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Omaha artist paints one-of-a-kind Paschal candles

Omaha, Neb., Apr 17, 2019 / 03:01 am (CNA).- Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio have blessed mankind with stunning works of art. They gave themselves ample space to create: For Michelangelo, it was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. For Rembrandt and Caravaggio, often it was large canvases.

Omaha artist Robert Faulhaber doesn’t have the luxury of space when he paints. The medium on which he works is the slender surface of a Paschal candle.

The ritual of the Paschal candle

This candle is an integral part of services during the Easter season, and beyond. It is lit each day during Mass throughout the Easter season until Ascension Thursday, and then again for baptisms and funerals.

Made of beeswax, it represents Christ, the sinless Light of the World. The wick signifies his humanity, and the flame his divinity.

Five grains of incense embedded in the candle in the form of a cross recall the perfumed spices that prepared Christ’s body for the tomb, and his five sacred wounds.

During the Easter Vigil, the priest or deacon carries the candle in procession into the dark church. A new fire symbolizing our eternal life in Christ  is kindled, which in turn lights the candle.

As he chants a prayer, the priest blesses the candle. He carves in it a cross, the first letters and last of the Greek alphabet (Alpha and Omega, “the beginning and the end”) and the current year; then he inserts the five grains of incense.

The size of a Paschal candle can range from 3 to 4 inches in diameter and 48 to 61 inches high. The actual space Faulhaber has to paint is a mere 7 by 24 inches.

Most parishes get their candles from a church supply store, and the decorative features on them look mostly the same.

However, each of Faulhaber’s candles is a one-of-a-kind creation.

“I begin each new project by praying to the Holy Spirit,” Faulhauber said. “I want every candle to glorify God.”

Although some of Faulhaber’s candles may have the same central design, no two share the same borders, colors, and details. “There are no other candles like mine in the entire world.”

Photo credit:


A faith-based childhood

Faulhaber, 52, was born in Davenport, Iowa, and moved to Rock Island, Illinois, when he was 10. His youth was shaped by a love of drawing, sketching, and painting.

“I started drawing when I was three years old,” he said.

Faulhaber grew up in a household where the Catholic faith was expressed and witnessed. He often attended daily Mass with his mother, and his parents frequently talked about religious vocations. Two of his uncles were priests, and an aunt was a nun.

He failed the first grade because of a learning disability, making him the target of his classmates’ jokes.

Every day his mother sent him with a homemade lunch and the instructions to “take Jesus to school with you.”

He says his mom’s advice changed his life. “It no longer mattered what my classmates might say to me. I knew Jesus loved me.”

Developing valuable relationships

In Rock Island, many of Faulhaber’s friends were Native Americans. It was through those friendships that he developed a passion for their culture and music.

Soon he was a regular at powwows, the Native American cultural event that features group singing and dancing. Before long, he was participating in the ceremonies.

When he was 16, he used his artistic talent to make his first rawhide drum. He still makes drums today, in addition to the outfits and beadwork he wears when performing in powwows throughout the U.S. and Canada.

After graduating from Rock Island High School, Faulhaber moved to Des Moines and continued to attend daily Mass with his mother. He also accompanied her to Thursday night prayer meetings at the Basilica of St. John in Des Moines.

It was there he met Monsignor Frank Chiodo, who introduced him to monastic life. Msgr. Chiodo was living at the basilica at the time.

At 33, Faulhaber had no life plan. After his move to Des Moines, he held various jobs with a Midwest grocery store chain. It was good work, but he wanted more out of life, and he knew more awaited him.

Falulhaber decided to give up his few possessions and walk away from the only life he knew to join the Society of St. John, a religious order founded by Msgr. Chiodo.

While part of that community, he painted his first Paschal candle – a depiction of Christ sitting on a throne holding a book titled “I AM.”

“I’ll always remember my first candle,” Faulhaber said. “I had to pray hard for God’s help.”

He found himself in uncharted waters, so he put to good use his familiarity and experience with icon writing when painting on beeswax the first time.

When he finished, Faulhaber remembers stepping back from that first candle and whispering to himself, “What did I do?”

People stood in line inside the basilica to admire the candle. “It was the first time they had ever seen candle art. It was my first time, too.”

Studying iconography

Faulhaber, or Brother Bob as he was known then, transferred in 2002 to Mount Michael Abbey in Elkhorn, Nebraska. He painted several Paschal candles for the abbey.

The abbey supported Faulhaber’s interest in other art forms and sent him to the prestigious Prosopon School of Iconology in Wisconsin.

