2015 Catholics of the Year

In a year that brought abundant joy as well as abundant sorrow, Catholics in the United States and around the world continued to witness the mercy and love of God.

While the past 12 months saw considerable violence — in South Carolina and California, in Paris and throughout the Middle East and Africa — 2015 also was a year of celebration, as the cities of Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia welcomed Pope Francis during his first visit to the U.S. This joyous visit culminated in hundreds of thousands of Catholics worshipping together on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia as the Holy Father celebrated the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families.

The stories of Catholics making an impact on the world at large or at the community level are too many to recount, but Our Sunday Visitor is proud to share its eight Catholics of the Year — men and women, religious and lay — who made an indelible mark in 2015. We thank them and honor them for loving God and serving the Church.

Archbishop Charles Chaput

Philadelphia’s archbishop welcomed the world

Archbishop Chaput

By Lou Baldwin

When Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was appointed archbishop of Philadelphia in 2011, he was well aware his new diocese was among the most adversely affected by the clergy abuse scandal. He did not become aware of the very precarious financial position of the Philadelphia archdiocese that had a still-growing debt of more than $300 million until after his installation.

Archbishop Chaput had just begun his successful effort of putting Philadelphia’s spiritual and fiscal houses in order when, at the close of the Eighth World Meeting of Families held in Milan in 2012, he was asked by Pope Benedict XVI to host the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. This request was later ratified by Pope Francis, who announced in November 2014 that he would attend the event’s closing ceremonies.

It was the task of Archbishop Chaput to assemble a committee of Church and civic leaders for the planning and execution of what would be among the largest events in Philadelphia’s history, never losing sight of its theme: “Love is our mission — the family fully alive.” The event took years of careful planning, with Archbishop Chaput at the helm.

Reflecting after the fact on the World Meeting, which was held September 22-27, Archbishop Chaput wrote, “The Church, the city and the people of Philadelphia achieved something astonishing.” Above all, he wrote, “Success in Philadelphia had two ingredients; the grace of God and the thousands of extraordinary families at the parish level who helped the World Meeting of Families be the sign of hope that God intended. Looking out on a parkway jammed with 900,000 people at the closing Mass, Pope Francis saw the face of the Christian family in our country; the very best of Philadelphia and the very best of the United States. The day clearly moved him, as it did all of us.”

Though he would not say so, Archbishop Chaput was the third ingredient to the very successful World Meeting of Families. For his guidance during this monumentous event, OSV has chosen him as a 2015 Catholic of the Year.

Lou Baldwin writes from Pennsylvania.

Carolyn Woo

Catholic Relief Services’ CEO inspires the faithful to give of themselves

Carolyn Woo

By Lisa M. Hendey

When I’m invited to point to faith-filled women making an impact in today’s Catholic Church, one of my immediate responses is to offer the exemplary service and leadership of Carolyn Woo. A gifted yet always humble executive with academic and professional credentials too numerous to detail, Woo embodies the spirit of “The Joy of the Gospel” through joyful missionary action in a worldwide mission territory.

Following a distinguished academic career as dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, Woo transitioned from her role as a member of the board of directors of Catholic Relief Services to become president and CEO of the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Church. In 2015, under Woo’s faithful guidance, CRS continued its emergency response and recovery operations following the Nepal earthquake and led the way in providing compassionate support for Syrian refugees. CRS’s continued long-term initiatives in health, education, microfinance and other programming goals point to Woo’s dedication not only in moments of immediate need but also in CRS’s commitment to a holistic approach to help those they serve reach their full potential.

Woo continually responds with servant leadership on a global basis. In June 2015, she helped mark the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. Woo’s book, “Working for a Better World” (OSV, $16.95), also released this year, moved beyond a fascinating memoir and into the realm of invitation, urging each of us to consider our own vast potential to give the best parts of ourselves to the world around us.

Woo challenges me to ask not what my Church is doing for me, but to look outside myself and prayerfully discern how best to share my gifts with a world that seems to be so constantly in need. Woo reminds me that when the need feels too great or the disaster seems too painful to imagine, I, too, have a role to play in being a part of not only an immediate solution but in lasting care.

A gifted communicator and strategist, Woo possesses a nurturing heart — formed intellectually and transformed by her own compassionate response to the face of Christ in others — that enables her to persevere and indeed thrive in the most challenging circumstances. Our Sunday Visitor is pleased to honor her as a 2015 Catholic of the Year.

Lisa M. Hendey is the founder of CatholicMom.com.

Father Jacques Mourad

Kidnapped priest trusts in God in the midst of persecution

Father Jacques Mourad

By Michael J.L. La Civita

Even in the midst of the diabolical war on humanity in Syria, Father Jacques Mourad is cherished by Syrians of all faiths for his outreach to all in need, regardless of faith. So when a deacon named Peter and he were abducted in May from the ancient Syriac Catholic monastery of Mar Elian, from where he had sheltered displaced families, the desperate cries of outrage reached even the West’s war-weary secular media.

After a week in captivity, which in an interview with L’Orient-Le Jour the priest described as fraught with “fear, anger and shame,” a man entered his cell and began to talk to him. Asking why he had been abducted, his captor replied, “Consider it a spiritual retreat.”

“From then on, my prayer, my days took on a meaning,” Father Mourad said. “How can I explain? I felt that through him, it was the Lord who sent me these words. That moment was a great comfort to me. Through prayer, I was able to regain my peace. Almost every day someone entered my cell and asked me about my faith. I lived every day as if it were my last. ... God gave me two things, silence and friendliness. ... Occasionally, poetic songs ... also came back to me, especially one of them that spoke of dusk, which I sang when the long nights of June fell on Raqqa and we were left in the dark. Even these words and their music became a prayer. They spoke of the suffering ‘inscribed in the twilight.’”

Father Mourad, Peter and the residents of a Christian village also held in captivity were freed in September, their freedom bought and protection “secured.” Returning to bury a deceased friend at the site of his beloved monastery, founded by St. Julian hundreds of years before the advent of Islam, he noted its destruction by ISIS. A place of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims, the monastery became a symbol of everything ISIS combats: a place for prayer and dialogue where mutual respect was understood to be a gift from God. “I have a bigger responsibility now with Christian-Muslim dialogue,” Father Mourad told CNS.

For Father Mourad’s bravery and trust in God during a time of extreme peril, OSV is pleased to name him a 2015 Catholic of the Year.

Michael J.L. La Civita is communications director of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Lila Rose

Live Action founder’s advocacy for the unborn helps shape pro-life movement

Lila Rose

By Patti Maguire Armstrong

Lila Rose has taken the abortion industry’s brazen disregard for the law and repeatedly exposed it to the world by going undercover behind the doors of Planned Parenthood.

When she was only 15, Rose founded the nonprofit Live Action in 2003 with a few friends in San Jose, California, to educate young people about the horrors of abortion.

As a history major at UCLA, she assembled a team to conduct sting operations by posing as underage pregnant girls wanting abortions. The secretly videotaped abuses by Planned Parenthood included protecting sex traffickers and the sexual abusers of underage girls.

The videos have been a force behind state defunding of more than $61 million for Planned Parenthood and the impetus behind pro-life legislation in a number of states.

David Daleiden, who this summer released multiple videos documenting Planned Parenthood’s selling of aborted baby parts, began his undercover work with Live Action before he went on to found The Center for Medical Progress. “Lila is a visionary whose passion for life, goodness and truth is nearly unmatchable,” he said. “I am honored to work alongside her to restore life and liberty even to our smallest brothers and sisters.”

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life said, “I have been privileged to be a mentor to Lila over the years, and I have always seen in her a spirit of boldness and a constant openness to God’s will.”

Rose ignites passion within the pro-life youth culture, drawing huge numbers in social media. She is a regular guest on national TV and radio, and she has appeared on almost every major news outlet. Her vow to keep fighting abortion and promoting the preciousness of life in the womb until every abortion facility has been shut down has earned her a place among OSV’s 2015 Catholics of the Year.

Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.

Marlene Watkins

Through her devotion to Lourdes, ‘housewife’ extends God’s mercy to those who need it most

Marlene Watkins

By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller

Marlene Watkins calls the Lourdes experience the “liquid grace of mercy.”

“The Gospels and the miracles of Christ and the mercy of God are tightly connected to Lourdes,” she said about the site in France where, in 1858, Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous. “The miracles and conversations are acts of grace — and acts of mercy.”

Watkins, a self-described “housewife,” in 2002 founded Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers based in Syracuse, New York. “We go to Lourdes to serve the sick and take care of them, and we take the sick to Lourdes,” she said. “Since our founding, we [have] brought over 4,000 to Lourdes in more than 200 pilgrimages. Then God has given us the grace to know that not everyone can go, so we bring the grace and mercy of Lourdes to them in virtual pilgrimages.”

Since 2004, volunteers have guided more than 115,000 people on interactive pilgrimages with processions, blessings and opportunities to touch rocks from the grotto and to dip their hands in water from Lourdes. Pilgrimages have been held at churches, schools, youth groups, universities and prisons in more than 38 states and in 14 countries on four continents.

“The liquid grace of mercy is changing people’s lives,” Watkins said. “The sick and the dying return to the sacraments. When we go to super maximum prisons, they cannot believe that they can be forgiven. I tell them that the pope himself sends a plenary indulgence with the pilgrimage, and that you can be forgiven and go to confession and have a new life. I have seen hardened criminals sobbing. The door opens, and you can see God’s mercy.”

As the Church begins this Year of Mercy, OSV is happy to select Watkins as a 2015 Catholic of the Year.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Dr. Janet Smith

Conference organizer advances dialogue on Church’s care to those with same-sex attraction

Dr. Janet Smith

By Michelle Martin

The shift on views of homosexuality among Catholics and non-Catholics alike has been nothing less than seismic, with majorities of both Catholics and the general public supporting the right of homosexual couples to marry.

