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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Every sort of trade imaginable’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It had to start with the sound’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The majesty and gentleness of God himself’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look inward to resolve war, famine, injustice, pope says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The social and political problems plaguing modern society can be resolved only by allowing the Holy Spirit to heal humanity's inner turmoil, Pope Francis said.

"Around us, we can say there is external chaos, social chaos, political chaos. We think of wars, we think of so many children who do not have enough to eat, so many social injustices. This is the external chaos," he said at his general audience in St. Peter's Square May 29.

"But," he said, "there is also internal chaos. Within each of us, we cannot heal the former if we do not begin to heal the latter."

Beginning a new series of audience talks, "The Spirit and the Bride," on the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the church, the bride of Christ in Christian theology, Pope Francis asked Christians to turn their "inner confusion into clarity through the Holy Spirit."

"It is the power of God that does this," he said. "Let us open our hearts so that he may accomplish it."

Pope Francis begins his general audience.
Pope Francis begins his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 29, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Pope Francis said that even in the first lines of the Bible, the Book of Genesis' account of God creating heaven and earth, "the Spirit of God appears to us here as the mysterious power that moves the world from its initial formless, deserted and gloomy state to its ordered and harmonious state."

"The Spirit creates harmony, harmony in life and in the world," he said, adding that the Holy Spirit is the one who moves creation from "chaos to cosmos, that is, from confusion to something beautiful and ordered."

And the New Testament recounts how the Spirit is present at key moments in the new creation, Pope Francis said, such as when the dove descends over the Jordan during Jesus' baptism or when Jesus breathes on the disciples and instructs them to "receive the Holy Spirit" just as God breathed life into Adam.

But it was St. Paul who "introduces a new element in the relationship between the Spirit and creation" by identifying the cause of the suffering present in creation as being "the corruption and sin of humanity that has dragged (creation) into its alienation from God."

A Swiss Guard stands at attention.
A Swiss Guard stands at attention in St. Peter's Square during Pope Francis' weekly general audience as a Mexican band performs at the Vatican May 29, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

"This remains as true today as it was then," he said. "We see the havoc that humanity has made and continues to make of creation," especially on the part of those who have a "greater capacity to exploit its resources."

Pope Francis extolled the model of St. Francis of Assisi, who "shows us a way out, to return to the harmony of the Spirit: the way of contemplation and of praise."

Humanity's calling on earth, the pope said, "is about putting the joy of contemplating before the joy of possessing," noting that "no one has rejoiced in creatures more than Francis of Assisi, who did not want to possess any of them."

After his speech, Pope Francis spoke about the church's first celebration of World Children's Day, hosted in Rome May 25-26, and about meeting Ukrainian children who were injured in the war.

"War is always cruelty; these children must start to walk (with artificial legs), to move with artificial arms; they have lost their smile," he said. "It is awful, very sad, when a child loses his or her smile, let us pray for Ukrainian children."

Pope Francis greets visitors.
Pope Francis greets visitors as he leaves St. Peter's Square in the popemobile after his weekly general audience at the Vatican May 29, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The pope also asked for prayers for Palestine, Israel and Myanmar and other countries at war.

Pope Francis also noted that May 29 is the feast of St. Paul VI, "an ardent pastor of love for Jesus and the church and for humanity," and encouraged people to read "Evangelii Nuntiandi," St. Paul VI's apostolic exhortation on evangelization in the modern world which he said "is still current."

Written after the 1974 Synod of Bishops on evangelization, the document elaborated on the role of all Christians, and not only members of the clergy, in sharing the Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The figures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost masterpiece of Christ now on display: ‘One of the greatest discoveries in the history of art’

A painting by Italian master Caravaggio titled “Ecce Homo” is pictured at the Prado museum in Madrid, Spain, on May 27, 2024. / Credit: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 28, 2024 / 17:45 pm (CNA).

A lost masterpiece by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was recently rediscovered and is now on display in what experts are calling “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of art.”

Titled “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”), the painting was created between 1605 and 1609 and depicts the moment Pontius Pilate presented the scourged Jesus Christ to the crowds ahead of his crucifixion.

According to the Museo del Prado, the renowned museum in Madrid, Spain, where the piece is being displayed, “Ecce Homo” is “one of the most valuable old master artworks in the world.”

Long believed by its previous private owners to be the work of a student of baroque artist José de Ribera, the painting resurfaced in 2021 when it was being sold for just $1,600 at an art auction in Madrid.

Shortly before it was set to be sold, art experts raised suspicions that it could be a Caravaggio. The Spanish Ministry of Culture intervened to stop the sale so that experts could investigate further.

According to the Museo del Prado, the painting underwent an in-depth diagnostic investigation led by Claudio Falcucci, a nuclear engineer famous for his scientific techniques in the study and conservation of significant cultural artifacts.

The painting then underwent a process of restoration. The Museo del Prado said that after intense study and restoration, the “four of the most authoritative experts on Caravaggio and Baroque painting” all “share the same passionate certainty: that ‘Ecce Homo’ is a masterpiece by the Italian artist.”

The painting is believed to have previously been a part of the private collection of Spanish and Portuguese King Philip IV and is one of just 60 known works by the famed Italian master. According to the BBC, it is valued at nearly $40 million.

Considered one of the most influential artists of the Baroque period, Caravaggio is known for his dramatic use of light and shadows and for depicting biblical and mythic scenes in emotion-filled, almost theatrical, fashion. Many of his paintings, such as “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” “Supper at Emmaus,” “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” and many others are some of the most recognized and beloved works of religious art to this day.  

“Ecce Homo” shows a scourged Christ in the center of the painting with Pilate and a soldier on either side of him. Christ is draped in a vivid crimson cloak and holds a scepter with a crown of thorns on his head. Despite bright red blood dripping from his crown, Jesus has a serene countenance while Pilate and the soldier have a look of alarm on their faces. The painting exhibits Caravaggio’s famous use of light and shadow while the clothing, skin, and hair in the painting showcase his mastery of texture.

The particular moment of the passion narrative portrayed by this painting holds a special significance for Catholics because Pilate’s “Ecce Homo” calls to mind John the Baptist’s proclamation in John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."

John’s proclamation is echoed by the priest when he elevates the holy Eucharist at one of the most crucial moments of the Mass.

The masterpiece is on loan with the Museo del Prado and will be on display from May 28 through Oct. 13. Tickets to the exhibit can be purchased on Museo del Prado’s website here.

The Museo del Prado also has another Caravaggio masterpiece, “David and Goliath,” on permanent display.

Harrison Butker doubles down on commencement speech at Catholic gala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitney agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carlo Acutis: What did he die of and where is he buried?

The tomb of Blessed Carlo Acutis in Assisi, Italy. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

ACI Prensa Staff, May 28, 2024 / 16:10 pm (CNA).

The news of the upcoming canonization of Blessed Carlo Acutis, the Italian teenager with a passion for computers and the Eucharist, has people wanting to know about the circumstances of his death and the place where his body rests.

Acutis died at the young age of 15 in 2006 from acute promyelocytic leukemia (M3), which poses a much higher death rate than other forms of leukemia.

According to the Spanish Association of People Affected by Lymphoma, Myeloma, and Leukemia (AEAL), the high mortality rate for M3 is due to the fact that leukemic cells release granules loaded with proteins and enzymes into the bloodstream. This causes the destruction of clotting factors in the blood, which can result in serious bleeding, such as brain bleeds, and also the formation of clots in the blood vessels.

Carlo fell ill on Oct. 2, 2006, and was initially thought to just have the flu. However, his condition worsened and he was diagnosed with leukemia at the De Marchi Clinic in Milan. Later, he was transferred to San Gerardo hospital in Monza, a city located in northern Italy.

On Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006, Carlo asked to receive the anointing of the sick and the Eucharist, certain that he would die soon. The next day, he went into a coma due to a brain hemorrhage. He was pronounced clinically dead at 5 p.m., and his heart stopped beating about two hours later.

Despite his short life, he left a formidable legacy for his commitment to the faith and his ability to combine it with his passion for information technology, which earned him the title of “Cyber-Apostle of the Eucharist.”

Antonia Salzano, his mother, related that shortly after the funeral, she was awakened by a voice that said to her: “Testament.” She searched the young man’s room hoping to find some written note, but found nothing. She turned on the computer, the device her son used the most. On the desktop she found a video recorded by Carlo himself three months earlier, where he said: “When I reach 70 kilos, [a little over 150 pounds] I am destined to die.”

Initially, Carlo was buried in the Ternengo town cemetery in the Italian region of Piedmont. However, in January 2007, his body was transferred to the cemetery in Assisi, the same town where St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most revered saints, is buried. 

On Jan. 23, 2019, Carlo’s body was exhumed, and on April 6 that year, his remains were transferred to St. Mary Major Parish, also known as the Shrine of the Renunciation in Assisi, which refers to the occasion when St. Francis stripped himself of his luxurious clothing in front of his father as a way of renouncing his wealth.

Inside the church on the right, Carlo’s body is exhibited inside a glass case, looking as if he were asleep. His remains are in excellent condition, although it cannot be said that they are incorrupt.

Speaking to EWTN, the rector of the Shrine of the Renunciation in Assisi, Father Carlos Acácio Gonçalves Ferreira, noted that “his body was discovered to be fully integral, not intact, but integral, having all its organs.”

“Work has been done on the face, but it’s a beautiful thing that for the first time in history you can see a saint dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a sweatshirt. That’s a great message,” he added.

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

Corpus Christi: 30,000 people expected to turn out for festival in Bolivia stadium 

After a four-year hiatus, the Corpus Christi festival is returning on Thursday, May 30, 2024, to Gilberto Parada Stadium in the town of Montero, Bolivia, where it is expected to draw the attendance of approximately 30,000 people, as in previous years. / Credit: Our Lady of Mercy parish in Montero, Bolivia

ACI Prensa Staff, May 28, 2024 / 15:20 pm (CNA).

After a four-year hiatus, the Corpus Christi festival is returning this year to Gilberto Parada Stadium in the town of Montero, Bolivia, where it is expected to draw the attendance of approximately 30,000 people, as in previous years.

The festival is scheduled to take place on Thursday, May 30. Entertainment will be provided by more than 500 students from local schools who are preparing outfits and choreography as part of the occasion.

Members of the Congregation of Conventual Franciscans of the Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Montero are in charge of the festival and have high hopes that this year the stadium will be filled to capacity, approximately 30,000 people, a number similar to that of previous years’ celebrations.

What is unique about this popular festival, which was suspended due to the pandemic and is only now resuming, is that the religious rite is combined with cultural expressions of music, dance, entertainment, praise, and colorful outfits.

A Mass will be offered at 4 p.m. by Auxiliary Bishop Estanislao Dowlaszewicz of Santa Cruz. At the end, the faithful will participate in a procession through the streets, stopping at four altars around the city.

The pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish, Father Henry Cuellar, told the local Diario Zona Norte newspaper that it will be a festival of faith and commitment to the body and blood of Christ.

“Everyone should participate in order to revive their religious faith and thank God since the Blood is given as nourishment,” he said. “Christ gave himself up in his body and blood. He influences us from within to remove everything bad in us,” he added.

Father Rodolfo Vargas, a Franciscan, said the city of Montero “is already experiencing the festival of Corpus Christi.” There, he assured, they will revive their faith and joy.

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

Vatican apologizes after pope’s derogatory remark on gay men in Catholic seminaries

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Wednesday general audience on May 22, 2024, at the Vatican. / Credit: Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, May 28, 2024 / 12:35 pm (CNA).

The Vatican on Tuesday issued an apology after Pope Francis’ use of an offensive word in Italian regarding seminarians who identify as gay.

Matteo Bruni, the Holy See spokesman, said in Tuesday’s press statement that the Holy Father was “aware of the articles recently published about a conversation, behind closed doors, with the bishops” of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI).

Italian media reported that Pope Francis had met with the CEI on May 20 in the Vatican’s Synodal Hall. At that meeting the pope was asked about the admission of declared gay men to the seminary. 

Telling the bishops that gay men should not be admitted to priestly formation, the pope argued “there is too much ‘frociaggine’ in seminaries,” a slur translated as “faggotry” or “faggotness.” 

Bruni told journalists that the pope “never intended to offend or express himself in homophobic terms, and he apologizes to those who felt offended by the use of a term reported by others.”

The remarks were first reported by the Italian tabloid website Dagospia and later confirmed by major Italian newspapers La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera.

Quoting several unnamed bishops, Corriere della Sera suggested that the pope did not understand the gravity of the term in Italian.

The Vatican nearly two decades ago addressed the topic of gay-identified men entering Catholic seminaries. In 2005 the Congregation for Catholic Education issued an instruction titled “Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders.” 

The document stated that “it is necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’” 

The instruction went on to note the difference between those who display “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” and those “dealing with homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem.” 

Pope Francis upheld the ruling in 2016. In 2018 he again told Italian bishops to carefully vet candidates. 

La Repubblica noted the Italian bishops during their meeting in Assisi last November approved a new Ratio Formationis Sacerdotalis, a document detailing the admission criteria and standards for men in Italy’s seminaries.

The Italian paper added that the document “has been under consideration by the Vatican Dicastery for the Clergy for final approval.”

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh wrote on X on Tuesday that the pope’s “concern is with gay men seeing the priesthood as a way of living out their sexuality, and the gay subculture in many seminaries.”

The pope has at times been hailed for his outreach to the LGBT-identified community.

During an in-flight press conference in 2013, the pope responded to a question from a journalist on his experience as a confessor to homosexual persons by asking rhetorically: “Who am I to judge that person?”

The pope expanded on these remarks in a 2016 book-length interview titled “The Name of God Is Mercy,” where he said he was “paraphrasing by heart” the Catechism of the Church, which states that “these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized.”

“I am glad that we are talking about ‘homosexual people,’” the pope continued, “because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity.” 

In December of last year, meanwhile, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Fiducia Supplicans, a declaration allowing for nonliturgical blessings for couples in “irregular” situations, including same-sex couples. 

Responding to the strong criticism the document received, Pope Francis said in February that to be “scandalized” by gay couple blessings is “hypocrisy.” 

“No one is scandalized if I give a blessing to an entrepreneur who perhaps exploits people: and this is a very serious sin,” the pope said in the interview to the Italian weekly print periodical Credere. 

“Whereas they are scandalized if I give it to a homosexual … This is hypocrisy! We must all respect each other. Everyone,” the Holy Father said.

New Mexico priest dies by suicide amid child sex abuse investigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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