Reparation on the first Saturdays. If my requests are fulfilled, Russia will be converted and there will be peace.”

St. John Paul II and the bishops fulfilled Our Lady of Fatima’s first request to consecrate Russia and the world to her Immaculate Heart on March 25, 1984. However, her second request, the First Saturdays Devotion, has not been fulfilled on a widespread basis. Therefore, the conversion of Russia, which includes the reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church with the Catholic Church, has not yet been realized, peace has not come to the world, and many souls are perishing!

Unfortunately, many people either don’t know about Our Lady’s second request – the fulfillment of the First Saturdays devotion – or they aren’t fulfilling it correctly.

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Katrina Leyden, President and Co-founder of the Communal First Saturdays Apostolate, on the set of EWTN’s “At Home With Jim & Joy.”

Here’s where the importance of this apostolate becomes apparent! Thanks to the imprimatur of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, this apostolate is “the first canonically approved public First Saturdays devotion joined to the Liturgy.” This means that the First Saturdays Apostolate takes the private practice of the First Saturdays devotion and provides a liturgically approved way to pray this in common with other parishioners, in an expanded manner before, during, and after Mass.

While you can certainly practice this devotion in private, Leyden hopes that you will consider making this available to a wider audience by joining the Apostolate, becoming a leader, and starting this devotion in your own parish – with the approval of your pastor, of course. Fortunately, materials on the Apostolate’s website, www.Communalfirstsaturdays.org, make what could be perceived as a daunting task extremely easy!

Currently, the Communal First Saturdays Apostolate boasts six U.S. locations (including a Houston nursing home), and one in the U.K. (Wales). Leyden is also excited to see that someone in Nigeria just signed up, and she is fielding requests from Ireland and London – but obviously there is room for growth and leaders are needed! (Email start@communalfirstsaturdays.org for information and time-saving materials.)

“I was blessed to go to Fatima in 2008,” said Leyden, in explaining how all of this came about. “It was an unplanned trip. I went there, and prayed for others, but I didn’t know what to pray for myself. When I came back, a friend said ‘What about starting the First Saturdays devotion?’ My heart was on fire and it hasn’t stopped since. I wanted to spread it – whatever I could do!”

Leyden began to research the devotion, reading everything she could get her hands on, including Church documents and talking to anyone who would listen. She discovered there are a lot of misconceptions about the devotion. For example, some people think if they simply attend Mass on the First Saturdays that they have fulfilled Our Lady’s requests.

Children kneeling in awe

The three Fatima seers kneel in awe at the sight of Our Lady of Fatima in a scene from EWTN’s “The Message of Fatima.”

As many EWTN viewers may know, there are four practices we need to complete on each of five First Saturdays – all with the same intention: We are asked to:

  1. Go to Confession with the intention of making reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
  2. Receive Holy Communion with the intention of making reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
  3. Pray the rosary (five decades) with the intention of making reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
  4. Keep Our Lady company for an additional 15 minutes while meditating on the mysteries of the rosary with the intention of making reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The difference with the Communal First Saturdays is that the above becomes a PUBLIC devotion done in conjunction with the celebration of Mass. We outline the steps below, but don’t be intimidated. Leyden says the whole devotion, including the Mass, takes less than two hours a month.

Preparation begins with individual confessions, which are offered in reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Just before the rosary begins, there is short period of prayer in which the requested intention of making reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary is expressed stated, and various Fatima prayers and a litany to the patron saints of the devotion are said. This is followed by a communal rosary, and Mass with a Communion of Reparation (communion may be brought to the sick and homebound).

Finally, there is a 15-minute meditation on those Scriptures which pertain to two or more mysteries of the rosary. This is an especially fruitful time to meditate on mysteries of the rosary because the faithful have just received the Eucharist. The leader reads a verse or more of Scripture at a time with pauses for reflection, which makes this a communal form of lectio divina.

The three shepherd children,  Lucia, Francisco & Jancinta, to whom Our Lady appeared in Fatima, Portugal, with important messages for the world.

The real Lucia dos Santos, and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto — the three Seers — to whom Our Lady appeared in 1917 at Fatima, Portugal.

Optional additions to this devotion are the reception of the Brown Scapular after the devotions, and/or participation in the Pilgrim Virgin Statue Church to Home Visitation. “Our Lady has two goals with the visitation,” Leydon said. “One is to establish the reign of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the home. The second is enthronement of the Sacred Heart.”

The mission of the Communal First Saturdays Apostolate is “to spread the Communal First Saturdays order and devotion in parishes, shrines, and other Catholic venues to fulfil Our Lady’s requests for the salvation of souls and peace in the world,” Leyden said. People tell Leyden that in parishes where this practice is instituted, grace abounds!

Statue of Our Lady of FatimaA pamphlet with 29 reasons to practice the Communal First Saturdays devotion (which can be purchased on the group’s home page, https://communalfirstsaturdays.org) notes that the Communal First Saturdays devotion “enables one to practice the entire Fatima message” and “makes it possible for a larger number of people to participate due to increased awareness by the parishioners.” And because it’s a public prayer, it also makes it possible for each individual’s prayers to have greater reparatory power. After all, Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 20:18).”

No matter what you have done in your life, who wouldn’t want to stand before the Throne of God on Judgement Day knowing that you helped to save a multitude of souls and to bring about peace on earth? As Mother Angelica always said, “We are all called to be great saints.”

Here’s an opportunity!

Note: You can purchase the two main texts of this devotion at www.ewtnrc.com. The Communal First Saturdays is available at http://bit.ly/2FuaZKT, while “Fatima and the First Saturdays” can be found at http://bit.ly/2I9i1Ke.

 

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St. John Vianney: The Parish Priest Who Took On The Penance For His Parishioners’ Sins

St. John Vianney loved the penitents who came to his confessional so much that he couldn’t bear to give them the heavy penances required by the French Church – and most of Western Europe – at that time.

According to Fr. Patrice Chocholski, current rector of the Shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France where the saint lived and died, priests in 17th Century Western Europe were given a manual which outlined the penance they were to give for each sin! The priest was told to add these penances up and, at the end of each confession, present the penitent with a kind of bill!

DSCN5073 Basilique Ars

Shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France

“Sometimes, the ‘bill’ could be very heavy for people returning to the Church – to Christ,” said Fr. Patrice. “St. John Vianney said, ‘I will not betray the Church, but I cannot give the bill to these people so I will take the main penance on myself and leave them [my parishioners] only a little penance.’ ‘Tis love, no? It was out of pastoral charity.”

Is it any wonder that the saint slept only three hours a night and eventually died, Fr. Patrice believes, from the strain of all those penances.

In addition to heavy penances, penitents at that time were not given absolution until they returned to the priest and proved they had completed the proscribed penance. Of course, many never did!

chocholski_patrice Recteur Ars

Every eight years, the Shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France hosts a World Retreat open to every priest in the world! The theme of this year’s retreat, to be held Sept. 24-29, 2018 is “The Fire of the Gospel.” Many priests arrive broken, but Shrine Rector Fr. Patrice Chocholski (above) says they nearly always leave renewed. Find out more at http://www.arswr2018.org/en/welcome/.

However, according to Fr. Patrice, St. John Vianney would say, ‘The Lord shows us His love and trust when He gives us absolution on the same day. He trusts us and knows that in this trust we can change.’” So the beloved pastor gave absolution on the same day.

This was a new way of thinking, one taught in Rome by St. Alphonsus Liguori, who would became a doctor of the Church. At that time, the Jansenist heresy, which placed everyone under the heavy yoke of moral rigorism, was rampant throughout Western Europe. St. Alphonsus taught about God’s love and mercy, and a new way to confess.

Father Patrice says that the Pope at that time was so concerned about the “slippery slope” of Jansenism that he invited all the bishops in France to come to Rome for a year of formation. St. John Vianney’s own bishop was one of them. He returned to Ars as a proponent of this new way and Fr. Patrice says that St. John Vianney was among the first to embrace the changes.

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The dome of the Shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France.

But changes in the confessional weren’t the only reason St. John Vianney was so beloved.

Father Patrice says that in the 17th Century, Ars was well-known for wine, bars, and cabarets, which were little more than brothels. “Unfortunately, many children were generated. Boys were recognized by their parents, but the girls, no. So the orphan girls were thrown away and nobody cared for them.”