There he learned the Russian method of icon writing, which uses a paste made of raw materials, egg yolk, vinegar, and wine.

Two of his icons are at St. James Parish in Omaha. Other pieces are at St. John’s Parish in Duluth, Minnesota, and Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Indiana.

Faulhaber eventually ended up departing religious life in 2010 and was dispensed from his vows.

“I owe a lot to religious life,” he said. “The priests and brothers know how to cultivate and hone a person’s skills. They are able to identify and develop your talents. In my case, it was art.”

‘A prayerful, leisurely experience’

It takes Faulhaber 40 to 50 hours to paint a Paschal candle. Before he begins, he photographs the inside of the church where the candle will be displayed, researches the church’s patron saint, and studies the history of the church.

When the research is finished, he carves a design on the beeswax, and fills it with acrylic paint. He describes the process as a “prayerful and leisurely experience … Sometimes I listen to music while I’m painting.”

The Easter Vigil liturgy itself is an emotional experience for Faulhaber. He watches from a pew as the candle is carried in procession into the dark church, then prominently displayed in the candle stand in the sanctuary.

It is when the priest or deacon intones one of the most evocative and poetic hymns of praise in all liturgy, the Exsultet – also known as the Easter Proclamation – that his eyes fill with tears and his heart overflows with joy.

“It’s powerful knowing my hand is involved in some small way in the Church’s most meaningful act of worship,” Faulhaber said. “At the same time, I want to hide and just do my art. It’s about Jesus.”

A multi-dimensional artist

Faulhaber and his wife, Jeanna, are members of St. Bernard parish in Omaha. He has painted St. Bernard’s Paschal candles since 2014. His candles are also used in Omaha churches St. Stephen the Martyr and St. Thomas More.

It was Faulhaber’s idea to paint a candle for St. Bernard. He recognized how the church’s regal interior colors, dark wood pews, and floor tile design worked together to direct a person’s mind and heart toward the sanctuary.

He told Father Walter Nolte, St. Bernard’s pastor at the time, that like an icon, a Paschal candle should point to something beyond itself.

“Robert spent hours in the church, praying and sketching,” Father Nolte said.

Faulhaber presented him with several design concepts.

“He wanted me to choose from his ideas,” the priest said.  “I refused. I told him I had complete trust in him, and I would graciously receive what he brought to us from his prayer.”

The finished design skillfully uses the small church’s Spanish mission style colors and spiral columns to depict Christ the King.

When he’s not working in the maintenance department at St. Stephen the Martyr Church, Faulhaber paints.

He considers himself a multi-dimensional artist; besides paint, his tools include chalk, pencil and airbrushes. He’s also a wood carver.

While Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio’s biggest art pieces have endured over time, Faulhaber is one of only a few artists who knowingly sets out to create something that will eventually melt from the heat of a flame.

Yet because of the role they have in the sacramental life of the Church, his creations will, in a sense, share in eternity.


Legislation to restore inmates’ eligibility for Pell grants draws praise

Washington D.C., Apr 16, 2019 / 12:06 am (CNA).- A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last week would allow inmates in federal and state prisons to be eligible for Pell grants, to pay for college classes while they are in jail.

Known as the “REAL Act,” the bill would repeal a 1994 Clinton-era ban on prisoners’ eligibility for the grants.

The Senate bill was introduced April 9 by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). The corresponding House bill was introduced by Congress members Jim Banks (R-Ind.), Danny Davis (D-Ill.), and French Hill (R-Ark.), and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

A press release from Senator Schatz’s office pointed to a report finding that inmates who take part in correctional education while in jail are 43 percent less likely to commit future crimes than those who do not participate in such education, and 13 percent more likely to find a job after their release.

“When we give people in prison an opportunity to earn an education, our communities are safer, taxpayers save money, and we can end the cycle of recidivism,” Schatz said.

“The REAL Act is an important part of providing opportunity to federal offenders and reducing recidivism,” Senator Lee added.

The legislation was applauded by Prison Fellowship, a nationwide Christian nonprofit group that facilitates classes, mentorship, Bible studies, and support for inmates and their families, as well as advocates for justice reform.

Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy for Prison Fellowship, said the organization is “thrilled to see this bipartisan effort to ensure that people won't return to crime, but instead, can come home as good citizens trained to start a job and support their families.”

“The REAL Act won't change the day on which someone is released from prison, but it can dramatically change the person who is coming home,” said Heather Rice-Minus, the organization’s vice president of government affairs.

