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Groundswell of support for Mark Houck, Catholic father of 7 arrested in FBI raid

Mark and Ryan-Marie Houck with their seven children, ages 2 to 13. / Courtesy of the Houck family

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2022 / 17:31 pm (CNA).

The arrest of a Catholic apostolate leader and father of seven in an FBI raid last week has sparked a groundswell of support for him and his family.

As of Sunday night, an online fund drive had raised more than $136,000 to help the family, far surpassing an initial $30,000 goal.

Mark Houck, the founder and co-president of The King’s Men, a men's ministry, faces federal assault charges stemming from an altercation with a Planned Parenthood escort outside a Philadelphia abortion clinic nearly a year ago.

Houck, who regularly prays the rosary outside the clinic, maintains he was defending his 12-year-old son from the escort’s verbal harassment, a family spokesman, Brian Middleton, told CNA on Sunday. The man fell when Houck pushed him away, Middleton said.

The altercation was captured on a video the Houcks are in the process of locating, Middleton added. As of Sunday the family had not yet hired a lawyer but they expect to do so on Monday, he said.

When both the city police and the district attorney declined to file charges against Houck, the escort filed a private criminal complaint in Philadelphia municipal court, Middleton said. The case was dismissed in July when the man repeatedly didn’t show up in court, Middleton said.

Just days later, Houck received a “target letter” from the U.S. Attorney’s Office informing him that he was the focus of a federal criminal probe into the same incident, Middleton said.

Through his attorney at the time, Houck tried to contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office to discuss the case but never received a response, Middleton said.

“The next time they heard anything was Friday morning,” he said.

An FBI agent stands outside the Houck residence in Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 23, 2022. Mark Houck was arrested that day and charged with assaulting a Planned Parenthood escort outside an Philadelphia abortion clinic on Oct. 13, 2021. Courtesy of the Houck family
An FBI agent stands outside the Houck residence in Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 23, 2022. Mark Houck was arrested that day and charged with assaulting a Planned Parenthood escort outside an Philadelphia abortion clinic on Oct. 13, 2021. Courtesy of the Houck family

That day, Sept. 23, federal law enforcement officials arrived outside the Houcks’ home in Kintnersville in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, around 7 a.m.

“A SWAT team of about 25 came to my house with about 15 vehicles and started pounding on our door,” Houck’s wife, Ryan-Marie Houck, told CNA on Friday, just hours after her husband's arrest.

“They said they were going to break in if he didn't open it. And then they had about five guns pointed at my husband, myself, and basically at my kids,” she added.

“They were pointing their weapons,” Middleton said. “They came in as if they were expecting some kind of confrontation.”

11 years in prison if convicted

The FBI told CNA that Houck was arrested outside his residence Friday morning “without incident.” In a press release, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said that Houck is being charged with a violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, more commonly referred to as the FACE Act.

The federal indictment says that Houck twice assaulted a 72-year-old man who was a patient escort at a Planned Parenthood clinic at 1144 Locust St. in Philadelphia on Oct. 13, 2021. Houck first shoved the escort, identified by the initials B.L., to the ground as B.L was attempting to escort two patients, the indictment says. Houck also “verbally confronted” and “forcefully shoved” B.L. to the ground in front of the clinic on the same day, the indictment says.

The indictment says that B.L. was injured and needed medical attention. Middleton, the Houck family spokesman, maintains the injury was minor, only requiring “a Bandaid on his finger.”

If convicted, Houck could face up to 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $350,000, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. 

The FACE Act “prohibits violent, threatening, damaging and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain or provide reproductive health services,” according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Middleton said Houck and his family are well-known in the Philadelphia area.

“The Houcks are incredible people. Mark’s whole life is a ministry,” he said. “This is really the family next door.”

Middleton speculated that many of those contributing to the fund believe the FBI used “unnecessary force” in arresting Houck.

He said the raid may fuel further criticism that the Biden administration’s Justice Department has a double standard where abortion politics are concerned, noting the contrast between the aggressive tactics used against Houck and the lack of any arrests by the FBI in connection with dozens of incidents of vandalism against pro-life pregnancy centers across the country in recent months.

CNA reporter Joe Bukuras contributed to this story.

Meet the therapy dog trained by Mercedarian sisters to help the students they serve

Gia, an 8-month-old Bernedoodle, visits Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Baton Rouge twice a week with a group of Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. / Wendy Milam

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2022 / 10:00 am (CNA).

Students at Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are visited twice a week by Gia, an 8-month-old Bernedoodle, and a group of Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Gia is a therapy dog who visits classrooms and interacts with the children. Although she is still in training, her warmheartedness and gentle spirit has become the perfect match for the children who attend this Catholic school.

Sister Mary Rosario Vega, who recently celebrated her 50th anniversary of entering the convent, is one of the nuns who trains Gia and takes her to the school each week. In an interview with CNA, she said, “She [Gia] adores children, she’s very loyal, very intelligent, very easy to train.”

Gia spends the majority of her days in the convent with the sisters. Vega explained that the dog sits outside as the sisters attend Mass in the chapel and will even attend adoration with each of the sisters. They are now working on training her to be able to attend Mass with the children.

“In general, she’s very good, very quiet. She comes to adoration — each of us have an hour of adoration with the Blessed Sacrament — that’s her best hour,” she said.

However, it’s her time with the children that makes Gia the happiest, Vega said. And the response from the students, teachers, and parents has made it even more worthwhile.

“It’s just so beautiful to see the children, how they change when they see the dog just wagging her tail,” Vega expressed. “She’s so good with the children. When [the teachers] see them crying or having a bad day or anything, they either bring her to the classroom or take the child to her and they calm down.”

Gia has also begun to form unique relationships with some of the students.

Vega recalled one particular student who “kneels down to her level and gives her a hug and Gia stands and gives him a hug.”

Some of Gia’s favorite activities included recess with the kids, playing in the school gym where the kids throw tennis balls for her, and receiving treats from the children in their classrooms.

Gia is not the first dog the sisters have trained. Fourteen years ago, at their convent in Cleveland, the nuns raised an emotional-support dog named Ava. She was the first dog they trained as part of their efforts to serve the local schoolchildren near their community.

The Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were founded by Venerable Maria del Refugio in 1910 in Mexico City. Their two pillars are devotion to the Eucharist and to the Blessed Mother. The sisters strive to lead people to experience the merciful love of God found through the Holy Eucharist while being accompanied by the Virgin Mary in the journey of being transformed by the Eucharist.

They also serve Catholic pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade schools. Through their ministry with children, they aim to lead the youth to discover the love of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, encourage the eucharistic celebration to be the source and center of their lives, and spread devotion and filial love to Our Lady of Mercy.

Today, there are more than 430 sisters who staff 83 schools, catechetical centers, and parish ministries in 13 different countries including Mexico, Italy, Spain, and El Salvador, to name a few.

As for Gia, she will continue to be trained in the basics in order to receive her Canine Good Citizen Certificate and strive to be a source of light and joy for the children she visits.

Catholic doctors discuss conscientious objection at physicians meeting in Rome

null / Darko Stojanovic via Pixabay. CC0/Public Domain.

St. Louis, Mo., Sep 25, 2022 / 09:00 am (CNA).

A Catholic doctor’s right to conscientiously object to medical procedures that conflict with his or her faith was a topic of discussion at a recent conference for Catholic physicians meeting in Rome.

The 26th World Congress of Catholic Physicians was put on Sept. 15–17 by the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, which represents 120,000 members in 80 Catholic medical associations across the continents and is the only organization of physicians recognized by the Vatican. The organization’s world congresses are held every four years in different areas of the world.

Vincent Kemme, founder of the Belgian bioethics organization Biofides, which co-organized the Congress, told EWTN News that his organization has observed a shift in recent years, especially in the low countries of Europe, away from conscience protections for the medical profession. Countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands have been at the forefront of offering euthanasia and assisted suicide, and doctors who personally object to the practice must still refer patients.

“In Europe and the United States, the introduction of relativism and moral subjectivism has completely changed the profession of the doctor,” Kemme told EWTN News.

“Where the physician used to be someone who healed, who comforted, who gave care if there was no healing possible, he has now become an instrument to do whatever the patient wants,” he continued.

Participants listen to a speaker at the 26th World Congress of Catholic Physicians held in Rome Sept. 15-17. The event was organized by the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, which represents 120,000 members in 80 Catholic medical associations across the continents and is the only organization of physicians recognized by the Vatican. EWTN News
Participants listen to a speaker at the 26th World Congress of Catholic Physicians held in Rome Sept. 15-17. The event was organized by the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, which represents 120,000 members in 80 Catholic medical associations across the continents and is the only organization of physicians recognized by the Vatican. EWTN News

Kemme said Catholic medical organizations around the world, including the Catholic Medical Association (CMA) in the U.S., are “fighting to defend conscientious objection.” Most recently, the CMA spoke out against a proposed Biden administration rule in July that, if finalized, would force hospitals and doctors to perform gender-transition surgeries and abortions, legal experts say.

“We need to safeguard the right for doctors to object to certain practices, not only the actual procedures of euthanasia, abortion, and gender reassignment but also the requirement to refer patients to a doctor who will perform such a procedure. This, too, is participation in an immoral act,” Kemme told EWTN News.

The September conference included discussions with young physicians about bioethical challenges they have faced.

“We at the Federation do not have solutions for every particular conflict that may arise for Catholic physicians. But we want to emphasize formation — anthropological, philosophical, and theological formation — so that the students not only learn how​​ to be excellent doctors in a technical medical way, but that they are also excellent Catholics in that they know what they believe in, and they can witness of their faith in a reasoned manner,” Kemme said.

“Hospitals need more than just economic success. They need to recognize the divine value of human life. We need to rediscover what the role of the physician is,” he said. “As Christians, we understand that our task is to heal and repair the human person, but not to have the arrogance to think that we can change and transform it. We are not here to change human nature. No, we have to respect that as a gift from God.” You can watch EWTN News' report on the conference in the video below.

Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of conscientious objection protections for medical professionals.

“You are always at the service of human life,” he told a group of pharmacists at the Vatican in 2021. “And this may in some cases involve conscientious objection, which is not infidelity, but on the contrary, fidelity to your profession, if validly motivated.”

The pope noted that today it is fashionable to think that “removing conscientious objection” is a good idea, but, he said, protection of one’s conscience is the ethical right of every health professional and can never be negotiated.

Conscientious objection “is precisely the fundamental responsibility of health professionals,” the pope added, “and it is also a denunciation of the injustices committed against innocent and defenseless human life.”

The next generation of sacred music? Gregorian Chant album uses new spatial audio feature

The Benedictine Monks of Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma emphasize Gregorian Chant as a way to delve deeper into the psalms. / Image credit: The World Over with Raymond Arroyo/screenshot

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2022 / 08:00 am (CNA).

The Benedictine Monks of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma have teamed up with De Montfort Music and Sophia Music Group to release a new album of Advent melodies that takes advantage of Apple’s new spatial audio feature.

Raymond Arroyo from EWTN’s "The World Over" recently spoke with the monks’ Father Abbott Philip Anderson for deeper insight into the inspiration behind the new album and the role music plays in the life of the abbey.

“Once you’re in the monastery for a few months and you’re only [hearing] Gregorian Chant … it’s like your eyes getting used to the dark are [now] ‘getting used to the light,’” Anderson said.

Anderson also spoke about his abbey’s decision to release “Rorate Coeli: Marian Sounds of Advent,” a collection of Advent chants that place the Virgin Mary at its thematic center.

“We were looking for a repertory that hadn’t been done recently elsewhere,” Anderson explained. “We thought Christmas would be a good time … to get out some of this music, so we chose something that hasn’t been recorded, or too much.”

Anderson also explained that, unlike Lent, there is a certain note of joy that imbues the penitential aspect of Advent. Ultimately, Anderson said, the goals behind the album’s release are to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, foster the sacred tradition of Gregorian Chant, and share a deeper insight into the monastic life of the abbey.

“If a person buys a CD … reads the booklet, and listens along with you, you’ll enter into our life a little bit,” he said.

Additionally, listeners can also be aided by Apple’s new spatial audio feature (with support for Dolby Atmos), which orients each element of the music into its own space around the listener.

Rather than simply splitting music into “left” and “right” channels as with stereo music, spatial audio orients each element of the music within a 360-degree radius from the listener — making the experience closer to a live concert rather than a static audio file. (Those interested in learning what this might sound like may do so by trying the free demo on Dolby’s website.)

While the availability of this feature on the album could vary depending on the streaming service used, it is nonetheless a new option for those interested in immersing themselves more deeply within the music.

As for the effort it took to implement the new technology into the monks’ latest album, Anderson credited producer Brad Michel for seamlessly integrating it into their recording process.

“Brad was great,” Anderson said. “He is an accomplished musician, not just a tech guy … He knows the equipment but he also could appreciate the music: the finesse [and] the kind of nuances … He helped us … group together and do the right thing, and so it was a good experience.”

Not only is the technical creation of the album impressive, the training of the monks is also something to take note of — as most members do not have a background in music when they enter the abbey.

“A generation or two ago, young men would enter with a certain knowledge of music, and now it’s rare that they have any training,” Anderson said. “But when you’re young, young men can learn fast, and they do.”

Anderson detailed the training that each monk undergoes in order to learn how to sing Gregorian Chant, which includes participating in an academy of sacred music in Europe as well as taking chant classes to ensure they understand the fundamentals behind the music. This process of formation takes years to complete, Anderson said, which gives ample time for training.

“As they take on responsibilities in the choir, they learn more,” he said. “There’s a whole range of knowledge that comes before you become a choirmaster, for example.”

Watch the full interview below.

Pope Francis appeals for the release of kidnapped Catholics in Cameroon

Pope Francis speaks in his Angelus address after Mass in Matera, Italy on Sept. 25, 2022. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Sep 25, 2022 / 07:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis has appealed for the release of nine Catholics kidnapped in southwest Cameroon.

“I join in the appeal of the bishops of Cameroon for the liberation of some people kidnapped in the diocese of Mamfe, including five priests and a religious sister,” the pope said on Sept. 25.

Speaking in his Angelus address at the end of a Mass in the southern Italian city of Matera, the pope said that he was praying that the Lord may grant peace to Cameroon, where a civil war has been raging since 2017.

Gunmen set fire to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Nchang, Cameroon on the night of Sept. 16 and kidnapped five priests, a religious sister, a cook, a catechist, and a 15-year-old girl living at the convent, according to Vatican News.

Catholic bishops in Cameroon strongly condemned the attack in a statement that called for the immediate release of the kidnapped Christians.

“We insist on this because this act has now crossed the red line and we must say that 'enough is enough,’” it said.

Cameroon has been embroiled in a civil war known as the “Anglophone Crisis” in which armed separatists from the Anglophone regions of the country in the northwest and southwest have taken part in an uprising against government forces. Both sides have been accused of atrocities, including the murder and torture of civilians.

The Catholic Church has recently been targeted in “a wave of persecutions against the hierarchy of the Church," according to the local bishops, who noted that Presbyterian and Baptist churches have also been targeted.

“All kinds of threat messages are sent out against missionaries who have surrendered their lives to work for the people,” the bishops’ statement said.

Bishop Aloysius Fondong Abangalo of Mamfe found that the sacred hosts and the ciborium had been preserved intact in the tabernacle in St. Mary’s Catholic Church after the arson.

In a video released Sept. 21 by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Abangalo is seen genuflecting before the tabernacle in the burned-out church as he retrieved the hosts from the ruins.

The 41-year-old Cameroonian bishop said that the kidnapping and the desecration of the church "dealt a very grievous blow to us as a Church."

He added: "We did not fail to associate such pain to the saving passion of our Lord Jesus Christ ... the source of our hope and victory."

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Pope Francis: The Eucharist teaches us to adore God rather than ourselves

Pope Francis prays at Italy’s National Eucharistic Congress in Matera, Italy on Sept. 25, 2022. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Sep 25, 2022 / 05:30 am (CNA).

Pope Francis traveled to the ancient Italian city of Matera, where he urged thousands of people gathered in a soccer stadium for Sunday Mass to "rediscover" Eucharistic adoration.

“Brothers, sisters, from the city of Matera, this ‘city of bread,’ I would like to tell you: Let us return to Jesus. Let us return to the Eucharist,” Pope Francis said in his homily on Sept. 25.

“Let us return to the taste of bread because while we are hungry for love and hope, or we are broken by the travails and sufferings of life, Jesus becomes food that feeds us and heals us.”

Matera, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world known for its ancient cave dwellings, is also called the “city of bread” due to its traditional sourdough recipe that has been passed down over centuries.

The ancient “city of bread” hosted Italy’s National Eucharist Congress from Sept. 23 to 25. More than 80 bishops and hundreds of delegates from across Italy participated in the congress with the theme “Let us return to the taste of the bread: For a Eucharistic and Synodal Church.”

Pope Francis flew early Sunday morning to the southern Italian city to offer the closing Mass for the congress. He departed by plane rather than by helicopter as scheduled due to stormy weather conditions in Rome and arrived to a warm welcome in Matera as his popemobile passed through a cheering crowd.

In his homily, the pope expressed his dream for “a Eucharistic Church” that “kneels before the Eucharist and adores with wonder the Lord present in the bread, but also knows how to bend with compassion and tenderness before the wounds of those who suffer, relieving the poor, drying the tears of those who suffer, making themselves bread of hope and joy for all.”

He said that the Eucharist presents each person with a challenge: “to adore God and not ourselves, putting Him at the center rather than the vanity of self.”

“When we adore the Lord Jesus present in the Eucharist, we receive a new outlook on our lives as well: I am not the things I possess or the successes I can achieve. The value of my life does not depend on how much I can show off nor does it diminish when I encounter failures and setbacks. I am a beloved child, each of us is a beloved child. I am blessed by God. He wants to clothe me with beauty and free me from all slavery,” Francis said.

“Let us remember this: whoever worships God does not become a slave to anyone. They are free. Let us rediscover the prayer of adoration, a prayer that is frequently forgotten. Adoration … frees us and restores us to our dignity as children, not slaves.”

Prisoners in Italy helped to make the Eucharistic hosts offered during communion at the Mass, as part of an initiative of the Italian prison chaplains’ association. The wine offered at communion was made from vines cultivated by refugees and migrants who work at the House of Dignity vineyards.

At the end of the Mass, Pope Francis prayed the Angelus prayer and recalled that Sept. 25 marks the 108th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, celebrated annually on the last Sunday in September.

The pope said: “Let us renew our commitment to building the future in accordance with God’s plan: a future in which every person may find his or her place and be respected; in which migrants, refugees, displaced persons and the victims of human trafficking may live in peace and with dignity.”

Pope Francis then prayed for peace in Ukraine and in Myanmar, where an air attack on a school earlier this week killed 11 children.

“May the cry of these little ones not go unheard! These tragedies must not happen,” he said.

The pope also appealed for the release of five priests and a religious sister who were kidnapped in Cameroon.

After praying the Angelus, the pope paused in silence in front of an icon of Mary from his wheelchair. The pope, who has struggled with an injury to his knee in recent months, stood up on his own at some points in the liturgy, including to offer the opening prayer.

Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi of Bologna, the president of the Italian bishops conference, served as the primary celebrant for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Pope Francis could be seen seated behind him speaking the words of the Eucharistic prayer with his hand extended.

Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi of Bologna consecrates the host at Mass in Matera, Italy on Sept. 25, 2022. Vatican Media.
Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi of Bologna consecrates the host at Mass in Matera, Italy on Sept. 25, 2022. Vatican Media.

Pope Francis made back to back pastoral visits this weekend to the Italian cities of Assisi and Matera. In Assisi, the pope spoke to participants in the Economy of Francesco conference for young economists, entrepreneurs, and researchers.

After the Mass in Matera, the pope blessed a new soup kitchen for the poor connected with the local parish Church of the Annunciation.

“Today, together, we recognize that the Eucharist is a prophecy of a new world,” Pope Francis said in his homily.

“It is the presence of Jesus who asks us to commit ourselves so that an effective conversion occurs: from indifference to compassion, from waste to sharing, from selfishness to love, from individualism to fraternity.”