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College student's doughnut outing led to love and joining Catholic Church

IMAGE: CNS photo/Ashleigh Kassock for the Catholic Herald

By Ashleigh Kassock

ARLINGTON, Va. (CNS) -- In 1957, Sarah Wessel's great-grandmother, Isabella Brooks, hand-stitched a wedding gown for her daughter Mary Ann Kelsey. After the wedding, the satin gown was wrapped in blue paper and placed in a cedar chest, where it remained perfectly preserved.

It was taken out again in 1985 for Sarah's mother, Carolyn Page Wessel, and now it's Sarah's turn to wear it this September.

But before she wears the dress for her own wedding, there is another event the 21-year-old is eagerly counting down the days to -- her entrance into the Catholic Church at this year's Easter Vigil April 20.

"I just want the sacraments so badly," said Wessel, a senior math major at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. "I am really looking forward to receiving Jesus' body, blood, soul and divinity, " she told the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.

Wessel was baptized in the Episcopal Church, which she said fostered a deep love of Jesus and a serving heart.

"I remember going to the same church through my entire childhood and teenage years," said Wessel. "I felt like they were my family members. I truly love them and I see their love for God."

When she started college, she still desired the closeness she felt at her church back home. That's when she met Hunter Miller.

In June 2017, she was sitting with her friend at the Sugar Shack Donuts and Coffee shop in Fredericksburg. Seating was scarce, so she invited Miller and his mom, Norka, to join them.

"We talked a little bit about God and our lives, and then it was time for him to go to adoration and confession and he invited us to come," said Wessel.

Despite not knowing what adoration was, they agreed. "I remember thinking, 'I feel like God has a purpose here,'" she said.

That night ended up being very good for Wessel and Miller. His mom taught her the rosary and they spent quite a few hours in adoration.

"It was wonderful," said Wessel. "Pretty much every single time after that we went to church to pray."

Their courtship took off from day one and so did their talks about marriage and becoming Catholic.

"I knew that he really wanted me to be Catholic. He loved the Catholic Church. But for a little under a year, I was in denial. I asked him to take a step back in pressuring me and to allow God to make the change within me and call me so that way I would be converting for God and not for someone. He clearly understood."

For several months, Wessel said she just "let it be." She continued going to the Episcopal Church while also attending Mass with Miller. Soon, however, she started praying the rosary and going to church on her own.

"I really fell in love with adoration," she said, "because it is a time where it can be silent and I can feel God's spirit within me. I don't even have to think of anything and he fills me up with his love. I truly desire that and seek it."

After months of prayer and one particularly bad week that left her feeling alone and empty, she received a moment of clarity when she felt she should become Catholic and be engaged to Miller when that question came. And it did a few months later.

"I was like, 'I have to do this. I can't be happy without it. I can't be fulfilled without the church. I'm going to do it' and after that, I felt so much better," she said.

While she was relieved that the spiritual warfare inside her was over, she was apprehensive about talking to her parents since she hadn't kept her parents updated about her decision to become Catholic. Her newfound passion and determination surprised them.

"They didn't understand at first," Wessel said but added that her mom "just poured out love."

That following September she started the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg and has been counting down the days to the Easter Vigil ever since. She also has taken a more active role in the community by becoming the service chair for the parish young adult group.

"God is calling us to be saints and there are no exceptions," said Wessel. "In college, this is a time where everything is changing and I am so grateful that Jesus called me into the church at this time. Because it really helped me to realize the goal of life and who am I supposed to worship in all of my actions, and that is God."

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Editor's Note: A video accompanying this story can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXUPNEpqvHk.

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Kassock is a contributor to the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Pope's Way of Cross will shine light on women 'crucified' by traffickers

IMAGE: CNS photo/Carol Glatz

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Countless women and girls are being "crucified" by human traffickers, who trick them into slave labor or prostitution, and by those who seek out their services and exploit them, said the missionary nun who wrote the meditations for Pope Francis' Way of the Cross service.

Victims of human trafficking are people whom "we have crucified and, today, in 2019, we continue to have people crucified for our use, our purposes, our well-being," Consolata Sister Eugenia Bonetti told reporters at a Vatican news conference April 17.

She said she hoped the April 19 event at Rome's Colosseum, where "so much suffering in the past" took place, would give witness to "so much suffering in the present, the suffering of these women, these minors, who are faceless, nameless, hopeless, who are just used and thrown away."

She wanted the pope's Good Friday ceremony, which meditates on Christ's passion and suffering, to help people recognize "today's passion" suffered by so many young people.

