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Sister shares heartbreaking story to lead youths closer to God

IMAGE: CNS photo/Natalie Hoefer, The Criterion

By John Shaughnessy

INDIANAPOLIS (CNS) -- It wasn't the story that the 20,000 Catholic youths were expecting to hear from a religious sister.

And the audience of young people inside Lucas Oil Stadium on the morning of Nov. 17 became more quiet and riveted as Sister Miriam James Heidland shared the hard, heartbreaking chapters of her life story.

She told participants at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis that she was sexually assaulted when she was 11. She began drinking alcohol on her 12th birthday. She was raped when she was 13 and she was an alcoholic by the age of 21.

"I woke up one morning when I was 21, and I remembered two things," recalled Sister Miriam, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. "Number one, I remembered what I had done the night before, and it was awful. Secondly, I remember something that was so much deeper in the area of shame.

"I remembered I had promised myself that I wasn't going to do that anymore. At that moment, I realized I couldn't stop, that I was sick. I crawled up in a ball on the floor of my room in college, and I just wished for death. And I didn't know what to do."

God did, she told the crowd of young people.

"He started sending people into my life to speak the truth to me," she said as walked across the stage set up in the middle of the stadium floor.

One of the people God sent to her was a priest who challenged her to change her life.

"He would say, 'You're called for more. What are you doing with your life? I know you want more. You have a great destiny for your life. Have you thought about saying 'yes' to it?'

"That man loved Christ, and he let Christ try to re-form him to the core of his being. And one of the reasons I'm here before you is because of the power of one person who said 'yes' to Christ. And how often do you and I think we can't make a difference? But your 'yes' matters. Your life matters. When you say 'yes,' the world is changed."

So has the life of Sister Miriam.

"I've been sober for many years now, through a lot of people's love for me and a lot of grace," she said, adding that wherever young people in the audience are today: "It's not the end of the story. Jesus is already waiting for you. He's waiting for you in the areas that are incredibly painful for you. He's waiting for you in the areas of your deepest dreams and your deepest desires."

She also told the story of two choices that continue to define her life.

"My biological parents were high school students, 17 years old, obviously not married," she said.  "To this day, I've never seen her face, but I have a deep intuition that at one point my mother thought of aborting me, but she didn't. And I stand here before you today because a scared 17-year-old girl said 'yes' to life and to the child in her womb."

Then there was the choice of the couple who became her mother and father when they adopted her.

"One of the first pictures my parents have of me was at Christmas time. My mom put me under the Christmas tree and said I was the gift to the family that year."

She told the audience that God also offers people the gift of his love.

"We don't understand his heart for us. We don't understand his love for us," she said, emphasizing that "God longs to heal you because you are made for more. He looks at you, and he just loves you."

"God has no other ulterior motive," she told the youths, "than for you to share in his own beautiful life."

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Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Thanksgiving: A unique holiday for a uniquely diverse nation

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters

By Lou Baldwin

PHILADELPHIA (CNS) -- What does Thanksgiving really mean to you? Is it just a really big dinner, or is there something more about it that maybe you've forgotten?

It is unique among American holidays in that it is both civic and religious in its origins. It is unlike Christmas and Easter which are, strictly speaking, religious holy days that were adopted by the general culture as holidays, or Independence Day which is completely civic.

There is a bit of controversy as to where the holiday began. New Englanders say it was started as a harvest feast attended by both settlers and Native Americans in thanksgiving for the Plymouth colony's first harvest. Virginians point to celebrations a bit earlier in Berkley Hundred and Jamestown.

In both cases there was reason to be thankful and not just for food but for being alive. Within a year of their arrival half of the New England colonists were dead as were three quarters of the original Virginia colonists, either from starvation or disease.

Of all American holidays, Thanksgiving is a celebration of immigrants because it traces back to our immigrant forefathers and foremothers who at great sacrifice laid the foundation of a new nation.

The tradition continues as recent immigrants also pause to thank God for his blessings and enjoy a feast usually including that peculiar American fowl, a turkey.

Lan-Huong Lam, a member of the Vietnamese community at South Philadelphia's St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, has been in America for 10 years. Although her family still celebrates traditional Vietnamese holidays, especially for the New Year, they also have embraced Thanksgiving in a way that is strikingly American.

"My family will come to my father's house this year, (and) next year we will all go to my uncle's house," she told, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

And yes, they will have dishes such as turkey and mashed potatoes, but along with that they will have traditional Vietnamese foods for those members who prefer them.

Reyna Mota, who is a member of the Dominican Republic community that worships at St. Leo Church in Philadelphia, really buys into the true meaning of Thanksgiving as a way to give thanks to God and celebrate our blessings.

While she and her husband are immigrants, "our kids were born here," she said. Like many other Americans new or old, she and her husband and children were hitting the road to travel to Salisbury, Maryland, for an extended family get-together.

The traditional turkey, cranberry sauce and all the fixings will be on the table as well as chicken because turkey is not something their family is used to. Of course, one of the desserts will be flan, a staple in Central America.

If a number of the relatives prefer chicken it had better be more than one bird because "we will have about 30 people there," Mota said.

Samuel Abu, a Liberian native who works for Philadelphia's archdiocesan Catholic Social Services, is a member of Divine Mercy Parish in West Philadelphia and he has 12 years in the U.S.

Thanksgiving is a national holiday in Liberia also, probably because the country was founded by former American slaves who returned to Africa after the Civil War. But it is just a day off there, with no special traditions. He was surprised when he came to the U.S. and found what a big deal it is here.

"When we came here we didn't like turkey," he confessed, and his family would go out to eat. Now he and his wife have four kids and they all love turkey.

Abu's wife loves to prepare the Thanksgiving dinner, and in that tradition the whole family gathers around the table for the feast. But in his household they don't do stuffing and they eat the turkey in gravy as in a stew.

Another dish they favor which most Americans would not connect with Thanksgiving is the root vegetable that is much more familiar in the tropics than the potato: cassava.

But whatever they eat or don't eat, "We are thankful to God that we are able to live this life and pray for the families who are not able to do this, especially my father and my mother," Abu said. "We thank God for our jobs and our children and the opportunity to own our home."

Hari Chan, who has been in America for 15 years, is a member of the Indonesian community that worships at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish. On Thanksgiving his family will probably gather for Mass in the chapel at their parish.

Then the Indonesian community members will all get together at the adjacent Aquinas Center for a potluck meal. It will include turkey of course, but also Indonesian favorites.

While they don't have Thanksgiving in Indonesia there are other holidays, mostly Muslim, because most Indonesians are Muslim. But just as in America where non-Christians celebrate Christmas, "there we celebrate the Muslim holidays too," Chan said.

Maguy Jean Baptiste is part of the Haitian community at St. Cyril Parish in East Lansdowne and she has made America her home for 10 years. People do eat turkey in Haiti Jan. 1, which is both New Year's Day and Independence Day, she said.

As in so many American households on Thanksgiving Day, her sons will watch football, something that is not played in Haiti.

It will be a big meal because not just her husband and their five kids but also her sister's family with four kids will gather around the table. As an extra she always invites someone from the neighborhood who is alone for the holiday.

As part of the festivities the family members will draw names for gifts for the Pollyanna at Christmas. Also the family will take up a collection to send back to Haiti to help their struggling families there.

Maria Alvin, a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Southampton, was born in Portugal but her family came to America when she was 7, and now she is married with a family of her own.

"My parents are still alive and we will all get together at my house," she said. "There will be about 12 people." It will be a traditional turkey dinner, but since her dad still doesn't like turkey, she will probably prepare a chicken and maybe some pork.

"Thanksgiving means freedom, the family all getting together, being thankful for what you have," she said.

A member of the French-speaking community at St. Cyprian Parish in Philadelphia named Dosse came to America 13 years ago from Togo. He and his wife have three kids, all born in the USA

In Togo the main holidays are Christmas and New Year's Day, but other than that there are no holidays with a long weekend. Dosse and his family will celebrate the same way many other people here do.

Most important, he told, "Thanksgiving is the time to thank God for everything, for his support in our lives."

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Baldwin writes for, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

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Pope adds meetings, including with general, to Myanmar itinerary

IMAGE: CNS photo/Lynn Bo Bo, EPA

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Accepting suggestions by Myanmar's cardinal, Pope Francis has added two private meetings to the schedule for his visit to the country: one with religious leaders and the other with the commander of the military, who wields great political power in the country.

Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office, said Pope Francis will meet Nov. 28 with representatives of various religions present in Myanmar and Nov. 30 with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Burke also said the public Mass in Yangon Nov. 29 will begin an hour earlier than originally scheduled because of the heat.

About 90 percent of Myanmar's population follows Theravada Buddhism, and Pope Francis already had a meeting scheduled with the Sangha supreme council, which oversees the Buddhist monks throughout the country. But Myanmar also is home to Muslims, Hindus and followers of other Buddhist traditions, as well as Baptists, who far outnumber Catholics in the country.

The military in Myanmar, and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in particular, have been harshly criticized by the international community for their campaign against the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority. The military claims the crackdown is a response to violence, but the United Nations has said the crackdown is hugely disproportionate and amounts to ethnic cleansing.

Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, who suggested the pope meet with the general, has publicly said he urged Pope Francis not to use the word "Rohingya" for fear of inciting Buddhist nationalists and the military. Burke told reporters they would have to listen to the pope's speeches to see if he accepted that suggestion as well.

Representatives of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh will meet Pope Francis Dec. 1 in Dhaka during an interreligious and ecumenical meeting for peace, Burke said.

Below is the revised schedule for Pope Francis' visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Time listed are local with Eastern Standard Time in parentheses.

Sunday, Nov. 26 (Rome)

-- 9:40 p.m. (3:40 p.m.) Departure from Rome's Fiumicino airport.

Monday, Nov. 27 (Yangon)

-- 1:30 p.m. (2 a.m.) Arrival at Yangon International Airport.

Tuesday, Nov. 28 (Yangon, Naypyitaw, Yangon)

--10 a.m. (10:30 p.m. Nov. 28) Private meeting at the archbishop's residence with religious leaders.

-- Mass in private.

-- 2 p.m. (2:30 a.m.) Departure by plane for Naypyitaw.

-- 3:10 p.m. (3:40 a.m.) Arrival at Naypyitaw airport.

-- 3:50 p.m. (4:20 a.m.) Welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace.

-- 4 p.m. (4:30 a.m.) Courtesy visit to Htin Kyaw, president of the republic, at the presidential palace.

-- 4:30 p.m. (5 a.m.) Meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, state counselor and foreign minister, the country's de facto leader.

-- 5:15 p.m. (5:45 a.m.) Meeting with government authorities, members of civil society and the diplomatic corps in the city's international convention center. Speech by pope.

-- 6:20 p.m. (6:50 a.m.) Departure by plane for Yangon.

-- 7:25 p.m. (7:55 a.m.) Arrival at Yangon airport, transfer to archbishop's residence.

Wednesday, Nov. 29 (Yangon)

-- 8:30 a.m. (9 p.m. Nov. 28) Mass at Kyaikkasan sports ground. Homily by pope.

-- 4:15 p.m. (4:45 a.m.) Meeting with the Sangha supreme council of Buddhist monks at the Kaba Aye pagoda. Speech by pope.

-- 5:15 p.m. (5:45 a.m.) Meeting with the bishops of Myanmar at St. Mary's Cathedral. Speech by pope.

Thursday, Nov. 30 (Yangon, Dhaka)

-- Meeting (time unspecified) with military commander, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, in the archbishop's residence.

-- 10:15 a.m. (10:45 p.m. Nov. 29) Mass with young people in St. Mary's Cathedral. Homily by pope.

-- 12:45 p.m. (1:15 a.m.) Farewell ceremony at Yangon International Airport.

-- 1:05 p.m. (1:35 a.m.) Departure by plane for Dhaka, Bangladesh.

-- 3 p.m. (4 a.m.) Arrival at Dhaka's international airport. Welcoming ceremony.

-- 4 p.m. (5 a.m.) Visit to national martyrs' memorial in town of Savar.

-- 4:45 p.m. (5:45 a.m.) Pay homage to the late-Sheik Mujibur Rahman, known as "father of the nation," at the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum.

-- 5:30 p.m. (6:30 a.m.) Courtesy visit to President Abdul Hamid at the presidential palace.

-- 6 p.m. (7 a.m.) Meeting with government authorities, members of civil society and the diplomatic corps in the presidential palace. Speech by pope.

Friday, Dec. 1 (Dhaka)

-- 10 a.m. (11 p.m. Nov. 30) Mass and ordination of priests in Suhrawardy Udyan park. Homily by pope.

-- 3:20 p.m. (4:20 a.m.) Visit with the country's prime minister at the apostolic nunciature.

-- 4 p.m. (5 a.m.) Visit the city's cathedral.

-- 4:15 p.m. (5:15 a.m.) Meeting with Bangladesh's bishops at a residence for elderly priests. Speech by pope.

-- 5 p.m. (6 a.m.) Interreligious and ecumenical meeting for peace in the garden of the archbishop's residence. Speech by pope.

Saturday, Dec. 2 (Dhaka, Rome)

-- 10 a.m. (11 p.m. Dec. 1) Private visit to the Mother Teresa House in the capital's Tejgaon neighborhood.

-- 10:45 a.m. (11:45 p.m. Dec. 1) Meeting with priests, men and women religious, seminarians and novices at the Church of the Holy Rosary. Speech by pope.

-- 11:45 a.m. (12:45 a.m.) Visit the parish cemetery and historic Church of the Holy Rosary.

-- 3:20 p.m. (4:20 a.m.) Meeting with young people at Notre Dame College. Speech by pope.

-- 4:45 p.m. (5:45 a.m.) Farewell ceremony at Dhaka International Airport.

-- 5:05 p.m. (6:05 a.m.) Departure by plane for Rome.

-- 11 p.m. (5 p.m.) Arrival at Rome's Fiumicino airport.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at