America’s Got Talent alum Barbara Padilla shares story of faith

Barbara Padilla, lower right, shares a video of her performance on America’s Got Talent during a virtual presentation hosted by the Rossi Center for Faith and Culture at Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City last month.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Operatic soprano Barbara Padilla, perhaps best known for her appearance on the television show America’s Got Talent, has performed and spoken to audiences throughout the world. Yet, she admitted to feeling a bit nervous last month during a virtual presentation hosted by the Rossi Center for Faith and Culture at Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City. “I’m used to crowds, but I’m not used to electronic crowds!” she quipped.

Padilla feels grateful to God for working in her life, through her struggles and triumphs. “There’s a big commitment for me to share what God has given me, especially in this time of uncertainty.”
Before the presentation, Father Jeff Belger, priest director of the Newman Center, prayed for Padilla and the audience of 120 individuals and groups. “As Barbara shares her life with us, may we recognize your guiding hand in all of our lives,” he asked God. “Help us to be attentive to your will, that our lives may bear witness to your love and your mercy.”

Padilla grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, with her single mother and siblings. She described her mother as hardworking, faith-filled and supportive. “Since I was a little girl, I loved music and had a real passion for the stage. My mother exposed me to classical and operatic works. Not only that, she gave me the tools to be what I am now.”

Padilla, who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, studied music and modern languages at the University of Guadalajara. “I really wanted to know what I was singing in other languages,” she said with a smile.

While pursuing her degrees, Padilla noticed abnormal growths around her neck and felt unusually tired. She ignored the growths because they “did not hurt,” and believed her fatigue was caused by “studying for two degrees and working on the weekends.” Eventually, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She endured several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Doctors told Padilla that the treatments could ruin her voice; she decided to go through with treatments anyway.

She continued attending college when her health allowed and hoped for the success of the treatments, but accepted the possibility she might not recover. She recalled a well-meaning friend telling her that God would heal her. “I responded, ‘and even if he doesn’t, God is still great.’ It is important that we understand this. God’s greatness does not depend on healing or anything at all. Life is great, but if I had to die, everything was going to be okay.”

Her positive attitude was tested often during her five-year battle with cancer. “My confidence, hope and faith were not always there. Many times, I wanted to give up. I kind of had my life figured out, but nothing prepared me for the most difficult part of all: depression.” Many times, she thought of ending her life. “Then, I thought about what my first encounter with God would be like. Would he ask, ‘What are you doing here? It wasn’t your time yet! There is still a lot for you to accomplish!’ I did not want to find myself in that situation, but my strength had abandoned me.”

During these times, she cried out to God for help. Each time, God gave her “just enough to keep going.” Randomly opening a Bible, she would find a comforting verse that reminded her of her self-worth and God’s faithfulness.

Padilla’s battle with cancer eventually led her to Houston for more advanced treatments. While there, she had the opportunity to audition for the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston. She earned a full scholarship and completed a Master’s degree, while undergoing treatments. She is now in remission, singing throughout the U.S., Mexico and Italy. Despite the treatments, she never lost her voice. “I was able to get out of the hospital and keep singing. I’ve kept singing every day of my life.”

At the end of the presentation, Father Belger asked Padilla about her future plans. “It’s very uncertain,” she said, noting that the pandemic has been a difficult time for performers who rely on an audience. Still, “I have learned in all these years that I have to put my hope in God, and I have to put my trust in God. I don’t worry; I know he will take care of me. … I know God will show me what he is planning.”

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Diocese establishes first CRS chapter in Iowa; A University of Iowa chapter will launch this fall

CRS/Eric Clayton
Sisters Nguyen Thi Trinh and Nguyen Thi Trang share breakfast in their home in Vietnam. Since 2016, Catholic Relief Services has been working in the farming community of Binh Dao commune, working to increase the resiliency of family farming in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Many Catholics are familiar with CRS Rice Bowl, a Lenten fundraiser for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), but fewer may be aware of the scope of its humanitarian work.

