Sunday, October 25, 2009


Describing Dean Koontz as a popular author of suspense novels is an understatement. His books have been published in 38 languages and sold more than 400 million copies worldwide. But what I discovered when I read his book “Brother Odd” a few years ago was that you can enjoy a Koontz story strictly for its engaging writing, characters and plot. But if you read the same story through a spiritual lens, you’ll be able to appreciate it on an even deeper level. I recently had the opportunity to interview Koontz on Christopher Closeup. Here's an excerpt:

TR: Dean, there’s a line in your latest Odd Thomas book “Odd Hours” – it’s spoken by him but I was wondering also if it reflects your own view too. The line is, “I love life because of what the beauty of this world and this life portend.” Where do you see beauty in this world and how does it point you toward the life beyond this one?

Dean Koontz: I see it everywhere in this world. I really feel for people who are depressed or think life is terrible or don’t like the world they’re living in. I just want to say to them, “Stop and look. Look at everything around you. Look at the incredible intricacy of it.” A lot of people think science has explained (everything) but it hasn’t explained anything; it’s described. The intricacy is just awesome and it’s there everywhere you look…There are so many things in the world that are here to make the world a better place that make no sense scientifically or biologically. Flowers don’t have to be beautiful; they just have to attract with pheromones of one kind or another bees that they need. So much in the world is so much more extravagant and delightful than it has to be that it points me to a creative place.

TR: So when you see mystery in the world, whereas for some people that could be a stumbling block to faith, for you it makes it more real or more appealing?

Dean Koontz: Oh yeah. I think if you look around and you say, “The world is a deeply mysterious place,” then you can’t live alone by the materialist viewpoint. You have to say, there’s deep mystery in the world. And that makes it more fabulous…Recognizing deep mystery in the world gives us a great sense of wonder – and it is a sense of wonder that makes life worth living.

TR: Dean, another thing you deal with in your books like “Brother Odd” and “One Door Away from Heaven” – you talk about the dignity of special needs children, you talk about modern bioethics. How and why did these life issues become so important to you?

Dean Koontz: My wife and I have long worked with a charity for people with disabilities – Canine Companions for Independence. They train service dogs for all kinds of people with disabilities. People who are paraplegic or quadriplegic, with one of these dogs, can live on their own when they couldn’t before. They have great effect on autistic children. Working with that and being a part of that, I saw that a lot of these people were shunted aside. There’s a lot of people who think they shouldn’t be given medical care. People like Peter Singer think a disabled child should be allowed to die or should not be give antibiotics because they have nothing to contribute to the world. (He’s) an idiot. If you bring these (disabled) people into your life, I’ve discovered – I’ve never found one who whined or complained like average people do. I’ve never found one who wasn’t grateful for every good thing that comes their way. And I haven’t found one that wasn’t an inspiration to people. If you can inspire other people by your own courage and your own stoicism, you’ve had a very valuable and important life. So they bring a great deal to the world…I’ve featured Down Syndrome kids in books at times and I’ve gotten literally thousands of letters from people who have Down’s children . Every single one of them says, “This was the best thing that happened to me.” They’re not pretending; they’re not trying to make the best of a bad situation. They’re saying it really was a tremendous benefit to their lives. That’s why I wish people would stop thinking that you have to be the perfect physical specimen in order to be worth living. That is far from the truth.

TR: Do you think that addressing those issues in story form may be a more effective way of getting the point across than say, a priest in a homily or an op-ed piece in a newspaper?

Dean Koontz: I think so because you disarm people with a story, you charm them with humor, and then you let them think about these other issues. For me, it’s a wonderful method by which to promulgate at least the thought of these things, at least to make people stop and wonder if they’re really right to think these things.

(To hear the full interview, visit

Sunday, September 20, 2009


One of the driving forces behind the success of “American Idol” is not someone you see on camera every week. Vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd acts as a vital guide and mentor to the young contestants, and leaves an indelible mark on them once they embark on their careers. Byrd – as she prefers to be called – has had a prolific and successful career in television, film, theater and concerts including a longtime association with Barry Manilow. Her approach to her work on both “American Idol” and “Canadian Idol” has a definite spiritual bent because she sees herself as a vessel that’s being led by God to to help others. Here’s an excerpt from our recent interview on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here):

TR: You are the vocal coach and arranger for “American Idol.” But you don’t see that as just a job; you look at it as a ministry. How come?

Debra Byrd: I love that it’s a service job. I remember the first tour – we were on the road, Kelly Clarkson was the first American Idol winner and so there was a tour afterwards…I was singing backup for all the contestants that I had just mentored. Band members would say to me, “How can you do that? How can you sing backup for these people? You know more than they (do).” I said, “You don’t understand. I’m here to show them how to do this because it’s a huge undertaking. I get to pass on so much information and I’m grateful to do it.”

…When contestants are stumped and overwhelmed, when they’re in a puddle of tears…when they’re saying, “I’m so nervous, I don’t know what to do,” I stop and I look them in the eye and say, “Do you believe in God?” And they say, “Of course I do.” And I say, “Well you have to let God do His job. You have to let go and let God and trust that you will be led to do the right thing.” Then they’ll look at me and it all kind of goes away. And that’s when my ministry kicks in – when I talk about trust. People always ask me what is the most important part of my job. I believe the most important part of my job is that they trust me. I try to explain to them that there’s a higher power and they can be led by that power.

TR: Last week, Brooke White was here in New York doing a promotional appearance for her new album “High Hopes and Heartbreak.” I went to see her and I asked her about you. She said, “Byrd is a bright light and I love her very much.” You obviously leave an impression on contestants even after they leave the show, so when you’re working with these young artists – take Brooke for instance – how do things start out and how do you see her and others evolve by the time the show is over?

Debra Byrd: There’s a huge evolution. I didn’t notice it when I began the show the first season because I was trying to figure out what the TV show was, what am I doing, why am I doing it. As the show has evolved, I’m able to step back and really have a good look at the person in front of me…Brooke White is a magnificent young woman. On the small stage – that’s the second stage of being in Hollywood, it’s when you’re in front of the camera - we were on the small stage having band rehearsal. Brooke had her guitar on and she was speaking with the music director Rickey Minor. I was watching and listening to their conversation and…the music director wanted her to make some changes. God love Brooke White, she stood and said, “This is who I am. I play guitar and I sing. I may not be the best singer, I may not be the best guitarist. All of you can play circles around me. But I’m going to play the guitar.” And she stood her ground and did her band rehearsal which was going over the song two or three times.

When her portion of band rehearsal was over, she thanked the band, she thanked the music director, she walked to me and I said, “Let’s go for a walk” because I knew it was overwhelming. I knew it was very emotional for her. We walked outside and she began crying as we walked outside. I said, “Number one, I applaud you. I applaud you for not breaking down in front of the band. I applaud you for holding your ground, for knowing who you are, for standing by what you believe.” We walked all the way outside to the parking lot and it began raining. And I said, “See, God didn’t want anyone to your tears. He wanted them to see how strong you are and I applaud you.” Of course we both began crying at this point. And she said, “Byrd, I just love you, thank you so much.” So that was huge with her, we had a huge moment with her standing her ground, knowing who she is, trusting God. It was just a magnificent moment. I love Brooke White.