St. John Vianney opened a house for these poor orphan girls. With proper formation, he believed “they would become good mums and they would change society. He struggled to have these cabarets closed – and he succeeded!”

Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the saint’s crusades. St. John Vianney insisted, for example, that poor people, who worked seven days a week for little money, deserved “a day of rest.” The day was to be for family and, if possible, Mass. But the owners of the large farms in the area, who depended on this cheap seven-day-a-week labor, petitioned the bishop numerous times asking him to get rid of the humble priest.

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Statue of St. John Vianney at the Shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France.

Father Patrice said that one of the saint’s parishioners once came to him and said, “‘I’m ashamed to tell you that there is a petition against you and many parishioners have signed it.’ Do you know what St. John Vianney said? He said, ‘Show me this petition. I will sign it myself!’”

Father Patrice says that’s because St. John Vianney’s deepest desire was “to find a monastery or somewhere in the countryside where he could prepare himself for God’s judgement”. Father says the saint tried at least four times to escape his parish in the dead of the night, but each time hordes of people searched him out and begged him to hear their confessions. He eventually said, “In the country or in my parish, it’s the same noise. I will go back to my parish and listen to confessions and I will be a parish priest until the end of my life!”

Near the end of his life, the Emperor of France presented the popular priest with a medal of honor. He sold it the same day and gave the proceeds to the poor. When the bishop imposed on him to accept the mozzetta, a cape-like garment that comes to the elbows, which is given to designate a higher ranking prelate, he sold that too. When the bishop asked what he did with the mozzetta, the saint asked for another. Father Patrice said after seeing how much it fetched the first time, he intended to sell it again to help the poor!

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Aerial view of the Shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France.

“The most important thing for him was that healing take place in an encounter with Christ,” said Fr. Patrice. “He loved the holy sacraments and the sacramental encounter in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To prepare the people for confession he wanted them to collect themselves before the wounded love of Christ. He was sure Christ’s wounds would stir up the love of their hearts and they would repent and confess. He said the mercy of God it is like a mighty stream of water bringing with itself human hearts. The mercy of God is that you just have to open your heart and let the Good Lord love you and heal you.”

The story of St. John Vianney’s vocation is so powerful that it has influenced countless vocations – including the vocation of Father Patrice!

“I never thought of becoming a priest,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I had the privilege of reading ‘The Cure D’Ars: St. Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney’ by Abbe Francois Trouchu. I said, ‘That’s just beautiful.’ I think that my vocation is due, in part, to reading this book of St. John Vianney’s life.” (Find it here: http://bit.ly/2Kcj2j4.

Father Patrice says the rector of another famous shrine told him that same book influenced his own vocation and that St. John Paul II kept it by his bedside. Is it any wonder that this saint is known as the patron of parish priests – or that his body lies incorrupt?

Autel et ambon devant châsse Curé Ars (1)

The incorrupt body of St. John Vianney at the Shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France.

St. John Vianney, help us, like you, to examine our consciences before the wounded Christ and to confess our sins as you advised your own parishioners to do – and please pray that we may follow in your charitable footsteps and become saints. Amen.

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‘They Might Be Saints,’ an EWTN Original Docudrama, Premieres This Week on EWTN

ewtn-baragaConsidering the state of the world today, it might surprise you to learn that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is currently considering the canonization causes for as many as 100 people, who have been declared a Servant of God, Venerable, or Blessed. (For more on the steps to canonization, click here: https://www.ewtn.com/johnpaul2/cause/process.asp.)

Michael O’Neill, a man known as the Miracle Hunter, has made it his business to follow such causes. He will be sharing the stories of the most fascinating of these causes with EWTN’s viewers in the new EWTN Original Docudrama entitled “They Might Be Saints” – and you can see the first episode at 10:30 p.m. ET, Friday, April 20! (Find EWTN at www.ewtn.com/channelfinder.)

This inspiring occasional special premieres with the story of Bishop Frederic Baraga and includes interviews with two bishops who support his cause for canonization. (Encores 9 a.m. ET, Saturday, April 21.)