When the Supreme Court’s June ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, about 57 percent of Catholics agreed with the decision, according to the Pew Research Center.

That was the environment that Dr. Janet E. Smith was facing when she joined with Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage International, in organizing “Welcoming and Accompanying our Brothers and Sisters with Same-Sex Attraction,” a three-day conference near Detroit on how best to minister to men and women who experience same-sex attraction.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the Church has an enormous space to grow in how it ministers to people with same-sex attraction,” Smith said in an interview with OSV. “And of course, our culture has become so tolerant and accepting of same-sex behavior and same-sex marriage that we really need to know how to think about these things and how to act upon them.”

Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and works mostly in the area of sexual ethics and bioethics. She is serving a third term as a consulter to the Pontifical Council on the Family.

The conference was for priests, religious educators and others who already understood the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage, she said, and it included a variety of voices.

Coming on the heels of the Obergefell decision, the conference was a timely opportunity to both affirm the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and, at the same time, open up avenues of dialogue. For her role in helping to organize and facilitate the conference, Our Sunday Visitor is pleased to list Dr. Janet Smith among its 2015 Catholics of the Year.

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda

Archbishop’s compassion helps an archdiocese heal

Archbishop Bernard Hebda
Photo by Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit

By Maria Wiering

This fall, Catholics from across the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis gathered for a series of listening sessions to address their local Church’s strengths and challenges, as well as the attributes they hoped to see in their next archbishop. Nearly 2,000 Catholics attended the 10 sessions, with scores of others adding to the conversation in writing. Their opinions ranged widely, but a single phrase was repeated often enough to thread a certain unity: “Thank you.” For many, it was a gift to have been heard.

The sessions were the brainchild of Archbishop Bernard Hebda, coadjutor of Newark, New Jersey, who took on the additional role of apostolic administrator of St. Paul and Minneapolis in June following the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché. Archbishop Hebda, 56, credited the listening session idea to Pope Francis, citing the pontiff’s consultative example and reminder to bishops that “dialogue is our method.”

Archbishop Hebda hoped the sessions would be a step toward healing for an archdiocese wounded by clergy sex abuse scandals, bankruptcy and criminal charges. He also hoped they would inform the nuncio’s recommendations to Pope Francis for the archdiocese’s next archbishop. A representative of the nunciature who attended several listening sessions said they were unprecedented in an episcopal selection process.”

Archbishop Hebda made clear at the onset of his assignment to St. Paul and Minneapolis that he viewed his work there as his primary role. He has approached his temporary flock with humility, deference and good humor. Telling is another idea frequently expressed to Archbishop Hebda, which one meeting attendee put this way: “Can’t you just stay?”

For his compassion and creativity in helping to heal a community in distress, OSV is happy to name Archbishop Hebda as one of its 2015 Catholics of the Year.

Maria Wiering is the editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

Sister Norma Pimentel

Sister’s care and compassion for refugees draws appreciation from the pope

Sister Norma Pimentel

By Brenda Nettles Riojas

When the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas became the point of entry for thousands of refugees fleeing violence in their homeland to seek asylum in the United States, Sister Norma Pimentel, a sister of the Missionaries of Jesus, was quick to respond. As director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, she worked with local officials and organized community resources in June 2014 to set up humanitarian respite centers in Brownsville and McAllen, Texas. To date, volunteers have welcomed and assisted more than 28,000 refugees from Central America.

Sister Norma, who chairs the local program that distributes federal funds to agencies providing assistance to the area’s poor, is no stranger to helping those in need. She is among the first to respond to provide relief in times of disaster and crisis. Long before her work with Catholic Charities, she was one of the leaders in the 1980s who directed Casa Oscar Romero, a refugee shelter for Central Americans fleeing their war-torn countries. The shelter provided relief and temporary housing for hundreds of thousands of refugees.

She believes her work is a blessing. In regard to the awards and attention she received in 2015, she said, it helps to highlight the love and generosity of so many who are helping.

Sister Norma was first introduced to Pope Francis via a “virtual town hall” arranged by ABC News on Aug. 31, which aired in a one-hour special edition of “20/20” on Sept. 4. The pope asked her to approach the microphone so he could meet her. He thanked her and the volunteers for their work. She said she felt like the Holy Father was “showing us to the world and saying, ‘This is what I applaud and I love, and I want you all to continue to do.’”

Sister Norma said she thinks Pope Francis’ call for a “revolution of tenderness” is ideal in this Year of Mercy. “We need to be tender and loving as we can to one another, and especially to those who need us,” she said.

Pointing to recent terror attacks, Sister Norma said each of us must counteract the ugliness and terrorism that is happening in the world “with our force of goodness.”

A shining force of goodness in this seemingly ever-darkening world, Sister Norma has been selected as one of Our Sunday Visitor’s 2015 Catholics of the Year.

Brenda Nettles Riojas is the editor of The Valley Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas.