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Our favorite stories of 2016


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Elizabeth Scalia - published on 12/27/16

Before we ring in 2017, a look back at some of our favorite pieces, and some worthies you may have missed
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Every year, the editorial review of nearly every publication seems to highlight 12 months of lunacy and sorrow with a few bright moments shining through. In looking back on 2016 — a year so surprising that social media has created a kind of shorthand for each new confounding headline: “2016, man…” — remembering those moments (like the death of Mother Angelica), and the questions (“What IS the ‘Benedict Option,’ anyway?”), and the horrors (as in the eyewitness accounts of a modern martyrdom) — the sheer abundance of fascinating material made it hard to select just 17.

In the end it seemed best to simply go with our favorite pieces — some of which were newsy, while others were the “personal little stories” that end up speaking constructively to our hearts. Let’s take a look back before we fully turn the calendar page. In (mostly) chronological order:

Supplied photo
Supplied photo

1) A Bishop Who Tweets, Podcasts and Talks to the Flock From His Car by Zoe Romanowsky
Bishop Christopher Coyne is leading the way in his use of digital media to share the Gospel and educate Catholic youth

Zoe Romanowsky’s series on Catholic Innovators, has brought many creative, energetic and inspiring layfolk to the fore, but in February she found an innovator in a young Catholic bishop, Christopher Coyne, who is currently serving the people of Burlington Vermont. A self-confessed “Mac-geek” Coyne embraced digital outreach early on; now he is creating a digital Catholic High School for his very rural diocese:

We only have two Catholic high schools … we’re such a rural state — everything is spread out. How do we engage our Catholic families and Catholic students, especially at the high school level? And the idea of a digital Catholic high school came to fruition, not just as an online program, or as a curriculum for homeschooling families, or classes, but we asked: What makes Catholic school unique? It’s the formation.

Read the rest here


2) Fatal Detraction: The Sin No One Talks About by Deacon Greg Kandra
It’s easier to think the worst of others than the best, but what is that “dark joy” doing to our souls and society?

Taking a look around the lack of charity in evidence among Catholics all over the internet, Deacon Greg shares some pertinent quotes from both the Catecheism and Fr. John Hardon, and asks:

…it’s worth asking ourselves whether we have, knowingly or not, been guilty of detraction. Have we intentionally taken away the good name of another? Have we sought to damage someone’s reputation (even if we thought they had it coming)?  Have we entertained the dark joy of gossip?

Read the rest here


3) Jumbo Feeney Will Never Miss Mass Again, by Larry Peterson
How gratitude and a wife’s quiet persistence coaxed a soul home

Sometimes the best, most heartening and instructive lessons come from ordinary people living ordinary lives, like you and me. Larry Peterson, who shared a slew of good stories with us in 2016, inspired us with this one:

“Okay, Petie, here it is. And I ain’t never told this to anyone, so keep it under your hat. Every night when Midge and I go to bed, she grabs my hand and we say a Hail Mary. Then she says, ‘God loves you, Jumbo.’ Then we go to sleep.”

“That’s a beautiful thing, Jumbo. Midge is a great gal. She loves you a lot.”

“Yeah, I know, I know. But I never paid attention and just let her say her prayer and that was that. And she never bugged me about it, ever.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, last night, Midge was acting weird and suddenly passed out.

Read the rest here.


4) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Marriage and Annulments But Were Afraid to Ask, by Diane Montagna
Does divorce mean excommunication? Does annulment mean your kids are illegitimate?

In anticipation of Pope Francis’ exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), Aleteia observed comboxes and social media threads and decided it would be good to cover the basics of our teaching. Diane Montagna scored an interview with Msgr. John Kennedy, acting bureau chief of the Matrimonial Section of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he was not only clear and informative, but kind of delightful, too. One of our best interviews of the year.

If I get an annulment, are my children illegitimate?

The children are never considered illegitimate. The legitimacy of children is determined by the laws of the country, not by the Church. Just as a divorce does not make children illegitimate, neither does an annulment granted by the Church. Canon law states that children born of a supposedly valid union are legitimate children. Therefore, if the marriage is later shown to have been invalid, the status of the children remains unchanged: they are legitimate.