TR: Do you have to take a different approach with different contestants depending on their personalities or is there a common thread you practice with all of them?

Debra Byrd: Unconditional love is my common thread. On “Canadian Idol” there was a contestant that no one liked. Clearly, this young man had huge problems that came from his upbringing...Consequently his perspective on life is incredibly different. He didn’t get along with anyone at all. One of the judges on “Canadian Idol” said, “How do you deal with this kid? How can you talk to this kid every day? This is a horrible human being.” And I said, “Through unconditional love. That’s the only way you can get past him, what he brings to the table. I have to deal with him with unconditional love.” And it worked. I’m a living testimony that unconditional love works because that kid – he realized he could trust me, that he had someone he could speak to. And I would bust him if he made an incredibly wrong turn. I’d say, “Now you know that’s incorrect, don’t you?” And he’d say, “Yeah I do.” I said, “You know you can’t do that.” I would just bust him; not (like) being a parent but I just wanted him to realize you can’t walk through life and treat people that way…looking at life through your negativity and responding (even though) no one's done anything to you that’s negative. So I guess that would be the common thread – it’s unconditional love.

(To hear the full interview with Debra Byrd which features more insights about “American Idol” and what she calls “the sun and moon theory” in relationships and work situations, visit

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Actor Gary Sinise is well-known for playing Detective Mac Taylor on the TV series “CSI: New York” and for his Academy Award-nominated role as Lt. Dan in the movie “Forrest Gump.” But Gary is also devoted to charitable efforts, especially those involving the United States military. He co-founded a humanitarian organization called Operation Iraqi Children, has been on several USO tours, frequently visits military hospitals, helps support military families, and recently served as executive producer of a powerful documentary called "Brothers at War." Here is an excerpt of Gary’s recent interview on “Christopher Closeup" (full podcast here):

TR: Gary, I want to touch on Operation Iraqi Children which you co-founded with “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillenbrand. How did the two of you get the idea for Operation Iraqi Children and what have the results been so far?

Gary Sinise: I went to Iraq twice in ’03 and on my second trip I visited some schools there and saw what the troops had been doing to help these local areas rebuild these schools. I just saw a lot of good feeling there between the Iraqis and the troops and I wanted to support that. I came home and I started sending school supplies that we collected at my kids’ school. We’d send them over to the troops and they would take them out to give them to the kids. One of the people that I knew at one of the bases in Iraq had been in touch with Laura Hillenbrand who was trying to get “Seabiscuit” translated into Arabic and get it over to some of the soldiers there who wanted to hand it out to the kids. So this person, a Major, she thought that Laura and I should meet. The translation idea of sending her book over there was only going to be a one-time thing but I wanted to continue sending school supplies and encourage people. So Laura and I teamed up and came up with a web site called Operation Iraqi Children…Ever since early 2004…we’ve sent something like 300,000 school supply kits and soccer balls and shoes and blankets and various items over to the troops so that they could go into these villages with these supplies and hand them out to the kids.

TR: This isn’t just a cause you attach your name to. You’ve made numerous trips to Iraq yourself. What kind of difference have you personally seen Operation Iraqi Children make?

Gary Sinise: I know this has been a very beneficial program to our troops because they can go into these villages with these supplies and – maybe they were in this village two days before and it was a little bit hostile. They return to the village and start handing out these school supplies to the kids. They show that they’re there to help. Maybe then a few days after that they’re going down the same road and – we’ve had kids run out and stop the convoy because a bomb had been placed on the road. This was a village that was previously hostile, but then these supplies were handed out and now it’s a friendly village and the kids are trying to help the troops…And of course the supplies help the kids because in many of these areas, they don’t have access to the types of things that we do.

TR: Tell me about your first experience visiting injured soldiers…because it was something you felt awkward about. What happened and how has your view changed since then?

Gary Sinise: I remember as a kid, my grandmother died and it was very difficult for me to be in the hospital so I just never wanted to go to hospitals. But I knew that when I started visiting troops…and got involved with disabled American veterans, I knew I should go out there and do what I could for our wounded. So the first trip I made to a hospital was actually over in Germany after one of my early trips to Iraq. I went to visit Landstuhl Medical Center which is where all our troops go from Afghanistan and Iraq. They first go to Germany and then they get shipped back home. And so I went to Landstuhl and I met a lot of folks who had been blown up and shot up and burned up and – that was a difficult day but, when I left, I knew that my being there had helped some people. So you forget about your own reaction to what you’re seeing and it’s all about them; it’s not about you. From that point on I knew that, even though it’s difficult to see some of these injuries and what some of these guys are going through, my presence there helps them and it helps their families so I’ve continued to go time and time again.

(For more on Gary's work and the new documentary "Brothers at War," listen to the full "Christopher Closeup" interview at

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Usually when I hear a catchy song, it’ll stay in my head for a couple of days after which I’ll have a completely different song/artist/genre pop into my brain. Since listening to singer/songwriter Brooke White’s new album “High Hopes and Heartbreak” last week, it’s been all Brooke all the time. “High Hopes and Heartbreak” is the most hummable album I’ve heard in years though that doesn’t detract from its emotional depth. It’s a true talent that can keep you singing to yourself, not just the upbeat songs, but also the slower ones. White’s songwriting skills pull that off beautifully.

With the sunny personality Brooke displayed on Idol, you would expect to get a number of feel-good songs on this album, and she doesn’t disappoint. The gleefully infectious “Radio Radio” starts things off with a tribute to the medium that introduced Brooke to the music that now plays such an influential role in her life and career. Even for non-musicians like me, it provides a happy memory to searching the car radio as a kid looking for Springsteen singing “Glory Days” or Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” Another outstanding track is “Phoenix” which is both current and nostalgic at the same time. Reminiscent of a great Eagles’s song with a more contemporary vibe, this summer anthem makes me want to drive down the highway in a convertible with the top down on a beautiful day.

Heartfelt ballads are another Brooke White specialty. For instance, “Out of the Ashes” tells the story of a couple who’ve broken up after hurting each other but realize they want to work things out. Brooke sings the verse solo, but then background vocalist Steve McEwan joins in, singing harmony on the chorus which conveys the beauty of that loving relationship being restored through the blending of the two voices.

Another impressive track is “Sometimes Love” which chronicles a couple’s blossoming relationship with the acknowledgement that “Sometimes love is an empty invitation / Sometimes love is a word that’s used in vain.” But this couple realizes the dead end of looking at love as just a meaningless word, and move toward a deeper connection that can provide healing and support over the course of a lifetime.

I knew from her time on “American Idol” and her independent first album “Songs from the Attic” that Brooke was excellent at adapting well-known songs to her personal style. She did it on Idol with her stripped-down acoustic guitar version of Pat Benatar’s rocker “Love is a Battlefield” and on “Songs from the Attic” with Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” The singer continues that trend on “HH&HB” by Brooke-ifying the Kings of Leon hit “Use Somebody” into an engaging country-rocker about the loneliness and longing for genuine personal relationships when you’re performing in front of thousands of people who don’t really know who you are.