Baraga3“We’re always wondering what we can do to evangelize,” O’Neill said. “To me, Bishop Baraga is the ultimate example. He traveled thousands of miles across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – in snowshoes — to teach people about the faith. He’s at the stage of venerable now. The Church is now searching for miracles to get him to those next stages. He is an up and coming saint.”

O’Neill says that Bishop Baraga came to the U.S. from Slovenia at the request of Bishop Edward D. Fenwick, first bishop of Cincinnati, who needed missionary priests to serve in places where there was no Catholic presence. Baraga, a former lawyer who spoke eight languages, was so successful that he not only became a bishop but he inspired 12 other priests from Slovenia to come to the U.S.  – and three of those priests eventually became bishops.

While this week’s episode is the first to be presented under the “They Might be Saints” banner, EWTN viewers may remember “The Journey of Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey,” another program O’Neill produced for EWTN last year, which told the story of this French nun serving in Turkey, who is credited with discovering the Virgin Mary’s home in Ephesus.

Baraga2“[Sister Marie] followed the writings of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich,” O’Neill said. “She came from wealth so she was able to buy the house with her family’s funds. It’s an incredible story. We found a replica of Mary’s house in Vermont [and used that for the filming]! It’s an incredible story!”

O’Neill’s third special is on the Martyrs of La Florida, Apalachee natives who lived in Florida in the 1700s and who converted to Catholicism through the influence of Spanish priests.

“Their faith meant so much to them that they were willing to die for it,” O’Neill said. “[In those days], the English … partnered with other Native Americans who did not like that these Indians were converting. It’s a really powerful episode. Hundreds of them died. It’s quite a large cause.”

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Michael O’Neill, also known as the Miracle Hunter, hosts an EWTN special “They Might Be Saints” at 10:30 p.m. ET, Friday, April 20 on EWTN, http://www.ewtn.com/channelfinder.

Viewers will have the opportunity to hear O’Neill talk about his work and the Martyrs of La Florida on a special “EWTN Live” at 8 p.m. ET, Wednesday, June 6, and to see the episode itself at 10 p.m. ET, with encores at 3:30 a.m. ET and 10 a.m. ET, Thursday, June 7. Keep watching EWTN’s website (www.ewtn.com) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ewtnonline) for information about future episodes.

O’Neill says he initially wanted to do a series of programs on different types of miracles, which would flow naturally out of his work as a miracle hunter. “But I realized what people really need are the stories of the faith. We have so many people on the path to sainthood here in the U.S. In every canonization cause, there is a search for miracles. I am so fascinated when the Church looks to canonize saints – to try to look to heaven to see if the person is interceding for us!”

So how does a person make a career of hunting for miracles?

O’Neill is cradle Catholic who took an archeology class at Stanford University in California. The final assignment for the class was to write about an artifact in human history that had some sort of impact. He decided to write about St. Juan Diego’s tilma (or cloak) and its miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Baraga1“I was so fascinated, not only that people have been claiming miracles throughout the centuries, but that the Church would say that that these are supernatural events worthy of belief. I said [to myself], ‘Someday when I grow old, I am going to come back to this stuff and study it.’”

However, when he was graduating he got some life-changing advice from none other than former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was Vice Provost of the University at the time. “She said, whatever you do in life, become an expert in something. … It was such good advice.”

O’Neill realized he wanted to become the expert on miracles – and so his website, www.miraclehunter.com, was born. The Miracle Hunter calls himself “a skeptic and a believer all rolled into one” and says he has found that a lot of people share his interest in the subject.

“Lots of people have questions about miracles. What is approved by the Church? How do they approve them? I am a miracle researcher. I split my work between researching the miracles and sharing the information.”

He does this through multiple websites, through pilgrimages to places like Italy (where he takes people to sites where miracles not only occurred but, in some cases, are still occurring), and, of course, through a television show like “They Might be Saints.”

Many people think that saints are people who lived in the distant past or who had some rare power that allowed them to live lives of heroic virtue.

However, most readers will remember Venerable Patrick Peyton, the rosary priest, who died in 1992; St. Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997; or St. John Paul II, who died in 2005 – the not so distant past! As Mother Angelica famously said, “We are ALL called to be saints.”

Get inspired to do your part by ordinary people who didn’t let the opportunity of a lifetime pass them by. Tune into the premiere of “They Might be Saints” at 10:30 p.m. ET, Friday, April 20 on EWTN.

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Set Your Hearts on Fire: Join EWTN in Celebrating God’s Redeeming Love and Mercy

 

Most Catholics are familiar with St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests. But few know that the future saint deserted the Napoleonic armies to become a seminarian. He never imagined that this act would lead to the death of his brother, who was sent to the front lines in his place; the death of his mother, who died of despair; and the bitterness of hisIMG_3586 father who blamed his son for destroying the family. However, no one blamed John Vianney more for the family’s misfortunes than he blamed himself. In a letter to his father,  he described himself as “the unworthy son who deserves only contempt.”

This story was relayed last May at the 12th Annual Medicine, Bioethics, and Spirituality Conference in Worcester, Mass by Fr. Patrice Chocholski, rector of the Shrine of the Curé of Ars in France, which is where St. John Vianney lived out his priesthood. In his talk, “The Curé of Ars and Mercy,” Fr. Patrice notes that only God’s mercy could cauterize the wounds caused by this family’s tragedies. As a result, Fr. Patrice says that St. John Vianney became a beacon to pilgrims who traveled to Ars “to draw Mercy. By confessing to him…they encountered the crucified and risen Christ with his words of peace and forgiveness.” As Fr. Patrice concludes: “The saints did not all start well, but they all finished well.”

IMG_3582That’s the key! If you are hesitant to go to confession because you can’t believe that God could forgive what you have done, or if you simply need a boost of God’s healing grace and forgiveness (and who doesn’t!), tune into EWTN’s many programs on Divine Mercy Sunday, a special day celebrating one of Jesus’ defining characteristics – Mercy – and share this Good News with others! As St. John Vianney once noted: “It’s not the sinner who returns to God to ask Him for forgiveness, but God Himself who runs after the sinner … [so he will] return to Him.”

Although the great St. Faustina was born more than 100 years after St. John Vianney, she became known as the Apostle of Mercy because of the messages Our Lord gave her to share with the world. Tune in to learn more from the foremost experts on the Divine Mercy message in the world! Let your hearts be set on fire, just as the hearts of Our Lord’s disciples were on the Road of Emmaus, and “come home!”

 Saturday:

8 p.m. ET – Original Image of Divine Mercy – A look at the history of the Original Image of Divine Mercy, from the events that led to its creation under St. Faustina Kowalska’s guidance to its current place in the Cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Sunday:

4:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET – Holy Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday – The Holy Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday, celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square and followed by the recitation of the Regina Coeli.

10 a.m. ET – Divine Mercy Celebration from Vilnius, Lithuania – Divine Mercy Sunday festivities and Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gintaras Grusas, live from the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Vilnius, Lithuania. This event is preceded by a 30-minute special at 9:30 a.m.

11:30 a.m. ET – Catholic View for Women – Divine Mercy 101 – Elena Rodriguez, Janet Morana, and Teresa Tomeo review the fundamentals of Divine Mercy and its message.

12 p.m. and 12 a.m ET – Divine Mercy Preview Show – A preparation for the celebration of Divine Mercy, hosted by the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, from the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy.

1 p.m. and 1 a.m. ET (Mon.) – Mass and Celebration of Divine Mercy from Stockbridge, MA – The celebration of the Solemn Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday, live from the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA.

4 p.m. ET – Divine Mercy Holy Hour from Hanceville, AL – A Holy Hour in honor of The Divine Mercy, live from the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama.

7 p.m. ET – The Face of Mercy – A documentary on the origins of the Divine Mercy devotion and the personal impact it has had on the lives of several Catholics.

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The Story Behind The Filming Of “I Can Only Imagine”

Erwin_Brothers_3

Andy and Jon Erwin, the Birmingham, Alabama-based directors of  the new movie “I Can Only Imagine,” filming a Rock Talk segment for EWTN’s show “Life on the Rock” with LOTR Co-Host Father John Paul Mary (left). Tune in 9 p.m. ET, Sunday, March 18 on EWTN to see the interview!

“This story, if you’ll let it, will change you. It certainly changed us.”

So says Jon Erwin, who with his brother Andy, directed a blockbuster movie that tells the story of Bart Millard of Mercy Me, who wrote “I Can Only Imagine,” the bestselling Christian song of all time, and the first and only Christian single to be certified platinum (twice) for sales of over 2 million digital downloads. The trailer alone has been viewed 125 million times, and has garnered more than 300,000 comments, and is poised to break the record as the most viewed trailer online for a faith film ever. (Go to https://icanonlyimagine.com to see the official trailer and more.)

Quaid facing left

Actor Dennis Quaid, who plays the abusive father in the new film “I Can Only Imagine,”  told Directors Andy and Jon Erwin that he had never played a character who had gone through such a major transformation.

The movie, in theaters March 16, vividly portrays how Millard’s abusive father – a “monster” in his son’s words – is eventually transformed by faith and his impending death. That transformation, played to perfection by Actor Dennis Quaid, leads to the healing of the father/son relationship and, after the father’s death, the writing of the blockbuster song by his son.

The song imagines what it would be like to be in heaven with Jesus, but to get to the place where it could be written, Millard had to go to hell and back. The Birmingham-based Erwin brothers recently visisted EWTN to film a segment for “Life on the Rock,” which airs 9 p.m. ET, Sunday, March 18, with encores at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 22 and 5 p.m. ET, Friday, March 23. (Find EWTN at http://www.ewtn.com/channelfinder.) The movie is all about redemption and forgiveness and, after hearing their stories, it’s obvious that neither the cast, the stars, nor the audience was immune from its power.

Bart Millard 2 THIS ONE

J. Michael Finley plays Bart Millard of Mercy Me in the new film “I Can Only Imagine.”

The song itself was personally important to Co-Writer and Co-Director Jon Erwin when it debuted because he had just lost a close family friend, and it became important to him again this past summer when his 3-year-old son had unexpected heart surgery. “That song, which was an anchor of hope long ago, became an anchor again,” he said. “Pain can become your greatest inspiration. Being able to tell this story while that was happening did change me. God has a plan. [Your] pain can become your voice and can morph into the song you’re meant to sing.”

The two co-directors have many wonderful stories about the impact of the film on audiences fortunate enough to preview the film. For example, after screening the film in South Dakota, Jon said a 25-year-old man in the audience told him that while he was watching the movie he had texted his father – who he hadn’t spoken to in 10 years — and invited him to lunch so they could talk. The two later reconciled.

“The wonderful and dangerous thing about film and entertainment in general is that it gives permission for the audience to do what they’ve seen on the screen,” he said. “In this case, it gave someone the courage to make the phone call they should have made 10 years ago.”

Trace Adkins facing right

Trace Adkins initially turned down the role of Scott Brickell, manager of the band Mercy Me, according to Andy Erwin, who co-directs the new film “I Can Only Imagine.”

As it turns out, the stars of the film were equally impacted by the story. Trace Adkins initially turned down the role of Scott Brickell, the manager of the band Mercy Me, where Bart Millard is the lead singer.

Director Andy Erwin explains: “I asked him why. He said, ‘I’ve had a rough couple years. I don’t feel like I’m good enough to be in a faith-based film.’” That’s a sentiment to which every Christian can relate! So Andy took him golfing, and remembers saying, “The movie is about redemption. It takes you where you are and offers redemption and forgiveness.” That obviously convinced the star, who reportedly told Andy, “I could use a little redemption in my life!”

Like Adkins, Dennis Quaid has had some well-documented hard times. “He talks openly about overcoming drug addiction,” Andy said. But unlike Adkins, Quaid was eager to take on the role. As Andy remembers it, Quaid said: “I want to do this film. I’ve never played a character that’s gone through this kind of transformation. In the end, he’s so childlike and quiet and redeemed. It’s a beautiful thing!”

Bart Millard facing left

Directors Jon and Andy Erwin praised the great natural instincts of Actor J. Michael Finley, who plays Bart Millard in the new film “I Can Only Imagine.”

Over the course of the film, Andy says Quaid became “a dear friend.” He says the star was raised by a devout Christian mother, but went on a journey to find God in the 70s. He asked questions of different faith traditions but ultimately found “his life and his comfort were the words of Jesus.”