You can read the whole thing here

Jeffrey Bruno/EWTN News
Jeffrey Bruno/EWTN News

5) Mother Angelica: The Legacy of a Life Well-Lived by Elizabeth Scalia
A look back at the death of a powerful abbess

Illustrated with intimate images taken by photographer Jeff Bruno, a month after her death Aleteia looked back at a remarkable farewell:

Here we see those final farewells, and how the legacy of one fervent and determined nun lives on in her community, is reflected in a daughter’s face, closed in prayer yet without the contortions of hopeless grief. Instead there is tranquility in a tender moment, and a sense of purpose and perseverance and surety — because these nuns possess “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” that is faith, and so they will go on, living lives of prayer, adoration and sacrifice, for the sake of the world.

Read the rest here


6) 5 Reasons to Stay Until the End of Mass, by Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, fsp
We hope our pastor and friends won’t notice if we leave early, but Someone does

Sr. Theresa did our consciences a lot of good with her weekly column (which will become monthly as she is headed to grad school), and this one spoke to many:

On the Day of Atonement, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, had the honor of going into the holy of holies on the day the angel told him that he and his wife would have a child. The people eagerly waited outside for him to give them a blessing after he offered incense. When Zechariah came out mute because he did not believe the angel’s message, the lack of a blessing amplifies the dishonor and the tragedy of losing his voice. I am sure the people went home very disappointed. Blessings are precious. When a priest, who by his ordination is configured to Christ, gives his final blessing, we are being blessed by God himself. If Jesus were standing ready to give us a blessing before we left Mass and went back out into the world, wouldn’t you wait for it?

Read the whole thing here.


7) What is the “Benedict Option” and Why Might it be Coming to your Neighborhood?, by John Burger
Not an escape, Rod Dreher says, but a chance for Christians to regroup

Orthodox conservative columnist Rod Dreher wrote a lot about the “Benedict Option” in 2016, and John Burger did a great job of helping our readers understand an idea and movement that is less about seeking to “escape” from social trends, than about Christians seeking a return to what they are called to.

For the most part, Christians have had a happy — some would even say “privileged” — time of it in America, where Christianity and Christian churches were essentially left alone as they freely exercised their religion within society both privately and, up until recently, in partnership with the government. Well, that was then, and this is now. The very effective cooperative partnership that existed between the U. S. government and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to serve victims of human trafficking was ended due to the Obama administration’s insistence that contraception and abortion be included in any assistance provided to victims. Some cities have seen Catholic adoption services come to an end because they cannot conform to anti-discrimination laws that, in legal suit after suit, are adjudicated against religious freedom. In general, Christians are firmly being told that if they wish to remain in the public square and involved in social services, parades, or business enterprises of any kind, they will have to sacrifice their values and teachings to the shifting morals of the times and resultant regulations, or be ready to give up their business and abandon their missions. The time of “privilege” appears to be over.

Read the rest here

Public Domain

8) Hush Your Mouth! The Mercy of Shutting Up, by Joanne McPortland
Holding your tongue is sometimes a “specific requirement of love”

Although readers were generally enthusiastic about our “Practicing Mercy Series,” which ran throughout the Year of Mercy, by far the piece that most resonated with them was Joanne McPortland’s essay on a subject most of us fail in: knowing when to shut one’s mouth.

Today we would amend James’s description to include the typing fingers and the texting thumbs, equally susceptible to Hell’s arson and equally setting lives on fire with malice. Here, then, are just of few of the many situations in which I need to practice mercy by holding my tongue — and atoning for the times I have not.
  • When I must have the last word. Whether it’s a tussle with a family member about whose chore it is or who started it, or an online political argument, I rarely know when to quit. But there is no scorekeeping in love and mercy (or where would we sinners be?). None of us is right 100 percent of the time, and seldom are the things we argue about even 10 percent important. There’s a reason we call some people gracious losers — because they model grace by how they hold their peace.

Read the rest here.


9) Is the Way We’re Fighting Poverty Actually Making Things Worse?, by Zoe Romanowsky
His new documentary film “Poverty, Inc.” is winning awards and changing minds across the spectrum
The war on poverty has been going on for a while, but the divide between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots has never been wider or deeper, and the consequences of chronic hopelessness are showing themselves to be dire. Zoe Romanowsky, again as part of her Innovators series, talked to filmmaker Michael Matheson Miller about how conventional practices are making things worse, not better, as he documents clearly in “Poverty, Inc”, praise for which transcended political spectrums:

We tend to treat poor persons as objects — objects of our charity, objects of our pity, objects of our compassion — instead of treating them like subjects and protagonists of their own stories. And when I say “subjects,” I don’t mean of a king or queen, but in the sense of the grammatical, as another “I.” We did more than 200 interviews around the world for the film, and we let people tell their stories and share their experiences so the audience can better understand the “poverty industry.” This is a secular film, for general audiences, but for those who are aware of it, the whole driving force is really the philosophical anthropology of the Catholic Church, and specifically the philosophical anthropology of John Paul II.

Well worth reading the whole thing.


10) The Night My Father Unleashed Love on the Forces of Nazi Hell, by Larry Peterson
Our neighbor’s nightmares seemed unending, but one night, healing began

Larry Peterson recalls his father’s own generosity — and bravery — in assisting neighbors for whom the horror of the Holocaust could never end:

Sophie Rabinowitz had been having nightmares created years before, when her two boys, ages 12 and 9, were clubbed to death by the Nazis as they made her and Leo watch. Leo and Sophie had begged their captors to kill them and spare their children but the Nazis tortured the parents further by allowing them to live.

Read the whole thing, here.

George Martell

11) Iraqi Nun Lived Through 4 Wars: Now Brings Healing to Boston, by John Burger
Mother Olga Yaqob, foundress of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, feels called to be a bridge between peoples

Aleteia spent time with Franciscan brothers in New York City, and cloistered nuns on Facebook, and our team even interviewed not one but two very young Mother Superiors over 2016. All of them were fascinating in their own ways, Mother Olga’s story was a must readtestimony of faith and hope:

Mother Olga Yaqob has seen a lot in her 49 years, having lived through four wars in her native Iraq and started a new life in America. But she had never witnessed a birth like the one that occurred at a local Boston area hospital this past month. “She was with a woman who was going through a very difficult labor, so she dropped to her knees and started praying,” said Pat Dembrowski, a case manager at a women’s shelter where Mother Olga ministers. “The medical team asked her to remove herself from the floor, which she wouldn’t do until the baby was born safely—which he was. There was a point where they were losing both the baby and the mother. Mother was there the whole time. … We attributed [the safe birth] to her faith and the faith of the mom because the baby’s heart had stopped beating.”

Read the rest here


12 Dispatch from Lesbos: Refugee hospitality toward the Westerners who help, by Edward Mulholland
Syrian shopkeepers and archaeologists share their meal, their coffee and their stories with an American volunteer

Over the summer Edward Mulholland, an Assistant Professor at Benedictine College, sent Aleteia a piece he’d written upon arriving at Lesbos, where he was volunteering to assist refugees from the Middle East. We liked it enough to ask for a series which we called “Dispatch from Lesbos”. One thing Eddie learned, (and our editorial assistant, JP Mauro learned it as well) was what a true desolation it is for refugees to be unable to honor their professions as they become dependent upon states and agencies. Here, Mulholland is invited to dinner with refugee families seeking to find their own agency, in the form of a meal they prepare and share:

Faris has cell-phone video of his house being bombed. Pre-and post-destruction pictures of the cell-phone shop and mini-market which was his business. … This is a group of friends and family who all grew up together and, once they were adults, decided to live on the same street. And all hell broke loose. Isis blew their dream to high heaven. […] [Mohammed] and his wife are both archaeologists. He doesn’t seem much interested in that now. When I asked if he had been to see the ruins of the theatre in Mytilini, he shrugged. His present worry is, when the permission comes through for them to go to Athens for their asylum interview, where will they sleep? They have three young daughters and a son.
It touched a nerve when I asked about Palmyra, an archaeological site that Isis has bulldozed. “See, that is the one question I would like to ask Obama,” he said. “USA or the Russians, they have planes, they knew they were going to do this, why didn’t they stop it?…”

Read the whole thing here.