Music, by its very nature, is an emotional and spiritual experience meant to touch the heart and soul. With the country in the throes of economic hard times, Brooke White’s “High Hopes and Heartbreak” offers a perfect antidote to the gloom through songs that will lift your spirits and help you better appreciate the relationships that make life worthwhile.

Monday, June 29, 2009

High Hopes and Heartbreaks

Season 7 American Idol finalist Brooke White has released her new single "Radio Radio" on iTunes. Her album "High Hopes and Heartbreaks" (featuring her first single "Hold Up My Heart") is coming out on July 21.

Brooke has a distinctive tone and character to her voice along with an emotional core that allows her to convey joy, hope, longing or loss in her well-crafted, engagingly delivered songs. Though she's a new artist, Brooke's got a classic singer/songwriter vibe that struck a chord with Idol's viewers and should do the same with new listeners. But to attract new listeners, word about the music has to get out. So check it out yourself by clicking through the widget below. Then, as a certain late night host used to say, "Wake the kids and phone the neighbors" and tell them to buy "High Hopes and Heartbreaks."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ca C'est Bon!

The Louisiana-roots band known as L’Angelus is made up of siblings Johnny, Stephen, Katie and Paige Rees. They want their music to bring families together because that’s exactly what it did for them. Paige Rees joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here) to talk about the central role her family’s faith plays in their lives and music. Here’s an excerpt:

TR: Paige, L’Angelus is made up of you, your sister Katie, and your brothers Johnny and Stephen. By modern standards, that’s already a big family. But there are even more of you at home. How many kids are in your family?

Paige Rees: We are actually a group of ten kids altogether. Our Mom and Dad have been blessed with eight children. And two years ago, we were blessed with a foster brother and sister.

TR: Tell me about your parents taking in those foster children. How did it happen and why did they do it when they already had a significant number of mouths to feed and raise?

Paige Rees: My parents, about seven or eight years ago, became open to life as they grew deeper in their faith…Then we met this little family in New Orleans shortly after Katrina. Their mother was very young and she had four little ones herself. (She had) no family or support system and was suffering very much the effects of the storm. After meeting her and getting to know her over a few days, there was a lot of uncertainty but we just tried to trust in God and follow what He has shown us over and over in Scriptures and through the examples of the saints of how we are supposed to care for one another. So we’ve had this relationship with their mother for the past few years, and she just graduated from a medical assistant program. She actually came into the church this past Easter. The children were baptized and it was a really glorious day for everybody.

TR: Paige, your music career has become more successful through the years, and sometimes it would seem that the busier you would get, the more faith would be pushed to the side. But the exact opposite has happened with your family. Why do you think that is?

Paige Rees: We started out playing music when we were pretty young. Early on, our uncle who has had a career in the music business - he doesn’t necessarily practice any faith. But he did tell my Dad when we were still quite young, “If you’re going to be in this business, you better take those kids to church.” There are so many challenges to the faith that are presented in this business, in media in particular. So I think my Dad really took that advice to heart and we tried to stay really close to the sacraments and close to each other so that we would have that support system, that accountability. So I think it’s been a grace, not necessarily anything that we’ve done but our heavenly father protecting us and thankfully giving our father a lot of wisdom.

TR: Paige, I don’t know if you saw this in the newspaper late last year. There were some atheist bus ads in London that said, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Considering the fact that you’re Catholic and you perform this joy-filled music, does being a person of faith keep you from enjoying your life or does it make you enjoy it more?

Paige Rees: I think that because of our faith, because of knowing that we are children of a heavenly father who loves us – that gives our life meaning. I did see those bumper stickers (saying) “There’s no God so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” I think (the problem) is just the opposite. The problem is that people feel no purpose. There’s meaninglessness. You can’t enjoy anything if you don’t see a reason for it. You can only enjoy in the moment the pleasures that you’re experiencing. So I think the reality that there is a father in heaven who loves us, who wants to help us, and who wants us to be eternally happy with him in heaven – that is what gives everything meaning, it gives everything purpose, it gives suffering purpose, and it gives joy the ability to last instead of just being a pleasure that comes and goes.

TR: Another way you’re living out that faith is you’re working on an album of sacred songs with the family. Can you tell me about that?

Paige Rees: The CD’s that we’ve released so far have been more of the music that is Louisiana roots and stuff like that. So we’ve been thinking about doing a sacred album for a while now. You know, we play at Mass pretty often. We’ve come up with a collection of songs that we play a lot and we really love. So we’ve been thinking about doing an album for a while. Then through a meeting at a Catholic marketing network in New Jersey, Ignatius Press, they told us they were interested in carrying one if we ever did one…So we’ve got a lot of traditional songs on here that have been very inspiring to us.

(To listen to the full interview with Paige and here clips of L’Angelus songs, visit You can also check out a L'Angelus music video below:

Friday, June 5, 2009

Please Vote for "Christopher Closeup"

If you've ever listened to a podcast of "Christopher Closeup" and liked what you heard (or if you've ever read text excerpts from the interviews here and liked those), please consider voting for the show in the Catholic New Media Awards. We're under:

- Most Informative Podcast
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The site is

Thank you.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Bob Lesnefsky, a graduate of Franciscan University, found musical success as the award winning Christian rapper Righteous B whose albums include “Get the Kids to Revolt,” “Sweatshop Sessions,” and “How a Wound Bleeds.” But Bob’s true passion – what he considers his vocation – is a program he co-founded called Dirty Vagabond Ministries which currently operates in Steubenville, OH, Queens, NY, and Rochester, NY. I recently had the opportunity to interview Bob on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here). Here are some excerpts:

TR: I want to focus on Dirty Vagabond Ministries because I was on your web site and I saw a description where somebody said, “If you want to know how these guys operate, think of Mother Teresa with earrings and tattoos.” So tell me about Dirty Vagabond Ministries.

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: In the most simple description, it’s youth ministry to the inner-city church… We come into a city and make a long-term commitment to that city. We place two urban missionaries there that live among the people. The style of ministry they do we call incarnational ministry; they’re not waiting for people to sign up or show up. They’re going out to them, hitting the streets, and really everything happens in the context of that relationship.

TR: Did you grow up in the inner-city yourself? How did your vocation for this develop?

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: I really have no idea to be honest (laughs). God kind of sucker-punched me. I definitely didn’t grow up in the inner-city. I grew up in about as suburban, white, upper-middle-class culture as it gets. Just outside of Philadelphia (is where) I grew up. But when me and my wife started doing youth ministry, we ended up at a little inner-city parish in New York. I didn’t realize how urban it was. About a year into it, we found ourselves in just a whole mess of problems with police there all the time, violence. We were about to quit and leave but something happened where our hearts were changed and we really fell in love with that kind of kid and we felt this is what we wanted to do with our lives.

TR: Give me an example of how relational ministry works with the kids.

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: We go up to the projects or a basketball court or we show up at a park with a grill and start grilling hot dogs and feeding people. The first time we maybe just see them, get to know their name. Over weeks or years, it eventually builds relationships and develops into a friendship. It’s much more effective for me to share Christ with someone who considers me their friend than someone who I knock on their door and try to give them a five minute plug. These are people we have an authentic relationship with. There’s an element of trust that happens before we even tell them about God. They begin to see we care for them outside of whether or not they ever come to the church.

