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The capitol shakeup and the questions that need asking

By the Minnesota Catholic Conference 
Inside the Capitol 

Historic turnover within the State Legislature presents both an opportunity and responsibility to make an impression on a new cohort of lawmakers. All 201 seats in the Minnesota Legislature are up for election this year. Minnesota Catholics must take advantage of this opportunity to transform the Legislature into a lawmaking body that places the common good over partisan rancor. Filling that tall order begins by forming our consciences and informing ourselves about the candidates who seek to represent us. 

This year, there are more candidates than usual to get to know. Redistricting following the 2020 census has led to 51 retirements in the House and Senate — the largest turnover since 1972. Many legislators were no longer going to be representing their current communities, while others decided they did not want to challenge a current colleague for their new district seat. 

Many of the Aug. 9 primaries pit an incumbent against a newcomer who often represents positions that are further to the left or right than their predecessor. This deeper entrenchment along party lines creates the potential for a very polarized Legislature in 2023. 

These partisan dynamics and the opportunity to engage a Legislature full of new faces is a calling for Catholics to build relationships that help advance the common good. 

Fortunately, we are given a rich tradition of Catholic social teachings that are centered on creating the conditions for all to thrive. As Pope Francis has said, “good Catholics meddle in politics by offering the best of themselves.” Therefore, we have a responsibility to engage with those who are seeking leadership roles in our democracy but must do so as principled, faithful citizens — that is, the “best of ourselves” — rather than as partisans. 

Minnesota Catholic Conference’s election resource page is chock-full of everything you need to get to know the principles of our faith and learn how to meet and get to know your candidates. 

You can download a free candidate questionnaire that addresses many issues currently impacting life, dignity, and the common good here in Minnesota. You can then mail or email these questions to your candidates or even just keep the questions in mind for when your local candidates come by knocking on your door. 

Another great way to get to know your candidates and to help your neighbors is to host a town hall at your parish. We have created a do-it-yourself townhall kit that will step you through everything you need to know. 

Those striving to represent us must first know that we are present and why we propose what we do, grounded in principles reflective of the way God ordered us as persons and our proper relation to others and creation. We must take this opportunity to ask the questions that can help us get to know the candidates, and perhaps more importantly, we can help them understand why Catholics stand for life, dignity, and the common good. 

Find all your election resources at www.MnCatholic.org/ElectionResources

Father Mike Schmitz illustrates pro-life position with ‘gunshot-wound’ analogy

By Katie Yoder 
Catholic News Agency 

Abortion is like a gunshot wound, Father Mike Schmitz says — it requires immediate attention. 

“If an overweight person comes into the ER with a gunshot wound, you’re not going to say, ‘OK, we need to get you on a regimen of diet and exercise,’” the popular podcaster priest recently told the New York Times Magazine. “It’s like: ‘No, you’re bleeding out. After this gets taken care of, we’ll address the underlying health issues.’”

The Minnesota Catholic priest made his comments in an interview published Sunday, where he challenged the idea that “pro-life” only means “anti-abortion.” Instead, he said, it stands for something more: supporting women and babies — both before and after birth. 

“In our diocese there are multiple women’s care centers that, yes, they’re pro-life, meaning anti-abortion, but they’re all about providing options for women afterward who are in crisis pregnancies,” he said. 

The Catholic Church is not only against abortion but also for life, he said. 

“People say things like you mentioned: ‘You only care about having the baby born. You don’t care about what happens after the birth,’” Father Schmitz responded to staff writer David Marchese. “Actually, no.” 

“There are all these services that the church and members of the church are providing to help take care of moms and children,” Father Schmitz said. 

Father Schmitz is no stranger to the life issue. Earlier this year, he addressed the 2022 March for Life in Washington, D.C. But he spends most of his time in Minnesota, where he serves as a chaplain at the University of Minnesota Duluth and as the director of youth ministry for the Duluth Diocese. Among his many projects, Father Schmitz is perhaps best known for his wildly popular podcast, “The Bible in a Year (With Fr. Mike Schmitz).” 

For this reason, the magazine headline heralded him as a “Catholic podcasting star.” 

Marchese asked the priest to address several hot-button issues and followed up with the gunshot-wound analogy, saying that “I don’t quite follow why it’s not the mother’s life that needs the urgent care.” 

“I wouldn’t argue that,” Schmitz responded. “I would agree that the person in the midst of that is in a crisis. That’s real.” 

He pointed to a local example. 

“That’s one of the reasons why, at least in our town here in Duluth, we’ve had students who graduated from UMD who have started these women care centers,” he said, “because they’re like: ‘I’m pro-life, and when I mean pro-life, I don’t just mean anti-abortion. I mean, let’s help moms. Let’s help their children. Let’s help them get through the crisis so that they can start living not in crisis mode.’” 

At another point in the interview, Father Schmitz responded to the argument that a woman has a right to abortion because it’s her body. 

“But there’s also another human being involved in this,” he said. “That human being also has the right to bodily autonomy. That’s why they call it the right-to-life movement.” 

Marchese asked Father Schmitz about his approach to engaging with people on more difficult teachings concerning issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and gay marriage. 

Father Schmitz said that, first of all, he listens. 

“With the big questions — and those are big ones — rather than say, ‘Here’s the answer,’ I’ll ask, ‘OK, where are you at with this?’” he said. 

He said that he considers any conversation a win if he gets across the message that “God cares for you.” 

In difficult situations where a woman might seek an abortion, or someone says he or she is attracted to members of the same sex, Father Schmitz pointed to the importance of the “Christian message.” 

“You are good. You matter. God knows your name, and he’s entered into the brokenness so that you don’t have to be there alone,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be the thing that defines your life.” 

God’s unconditional love for each person, as he or she is, changes hearts, he said. 

“If I say he can love me now, it’s not just a matter of a feeling of this affection. It’s letting that love change me,” Father Schmitz said. “When I say that, I’m not saying those desires are gone or that I’m no longer pregnant. What I’m saying is, OK, if God has my permission to love me as I am right now, that means I don’t have to walk in shame. That means I’m not walking alone.” 

He concluded: “When it comes to the big issues, the question is still the same, and the answer needs to be given: Does God have your permission to love you as you are right now? Yes or no?” 

Pro-life leaders criticize attorney general’s pregnancy center alert

By Barb Umberger 
Catholic News Service 

Minnesota pro-life leaders denounced a consumer alert issued by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison criticizing the state’s crisis pregnancy centers. 

The impact of Ellison’s statement is to besmirch the good work of pregnancy resource centers and put people on notice that he has a target on their back, said Jason Adkins, executive director and general counsel for the Minnesota Catholic Conference. 

Adkins stressed that pregnancy resource centers “should be truthful about what services they offer and what they do not,” adding that “not all of them have medical staff, nor do they hold themselves out as having such resources.” 

Many of these centers focus on connecting women with housing and providing an environment where they can access clothing and other support, he said, noting that the attorney general’s alert is “a solution in search of a problem.” 

Ellison’s alert states that “many so-called crisis pregnancy centers may pose as reproductive health care clinics despite not providing comprehensive reproductive healthcare to consumers,” and some don’t provide any health care services at all. 

It says the centers are “private organizations that attempt to prevent or dissuade pregnant people from accessing their constitutionally protected right under the Minnesota Constitution to a safe and legal abortion.” 

Executives at Minnesota pregnancy resource centers — described by Ellison as crisis pregnancy centers — and leaders in the pro-life movement disagree with the way these centers are described in the alert. 

Vaunae Hansel, president of the nonprofit Elevate Life, that provides training and resources to a network of 37 pregnancy resource centers in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, said the alert is not factual and encourages people with questions to visit a local pregnancy resource center and ask about its services. 

Hansel took issue with most of the alert, except for one phrase which said the number of crisis pregnancy centers may, in fact, outnumber abortion clinics in Minnesota by about 11:1. That may be possible, she said. 

Adkins said he thinks Ellison hopes to generate complaints against pregnancy resource centers, impose penalties, and provide excuses for lawmakers to try to cut Positive Alternatives Grant funding, a state program that provides funding to some pregnancy resource centers. 

John Stiles, deputy chief of staff and media spokesperson for the Minnesota Office of the Attorney General, said several reasons prompted the attorney general’s alert. 

Ellison has issued other consumer alerts, including those addressing technology-related scams or warnings to be wary of door-to-door sales, he said. And the office has heard from some consumers who have concerns about “misrepresentations that some of these crisis pregnancy centers make.” 

Because crisis pregnancy centers are unregulated under Minnesota law, the attorney general wanted to use the power of his office to let people know that they should be careful and ask exactly what services are provided and which are not, Stiles said. 

But above all, the timing was prompted by national attention “suddenly focused on the right to abortion by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision,” Stiles said. 

Abortion remains legal in Minnesota under the state constitution. 

On July 28, Ellison said he wouldn’t appeal a separate ruling in Minnesota that struck down most of the state’s restrictions on abortion as unconstitutional, saying the state was not likely to win an appeal and had spent enough time and money on the case. 

Brian Gibson, executive director of St. Paul-based Pro-life Action Ministries, said Ellison’s consumer alert was “horribly disingenuous and harmful to these amazing places that help out so many in need.” 

“He was supposed to be defending laws that would help protect women who are going for abortions, and he failed miserably in doing his duty there,” Gibson said. “And now he’s attacking the very places that offer real, concrete help, generously helping women all the time, helping families.” 

Tens of thousands of people have been helped by crisis pregnancy centers over the years, Gibson said, and tens of thousands of babies’ lives have been saved “and he’s attacking them without knowing what they do.” 

Last year, Elevate Life affiliates offered educational and, in many cases, medical services including ultrasound and pregnancy testing, to more than 7,500 clients, Hansel said. The organization’s values align with the Catholic Church’s, but it is not directly connected with the church, she said. 

Hansel also takes issue with Ellison’s consumer alert claim that these centers do not counsel or provide accurate information about available abortion services. 

“We provide medically accurate information on all of their options, including abortion,” she said. “We encourage all of our centers to use the Minnesota Department of Health’s piece ‘If You’re Pregnant.’ We don’t refer for or provide abortions, but we do provide medically accurate information from the Minnesota Department of Health on abortion and abortion procedures.” 

The consumer alert also states that more than 95% of pregnancy centers do not provide prenatal or wellness care to “pregnant consumers, and a majority do not even provide prenatal referrals.” Hansel said that is not true. 

“Every one of our centers provide referrals for prenatal care,” Hansel said — and usually three referrals, so women have a choice. 

Umberger is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. 

Misunderstanding of pregnancy centers’ mission seen as a reason for attacks

By Barb Umberger 
Catholic News Service 

Angela Franey, executive director of Abria Pregnancy Resources, said recent vandalism at the organization’s St. Paul location and dozens of similar attacks on pregnancy centers around the country reflect recent anger and misunderstanding around the issue of abortion. 

She also believes the damage also stems from a misunderstanding of the mission of Abria and other like centers. 

Abria’s staff love and help women, she said, and provide a variety of information so they know they have options.

“We never tell them what to do,” she said, but instead, offer them information to help make a fully informed decision. “And we respect their ability to do that,” she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. 

Attacks on pro-life pregnancy centers, like Abria, as well as churches have taken place across the country since early May, when a draft opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case was leaked. 

The court’s June 24 decision in the Dobbs case ultimately overturned Roe v. Wade, which had legalized abortion nationwide. The new ruling allows states to decide their own laws regarding abortion. 

To date, there have been about 40 such attacks on centers and churches, and Jane’s Revenge has claimed responsibility for many of them. Described as “a militant, extremist, pro-abortion rights group,” it was formed shortly after the leak of the draft opinion. 

Since the Supreme Court’s decision, there also have been calls nationwide to crack down legislatively on pregnancy care centers that some believe deceive women. 

When Abria was targeted by vandals Aug. 1, it was the first time the center had been attacked. That morning when Franey entered the back door of the center about 7:30 a.m., she found a softball-sized rock in the hallway that appeared to have been thrown through glass in both front doors. 

Looking at the front of the building, she saw in red spray paint the words: “If abortions aren’t safe, neither are you.” 

No one has claimed responsibility for the actions, Franey said, which were reported to and were being investigated by the police. 

Abria remained closed Aug. 1 as staff cleaned up. But the center opened as usual Aug. 2. 

“It’s safe now and no one was hurt,” Franey said. “Our goal is to make things safe and secure again, to pick up the pieces, to meet the challenge face to face and continue to overcome these things with good, because that’s what we do.” 

Abria, which also has a location in Minneapolis, offers lab-quality tests, ultrasounds performed by trained medical personnel, medical consultation, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. 

Non-medical services include pregnancy and parenting education, personal support services, life coaching, material assistance, referrals to community resources, and more. All at no charge. 

If women choose life, Abria helps make it possible, Franey said, with baby supplies, education, and referrals to community resources. If people knew Abria’s mission, Franey does not believe individuals would turn as much to violence. 

Abria receives some funding from the Catholic Services Appeal Foundation in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and none from the government. About 90% of its funding comes from individual donors, Franey said. 

More recently, vandals attacked a western Massachusetts pregnancy center that provides women facing a crisis pregnancy with free diapers, wipes, baby clothes, strollers, and car seats. 

Early Aug. 18, vandals spray-painted “Jane’s Revenge” on benches located outside of Bethlehem House in Easthampton, near Springfield, along with the same message left at the St. Paul center: “If abortion isn’t safe, neither are you.” 

Bethlehem House, which receives support from the annual Catholic Appeal of the Diocese of Springfield, also offers free pregnancy resources, including referrals for employment, health care, and educational services. Families receive assistance until the baby is 18 months old. In addition, Bethlehem House offers post-abortion counseling. 

Umberger is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. 

Editorial: Economic challenges invite us to pull together

The difficult economic situation Americans have been facing for many months now doesn’t show any sign of a quick end in sight. Costs are high on the necessities of life — food, transportation, housing. There is a sense of uncertainty about when or if it might get worse before it gets better. 

Put that in the midst of fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic as people grapple with increased anxiety and mental illness and addiction, and alongside increased crime and violence and the strange cultural moment we’re in, and all the rest, and things can feel a bit precarious. 

When that happens, the temptation is to turn inward, to keep our heads down and “take care of our own” and leave others to fend for themselves. 

While those feelings are understandable, our faith would suggest doing the opposite. If times do, indeed, get tougher, it will be more important than ever for us to be ready to help each other and to pull together. 

Our faith teaches us that we are both individuals and creatures that necessarily exist in relation to others. Yes, we have our own needs and responsibilities and rights, and yes, even our communal existence begins close to home, with our families and parishes and neighborhoods and expands out from there. 

But we should never lose sight of the fact that we exist in relationship, and that we do have obligations to each other. Hard times in particular call us not to close in on ourselves but, with trust in God’s providence, to step out in faith and perform the works of mercy, helping those in our midst who are most in need. 

Father Richard Kunst: We have to pray for those who have abandoned the faith

Up until COVID-19 hit nearly three years ago, I had been regularly serving meals at the local Union Gospel Mission here in Duluth. Two to four times a month I would go downtown to what seemed to be a totally different country to help those who were in need. Time and time again as I would leave the meal shift, I would ponder the reality of just how different a world it is for the people I served compared to the world I lived in just a few miles away. 

Father Richard Kunst
Apologetics

I can honestly say that serving at the UGM was some of the most rewarding work I have done in my ministry. Many of the people that came there for meals were just down on their luck, but most of them were either addicts or suffering from some mental illness. Despite that, I was always treated with respect and maybe even a bit of reverence. I always made sure that I was wearing my Roman collar when I went to serve, because I wanted the people to know that I represented Christ and the church to them. And I have to say that most of these people had a deep faith, even if their beliefs were a bit skewed. 

Juxtapose this with my own family experience. I hesitate writing this, because it is a bit personal, and I do not want to make people in my own family upset, but in the spirit of calling a spade a spade, I have many nieces and nephews who are starting their own families. I have more great-nieces and nephews than I can count. And the vast majority of them have not been baptized. Though their parents were all brought up in the faith, the faith is not surviving to the next generation (with few exceptions), even among my own family, which I find heartbreaking. 

Now, here is something sad and shocking at the same time: In the big picture, I would rather be among the Union Gospel Mission crowd than large swaths of my own family (whom I love dearly). There is a scene in the Gospel that appears both in Luke and in Matthew in which Jesus calls out the disbelief of three cities. The small villages Jesus names are Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, in which Jesus states that most of his “mighty deeds” were done. He says, “Woe to you Capernaum … if the miracles worked in you had taken place in Sodom, it would be standing today. I assure you, it will go easier for Sodom than for you on the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:23-24). 

There is a message here that might be easy to miss, one that might even be a bit disconcerting, because it affects so many people. Jesus is making it quite clear that God is more tolerant of sin than he is disbelief. There is no name more associated with sin in the entire Bible than Sodom and its twin city Gomorrah, yet Jesus makes the point that at the time of judgment they would be better off than cities that simply did not believe despite having all the reasons to believe. 

When I would go down to the Union Gospel Mission to serve meals, I knew that many of those people lived lives of sin and vice, but I also knew that most of their sins were likely sins of weakness, as opposed to sins of malice. We all sin, and hopefully our sins are mostly out of weakness. Human nature is prone to sin because it is a fallen nature. Sins of malice are hopefully not as common, but sins of weakness easily become traps that are difficult to escape; they become our vice. 

When I see people in my own family and others who were brought up in practicing Catholic homes and then grow up to start their own families and not even baptize their children, let alone go to Mass, it fills me with sadness and frustration. On one hand, I think we have done a bad job in catechizing our young about the importance of baptism and faith, but on the other hand people inherently know the importance of both if they were brought up in the faith themselves. 

Everyone reading this column has people in their families who have abandoned the faith. It is important to pray for them, and when appropriate encourage them in the faith in a way that does not come across as being judgmental — re-evangelizing the baptized, as it has been called. Seeing so many of my nieces’ and nephews’ kids not given the opportunity to have a sacramental life is tragic to me. As much as I love them, I would rather be in the group of my old friends down at the soup kitchen. 

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].

Father Nicholas Nelson: Changes coming in the formation process of future priests

In 2016, the Catholic Church issued new universal guidelines for the formation of priests. These guidelines would mean significant changes to seminaries and dioceses as they form young men for the priesthood. Each country was then tasked with taking those guidelines and developing a new “Program of Priestly Formation.” This would be the sixth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF 6) in the United States. The PPF 6 was promulgated on Aug. 4, 2022. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

The formation of priests is something that all Catholics should be interested in. I know that many of you are very invested in vocations to the priesthood through prayer and finances. You write cards to the seminarians, you send money, you are praying, you are talking to young men and encouraging them to consider the seminary. I know you get excited when you hear of a young man going to the seminary, especially if he is from your parish. 

I know all this because you tell me so. As director of vocations for the Diocese of Duluth, I thought I would use my column this month to talk about the changes that we see in PPF 6. And while a lot of details still need to be straightened out, and we need to see how this plays out in practical terms, there is still much I can write about already. 

The first change to note is that the church will no longer speak in terms of academic phases such as college seminarian, pre-theologian, or theologian, or a seminarian in philosophy or theology, or a man in minor seminary or major seminary. The church wants to speak of “stages.” There are four stages now, and they are sequential. Every man needs to meet specific objectives before moving on to the next stage. The first stage is the propaedeutic stage, followed by the discipleship stage, followed by the configuration stage, and finally, the vocational synthesis stage. 

The propaedeutic stage is meant to be a pre-academic stage. This is altogether new. In PPF 5, men would immediately be taking a full load of classes. In PPF 6, the most they can take is 12 credit hours. The focus is on human and spiritual formation. The men are to grow in greater self-knowledge and learn to pray to God in a relational way. This stage is to be no less than 12 months and is to have a component that strengthens the man’s relationship with his diocese. The goal of this stage is to strengthen and heal what may have been wounded and to give them the solid foundation needed before the more formal formation begins. 

The discipleship stage is basically the old philosophy level. This is the majority of a man’s time at college seminary or what we used to call pre-theology for those who are entering formation already having a college degree. 

The configuration stage is basically the old theology level. After completing his philosophy degree or its equivalent, a seminarian would study theology for four years. This stage, as the name suggests, is about the seminarian configuring himself to Christ the high priest. Formation includes learning to do what priests do on a day-to-day basis. Instead of discerning, “Am I called to be a priest?,” a man has the understanding, “I am called ….” 

The vocational synthesis stage, as is the propaedeutic stage, is altogether new. After and only after the previous three stages are completed, including all theology classes, a man may be ordained a transitional deacon. He now begins the vocational synthesis stage. He minsters as a deacon for a minimum of six months in a parish. This stage allows the man to transition from seminary to the priesthood and integrate himself into the fraternity of priests in the diocese before ordination to the priesthood. 

I could mention a number of the questions that arise and follow from the new Program of Priestly Formation. I will mention two. One, we will no longer see deacons in the seminary. They will finish their seminary time and then be a deacon back in the diocese. Therefore, does the requirement of six months as a deacon following seminary mean that a man will be ordained a priest in December? There is discussion whether a seminary can squeeze four years of theology into three and a half, so that he could finish seminary in December, be ordained a deacon, and then be ordained a priest in June. This all still needs to be seen. 

Second, how soon will we begin to actually speak of these stages in our everyday usage concerning vocations? People intuitively grasp “college seminary” and “major seminary.” It will take awhile for people to understand what we mean when we say “discipleship stage” or “configuration stage.” Most likely, we will have to add that the man in discipleship stage is at the college seminary. This year for the vocation poster, we will begin to use these stages to indicate where a man is in regards to his formation. 

Finally, and most important, please continue to pray for, encourage, and financially support our seminarians. This fall, we will have five new men entering the seminary! We may even have one or two more enter in January too! We haven’t had a new class that large for years. God is providing laborers for his vineyard! 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]. 

Deacon Kyle Eller: Truth is truth — even when unpleasant people believe it

I like the saying — I have not been able to pin down who originally said it — that truth is truth even if no one believes it. 

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

I think it’s a concept we particularly need to grasp as Americans, living in a society founded on the idea of representative democracy, or more broadly on the notion that the “voice of the people” ought to play a decisive, or at least very important, role in how they’re governed. Of course, there’s much that is praiseworthy in those ideas, with aspects of it grounded in Christian beliefs about human dignity and authentic freedom, as well as care for social cohesion and other pragmatic considerations. Probably it’s even true that sometimes we’re wiser collectively than any of us is individually. 

But obviously one can take the notion too far. If 51% of Americans, or for that matter 100% of them, decided that 2 + 2 = 3, would that make it so? Of course not. Our history also makes painfully clear that sometimes morally reprehensible policies have had enough popular support to receive approval in our laws. The most obvious example is that nowadays, thanks be to God, Americans virtually unanimously consider slavery to be a moral horror. But for so many long years it (and the equally horrible racist ideas undergirding it) was the law of the land and broadly accepted as good and right. 

The “voice of the people” is not the voice of God. It’s not infallible — not by a long shot. It can and frequently does go very, very wrong. 

So that’s important and useful to keep in mind when we’re bombarded with poll numbers and propaganda and undue emphasis on what the trendy currents of thought are. It’s extremely important for Catholics to remember this in a world where unbelief and even contempt for our faith has grown dramatically in a short time. 

Sometimes the truth is unpopular, and being people of the truth means being willing to accept holding a minority view. 

But I think there’s a less pithy and even less popular variation of this principle that also urgently needs our appreciation, which I’ll put this way: “Truth is truth even when unpleasant people believe it and the people I like don’t.” 

The point is that in our polarized world we often face a temptation to deny truth based on the company we may have to keep in holding to the truth. Sometimes holding to the truth makes us want to keep those who agree with us at arm’s length and let others know we’re not “one of them.” 

I think this point first crystallized for me during the build-up and beginning of the Iraq War, nearly two decades ago now. Considering it in the light of Catholic just war teaching, I quickly came to the firm personal conclusion that there was no “just cause” for war in Iraq, a view that was apparently held by Pope St. John Paul II and the future Pope Benedict XVI, and is now widely held. 

But at the time, in the United States, most of the mainstream of American politics, right and left, had united around that war, and many conservative Catholics, in particular, were falling over themselves (and in my view sometimes embarassing themselves) coming up with justifications for it. 

By contrast, much (not all) of the opposition to the war seemed to me a little … “out there.” Many of them were on the political fringes, people with aggressive and perhaps quirky agendas I couldn’t fully share, sometimes people embroiled in conspiracy theories. 

This was uncomfortable for me. I was working for a secular newspaper then. I wrote about the war a fair bit, and I remember wishing those who agreed with me about it could just “rein it in” some. At the time I imagined that opposition to the war would be more effective if it was more sensible and temperate and grounded. 

In retrospect, I know I was naive about both hopes. More reasonable opposition likely wouldn’t have made any difference in the public debate, which was being driven by powerful forces, and trying to tone down elements of the antiwar movement that revel in being counterculture would also have taken something bordering on divine intervention. But I tried, and I stayed with my conviction despite the company it put me in. 

In the succeeding years, I’ve noticed many people confronting similar temptations. Sometimes it’s people who have distanced themselves from or outright rejected a pro-life stance, not because some argument has convinced them that the pro-life argument isn’t true but because they equate the pro-life movement with ideologies or particular politicians or political parties or religious dispositions they cannot tolerate. 

Sometimes it goes the other way. I sometimes encounter conservative Catholics who almost visibly shut down when you start discussing the church’s teaching on economic questions or immigration or just war or the care for creation. Often the verbal dismissal is just to apply a political label — one that may not even be accurate — to the teaching, and it’s as if that label has done all the work of actually examining the idea on its merits and considering it. It’s a conversation-ender. 

For many people, it seems as if they can no longer imagine (or at least admit) that someone of the opposing party or ideology could be right about anything, or that their own could be wrong about anything. 

This seems to have grown worse over the years, as polarization has hardened. Encountering it always saddens me. Not only is it a serious error in reasoning, for Catholics it can be much worse. It can close us off to the call of God himself and our own deeper conversion to him. 

Over the years I have learned that, just as it was years ago with the war, humbly encouraging a more thoughtful approach to these situations is at best an uphill battle. 

But still, it’s worth observing: Truth is truth even when unpleasant people believe it and the people I like don’t. 

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

Betsy Kneepkens: Learning from a year as empty nesters

The last few weeks of August had always included a flurry of activity. After a few months off from school, our family had several traditions that readied our children for the impending change of pace. I used the work of school preparation as an opportunity to spend individual time with each child, calling it our annual date day. As my kids advanced in school, they still looked forward to the “date,” but they would not let me call this particular time together “our date.” I guess that term embarrassed them. 

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

There were cheaper and more efficient ways to get school supplies, but that wasn’t the point of our activity together. I wanted them to have distinct memories of this time of their lives. We would do something special, eat lunch, and then do our school shopping. Each child was sworn to secrecy. Some went so far as to get doggy bags from other restaurants to fool their siblings. I never put limits on where they could go to eat. The kids inevitably selected lower-end fast food joints, because they gave a free toy or dessert. 

For several years I had six kids, six different school lists, and six different dates, all of which hold a memory dear to my heart. My two youngest were home for just a few days before returning to university, and each mentioned that they needed some things for school. I am holding on to the hope that they want that special individual time with me. 

This September marks the end of my husband’s and my first year without children in our house. The year had some challenging moments, provided significant growth, and a tremendous opportunity to rediscover parts of our relationship we put on the back burner as we submerged ourselves into parenting. Friends warned us that the first year as empty nesters would be challenging, so we were warned. We didn’t exactly understand what our friends meant. Having this alert was helpful, but not until we went through these past 12 months did I get what they were talking about. 

The first challenge we didn’t expect was the spare time. Our children choose various activities that kept us busy driving or watching their activities. We tried hard to be equally involved in the kids’ separate clubs and sports. You could say our strategy to manage our household was to divide and conquer. 

We learned some tricks over time, like switching events at half-time or taking turns with each child. We managed to encourage our children to try similar interests like sports and instruments so that we could be at one location and see several different age-level games. Having most children of the same gender, often watching baseball meant going to a T-ball, little league, and major league game all on the same night, just on different fields. 

I will say it was easier with the five boys. When our daughter was added to the mix, we had to juggle schedules more precisely. A good deal of our time together as husband and wife was spent strategizing who would go where, when, and how, always trying to be efficient with our time. We did manage to fill those non-work, non-sleep hours with activity. We did try to eat together as a family. However, that “being together” was sometimes fast food in the car. 

For years, the kids slept in the same room, so we did have an evening routine of winding down with bedtime stories, made-up songs, and bedtime prayers. Even though life was chaotic most of the time, we made a point of Mass as a family on weekends and all days of obligation. I remember being joyfully tired. I often was too busy to do anything about the exhaustion. 

The first three months without children were taxing. We went from being busy all the time to almost a dead stop. We kept waiting to be needed by our children, but they kept figuring things out without us. Admittedly, I found myself breaking down in tears often, like homesickness, but I had the house, and my home was what was missing. 

For the next three months, we tried to fill up our time. Because we had so much less to do, we fell into a disturbing pattern of checking each other’s work. We said things like, “Did you lock the doors?” Then the other would go and check to make sure it was locked. Or say, “Did you turn the hose off?” The other would go back and check the hose. Running with kids all the time, you had to trust that the other took care of what they said they took care of. When we had time to think, worry, and question, our need to trust dwindled. 

Before, we worked our Mass schedule around our children’s activities. Once the kids were gone, we discovered we could go to any weekend Mass. However, we learned quickly we had different preferences for Mass. I participate more fully in Masses that tend to be celebrated in a “large” way, with sacred music, incense, and a full, lively family atmosphere. On the other hand, my husband prefers the simplest form, with quiet reflection instead of song and praise between parts of the Mass. We debated for the first few months, or perhaps you could say we argued about which Mass we attended together. One bright morning, I came up with a solution. I told my husband, “How about if we switch preferences each week as best we can.” That seems to be working. 

Slowly but surely, our quiet home without children evolved. We realized that our children did chores, and now we had to do them. They were mowing the lawn, shoveling, doing laundry, and doing dishes, just to mention a few tasks. Now it was up to the two of us. Over time we divided up roles to get our housework done. We quickly discovered that we could easily give a gift to the other by simply doing their job when they did not expect it. It has been a beautiful and loving way to show each other how much we appreciate them. I know that was mostly missing when we were busy raising children. 

Later this year, we rediscovered that the things we enjoyed doing together before children we still enjoy now. We are working on seeking out those opportunities. You can forget what they were when you busy yourself with children. This year has been challenging. I think every stage of marriage, you must go through it to grow together, learn to appreciate each other, and even continue to get to know each other better. 

We promised many things on our wedding day and took those promises to heart. For better and for worse it was absolutely part of our choice to love each other. The richness of that promise is that when you work through the worst, you become better together. I wouldn’t want to go through this year again, but now that it is over, I feel blessed that we received the grace to grow in a stronger union because of these difficult moments. 

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six. 

New school year brings opening of long-awaited Catholic high school

By Deacon Kyle Eller 
The Northern Cross 

While a new school year always brings excitement, this year as summer vacation comes to a close, Catholic education in Duluth is beginning a particularly notable new chapter, as Stella Maris Academy opens its long-awaited high school on a new campus, with 15 to 20 incoming freshman.

The main building at the high school campus has seen a lot of drive-through traffic by community members curious about the new mission for the facility, formerly known as The Hills. (Deacon Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross)

Formerly known as The Hills, the facility previous provided youth services and before that was a Catholic orphanage. Now serving as the new high school campus, purchased for $4 million last October, the facility is still being renovated. Phase I renovation, which is estimated to require $3 to $3.25 million in funding, will include most of the original 1909 building and is expected to be completed around Thanksgiving, said Andrew Hilliker, president of Stella Maris. 

“In a typical or ideal scenario, we would spend months planning with the architect, months implementing with contractors, and months preparing financially, etc., and we’ve condensed all of that into such a small period of time. … The fact that we’re nearing completion of demoltion, it’s really quite remarkable,” he said in an August interview. 

But in the meantime, a “really beautiful and usable space for students to spend the first couple of months of school” has been prepared. 

Much more than the physical property goes into opening the first Catholic high school in the diocese in decades, of course. 

Another major project has been the curriculum, building on the Catholic liberal arts model the school has been moving to in its pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade offerings on the three other campuses, a goal since diocesan schools were unified under the name Stella Maris Academy several years ago.

A mockup shows what classrooms at the new Stella Maris high school campus will look like when renovations are complete. 

“Those changes and that work in the lower grades, it’s just so perfect in timing that we’re adding high school programming now, because we’re making real adjustments to improve not only our outcomes but our formation of our students, and now we get to continue that on into high school.” 

That work of defining what curriculum and pedagogy will look like is being assisted by a two-year partnership with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Arts Education. 

“We can’t be the same as the school down the street and we just have Mass once a week and we pray,” Hilliker said. “We have to look at everything we do with relation to teaching and learning and forming our kids and doing it through the idea that Christ is at the center of it all.” 

An example of the difference is that many schools take a social studies approach for civics education that Hilliker said shortchanges history. 

“So we’re taking a step back and implementing a history timeline approach to learning that encompasses civics and economics and civic responsibility, but it emphasizes the history timeline that ties right in with our theology, that ties right in with Catholic social teachings and the catechism,” he said. 

He said such efforts are possible because of all the work that’s been done in the other campuses over the past several years, where the work of unification has been done and is now being built upon.

The auditorium space at the new Stella Maris high school campus will be converted back into its original purpose and function as a chapel. 

“We have just exemplary academic outcomes, but … we’re [also] experiencing just tremendous growth in our pre-K through 8 [grades] right now,” he said. “There’s a desire from our families and from our community for that return to what is important and the priorities, and that’s going to continue in making our high school be successful for a very, very long time.” 

Stella Maris was also able to hire a “very talented and committed, faithful administrator for the high school campus” in Chris Lemke, Hilliker said. Lemke was a teacher and coach in Two Harbors for many years and also served as administrator at the Mater Dei apostolate in Duluth. 

Hilliker described him as having a Passion for education and a commitment to Catholic education. “He’s been just a great asset and addition to our team.” 

Lemke will also be building a platform for activities from fine arts to athletics, allowing students to explore gifts they’ve been given, something he said is important to the high school experience for many students, beginning with a number of them this fall, including some competition with other organizations and schools. 

“It will be a good experience for our students in year one,” Hilliker said. 

While the number of incoming freshman may seem small, Hilliker said the school is expecting a much larger influx in the high school’s second year, with potentially more than 75 more students. 

“What we’ve seen is really impressive growth in our middle schools grades with the announcement of high school programming,” he said. “So, I think there are families on the [peripheries] that weren’t at Stella Maris because there wasn’t a long-term plan for a brick and mortar high schol at Stella Maris. And now that there is, those families that were hesitant to make the move only then to have to figure out a plan for high school have been motivated to make that decision to come into our academy.” 

The school as a whole, across all the campuses, has increased from 528 last year to around 600 this fall. 

Hilliker said the school has had a sense of momentum and excitement this summer, among families and staff alike. 

Response from the broader community to the new high school and new use of the historic facility has also been “very

A mockup shows what a lounge area for students at the new high school is expected to look like after renovations are completed. 

positive,” Hilliker said, with “constant” traffic coming through the property from the curious, from neighbors, and from those who had a connection to the orphanage. People are excited about it, and appreciate that it will still be serving young people. 

Hilliker said that Catholics also appreciate the fact that the facilities Catholic heritage will continue. 

A visit from a woman who had lived there as a child and brought pictures of herself with another former resident — the late Father Richard Partika — gave him different appreciation of how many youths have been served there over its more than a century of use. 

“That’s where it becomes quite humbling,” he said. 

Hilliker has been on the job for a year, which in addition to buying The Hills and opening a high school has also included a challenging school year still dealing with COVID-19. 

“We have a board, an aministrative team, and a faculty and staff that have just given remarkably of themselves to make it all happen and come together,” he said, “and I know that those things couldn’t ahve happened without those people in place that are there.” 

Looking ahead, it doesn’t get any easier he said, but that team gives him confidence. 

“There’s no shortage of work ahead,” he said. “So as much as has been done, we’ve still got a long way to go. But there’s comfort in knowing we have those people in place that we do, that it will happen with excellence.”