CRS, founded in 1943, is the overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. CRS is more than a yearly Rice Bowl collection and more than “a big organization doing things thousands of miles away,” said Deacon Joe Welter, who was assigned at his 2017 ordination to support diocesan CRS efforts.

With the creation of a diocesan CRS chapter, and a university chapter on the way, Catholics will have year-round opportunities to support global relief efforts. For several years, Deacon Welter and Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action, worked to expand local CRS participation beyond the Lenten Rice Bowl, “but we weren’t getting much more interest in CRS and what you can do at a local level,” Deacon Welter said.

That changed in March 2020 when Alysson Riutta, volunteer manager for CRS’ Midwest region, contacted the diocesan Social Action Office about the organization’s desire to expand outreach through creation of local CRS chapters. She said the chapter concept, developed in 2019, aims to bring people together in a structured setting to organize local activism and fundraising efforts.

“The great thing about chapters is they allow Catholics in the U.S. to still participate in CRS’ mission even if they aren’t international aid workers or advocates,” Riutta said.

After speaking to Riutta, Ferris consulted with Bishop Thomas Zinkula, who gave his blessing to move forward. “It has been said that Catholic Social Teaching is the best kept secret in the Church,” Bishop Zinkula said. “Along these lines, I would suggest that the work of Catholic Relief Services is the best kept secret of Catholics in the United States providing monumental assistance to poor and vulnerable persons overseas who are suffering greatly due to disease and poverty. I witnessed their impressive, inspirational outreach firsthand when I visited a program in India a couple of years ago.”

With the bishop’s encouragement, Ferris recruited Deacon Welter, who saw the chapter model as an “answer to a prayer,” and felt optimistic about its potential to increase CRS awareness and involvement in the Diocese of Davenport.

Even while dealing with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ferris and Deacon Welter worked to gauge interest in chapter formation. They reached out to people they thought might be interested in joining, and spoke during virtual presentations in December and January.

As interest grew, it became clear that the best path forward would be to start a diocesan group, and to train and meet virtually. The 12 prospective members of the diocesan CRS chapter began a four-part virtual orientation in March, with each session lasting about 90 minutes. They completed orientation earlier this month. The diocesan chapter is the first CRS chapter in Iowa, Riutta said.

Members will meet monthly to participate in a national chapter call and discuss local initiatives. The national chapter calls provide opportunities to get updates on relevant legislative actions and hear experts’ stories. “There is also a skill-building element” where chapter members can learn how to set up meetings with Congress, write effective letters to the editor and engage in social media campaigns, she said.

Deacon Welter said the meetings offer guidance on where chapters can most effectively focus their efforts that month. In May, the diocesan group worked on a social media campaign. This summer, the group plans to set up meetings with U.S. senators and representatives when they return home for recess. “We will take training and get ready,” Deacon Welter said.

Riutta emphasized that CRS is a nonpartisan organization, focusing on specific issues and not political party agendas. Deacon Welter added, “We are trying to support things that are in Catholic Social Teaching: dignity of the human person, support of the common good and protecting people’s right to food, water and education.”

Several chapter members have ties to the University of Iowa’s Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City, which plans to establish a chapter in the fall. Diocesan chapter member April Rouner, development director for the Newman Center, said CRS gives her an opportunity to “do Christ’s work for our brothers and sisters throughout the world.” She believes that a university chapter will provide students the opportunity to tap into the “great resources” CRS provides in the areas of leadership, fundraising and advocacy.

The Newman Center chapter will operate under the “CRS University” model and, like the diocesan chapter, will be the first in Iowa. The two chapters, separate entities, will complement each other’s efforts, organizers said.

Newman Center is in the process of hiring a donor-funded student leader to help the university chapter through the 2021-22 school year. “For a student to have that background and experience will hopefully set them up for a long life of social justice and service. It will also be a good resume builder,” Rouner said.

Ferris said he’s grateful so many diocesan Catholics have embraced the CRS chapter concept. “It has been particularly gratifying to see both the laity and clergy supportive of this.”

What is CRS?

The U.S. Catholic Bishops founded Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in 1943 to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas. CRS is the official international relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic community. CRS provides emergency supplies to families in other countries following disasters and assists with food, water and housing. In poverty-stricken areas of the world, CRS provides better agricultural practices, public health information, microloans to help individuals or groups to start a business, and a number of other ways to assist people to help themselves. CRS operates in more than 90 countries. For more information go to

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Collection shifts focus to Newman Center


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

The annual diocesan collection for Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, which began in 2015 and was held in February, will shift to the Newman Catholic Student Center on the Uni­versity of Iowa campus based on need.

The “Newman Center Surround, Support & Strengthen Appeal” will take place the second weekend of October each year through 2025. This year’s collection will be held Oct. 9-10.

Deacon David Montgomery, the diocese’s chancellor and chief of staff, referenced a recent PEW Research study in announcing the collection. “Those who participate in campus ministry are much more likely to remain in the faith and transition into active parish life following graduation.” The studies show that up to 80 percent of Catholics who leave the faith do so by age 23.

Newman Center Development Director April Rouner said campus ministry at secular universities makes a significant impact on the diocese and the Catholic Church by challenging students with greater responsibility and leadership, facilitating students’ transitions into and out of campus ministry, partnering with nearby parishes and providing mentor relationships for students and young adults.

She said the Newman Center “is committed to growing intimate relationships between the 7,000-plus UI Catholic students and Jesus Christ.” She describes Newman Centers as “a faith home-away-from-home for college students on secular campuses. We must have the ability and capacity to reach out to a large number of students to issue personal invitations to take part in campus ministries. It is imperative we continue strong outreach efforts to walk with students on their faith journeys during this very formative time in their lives.”

Newman Center is 100 percent self-funded through private donations, investment earnings and grants. Deacon Montgomery noted that, just as parishes were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Newman Center also experienced a significant negative impact on its operating income. Since reopening in late June 2020, church attendance diminished and so did on-going income streams with offertory, annual fund and the gala taking a hard hit.

However, the pandemic did not diminish students’ desire for fellowship and faith, Rouner said. “The COVID pandemic has highlighted to us, once again, young people are hungry for connection and thirsty for truth!” She encourages the faithful to give generously.

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‘Dead Man Walking’ author to speak at virtual event

Scott Langley
Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, will speak in a virtual event hosted by Newman Catholic Student Center at the University of Iowa-Iowa City on Oct. 21

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, will speak on “Becoming a Voice for Justice” during a livestream event Oct. 21, hosted by Newman Catholic Student Center at the University of Iowa-Iowa City. During the event, which will take place from 6:30-7:30 p.m., Sister Prejean will speak about activism, faithful citizenship and the death penalty.

“Sister Helen is a dynamic speaker and storyteller about activism, solidarity and justice,” said Laurie Harris, Newman Center’s business director. “She gives voice to the voiceless, advocates for the abolishment of capital punishment and working for justice. As our society struggles to come to terms with racial, social and economic inequality, the timing could not be better.”

Sister Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” has been a vocal opponent of the death penalty since she began working with inmates the early 1980s. Her book ignited a national debate on capital punishment and inspired an Academy Award-winning movie, a play and an opera, according to her website.

Over the decades, Sister Prejean has made personal appeals to two popes, John Paul II and Pope Francis, urging them to establish the Catholic Church’s position as unequivocally opposed to capital punishment under any circumstances. After Sister Prejean’s urging, Pope John Paul II revised the catechism to strengthen the church’s opposition to executions, although it allowed for a very few exceptions. Not long after meeting with Sister Prejean in August 2018, Pope Francis announced new language in the Catechism that declares the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, with no exceptions.

To register for the event, go to www.iowa The event is free, thanks to the sponsorship of the Louise Wolf-Novak Service and Social Justice Endowment.

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