TR: Bob, on the Dirty Vagabond web site, it says, “We believe the greatest intimacy with Christ is found in the sacramental life of the Church.” A lot of these kids don’t have a foundation of faith, so how do you and your volunteers convey the relevance of the sacramental life of the Church to teens who may not have ever been exposed to anything like that?

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: It’s difficult. We have a little storefront building; it’s called “Urban Underground.” Kids come in there, there’s a pool table, it’s kind of a fun, cool place. A lot of those kids when they come in, I’ll hear them say, “Yesterday at church…” and they’re talking about coming into our building and hanging out. In some sense, we’re like, “Uh, we’re not church.” We’re trying to bring them to the Church and Christ and the sacraments. But on the other hand, there is something true about what they’re saying. They are experiencing the sacraments in a living way in someone who’s really trying to live that out and be Christ for them...But as far as how we make that tangible, we’ve got an old school bus we drive around every day. We pick kids up. On Sunday, we fill it up and go to Mass. Afterwards we have a big family style meal. So some of it is just exposing them to (the church) which is a little jarring when you’ve never come to church. But there’s a beauty in it too that they’re attracted to.

TR: Do you think the fact that they’re lacking in a lot of worldly things opens them up to more spiritual nourishment?

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: Yeah, I think so. I think half of the difficulty in ministry situations is first convincing people of their need. We’re one of the richest countries in the world. We have lots and lots of stuff and things to distract us. When you remove those distractions, you don’t have to spend as much time convincing them that we’re a people who are desperate for God. They’re well aware that they’re desperate. But for them, it’s trying to grab onto anything that can give them satisfaction or fulfillment for the moment. When you can point that in a genuine way (to Christ as) the person that’s going to fill that (need), it’s kind of a beautiful awakening.

TR: Bob, in everything I read about your work with Dirty Vagabond Ministries, you cite your wife Kate as helping to create everything. So tell me how did you find this incredible woman who’s so in tune with your life and your faith?

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: It’s all God’s grace. When I met her, we were just good friends. She told me she was going to be a nun. She had already visited some convents. Somehow, we fell in love. My friends always tease me that when I die, I’m going to hell for stealing her from the convent (laugh). But she’s far more holy than I am. The thing I appreciate the most about her is that – in her holiness and in her relationship with Christ, she’s just willing to step into the adventure. She definitely has a missionary heart. She has a very simple heart and a very pure heart for God. So the rest of the stuff of the world and the things that a lot of times we feel like we need, she’s just okay without them. She’s also willing to take the risk of following God’s call wherever that’s been…She’s definitely my better half.

For more information on Dirty Vagabond Ministries, go to To download the full interview, go to

Sunday, May 24, 2009


A few weeks ago, I read an interview with author and activist E. Benjamin Skinner on the Busted Halo web site. The interview was about his new book “A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face With Modern Day Slavery.” Up until then, I was peripherally aware that slavery and human trafficking were a problem in the world today, but I didn’t realize the extent to which it goes on, or the horrific abuses suffered by those who fall victim to slave owners and traders. Ben put his own life at risk to share these victims’ stories with the world and hopefully motivate people to address this problem in a way that leads to concrete results. Here are some excerpts from my interview with Ben on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here).

TR: Ben, in the book “A Crime So Monstrous,” you share the story of a boy named Bill Nathan and how a nun named Sister Caroline helped him out. Can you tell me a little about his story?

E. Benjamin Skinner: Bill was born to a loving mother who died quite young, and had come in contact with this American nun, Sister Caroline, in Haiti in his childhood. Bill was taken in as a domestic slave (after his mother’s death) and beaten regularly. He would be whipped until strips of flesh came off of his back. If I’m recalling correctly, he was six years old when this started. He only got out when Sister Caroline caught wind of what was happening to him and sent in two men to rescue him - to actually abduct him from his captors – and to put him into a wonderful home run by a man who used to be part of Mother Teresa’s order. It was a tiny, under-funded, but safe, peaceful, graceful home called St. Jospeh’s. It’s in Port-au-Prince. Bill is now the manager of the home.

The most remarkable thing to me about Bill is that after he was rehabilitated, after he began to thrive in this home, he went back and found the woman that had forced him to work as a slave and he openly forgave her. He actually offered her money. The degree to which individuals like Bill can take their lot in life and say, “That isn’t me” and demand their humanity, but then go in and make the world a better place really underscores why it’s worth fighting slavery. These aren’t disposable people; these are people that can be survivors - and these survivors can be leaders and can radically scale up the degree to which their communities understand the basic concepts of liberty.

TR: One of the parts of Bill’s story that really stood out with me is when he went back to the house, he sees the boy there who took his place as a slave and he tells him, “Have hope. God is good.” How difficult is it for these slave children to have a concept of a good God in light of how they’re treated?

E. Benjamin Skinner: Bill’s mother had given him the gift of faith before she died. He held onto that despite the brutality that he suffered. There’s no question in my mind and there’s no question in his mind that his faith in God is what sustained him. On the flip side, I’ve talked to survivors and I’ve talked to current slaves who seem to have lost hope. I know that this does not make them disposable. It shouldn’t make them hopeless in our eyes, but it certainly makes their road to recovery more difficult.

TR: Ben, another section of the book that was really powerful to me was when you were undercover in Romania and you meet a young woman in a brothel who is in the worst condition you’ve ever seen. You’re a journalist, not an actor, so how do you keep your emotions in check when you see those kind of things?

E. Benjamin Skinner: To flesh that out, this young woman was being offered to me for sale. She was taken out of a darkened room. She had the visible effects of Down Syndrome. On one of her arms, she had raised red slashes where I can only assume she was trying to escape daily rape the only way that she knew how - by killing herself. This young woman was offered to me in trade for a used car. I went in and I was undercover and I immediately thought I have to keep in character…I said, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s talk.” So we began to negotiate. My impulse was to go and find the local chop shop, find a used car, trade for her, and get her out. But I knew from talking to those who do the real hard work of emancipation that rewarding a trafficker like that would be giving rise to a trade in larger misery. So what I did is I took a zoom photo of the trafficker and took the (tape from the wire I was wearing) into the local police. I said, “Here’s the evidence, here’s what I’ve seen, I’m willing to testify.” The response that I got from a quite able prosecutor who had successfully prosecuted a number of trafficking cases was, “These are the gypsies. We want to prosecute them but we have nobody on our task force that speaks Romani. If we were to take that girl out of bondage, who is to say that she would testify?”

The Romanian justice system needs to be reformed…In a situation like this where you have somebody who has been enslaved for as long as this young woman, it takes some real TLC, some real sensitivity to win this person’s trust enough so that they know they will be protected if they testify against their trafficker. The prosecutor in this case had no confidence that that would be the situation so as far as I know, that young woman is still in hell.

(To help the fight against modern-day slavery, visit or visit E. Benjamin Skinner’s web site To listen to the full Christopher Closeup interview with E. Benjamin Skinner, visit

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Joe Mantegna is one of the most versatile actors working today. He is a star on the stage, in film, and most recently, on television series like “Joan of Arcadia” and “Criminal Minds.” But Joe’s role as an actor is secondary to his role as a parent in real life – specifically, as the father of two daughters, one of whom – Mia - has autism.

Twenty-one years ago when Joe’s wife Arlene was pregnant with their first child, all had been going well until one Friday afternoon when she got concerned because the baby hadn’t been moving much. Arlene had gotten a good prognosis the day before so the doctor wasn’t sure if he needed to see her again. Luckily the nurse said, “Since it’s Friday, come in otherwise you’re not going to feel right all weekend.”

A half-hour later, Joe got the call to rush to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, California. The doctor had discovered the baby was in distress and needed to be delivered instantly or she would die. While Arlene was getting an emergency caesarean, Joe headed to the chapel.

On the radio program “Personally Speaking,” Joe recalled, “I went to the chapel. There was nobody else in there. I kneeled and – I haven’t been the most devout Catholic in my life I’ll be the first to admit, but we all tap into that which we know. And that is my spiritual connection to God, that’s the channel it runs through – Catholicism. But I went in there and said, ‘Look, I know I’m not on the A Team. I’m not one of the starters; I’ve been on the bench for a while. But please, if there’s something that can be done for this child to live, I’m prepared to do whatever I must do.’”

Born three months premature and weighing only 1 pound, 13 ounces, Mia was successfully delivered. Though she spent several months in intensive care, her health improved and she went home. Joe and Arlene thought they had dodged every bullet but, at age three, it became obvious that something was wrong with Mia’s development. She was then diagnosed as being autistic.

Recalling that period, Joe says, “I think everybody goes through shock and anger…It’s human nature to go through that, but the trick is you have to move past it because you’re not doing anybody any good by staying in a state of anger. There’s nothing productive about that. So rather than yell at the wind, you try to use the wind you have to fill a sail…(My) prayer was granted, but there were obviously some stipulations that came with it. And you know what - it’s okay. I look around me and I look at the world and at the suffering that goes on – and I think, “Why not me?” If this is that thing that we as a family have to deal with, we’ll do it. I still feel blessed that we’re able to deal with it as best as we can. So I think back on that moment of prayer and I’m convinced that it worked.”

Mia is now twenty-one years old, lives with her parents, and is “fairly high functioning.” While the autism has brought challenges, it’s also brought blessings. Joe says, ““My daughter has this purity about her. (Kids with special needs may be) lacking in terms of the things we wish they had – communication, speech, all the behavior that we call normal. The other things they are lacking is - my daughter doesn’t understand hate, she doesn’t understand jealousy. These abstract kind of emotions aren’t on her radar. So she’s pure in spirit. She gets frustrated about things, but she never has a moment of vindictiveness or anger or hatred because it’s just not part of her psyche. The magical things about life still exist in her and always will.”

Friday, April 17, 2009


At last night's Christopher Awards ceremony, we honored "Sesame Street" for its 40th anniversary of educating children about counting, spelling, and values. Many of the cast members attended including Caroll Spinney who is the puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Happily, Oscar wasn't so grouchy that he refused my request for a picture. Other photos from the cast's performance of the "Sesame Street" classic "Sing a Song" are also posted below.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


Immaculée Ilibagiza was a university student in Rwanda during the 1994 government-sanctioned genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of people. As a member of the Tutsi tribe that was being slaughtered by the Hutus, Immaculée endured a harrowing effort to survive. She and seven other women hid in the cramped bathroom of a pastor’s house for 91 days. Prayer helped Immaculée get through that experience physically, emotionally and spiritually. It also helped her forgive the man who murdered her mother and brother. Immaculée joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here) to discuss these matters. Here’s an excerpt:

TR: When you got out and you found out your family had been murdered in the genocide, was your faith challenged?

Immaculée Ilibagiza: No, it wasn’t challenged. The time that I was in the bathroom especially, I thought a lot about the passion of Christ and His suffering. It somehow taught me that pain will always exist and does not take away the power of God. It does not take away the existence of God or His love. Because that was so confirmed in my heart, it was painful (missing) my parents but I was so sure there was heaven after that. I was so sure that my parents, my brothers, are not lost. They must be in a better place.

TR: Your story has many miraculous aspects but one of the most notable is the fact that you were able to forgive the man who killed your mother and brother. How did you get to that point where you could forgive this person?

Immaculée Ilibagiza: I can say it is a grace to forgive such a thing, but I also know that grace is available to anybody. It happened (for me) when I was still in the bathroom conversing with God about what is going on and why are they killing us…I remember one time especially - I was praying the rosary which I prayed 27 times a day. I got stuck on the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” All of a sudden I realized that I am lying to God. I am not saying words that I mean. That is when I remember going almost on my knees and begging God, “Help me…to forgive so that I can continue to say this prayer from my heart sincerely. Please help me out. Let me know how to do it.” After I went on my knees, I felt so happy just from wanting to ask God for help.

One time when I was meditating on when Jesus was dying, (I thought of) when He said, “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they do.” Those words became almost like mine. It was at that moment when I (realized) that the people who were killing us, they don’t really understand the consequences that will come to them, to their families, to the whole country – they don’t get it that we’re innocent here. In their hearts, because we are Tutsi, we are evil. I realized my anger is not helping to change anything…When I understood that in my heart, I felt like the killers became my brothers who have chosen this evil way. I could cry for them looking at what they have chosen. Forgiving (wasn’t) condoning the wrongdoing, but in my mind and my heart, I knew that the evil being done was separate from the person that was doing it. And that same person can change anytime; can choose to love more than hate. That’s what I wished to happen – for them to choose to love more than hate.

When I met the killer of my family after, I wasn’t scared that maybe I’m going to jump on him and start hitting him. I saw this man and I cried before he even came to sit down. I really felt compassion towards him. (I wondered) “How do you choose this? How do you go from having a beautiful family to choosing to kill people and ending up in prison?” It was because he blinded himself to the truth.

TR: In that act of forgiveness, did you find that it brought him healing too?

Immaculée Ilibagiza: Oh yeah. He didn’t say much about that, but I could feel it in his actions and body language. I remember when he came in, he didn’t have any remorse. When he sat down and I reached out to him, I said, “I forgive you.” I was in tears. The guy couldn’t even face me anymore. He looked down when I told him I forgave him, and he covered his eyes with his hand. Then he told me –I could feel he was trying to reach out and say, “Thank you,” but he couldn’t say it. He said, “I took stuff from your home because I wanted to keep it for you.” Of course he didn’t want to keep it for me. He was just taking stuff from my home. But I could feel that he was trying to reach out to me. He was trying to tell me, “Thank you.” But that was his way of saying, “I’m sorry.”

The man who was standing there – he was the head of the jail – he was so mad at me, (and said) “How dare you forgive a killer?” He had lost his children and his wife. I said to him, “Well I am just one Tutsi anyway. Even if I forgive, I’m only one person while the rest seem to hate (the Hutus). I’m sure this will not have any impact.” A year later, that man came to look for me. He said, “I want to thank you for saving my life.” I said, “What do you mean ‘saving your life’?” He said, “The day you forgave that killer was the first time I even thought there was another possibility than hatred.” The man told me how he had dedicated his life to hating the (killers) and doing bad things to them – and all of a sudden he saw that I forgave, and I had gone through the same thing as him. He was able to find a way in his heart to think of them as human beings again, not animals. He stopped hating them and he started to teach them to be better people...And he told me that if I hadn’t been able to forgive that time (in the jail), it wouldn’t have happened.