“By unlocking second chances through access to education, we recognize the human dignity and potential of our brothers and sisters behind bars and will realize safer communities as a result,” she continued.

The legislation also drew a statement of support from FAMM, a nonprofit organization that advocates for sentencing reform.

“It’s critically important that people in prison have access to educational opportunities considering that 94 percent will come home someday,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring.

“Reinstating Pell Grants is a great next step in the federal push for criminal justice reform,” he said, pointing to education as an effective means of reducing recidivism.

“FAMM thanks the bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators who introduced this bill and urges Congress to support the full restoration of Pell Grants to those in state and federal prisons,” he said.

Michigan lawmaker cries foul against AG’s 'anti-Catholicism'

Lansing, Mich., Apr 15, 2019 / 05:14 pm (CNA).- A Michigan state representative is considering opening articles of impeachment against the state’s attorney general over comments that he says demonstrate an anti-Catholic bias.

State Rep. Beau LaFave told CNA in an interview that he had been worried about various public statements made by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.

But the final straw was when Nessel publicly suggested that she thinks retired Judge Michael Talbot, a Catholic who has previously worked with the Diocese of Saginaw, is unfit to help Michigan State University overhaul its Title IX hearing procedures.

“There's a clear pattern of anti-Catholic religious bigotry coming out of our attorney general, and somebody needs to do something about it,” LaFave told CNA.

The lawmaker said Nessel's past statements characterizing faith-based adoption agencies as “hate mongers” concerned him when Nessel was running for office.

In addition, Nessel said during state investigations into allegations of abuse in the Diocese of Saginaw: “If an investigator comes to your door and asks to speak with you, please ask to see their badge and not their rosary.”

LaFave said he wanted to give Nessel the benefit of the doubt after those statements, because “perhaps she made a poor choice of words.” But Nessel’s stance regarding Talbot led him to issue a statement asking her to apologize.

Michigan State University and Judge Talbot

Michigan State University is overhauling its procedures for dealing with sexual assault the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving former Olympic gymnastics coach Larry Nassar.

Talbot was working with the Diocese of Saginaw last year as special independent delegate as the diocese faced allegations of covering up clerical sexual abuse. Last March the home of Saginaw’s late bishop Joseph Cistone was raided by police, along with the diocesan chancery and cathedral rectory.

Saginaw County’s assistant prosecutor at the time criticized the diocese for failing to cooperate in police investigations; police said the raid was executing a search warrant believed to be related to allegations of sexual abuse made against two priests of the diocese.

Talbot reportedly disagreed with the Saginaw County prosecutor on whether it was necessary to raid the home of the late bishop, who was battling cancer at the time. The prosecutor filed a formal complaint against Talbot with the Attorney Grievance Commission (AGC), which handles allegations of lawyer misconduct in Michigan.

The complaint, which alleged that Talbot’s conduct was “inappropriate and bordered on obstruction of justice,” was quickly dismissed as lacking merit. Nevertheless, a spokeswoman for Nessel publicly released the record of the allegation.

LaFave said Nessel “broke court rules and committed an ethics violation” by publicly releasing a sealed record of the complaint against Talbot, especially since the complaint was dismissed.

Social media statements

The Lansing State Journal wrote an article in March with the headline “Retired judge with ties to [former Michigan Governor John] Engler, Catholic Church will help [Michigan State University] set new Title IX policy.”

A Twitter user had tweeted the link to the article, quipping that “MSU can't mess this up any worse than they already have” but going on to imply that by hiring a Catholic judge, they had made the situation worse. Nessel retweeted the user’s comments, adding: “What [she] said.”

LaFave said he sees Nessel’s endorsement of the user’s comments as evidence of anti-Catholic sentiment against Talbot.

“By extension, and to cut through all the middle stuff, she was saying that because he's a Catholic, he's not qualified or is disqualified to do his job of crafting Title IX rules at Michigan State University because of his ties to Catholicism," LaFave explained.

Nessel took to Twitter to respond, saying her statements against Talbot have to do with his qualifications and handling of previous cases, not his religion.

“Judge Talbot repeatedly demonstrated he is not fit to evaluate Title IX claims. His representation of the Saginaw Diocese was a playbook on how NOT to handle sexual assault cases,” she wrote.

LaFave isn't buying it.

“How in the world is the former chief judge of the court of appeals for 20 years not qualified to make Title IX due process rules in administrative proceedings at a university?” LaFave said.

“That is patently, on its face, false. And a bunch of nonsense.”

LaFave issued a statement earlier this month asking Nessel to apologize for her comments.

“Believing that a distinguished judge cannot do his job because of his religion is delusional. The judge’s faith has nothing to do with his role in crafting rules protecting students’ rights during university proceedings,” LaFave wrote April 1.

“First she tells the press that Catholics shouldn’t pray to their rosaries because they don’t do anything, and now she quips that a judge cannot do his job because he is Catholic. What now has become clear is that there is a disgusting pattern of anti-Catholic discrimination emerging from our attorney general,” he said.

An op-ed published this week in the Detroit News pointed out that in 2015, Nessel seemed to refer to Catholic adoption agencies and their supporters as “hate mongers.”

Nessel responded to the op-ed on her Twitter page, saying that her 2015 reference to “hate mongers” was “directed at those who believe discrimination against LGBTQ people in adoption using public tax dollars is ethical,” which she said does not apply to “the vast majority of Catholics.”

“Saying that one who believes Talbot has no business handling MSU's Title IX issues makes them anti-Catholic is akin to saying that one who believes Stephen Miller should not be dictating immigration policies is anti-Semitic. It's utter nonsense,” she wrote.

Nessel also criticized the author of the op-ed and the Detroit News, saying, “It is you who are the hate mongers.”

“So now she’s attacking the free press, because they’re accurately quoting her,” LaFave commented.

Nessel in March of this year barred state funds from adoption agencies that won't place children with same-sex couples, after reaching a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union and same-sex couples who approached a Catholic agency and another Christian agency.

The settlement means the state must enforce non-discrimination provisions in contracts. Agencies may not turn away otherwise qualified LGBT individuals and must provide orientation or training, process applications, and perform a home study, the Associated Press reported March 25.

A previous 2015 law, passed with the backing of the Michigan Catholic Conference, had prevented state-funded adoption and foster agencies from being forced to place children in violation of their beliefs. At the time, a quarter of Michigan’s adoption and foster agencies were faith-based.

The law protected them from civil action and from threats to their public funding, while requiring agencies that decline to place children with same-sex couples to refer the couples to other providers.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in 2017 on behalf of two same-sex couples and a woman who was in foster care in her teens. At the time the Michigan Catholic Conference described the ACLU’s lawsuit as “mean-spirited, divisive and intolerant,” and “yet another egregious attack on religious faith in public life.” The 2015 law was needed to “promote diversity in child placement” and to maintain a public-private partnership to stabilize adoption and foster care, the conference said.

LaFave is now considering introducing articles of impeachment against Nessel if she continues to target people of faith.

“As one of only 110 people that can draft articles of impeachment against Michigan's elected officials and civil servants, I think it's incumbent upon me and my other 109 lawmakers to consider at all times whether or not that's an appropriate response, so I will consider it,” he told CNA.

“We do have a pretty high bar in the Michigan constitution for impeachment proceedings, but that is something to be considered at all times,” he added.

“I really wish I didn't have to do this,” LaFave conceded.

“But if the attorney general were going after Muslims, or Judaism, I think that the world would have their eyes on her, and would be demanding that she resign or at least apologize. But because it's Catholic, hardly anyone but me has said a word about it. And I think that's wrong. I think religious bigotry in all forms needs to be called out.”


Catholic governor signs assisted suicide law 'after careful prayer'

Trenton, N.J., Apr 15, 2019 / 03:45 pm (CNA).- New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill to authorize medically assissted suicide into state law on Friday.

Murphy signed the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act into law on April 12, as one New Jersey bishop pledged to continue to oppose the "dangerous" new law.

The act was passed by the New Jersey legislature in late March, with bipartisan support. The new law will allow those deemed by a doctor to have less than six months to live to request lethal medication to end their lives. The patient then must administer the medication themselves.

In signing the bill, Murphy, a self-described “lifelong, practicing Catholic,” remarked that while he was aware that the Church opposed assisted suicide he was signing the bill into law regardless.

“After careful consideration, internal reflection, and prayer, I have concluded that, while my faith may lead me to a particular decision for myself, as a public official I cannot deny this alternative to those who may reach a different conclusion,” said Murphy.

“I believe this choice is a personal one and, therefore, signing this legislation is the decision that best respects the freedom and humanity of all New Jersey residents.”

Bishop James F. Checchio of Metuchen condemned the governor’s decision.

In a statement to CNA, Checchio called the legislation the latest in a “dangerous and frightening trend” and “a brazen attack against the sanctity of human life.”

Metuchen, like all of New Jersey’s dioceses, has worked against the passage of assisted suicide legislation since 2012, when it was first brought up. Even though the bill is now law, Checchio said that he will not stop the fight.

“While we are facing dark times, we will not stop from advocating for the sanctity of human life, in all stages, and we will continue to educate our legislators, our fellow Catholics and the general public about the dangers of legalized physician-assisted suicide,” he said.

“Easter Sunday comes after the darkness of Good Friday, we know, so we will continue to work for Easter light to pervade our society.”

These priests love to cause a racquet: Clerical tennis tournament comes to Nebraska

Lincoln, Neb., Apr 14, 2019 / 04:06 pm (CNA).- According to the Gospel of Matthew, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” This June, priests will gather in Lincoln, Neb., to “serve” their fellow brothers with their tennis skills.

The International Tennis Championship for Priests will be held June 28-30, gathering clerics and seminarians for exercise, friendly competition, and fraternity.

The event this year is organized by Father Brian Connor, pastor of North American Martyrs parish in Lincoln, and will include about 40 priests from around the world.

“I’m happy to do this for the priests and for the sport, both of which I love very much,” Connor told CNA. “It’s a chance to compete, burn some calories, and enjoy friendship with other people,” he added.

The tournament began in Poland in 2012 and occurred again in 2013 and 2018. Connor said the competitions in Poland included options for food and live music, for example an orchestra that played the anthems of the priests’ different nationalities.

With a majority of priests coming from Poland and the Philippines, Connor expressed hope that the tournament’s placement in the United States would spark a greater interest in the participation from clerics in the Americas.

The event has several competitions: open, +45, +55, and +65. The contest will also include doubles and a consolation tournament for the eliminated players. Seminarians, priests, deacons, and bishops are all welcome to participate.

At the event, the contestants will attend daily Mass together at a variety of parishes. The priests will also explore some of eastern Nebraska's tourist attractions, including the Holy Family Shrine, the Strategic Air Command Museum, Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, and the Henry Doorly Zoo.

Connor has played tennis since he was young, and competed during high school. Since numerous priests have likewise played tennis throughout their childhood, he said the event is an opportunity for nostalgic fun, fitness, and fraternity. Plus, it allows priests to experience new cultures and countries, he said.

“The goal of the tournament is to build a fraternity of the priesthood and to give a goal of practicing and proving yourself, which of course means health, conditioning, [and] your skills in the game,” he said.

Fr. Matthew Eickhoff, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Benkelman and St. Joseph Parish in Stratton, and Father Thomas MacLean, a chaplain for four state prisons in Nebraska, are two other priests from the Diocese of Lincoln who will once again try their hand at the tournament.

Although neither competed in a tournament until they entered the international event in 2013, both priests grew up playing tennis. Now, they are looking forward to be “playing hard and praying hard.”

Before Eickhoff joined the first competition, he began driving an hour from Omaha to participate in a weekly lesson for six months. In preparation of this upcoming contest, he has continued with a couple review lessons and occasionally plays with the priests from Lincoln.

“The priesthood is the greatest fraternity on earth,” he said, noting that the event is an excellent opportunity to strengthen this community. He said the friendships develop quickly because of the solidarity of their vocation.

“Generally, we priests enjoy recreating together because we have an appreciation for the challenges each of us face in our priestly ministry on a daily basis, so we know how valuable a break from the work really is and we appreciate being able to refresh our minds, bodies and souls together,” Eickhoff said.

Although he does not get to play tennis as often as he would like, he said tennis and the tournament promotes a well-balanced life: recreational and spiritual.

“Bishop [Glennon] Flavin, who ordained me, encouraged us priests to ‘work hard, pray hard and play hard’ so as to keep a healthy balance of work, prayer and recreation in our lives,” he said. “Tennis continues to be one piece of the puzzle that helps provide balance in my life.”

Similarly, MacLean said the event is an opportunity for fun, but he said it is also a “pretty serious” competition. Having already lost nine pounds from training, he said he is ready to return to the court to redeem himself from last year, when he lost during the first round.

Besides the fierce competition, Maclean said he is looking forward to the spiritual companionship. He said the priests will enjoy more than just court rivalry, but times in Mass and prayer as well. He said the priests have a strong love for tennis but, primarily, the men share a deeper, sacred bond.

“I think spiritually celebrating the sacraments and the Eucharist with our brother priests is a great way to start our day before the competition begins. We are priests first so we are rooted in the sacrifice of our Lord and that’s the bed rock. I guess you could say that tennis is the icing on the cake.”