Foundry - PD

13) Help! My Hipster Niece is Wearing Grandma’s Rosary!, by Katrina Fernandez
Katrina Fernandez fixes it for you…

Katrina Fernandez possesses a great deal of common sense and practical wisdom and those gifts have been used to good effect in her weekly advice column, where she responds to reader questions on everything from porn, to taking kids into the confessional, to the disinterest of an adolescent Catholic, to what lawn ornaments a new Catholic might like. Her response to a question about a hipster niece and the Rosary was typically smart:

My point is, instead of trying to convince your niece to give up her Nana Bea’s rosary, offer to teach her how to pray it. If she declines, then pray your own rosary for her conversion. Also consider that your niece is wearing the rosary to feel close to her Nana. Talk to her about that. Maybe she just misses her grandmother. If that’s the case then offering to teach her the rosary can be a way for her to feel connected to her grandmother. There’s a lesson in here for everyone. Don’t assume a person wearing a rosary as a necklace is doing so out of disrespect or even ignorance. In fact, a lot of very devout and practicing Catholics of Hispanic heritage wear the rosary in the same way that most of us wear medals and the crucifix around our necks.

Catch Katrina every Tuesday, here.

Kuni Takahashi/Getty
Kuni Takahashi/Getty

14 I’m back from Calcutta, and still having nightmares, by Jeffrey Bruno
‘Poorest of the poor’ isn’t some catchy little slogan …

As the canonization of Mother Teresa drew near, our intrepid photographer Jeff Bruno, lately returned from Poland where he had covered World Youth Day, found himself flying to Calcutta, watching the Missionaries of Charity as they watched the canonization, and helping out a bit. The searing poverty he encountered there remained with him after getting back to the US, and gave him nightmares:

When I was in Calcutta I wandered around by myself through the streets one day, getting lost once or twice and seeing things that someone from the West just isn’t prepared for. I saw children being bathed in puddles that were filled with excrement, families sleeping in the streets with only a mat and a tarp for a home, people and animals together picking through piles of food waste discarded on the streets by the vendors. I even heard a dog get killed and butchered for its meat. As I walked through the streets, unable to fully process what I was seeing, I couldn’t even lift my camera to take a picture. Never in my wildest nightmares had I imagined that this level of poverty could exist in the modern world. […] There are no safety nets, no welfare systems, no path to anything, and no way out, except death. I realize now why Christ said “the poor will always be with you”…because I don’t think anyone can fathom a way to ‘fix’ this.

Read the rest here


15) A single phrase helped save my marriage, by Elizabeth Scalia
While crying in the shower, one husband “challenges God” in desperation and is let in on a great secret

On paper, Richard Paul Evans seemed like he should be one of the happiest men on earth. A father of five, the wildly successful fiction writer, whose name is often atop the New York Times bestseller list, seemed to have it all. Yet despite all that, his marriage was unhappy and headed nowhere good, until he found a single phrase that made all the difference:

Finally, hoarse and broken, I sat down in the shower and began to cry. In the depths of my despair powerful inspiration came to me. You can’t change her, Rick. You can only change yourself. At that moment I began to pray. If I can’t change her, God, then change me. I prayed late into the night. I prayed the next day on the flight home. I prayed as I walked in the door to a cold wife who barely even acknowledged me. That night, as we lay in our bed, inches from each other yet miles apart, the inspiration came. I knew what I had to do.

Read the rest here.

© Luc Adrian/Hamel handout

16) Witnesses to martyrdom: Father Hamel’s last moments, by Elizabeth Scalia
Survivors of the Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray attack described their ordeal to French journalists

The bloody martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel, slain as he knelt beside the altar upon which he had just celebrated Holy Mass, shocked the world in August of 2016. In October, eyewitnesses were ready to talk about all they had experienced, and the story is riveting:

[Guy] Coponet reveals that the jihadis forced him to videotape their actions, which he found enormously difficult. “[They] grabbed me by the collar and put a camera in my hands and said, ‘Granddaddy, you take the movie.’ They even checked the quality of the picture and made sure that I was not shaking too much.” What followed was an unimaginable nightmare for him: “I had to film the assassination of my friend Father Jacques! I can’t get over it…” The attackers intended for their video to be fed to social media networks, Coponet said. After the slaying of Fr. Hamel, Coponet warned them that they were on the wrong side of heaven, and that their parents would die of grief from their actions. At that point, one of the men lashed out. “He stabbed me and dragged me to the bottom of the altar steps. The floor was all red, but I didn’t realize that it was my blood flowing. I didn’t feel any pain at the time. I tightened my hand around my throat because blood was spurting out.” Janine Coponet remembers immediately entrusting her husband to the intercession of St. Therese of Lisieux and the Venerable Carmelite friar, Father Marie-Eugene. She related a sense of their whole married life together passing “before my mind’s eye in a few seconds.” With three stab wounds, she believed her husband would not survive.

Read the rest here


17) Miraculous recovery attributed to Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, by Will Duquette
A young man’s unexplained recovery may be the miracle that leads to the future saint’s canonization

What kind of year would it be for Catholics without at least one great, inspiring story of a holy person and a miracle. And this one, involving Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, is a doozy. If this is accepted as a genuine miracle, we may soon see his canonization:

During his coma, [Kevin Becker] remembers waking up in the house he shared with his friends, and hearing someone downstairs. That was odd; he says he’s always the first one up. He investigated, and in the living room he found a young man he didn’t know. “Who are you?” “I’m George, your new roommate.” “That can’t be. I already have two roommates.” “They aren’t around anymore.” “Oh.” He then spent a long timeless day with George. An ardent soccer player who hates staying indoors, Kevin kept trying to leave the house but George wouldn’t let him go. They fought about it, as if they were brothers, but George was adamant. He encouraged him to be patient. Kevin remembers passing the time by doing schoolwork—which he says would surprise anyone who knew him before his accident—and sitting on the couch with George playing a soccer video game called “FIFA.” Eventually he awoke in the hospital.

You have to read the whole thing.

Nordisk Films

18) Why does Pope Francis want us to watch the movie “Babette’s Feast”?, by Philip Kosloski
The Holy Father’s favorite film challenges us to look outside of ourselves in service to mercy

After the Holy Father mentioned to Avvenire magazine that his favorite film was “Babette’s Feast” Phil Kosloski wrote a great piece on why that might be:

Pope Francis sees the beauty of the film in a few different ways. First of all he sees the feast as an example of true joy. He writes in Amoris laetitia:

“The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: ‘Ah, how you will delight the angels!’ It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centred, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit” (AL, 129).

Pope Francis sees in the selfless giving of Babette an example that we should all follow. Babette spent her whole lottery winnings to make this feast and spent weeks planning the meal and securing the necessary ingredients. This is the joy that Pope Francis wants us to experience, a joy that does not focus on selfish needs but on the joy of others.

Secondly, Pope Francis sees the film as a call to open ourselves to the working of the Holy Spirit.

Read the rest here


19) “Computer geek” takes one more step toward sainthood, by Philip Kosloski
Carlo Acutis, who died at 15 years old, cataloged all of the Eucharistic miracles in the world. “We have always been expected in heaven.”

This story seemed to have come out of nowhere, but the whole Aleteia team instantly fell in love with the story of 15-year-old Carlo Acutis, and his impressive faith:

[His mother] pointed out, “I should stress that he was a normal boy who was joyful, serene, sincere, and helpful and loved having company, he liked having friends.” He remains an inspiration, especially to teenagers who aren’t sure whether they could be both holy and “normal” and individually unique. “All people are born as originals,” he said, “but many die as photocopies.” To die as an “original,” Carlo maintained, was to be guided by Christ, and to look at Him constantly. While he may have led a devout prayer life — he went to Mass everyday — Carlo was very much interested in being a teenager in the 21st century. While his interests were very broad, he also found to time volunteer for work with children and the elderly for, as he said, “Our aim has to be the infinite and not the finite. The Infinite is our homeland. We have always been expected in Heaven.”

Learn more about Carolo here

Antoine Mekary /ALETEIA and Fair Use

20) “This is a kiss from the pope…”: Francis’ letter to a dying girl, by Diane Montagna
The pope began, “Read this letter together with your mother, and the kiss that she will give you now will be a kiss from the pope.”

He is known for picking up a phone to call someone who has sent him a letter; in the case of a 10-year-old girl named Paolina, the pope sent a missive that would bring great comfort, and a lasting memento of something shared, to her family:

During the homily, Fr. Michele read a letter Paolina had received from Pope Francis. It came in response to a letter which the girl’s mother had sent to the pope, asking him to bless her daughter and to pray for her.

Pope Francis would have received Paolina in the Vatican on October 26, but she was unable to keep the appointment, as she wasn’t well enough to make the journey.

Read the pope’s letter here

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