(To hear Immaculée discuss how she found new hope by working with orphans, and why she wrote the book “Led By Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide,” download the full “Christopher Closeup” podcast here.)

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Season 7 American Idol contestant Kristy Lee Cook was always a favorite of mine on the show from the moment she sang one of the best renditions of “Amazing Grace” I’ve ever heard. Following her time on Idol, Kristy released the album “Why Wait” and recently started a foundation to help her other passion in life besides music: horses. Kristy joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here) to discuss the foundation, her time on Idol, and how she is able to deal with the ups and downs that come her way in life. Here’s an excerpt:

TR: You recently started the Kristy Lee Horse Heaven Foundation so tell me about that and what you hope to accomplish.

Kristy Lee Cook: I just started a foundation for rescuing horses – neglected, off-the-track, abused horses. We rehabilitate them, show them, ride them and get them good homes. We also have a program for kids who can’t afford horses of their own. It allows them to come out and play with the horses and ride. We’re really excited about it.

TR: How did you develop your love of horses?

Kristy Lee Cook: I think it started when I was two years old. My Dad put me up on a big thoroughbred up at Longacres in Washington when they had a racetrack up there. Ever since I sat on that horse, I’ve always wanted one.

TR: You said one of the goals of the foundation is to work with at-risk youth and kids to expose them to the horses. Have you ever seen any difference, either in your own experiences or with other people, of how these kids change from working with the horses?

Kristy Lee Cook: Yeah, horses are proven to be therapeutic. There are kids with a lot of health issues and stuff and – I don’t know what it is about horses but they just seem to have that healing comfort about them. I know that a lot of people who are troubled, if they rehabilitate a horse, a lot of times it makes them look at themselves – and it rehabilitates them as well as rehabilitating the horse…(Horses) can understand you. They can feel if you’re hurt and upset and happy. They can read all that so I think it’s a comfort knowing you have something that understands you…I’ve had a couple of horses that have pretty much saved my life. When it comes down to protecting their owner, they really do their best. I know they say dog is man’s best friend but horses are my best friend.

TR: You’re working through the foundation. I also read that you were passing out Christmas gifts to needy families on Christmas day. How did those seeds of giving back get planted in your life? Did your family ever face hard times and need help themselves?

Kristy Lee Cook: Oh yeah. Still to this day, my family doesn’t have a lot of money. I remember being poor a lot of times and growing up without anything. I’ve had those experiences and my Dad had a hard life growing up. Nothing's ever really come easy to our family so I definitely understand. And I was raised in a good home. We’re a very giving family and we like to do what we can to help others.

TR: Kristy, when you were on American Idol you faced some challenging times. You were sick for several weeks. You had to endure some, what I thought, were unfair critiques from the judges. When you’re dealing with that kind of stuff, what got you through it mentally, emotionally, spiritually?

Kristy Lee Cook: It definitely was God helping me get through. That was a hard, hard thing to do and God made it easier for me. Everything happens for a reason and this is all part of His plan so no matter how hard it is, you’ve just got to keep going.

TR: Did the friendships you formed on the show also help you deal with what was going on?

Kristy Lee Cook: Yeah, you get really close to a lot of people on the show because they’re all you have. It becomes a brother-sister kind of relationship. You’re away from your family and you’re away from your friends and all your loved ones…but everyone else on the show is going through the same thing, and they’re there for you. Brooke and I were really close and we were always there for each other.

TR: When you were let go from the show, did it depress you for a while or did it start a fire in your belly to go on and do great things?

Kristy Lee Cook: It’s never been easy for me in the music business and it still is not easy. I believe that if a door opens, I’m going to walk through it. If it closes, I believe another one will open. I’m just taking all the steps God is wanting me to take, and hopefully it’ll pan out in the end.

(To hear more about Kristy's time on American Idol, the reaction she got to her singing "God Bless the U.S.A., and the making of her album "Why Wait," download the full "Christopher Closeup" podcast at

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Jessica Rey found success as the White Power Ranger on the popular kids show “Disney’s Power Rangers: Wild Force.” Though she continues her acting work, she’s also started traveling around the country to give talks about chastity and modesty. She presents the topics in a way that’s appealing for youth who want to be in touch with popular culture, but also want to transform it into something better. Jessica recently joined me on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here) to talk about her work. Here are some excerpts:

TR: Your recent focus has been on giving talks to young people about chastity and modesty. What made you start doing that?

Jessica Rey: I despise public speaking, and I know it’s so strange because I’m an actress. But there’s a difference. When you’re acting, it’s somebody else’s words and you’re playing another character. But when you give talks, it’s you yourself…so it is quite frightening. I didn’t want to do it. A lot of my priest friends kept asking me to do it, and I kept saying, “No, no.”

One day my friends went to this Christmas party and I was sick. At the Christmas party, they had these saint’s cards. They have them upside down and they pick one, and you’re supposed to pray to that saint for the rest of the year. I couldn’t go to the party so my friend said, “I’ll get you a card.” So she got me one, she gets home, and I say, “Who’d I get?” She looked at it and it was St. Bernardine of Siena – and I had no idea who that was at the time. I went and looked him up on the Internet and he’s the patron saint of public speaking (laughs). So I said, “Fine God, fine!” and I gave in and started doing it.

TR: Did those topics interest you throughout your life or did you learn about them the hard way by doing the opposite for a while?

Jessica Rey: I wasn’t doing the opposite to an extreme but I definitely didn’t understand fully chastity and definitely not modesty, especially having been in Hollywood for a while. I had a stylist who would dress me in these crazy outfits and I would walk down the red carpet thinking I was all that. I really wasn’t (laughs). So thankfully I learned about it fully before I really got into some bad stuff. But I grew up Catholic and always kind of knew. I just didn’t fully understand it. I learned about it from some people that I met in Hollywood. We actually had a group called “Holywood” and we would do a lot of formation, lots of different talks, Theology of the Body type stuff. So that’s how I fully learned about it.

TR: How do you make the concepts of chastity and modesty appealing to young people when you’ve got so many cultural forces promoting the opposite?

Jessica Rey: I think it’s really important that the people who give these talks are themselves younger and…they’re hipper and with the times. You know, (kids are) not really going to listen to it if it’s from their parents. Most kids don’t, sadly, so it does help that I’m younger, it helps that I’ve been on TV and kids think that’s really cool…And it’s crazy because I was just a Power Ranger (laughs)! I’m not an a-list celebrity that has been in a ton of blockbuster films. But they still think it’s cool that someone in Hollywood is living this life.

TR: One commenter said about one of your talks, “Jessica was very effective with young people because she doesn’t back down from tough content or the truth they need to hear.” Do you think parents or even the church water down the truth too much sometimes?