The prayers and meditations she wrote come from what she has witnessed and learned from the thousands of women and young girls she has helped over the past two decades, Sister Bonetti said; she and other religious women have ministered to sex workers along the roadsides of Italian cities, in police detention centers or in church-run safehouses, helping them get off the streets and rebuild their lives.

The service will include "heartfelt prayers that we have heard from these women and that we want to share with this world, around that cross, this Christ who dies again today on our streets," she said.

The text, she said, will also highlight today's "Veronicas" and "Marys" who run to be by the side of the victims and offer them comfort and prayers.

Her aim, she said, is to make people understand "that we all have a great responsibility" because if there are still modern-day slaves in the world, "we are all responsible and each one of us is called to do something, is called to really recognize the cry, the secret of these women," because they are there because there is a demand and because of the "enormous profits" reaped from their exploitation.

"Everyone feasts on the flesh of the poor," she said.

Thanks to her advocacy, Italy has a law that sees victims of human trafficking not as criminals but as victims of a crime and gives them a chance to obtain legal residency.

However, she added, the government is doing "much too little" to combat the sex trade "with the excuse that women are free to do what they want," while at the same time doing nothing about the economic and social problems that push many women into "a situation where the only possibility they have is to sell their body."

Every parishioner, parish priest, diocese and bishop must take responsibility and help "shape people's conscience," especially on the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking.

People must recognize how "shameful" it is that there are still so many "slaves on the streets" and "we must have the strong courage to say 'no' to slavery" and ask for forgiveness, she said.

For those who believe they should be free to do whatever they want with their money, she said, "No, my dear, you cannot buy a person's dignity; it is sacred, you must respect it, you must protect it."

 

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Knights CEO says Iran-backed militias threaten Iraq's religious minorities

IMAGE: CNS photo/Goran Tomasevic, Reute

By

NEW YORK (CNS) -- In an April 12 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, the CEO of the Knights of Columbus said that "Christian towns in Iraq increasingly look neither Christian nor Iraqi -- but Iranian."

"The public identifies the threat against Christians in Iraq and Syria as emanating from Islamic State," wrote Carl Anderson. "After a hard-fought war, ISIS is no longer a territorial power. But the religious minorities persecuted under the caliphate remain in peril, thanks to the Iraqi government's tolerance of Iranian influence."

He said the threat to Iraq's Christians now is coming from Iran-backed militias that are keeping minority groups from returning home or fleeing once again.

Before he visited Iraq in March, Anderson said, he met with Pope Francis. "A Middle East without Christians is not the Middle East," the pope told him.

"Baghdad's ambassador in Washington often says that 'Iraq is not Iraq without its minorities,'" Anderson wrote.

He noted that five years ago, the Islamic State "swept through Northern Iraq, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities."

Both the Obama and Trump administrations each declared the IS actions genocide, he said, "The proof lay not only in the dead but in the collapse of communities that had survived for millennia. There were as many as 1.5 million Iraqi Christians before 2003. Today some 200,000 remain."

The IS onslaught across Iraq "was intense but burned out quickly," he said. "The group swiftly took control of the ancient Christian homeland of Ninevah in 2014 but was forced out within three years. With their towns liberated, displaced Christians hoped to return, rebuild and work for a better future. "

The Knights of Columbus stepped in, committing $25 million to help with the rebuilding of homes and other structures as well as assist in the return of those who had fled the area. In August 2017, many Iraqi Christians were coming back.

The international fraternal organization also has led a national effort to prioritize funding for the reconstruction and resettlement of Karamdes, a devastated Christian town in Northern Iraq, which was liberated from IS in late 2016.

Anderson pointed out that the Trump administration "also promised to prioritize the needs of these minorities after previous aid programs had overlooked them."

"Water and power facilities, schools, hospitals and other public works have been refurbished and rebuilt, courtesy of the U.S. government," he said.

But during his visit to Iraq in March, Anderson said, he "learned of new threats that could undermine these projects and keep Christians from returning home."

As IS was dismantled, "a different menace took its place," he said. "Iranian-backed militias known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, quickly took root in the devastated, previously Christian towns."

While Baghdad "claims power over the Ninevah region," he said, "the reality is "the militias control much of it."

"They have made life nearly unbearable for Christians attempting to return to towns like Batnaya, where the Popular Mobilization Forces have stripped Christian family homes of plumbing, wiring and other metal," he explained.

Locals, church leaders, and American and Kurdish government officials "warn that the Iranian-backed groups have extorted Christian families and seized their property," said Anderson. "Credible reports of violent crimes have emerged. Iranian proxies now are conducting a program of colonization in the Iraqi sector -- building homes and centers for the use of Iraq's Shiite majority in historically Christian towns."

He described the two goals he said Iran has in Iraq: It wants to build a "'land bridge' to Syria through Iraq," he said. "Second, it aims to alter fundamentally the demography of Ninevah in favor of Tehran. The Christians are at best collateral damage."

So once again many of fleeing the country because they fear for their lives, because of the militias and no "rule of law in their hometowns," according to Anderson.

He said that the genocide IS carried out "is now being facilitated and even actively continued by Iran's proxies with the tacit support of the Iraqi government."

"The situation is beyond demoralizing for anyone who has stood by Iraq's minorities and prayed for their triumph after years of adversity," Anderson added.

He praised the fact that much aid has been directed to the Ninevah region, "but it will be undermined unless the country's overall security situation improves."

He support must continue for "these fragile communities" Ninevah as well as in Kurdistan and in Southern Iraq.

Anderson noted that Vice President Mike Pence and other U.S. government officials have urged Iraq "to remove these irregular militias and take control of the region. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has proved unwilling to comply so far."

Like the U.S. government, those who have advocated for and supported displaced communities are not happy with Iraq's "dalliance with Iranian proxies."

"Washington's designation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization should encourage Baghdad to rethink its embrace of Iran-backed militias," Anderson concluded. "If Iraq wants Iraq to remain Iraq, it should get serious about protecting minorities before it is too late."

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Hope from the ashes: President, archbishop vow to rebuild Notre Dame

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- The president of France and the archbishop of Paris have vowed to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral after a devastating fire, continuing what a professor of architecture described as the natural lifecycle of a historic building.

Steven W. Semes, a professor and director of graduate studies in the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said he was as shocked and pained as everyone watching on television as the building burned April 15.

"Like all historic monuments," he said, Notre Dame Cathedral is "the result of hundreds and hundreds of years of development" with an initial idea, a long and labor-intensive construction process, design changes, additions, demolitions and remodeling over and over again as fashions and usages change.

So, from the initial construction, which began in 1160, the cathedral "was transformed multiple times," he told Catholic News Service in Rome, where he regularly teaches. When one looked at Notre Dame before the fire, "we weren't seeing the cathedral as it was built, we were seeing it through layers of change."

"Buildings and cities do change through time," Semes said. "We wouldn't go see a painting by Rembrandt that four people had painted over, but we look at almost any historic building and we see something that has been restored multiple times -- sometimes restored in a way very faithful to an early state and sometimes not."

"One thing about buildings and cities is that they are more like natural phenomena than other art works. Think of a forest. You can have a fire in a forest, but then it comes to life again," he said. "Buildings are resilient."

"Hope springs from seeing monuments that have endured," even though they almost never remain unchanged, Semes said.

"A lot of people are feeling today, 'We can't do it again' or 'It can't be restored,'" and while that would be true of a painting, the professor said, "we do have the skills to restore this building."

"Obviously, a big fire has a big impact," he said, but even for nonbelievers, there is a sensitivity to the fact that Notre Dame Cathedral was not just a treasure of Gothic architecture.

"Notre Dame was truly a work of devotion," he said. "Think about it -- how large the building was compared to everything else in the city, the attention, the loving care that went into making it, ornamenting it and maintaining it. This is truly an act of devotion; it is a kind of sacramental."

The building as a church "speaks to people," whether they are believers, he said, pointing to similar reactions in 2015 when a massive earthquake in Nepal toppled Buddhist statues and monuments. "We feel these things even if we are not personally involved in that particular tradition."

The key to understanding Notre Dame Cathedral was summarized by Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit in a television interview in the wee hours of April 16: "Why was this beauty built? What jewel was this case meant to contain? Not the crown of thorns (a relic saved from the fire), but a piece of bread that we believe is the body of Christ."

Pope Francis, in a message April 16 to Archbishop Aupetit, expressed his solidarity with the sadness of Parisians, calling Notre Dame "an architectural jewel of a collective memory, the gathering place for many major events, the witness of the faith and prayer of Catholics in the city."

The pope also expressed his confidence that the cathedral would be rebuilt and continue its vocation as "a sign of the faith of those who built it, the mother church of your diocese, (and) the architectural and spiritual heritage of Paris, France and humanity."

Antoine-Marie Izoard, editor of the French Catholic magazine Famille Chretienne, told CNS, "That this happened at the beginning of Holy Week makes it even more striking and calls us to Christian hope."

"Last night, Catholics, members of other religions and nonbelievers united around this strong symbol in the heart of Paris," he said April 16. "It was very striking to see Catholics praying around the cathedral for the firefighters battling the flames."

Add to that French President Emmanuel Macron's determination to rebuild, he said, and "we realize once again that the Christian roots of the country are still at the heart of France."

Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told reporters April 16 that while Notre Dame, like other French cathedrals, is state property, "it remains a living creature in which the liturgy is celebrated, encounters of faith occur and even nonbelievers enter to make a tour of beauty."

The prayerful, tearful public vigils that took place as the fire burned, he said, demonstrated how "the great cathedrals and basilicas really are living bodies."

And, the cardinal said, Notre Dame is not just a living sign of religiosity, but is "the heart, the beating heart" of Paris.

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Contributing to this story was Carol Glatz at the Vatican.

 

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Update: Blaze erupts at Paris' iconic Notre Dame Cathedral; cause unknown

IMAGE: CNS photo/Benoit Tessier, Reuters

By

PARIS (CNS) -- A major blaze engulfed the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral April 15, sending pillars of flame and billowing smoke over the center of the French capital.

The fire erupted about 6:30 p.m. local time. Authorities said the cause was not certain, but that it could be linked to renovation work that the cathedral was undergoing, the BBC reported.

Officials ordered an evacuation of the area around the 850-year-old cathedral that has withstood world wars and political turmoil throughout France's history.

Le Monde, a Paris daily newspaper, reported that the fire erupted in the attic of the cathedral. Televised images showed the church's iconic steeple was ablaze.

In 2018, the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Paris opened an urgent fundraising appeal to save the cathedral, which was starting to crumble.

The Associated Press reported that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said about an hour after the fire started that firefighters were attempting to contain a "terrible fire" at the cathedral. An AP reporter at the scene said the roof at the back behind the cathedral, behind the nave, was in flames and yellow-brown smoke and ash filled the sky.

City officials cordoned off the area around the Gothic-style church and urged people to evacuate the immediate surroundings.

As the sun set over Paris, the fire consumed the upper portion of the cathedral and the main steeple was filled with flames. It eventually collapsed into the church.

"Everything is burning. The framing, which dates from the 19th century on one side and the 13th on the other, there will be nothing left," Andre Finot, a spokesman for the cathedral, told Agence France-Presse.

At one point, emergency responders entered the cathedral in an attempt to preserve priceless art and statues from destruction.

The blaze elicited emotional responses from throughout France as Christians began the observance of Holy Week.

"I had a scream of horror. I was ordained in this cathedral," Bishop Eric Moulin-Beaufort of Reims, president of the French bishops' conference, said in reaction to the disaster.

"For a Parisian, our lady is a kind of obvious," he said. "I've been here this afternoon. This tragedy reminds us that nothing on this earth is made to last forever. I think a lot about the Diocese of Paris. The chrism mass will not be celebrated. It is a part of our flesh that is damaged. But I hope this will create a new momentum, a universal movement."

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, "Our Lady of Paris in flames. It is emotional for a whole nation. Thoughts for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I'm sad tonight to see this part of us burn."

The magnitude of the fire resonated with church leaders as well as those involved in preserving culturally important sites around the world.

The Vatican issued a statement in the evening saying that it learned "with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, symbol of Christianity, in France and in the world."

"We express our closeness to the French Catholic and to the people of Paris. We pray for the firefighters and for all those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation," the statement said.

"The horrific fire that is engulfing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is shocking and saddens us all, for this particular cathedral is not only a majestic church, it is also a world treasure," said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Noble in architecture and art, it has long been a symbol of the transcendent human spirit as well as our longing for God," the cardinal said in a statement April 15. "Our hearts go out to the archbishop and the people of Paris, and we pray for all the people of France, entrusting all to the prayers and intercession of the Mother of God, especially the firefighters battling the fire.

"We are a people of hope and of the resurrection, and as devastating as this fire is, I know that the faith and love embodied by this magnificent cathedral will grow stronger in the hearts of all Christians," he added.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, said in a statement from the archdiocese that he immediately went to St. Patrick Cathedral next to his office in midtown Manhattan and asked through "the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames!"

"God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze," he said he prayed.

Audrey Azoulay, director general of UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural agency, said in a tweet that her office "stood at France's side to save and restore" the cathedral, which was added the organization's world heritage list in 1991.

She described the cathedral as "a priceless heritage" and that the agency was monitoring the effort to fight the blaze.

In addition, the Diocese of Rome tweeted, "We are close to our brothers and sisters of the Church of #France, to the ecclesial community and to all Parisians. United, let us pray to the Virgin Mary, revered to #NotreDame, as mother of hope and all consolations."

U.S. President Donald Trump also expressed concern for the cathedral in a tweet, writing, "So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris." He even offered a suggestion on how first responders could tackle it: "Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!"

 

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.