Twenty-five years ago, Jon Erwin said Quaid wrote a powerful song called “On My Way to Heaven,” but never finished it. “He wrote it in the Gospel tradition. On the set of ‘I Can Only Imagine,’ he came back to it. He wrote the bridge and the final chorus. We’re going to release a music video about it next week!”

When the film was finished, Andy took it to Quaid’s house so he and his twin 9-year-olds could screen it. “At the end of the film, Dennis was sobbing. He said, ‘That was just powerful.’” Quaid also told him that after seeing the film his kids began asking him questions about God.

Teacher who believed in Bart Millard

Priscilla Shirer plays Mrs. Fincher, the teacher who discovers that Bart Millard can sing and pushes him to perform in the school musical in the new film “I Can Only Imagine!”

The Erwin brothers were favored with a lot of “God moments” during the making of the film. They were three weeks into filming in Oklahoma, and they had an “unknown kid” playing Mercy Me’s Millard – but no star. Andy called Stephen Kendrick, who produced the popular Christian film, “War Room,” and explained that he and his brother had a serious problem. “He [Kendrick] said, ‘If this is God’s movie and you really feel he’s leading you, you’ve got to leave it in His Hands.’ So I said, “Okay God, it’s your problem!” Next thing we know, Dennis Quaid is on the phone saying, ‘I want to do this film.’”

How did the film come to Quaid’s attention? Andy says Producer Kevin Downes “suddenly” discovered that Noah Hamilton, one of their cameramen, was the brother of Bethany Hamilton, author of “Soul Surfer”, which was made into a film about the courage of the surfer who lost her arm after a shark attack. Quaid played her dad in that movie and Noah said the family still has a close relationship with him. The rest is history!

Amy Grant 1

Singer Amy Grant, who was planning to debut the “career-making” song, “I Can Only Imagine,” gives it back to Bart Millard, in an act of selfless generosity, because she believed the song was his to sing.

Another “God moment” came when the Erwin brothers were searching for the finale to the film. The finale came to them as result of a “chance” conversation with someone in the business. When the Erwin brothers told him they were planning to film “I Can Only Imagine,” the man said, “I was in the Ryman that night in Nashville when Singer Amy Grant, [to whom Bart had given his “career making” song for her “comeback”] called Bart on stage and gave him his song back!”

That was a story Jon Erwin hadn’t heard! He realized instantly that this was the elusive finale for which they had been searching! Fortunately, the brothers knew Amy Grant because they had filmed a music video with her earlier in their careers. However, in an incredibly selfless and Christian act, Grant came to believe the song wasn’t hers to sing.

In real life, she called Bart before the concert to tell him he could debut the song himself during one of her own concerts! However, in the film, she has the realization that Bart should sing his own song in the middle of her own concert, and in a surprise move calls the largely unknown singer up to the stage to sing his song before a sell-out crowd. There’s more to the scene, but you have to go to the film to see it.

Bart Millard extra

J. Michael Finley as Bart Millard is watching Amy Grant’s concert when she calls him to the stage to perform his song, “I Can Only Imagine,” during the finale of a new film by the same name.

Will the film become a hit? A movie executive, who declined to distribute “Imagine,” told the Erwin Brothers that he didn’t believe there would be more than 18,000 people who would be interested in a film about Christian music. Yet the Erwin brothers said they believe that by the time the film premieres it will have easily surpassed the 132 million views earned by trailers for the Christian film “Miracles from Heaven.” That would give “Imagine” the distinction of having the most viewed trailers online for a faith film ever. If even a small fraction of the audience that has seen the trailers comes to see the film, that “doubting Thomas” movie executive will undoubtedly be telling stories about “the one that got away” for the rest of his life!

But that’s not something that concerns the Erwin brothers, whose previous films include “October Baby,” “Mom’s Night Out,” and “Woodlawn.” They’re too busy making films that matter.

“For us personally, when we stumbled into [filmmaking], we were kids that had a hobby,” said Andy Erwin, as he and brother recalled their early years making music videos. “I was a Christian. I had entrusted my life to Jesus, but I didn’t have any ambition to have this kind of calling. Along the way, as the Lord has allowed us to tell stories like this, you can’t help but have it shape you. To tell stories to a world that desperately needs the message of Christianity – we have kind of become zealots for the cause!”

Amen brothers!

See you in theaters March 16!

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Building the Body of Christ in Nigeria, One Woman at a Time

Catholic Women Organization Nigeria PHOTO

Can a group of Catholic women save 186 million Nigerians from the horrors of Planned Parenthood’s abortion mills and the heartache caused by same-sex marriage – especially when it’s not their primary mission?

According to Nwanneka Cecelia Okolo, National President of Catholic Women Organisation Nigeria (British spelling!), CWON recently managed to do just that!

“Last Monday, Feb. 19, there was supposed to be a hearing in the Nigerian Senate on the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill,” Okolo said during a recent visit to EWTN to film an episode of “The Church Universal” with two of her colleagues. “The bill was all about Planned Parenthood trying to see if they could push abortion and same-sex marriage. They tried before and failed, but they keep trying.”

As CWON’s National President, Okolo had the ability to ask the Presidents of the 54 dioceses and one vicariate that make up CWON to submit petitions, position papers, and memorandums to the Senate. The women were also asked to flood the Senate, inside and out, on the day of the hearing.

“On Friday, Feb. 16, the message came to us that the Senate had postponed the hearing indefinitely!” Okolo said. “Why? About 95 percent of the position papers were against the bill! The Senate also said they didn’t want women filling the whole place – and not just Catholic women! We get others to move with us!”

Okolo is proud of this accomplishment. But unlike a secular group that might form a lobby to protect its interests, Okolo says that CWON’s successes – which include economic empowerment of women and children – are an outgrowth of one thing: its members’ religious formation in the Catholic Church.

“We encourage Catholic mothers to embrace the life of Christ; to bring their children up in the true Christian manner, knowing what is right and wrong, and with the doctrines of Christ and the sacraments.”

CWO Nigeria Photo 2Okolo says this spiritual formation takes place in monthly meetings in a parish or diocese, each of which is served by a chaplain adviser and a sister adviser. Meetings begin at 4 p.m. with the rosary. This is followed by the Gospel of the day and commentary on that Gospel. Someone then delivers a talk on an assigned topic, which might involve the Church’s social doctrines, encyclicals, or an apostolate. This is followed by a discussion of one of the sacraments, where reference is always made to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Leaders also recommend good books and encyclicals for members to read on their own.

CWON is a member of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations, an international group that encompasses affiliates in almost 100 countries. Their mission: “To evangelize and transform society” by following in the footsteps of Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Good Counsel. The 54 dioceses and one vicariate in Nigeria that make up CWON are organized into nine ecclesial provinces. There is a hierarchy that is part of each province. But what is most striking about it is that each province has a vicar in charge of evangelization; that is, a priest who actually teaches the women how to evangelize!

“When we want to train evangelizers for each diocese, we call the vicar,” Okolo said. “He talks about when you evangelize, and how you address people. Before you even start talking, your life needs to reflect what you’re trying to say! Pope Paul VI says that modern man prefers witnesses to teachers. The vicar hammers on the fact that you are supposed to live what you preach and then [takes you through the evangelization process] step by step.

“Pray first, share the word, don’t joke around. He advises us not to focus on ourselves. It’s good if you give examples of others more than yourself. Ignorance of the Bible is ignorance of Christ. We are encouraged to read the Bible. The vicar teaches us how to defend the faith.”

CWON Nigerea Photo 3

To empower women and children, CWON provides opportunities for them to learn a simple trade such as sewing, dressmaking, knitting, housekeeping, and computer. “We even have one lady mechanic,’ Okolo said proudly. Okolo herself asks the women she advises to think beyond cultural stereotypes. For instance, when making up their wills, Okolo suggests women consider including their daughters as well as their sons.

While CWON is obviously interested in serving its members holistically, Okolo says, at the end of the day, spiritual formation is what makes everything else possible. “You can’t give what you don’t have. We train our members to be true Christians. If you have a spiritual person, everything else is easier.”

Amen, dear sister in Christ!

Note: If you would like to help CWON in its mission, which includes distribution of free bibles to its members, please go to www.cwonigeria.org. “The Church Universal” episode with CWON will air in the Fall of 2018 on EWTN. Find us at http://www.ewtn.com/everywhere.

 

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