Jessica Rey: Oh yeah (laughs). It’s hard for parents especially if they themselves aren’t living a life of chastity…and then they’re trying to push this down their kids’ throats – and the kids are thinking, “Why should I do this? You’re not.” And other times parents are just kind of embarrassed to talk about it. I would say the same thing about church. Especially in say, my confirmation classes, I never learned about this stuff…Now I go out and give these talks, I’ll go into these confirmation classes because the confirmation teachers don’t want to talk about it. It’s embarrassing, it’s difficult so they would much rather bring someone else in.

TR: So what should churches be doing better to reach out to young people?

Jessica Rey: My friends and I are actually starting – and I know that these exist throughout the country – but we’re going to be starting up some fashion shows here in Southern California. And the fashion show again is this cool thing that the girls want to be a part of. But it’s (also) going to be six weeks of formation on what it means to be a woman, how a man should treat you, we’re going to talk about courtship, modesty and dress, and just all of (those things) they’re not really getting.

TR: Even the way you’re talking about it now, you’re gearing it a lot towards girls. I remember a female friend of mine once complaining that whenever she hears talk about chastity, it’s generally geared toward women and making it their responsibility. She was annoyed that the guys were essentially let off the hook. So what’s your take? Do you let my gender off the hook?

Jessica Rey: Oh no (laughs), I don’t. I talk with priests about this all the time but there is a crisis in manhood…I have a ton of single girlfriends who are drop-dead gorgeous, they’re well-formed Catholics, smart, intelligent, funny women who are like Betty Crocker (laughs). They would make great wives, great mothers – and there are no men. And (these girls) are not going to settle…So there definitely is a crisis in manhood. I heard about something called The Kingsmen. It’s a group that goes around and they really try to ingrain in these men’s heads that there is a crisis and they need to step up to the plate. I mean, I have a lot of guy friends who are older…They’re not discerning religious life and they’re not discerning marriage. They’re just happy as they are. And I think that’s a problem.

(To hear Jessica Rey discuss her own road to marriage, why she thinks her husband is destined for sainthood, and why she’s created a new swimwear line for women who prefer modest dress, download the podcast at

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Since 1998, Nan Kelley’s talent, charm, and sunny personality have made her a fixture on television - first as a host on the Nashville Network, and in more recent years, as the host of Opry Live and other shows on the GAC network. But in 2008, Nan’s optimistic spirit faced its greatest challenge when she was diagnosed with cancer – specifically, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Nan recently joined me on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here) to discuss what happened. Here are some excerpts:
Tony Rossi: In 2008, you had an experience that a lot of people have. Everything seemed to be going well in your life and your career. Then the unexpected hit. You were diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. How did you first discover you had cancer?

Nan Kelley: I was hosting a fundraising event, and I put my hand up on my neck while talking to people and I felt this lump. I thought for a moment, “That seems weird.” The next day I showed it to my husband and he said, ‘That doesn’t feel right.’ So we were at the doctors by noon that day. We had a diagnosis within a week that it was indeed Hodgkins. We had a biopsy surgery and they verified that. When you get a cancer diagnosis, it’s earthshaking. But the blessing for me and my family was that the type of cancer that I had is curable. Not every cancer has that hope.

TR: You’re talking about blessings, and you’ve described your faith as your core. So when you heard the diagnosis of cancer, did you have a ‘Why me, Lord’ moment?

Nan Kelley: I didn’t. Something you don’t know that we haven’t really made public – Three weeks after I finished my radiation, my husband Charlie, who’s 40 years old, was diagnosed with colon cancer. A husband and a wife who within six months had back-to-back cancer diagnoses is amazing. He had ten inches of his colon removed. There is no cancer anywhere else. That is great that we both had a very positive prognosis. So to come back around to your question – I never once asked ‘Why me, God?’ because I think of the words to a Crabbe family song that said, “He never said the road would be easy, but He said He would be there with you always.”

TR: Chemotherapy is a rough road so what gave you the strength to endure that whole thing? Was it family, friends, faith, all of the above?

Nan Kelley: All of the above, definitely…The biggest thing for me as a person on television - I chose to share it with the audience. My husband, after we got the diagnosis, said to me, “Nan, you have an opportunity here to take what is a hard road and to share it with people. By sharing, you open up both ways and maybe you could help someone. If your journey is very public – and the person at home, theirs is very private and they’re feeling the same things you’re feeling – maybe there’s a channel of health and hope there.” So that’s why I shared it with the TV audience. In doing that, I thought, ‘Perhaps I can be a help.’ But honestly, the help came back to me. It blessed me because (there was an) outpouring from the people that watch our network and that emailed & sent cards – months later the cards are still in my room covering up everything! To know that so many people are praying for you…that is healing.

TR: Nan, you mentioned before that you and Charlie were going through this at the same time. I think it’s pretty common for couples who’ve been married a number of years to start taking each other for granted. Did this experience of cancer together give you both a deeper appreciation for your marriage and relationship?

Nan Kelley: Very, very much… You know, Charlie shaved my head for me when I was losing my hair. It comes out in weird patches and spurts, and it’s frustrating because you have no control over it. So finally I said, “Charlie, I want you to shave my head today.” And Charlie ran into the bathroom and got the scissors and said, “Okay, let’s go!” So we went out to the backyard in broad daylight. I’m crying and it’s emotional. But you have to cut the hair first, you can’t just start shaving. So he starts giving me these haircuts – and he’s no haircutter, trust me (laughs). And he said, “Oh look, a little bob. Look how adorable you are.” And I was like, “Thank you” through tears. Then he goes and gives me this punk, rock-and-roll, messed-up do and he goes, “Oh look at this, that’s funny!” I look in the mirror and go, “That’s pretty wild looking!” Then we get to the shaving part, and by that point I’m laughing. He turned it from tears to laughter. And my head is bald at the end and he says, “Look how beautiful you are.” I don’t know if there will be a more bonding moment in our marriage than that one because he took me from what is trauma for a woman – to lose your hair – to, “Okay, my husband thinks I’m beautiful and he did this for me.” There will never be a more bonding moment than that one.

(To download the full “Christopher Closeup” interview with Nan Kelley, visit

Monday, February 23, 2009


One of the most beloved saints in modern times is St. Therese of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. The reason she’s so popular is that ordinary people can relate to her, to her spirituality, and even her struggles with faith. Brother Joseph Schmidt has written a comprehensive biography of the Little Flower called “Everything is Grace: The Life and Way of Therese of Lisieux.” Here are some excerpts from our recent interview on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here):

Tony Rossi: How did your interest in St. Therese develop?

Brother Joseph Schmidt: It’s been a lifelong interest. When I was 15 years old, I first read Therese’s biography “Story of a Soul.” At that time, I wasn’t very impressed. Subsequently I found out that many people are not overly impressed on the first reading…You have to read between the lines and you have to read in a mature way. That didn’t happen to me until I was in my twenties….Now, for the last 50 years or so, I’ve been studying Therese and deepening my appreciation for her “Little Way,” the way she suggests we imitate the gospel and Jesus’ life.

TR: Can you elaborate on the “Little Way” of St. Therese?

Brother Joseph Schmidt: Her little way is a disposition of the heart, as she says, which makes us humble in God’s arms, aware of our weakness, confident in God’s grace. From that, our life is lived in active charity and active non-violent love.

TR: I was listening to a song recently by the Christian singer Matt Maher, and there’s a line in it that reminds me of St. Therese. The line is “All God’s children are the apple of His eye / Even the ones we can’t stand sometimes.” St. Therese made it a habit to go out of her way to be nice to people she didn’t particularly care to be around. Tell me about that aspect of her spirituality and the positive results it had.

Brother Joseph Schmidt: When she got into the convent, she was a bridge for all the dysfunctionality…There was a lot of harshness in the convent…(but) she was able to stop the escalation of this harshness….She did it by what St. Paul describes as “loving.” She was patient and kind. She wasn’t jealous, mean, or rude. She didn’t delight in evil and she didn’t retaliate. Gradually, people under that influence of kindness and love of other people began to see that they don’t have to do that kind of stuff…It was through her example that she began to win people over. In her canonization process, her sister Celine said that Therese’s first miracle after she died…was the conversion of the convent. That is, the people in the convent became much more loving to one another.

TR: Along those lines, another miracle after Therese died was she changed the Prioress’ view on receiving the Eucharist daily. Would you tell me a little bit about that?

Brother Joseph Schmidt: Under the influence of Jansenism (Editor’s note: Jansenism is a heresy that claims God is vengeful and desires retribution), the Eucharist was not fostered as a daily sacrament for reception by the faithful…Her superior had the authority to allow the sisters to receive communion because religious could receive communion more often. But the superior was under the influence of Jansenism…and she didn’t allow (it). Therese objected so she told the superior, “When I die, it will be more clear to you that communion should be received every day. Jesus didn’t come down in the Eucharist to sit in a tabernacle…He came down to reside in us.”

TR: We’re talking about the writings of Therese having an influence on the Pope. Yet in her life, there was nothing particularly extraordinary about Therese. How do you account for this flowering of popularity and interest in her that grew in the years afterwards?

Brother Joseph Schmidt: There’s a couple of reasons. One is that, when she died, this manuscript that she had written for her sisters – it was not for publication originally – that manuscript was circulated among the priests who were chaplains at the Carmels in France. They began to read it and began to see what Therese was living and teaching was really the gospel. It’s not about having big ascetical practices or becoming big headed in the spiritual life. It’s living daily life in as loving a way as possible. So that was the first thing.

Now, in her writings, she mentions that she would like, when she gets to heaven, to do good on Earth. So people began to pray to her for intercessions for favors. Lo and behold, many, many little miracles and big miracles occurred. Now little miracles would be like little coincidences when you pray to Therese. Big miracles would be the ones documented by medical science. But they began to multiply. So those two factors took place, and within 20 years or so of her death, devotion to Therese spread around the world through missionary priests who were in touch with Carmelite communities and had read her autobiography.

Another thing that seems to be important is that her spirituality resonates with our best self so that when we read her and begin to understand her, we say, “Yes, that is what the Holy Spirit is asking of me.” And it resonates so much with the Gospel that we say, “Yes, this is what we need in our own life. We need it in the Church. We need it in society.” It naturally stimulates people into their best self.

(To download the full podcast, visit

Thursday, January 29, 2009


One of the most powerful and soulful voices to emerge from the 5th season of "American Idol" was the singer Mandisa. Her Grammy nominated debut album - called "True Beauty" - put her definitive stamp on contemporary Christian music. But Mandisa's success has been hard won. During a recent "Christopher Closeup" interview (free podcast here), she discussed her struggles with faith, her weight problem that led to low self-esteem, and how she deals with the fact that she was raped earlier in her life. Here are some excerpts:

Tony Rossi: Mandisa, a number of people who’ve been on this show have said that even when they came to faith, there was a period where they wandered off the reservation so to speak. Did you have any ‘wandering off the reservation moments’ in your spiritual journey?

Mandisa: Absolutely I did. The first one that came to mind when you asked that is right after “American Idol.” When I was eliminated, there was a lot of controversy because I did sing a Christian song on the show. A lot of people attribute my elimination to me singing that song. If I’m being completely honest – and I wish it’s something I could take back now – I was really angry at the Lord because I felt like, there I was in a public platform and I was trying to represent Him…and let the world know how great He was. And I felt like He had turned His back on me, that He was supposed to take care of me, that all the horrible things people were saying about me in interviews and on the Internet wasn’t supposed to happen. I think I missed that Scripture that said, “In this world, you will have trouble.” (chuckles)

But as a result, I got myself into a really deep depression. I felt like the world hated me and God hated me. I just turned away from my friends who loved me and who were trying to call and support me. And most importantly, I turned away from the Lord. I didn’t want to talk to Him. I was lying in my bed one night trying to ignore Him, but He was very persistent once again with me. I didn’t hear an audible voice, I’ll say that. But I did get the sense that he was trying to get my attention. He didn’t condemn me; he didn’t say how upset He was. He said, “I love you.” It was His compassion and His grace that made me realize that His ways are so much higher and better than mine, and He always knows what He’s doing even if it doesn’t make sense to us. That was kind of the beginning of the journey back to His arms.

TR: When I saw you on “American Idol,” I saw you as this talented, confident, strong woman. Yet I was surprised to read that in your background, you have battled low self-esteem throughout your life. Where did that battle come from?

Mandisa: The biggest battle of my life has been with my weight. For me – and this isn’t for everybody – but for me it is a food addiction. My parents divorce had a lot to do with it and there are some other things that happened – but from a young age, I turned to food to find comfort and satisfaction. As a result, I got extremely overweight and unhealthy. And I think for anybody who has struggled in this area, it’s very hard to not compare yourself to what society says is beautiful. It’s been a very long journey for me to realize that it has less to do with beauty and outward appearance. My first CD was called “True Beauty” because it was such a lesson for me, especially on “American Idol,” to learn where my beauty really comes from. It comes from the Lord. Once I realized that, I’m on another journey. My next CD is called “Freedom” because the Lord has got me on a freedom journey right now where he’s setting me free from this food addiction and from a lot of the things that I turn to instead of Him. It’s a journey and my self-esteem is much better, but more importantly, I feel like I’m becoming free one day at a time.

TR: You’ve had the experience of forgiving someone who did something unspeakable to you. You’re a rape survivor. How did you get to forgive somebody for doing something that a lot of people would think is just unforgivable?

Mandisa: Here’s the thing about forgiveness. It has more to do with the person that is forgiving than the person that is being forgiven. The person who abused me – he probably has gone on with the rest of his life and never given a second thought to what he did to me. For me to hold onto (hatred), it would cause a bitter root to grow inside of me…By forgiving, we are setting ourselves free more than anything else…When you don’t forgive, you’re holding onto something. I really think it has a big impact on you, your personality, on your happiness and your joy for the rest of your life. So forgiveness is huge, but there’s also some other work that has to be done (to achieve healing) – retraining the mind (for instance). Every time I think about that incident now, I have to think about it differently. I have to see…how the situation that I went through can help other people, how me speaking about it can help free other people who have been through a similar situation. I think it’s a retraining of the mind you have to do to be emotionally set free yourself.

(To download the full “Christopher Closeup” interview with Mandisa, go to


This just cracked me up: