Writing about sexual and spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church

Yesterday, National Catholic Reporter published a piece I’ve been working on for several weeks now: New report details 44 accounts of alleged abuse by David Haas.

Writing this article has been an honor. The courage it takes survivors of abuse to come forward publicly and be named in a Catholic setting, is in my opinion, absolutely unmatched.

I hope to do more work on this subject in the future, as I believe we’ve only begun to uncover the wide-ranging effects of spiritual and sexual abuse experienced by Catholics – particularly women.

Summer Reporting

It’s been a busy summer and I’ve been happy to cover some important topics recently for National Catholic Reporter.

Two weeks ago, NCR published a piece I pitched titled: Parishioners show up for racial justice work.

The feature covers ways some Catholic parishes are supporting Black Lives Matter, and doing racial justice work.

There is a huge need for ongoing conversations about white supremacy and anti-Black racism in progressive, predominantly white U.S. Catholic circles. I hope to cover racial justice topics more in the future.

I also wrote an investigative feature that was published in June, Catholic pilgrimage industry faces rescheduled trips and refund requests, which covered the plight of two 80-year old women working to retrieve refunds for a pilgrimage canceled by Dynamic Catholic. The piece also describes how various Catholic pilgrimage operators are faring in the economic disaster caused by the coronavirus pandemic.


Gettin’ engaged & our first sweet summer

Last week I got engaged to Patrick, my partner of 4 years. I thought it would be nice to send some joy into this pandemic world & share our love story.

We began with Nairobi

A tall man with soft hazel eyes and hair the same color as mine sat near me in the grass by Montrose Beach, at a party of 20-somethings on Memorial Day 2016.

I was a little hungover, and newly single. I had been living in Chicago 3 years, and though I had good friends and a job I cared about, that summer I knew I needed to branch out. My plan was to finally get serious about putting down roots in Chicago – a city I loved – yet was far from my family in Nebraska. I was 28, and after many wild adventures in far-flung countries, I had begun to admit that what I was really searching for, was a partner in which to spend my life. 

It wasn’t an easy admission, but I finally understood it was what I wanted, after reading Joan Didion’s book “A Year of Magical Thinking” earlier in the year. It is about the death of her husband and daughter, and tells of the small, intimate moments that bring meaning to life. 

Humans find meaning in how we spend our days, in our work and our creativity, and in who we surround ourselves and love. Searching for meaning in work, and in making my life interesting had been a challenge I was happy to bear, but searching for meaning in a permanent, romantic relationship? It is not so easy, or so natural for Enneagram 3’s such as myself to commit to that kind of patient, terrifying sort of journey. And after a few bad apples in my past, I thought I needed a solid break from the pursuit. 

What I was looking for, when I went to Montrose Beach that day, was some fresh new life. I had only recently walked through a fiery labyrinth, and was frankly just happy to be breathing free air again. 

So when the bright day beckoned me to the beach, I decided to go to a party where I only had one friend, a lovely woman with whom I share karmic magic. 

It was a beautiful day. The group was a mix of college friends, work friends, and people who had studied abroad together. A casual conversation sprouted about trips abroad. I mentioned something about Nairobi, a city I had lived in for 4 months in 2010-2011. Patrick’s ears perked up. He spent a month in Nairobi at the end of 2009. 

He struck up a conversation with me and though I don’t remember much about it, I do remember his energy, and the immediate interest I saw in his eyes. An immediate connection, attraction, curiosity. 

We talked for much of the rest of the party, and then, just happened to be leaving at the same time, and walking the same direction. As we got closer to Argyle I asked if he wanted to have dinner with me at a Vietnamese restaurant. He said no, he had plans to stop by Sleepy’s, as they were having a Memorial Day mattress sale. He asked for my number.

The party on Montrose Beach! I’m on the left, with a questionable choice of beverage & my friend Caitlin, who is our mutual friend.

I have to admit, I didn’t think too much about him that week, but when he texted me the following weekend and asked to get a drink, I was excited. My friend was staying with me that weekend, but she had planned a date that evening, and I planned to be free. When at the last minute her date canceled, I had to make a decision. I didn’t want to leave her alone in my apartment, so I asked if we could reschedule. Patrick seemed unphased, and the next weekend, he texted again, asking if I wanted to meet up at Midsommarfest, my neighborhood’s fabulous street festival. 

That night was almost another miss that to this day makes me anxious to remember. We had planned to meet up mid-evening, but I ended up getting sucked into dinner with a gaggle of Polish Jesuits who I knew from back in the day. I didn’t want my first time hanging out with Patrick to be in a group and I asked if he could meet later in the evening, realizing it would be closer to 9 or 10. He said, once again, no problem.

I remember feeling tired and unsure if I wanted to see anyone else that evening. But he was so relaxed, I thought, well, it’s Midsommarfest. One more drink.

We met at Simon’s bar, my classic, around 10 or so. I remember seeing him walk in the bar, and winding my way toward him. My usual bartender asked what he wanted. He gave him the drink for free in a to-go glass, and we wandered through the street festival over to Berwyn Ave, where we sat on a bench, watching the festival fade out. Two years ago, we moved into a 3-flat on Berwyn, where we live today. 

Our conversation that night was easy. I remember talking about travel mostly and feeling so comfortable. I was tired too though, so asked if he wanted to go to my classic relaxing party spot – my roof! 

I had many parties on my old roof on Argyle. The 3-story building overlooks St. Boniface cemetery and faces downtown Chicago. It was the perfect setting. We had so much to talk about when it came to travel, and I think it’s the only subject we covered. 

I don’t know if we figured it out that night, but not only were we in Nairobi during similar years – we were actually in Rome at the same time, as I spent one month there – October 2010, during his fall semester abroad. Between the two of us we’ve covered 30-40 countries, and are both incredibly shaped by the experiences. Undoubtedly, our love of travel connected us deeply, from the very beginning. 

I think he left around 3 am. Our conversation just wouldn’t end. Though he was chatty, Patrick still has a bit of a shy side. I was absolutely shocked when at the end of the night, a casual good-bye hug turned into a brief, sweet kiss. 

I remember we both pulled back looking surprised, and smiling. 

And thus began Our Summer Of Love.

Ha! But really, Summer 2016 was so darn sweet. Not only because I had found this new gentle, unexpected man swooning around me, but because I was fresh through the fire of some major spiritual breakthroughs. I was teetering in a new space of life all-together.

So, I went along with what life unfolded, and this new lovely man.

From the very beginning, I felt like he had some magnetic pull to me. The first few times we hung out, I felt it, especially. He just wouldn’t say goodnight! It was the sweetest thing. 

At the end of the summer, I went to a conference in Thailand. By then, our relationship was pretty well established, though we hadn’t had an ‘official’ conversation yet. I knew how serious it was though, and how utterly settled he made me feel when I was traveling alone. It felt so good to know I had someone to go home to. Someone to send a message to when locked out of a hostel room. Someone to video-chat during a rainy day. 

I remember thinking of him on my last day in Thailand, standing in the crystalline sea. I felt so at peace. I began to realize I was probably in love with him. 

When I got back home, and we first were hanging out together, I knew it. It was if the word “love” was just floating in the air. 

Since the first summer, we’ve had many magical times, during trips, and special events, and just lovely weekends together. And we’ve had incredibly difficult times too, of stubborn and crazy growth. We moved in together in the summer of 2018, and of course, it had its share of growing pains. I have learned how difficult and how fulfilling it is to do the slow, intimate work of figuring out your own shit, and helping your partner work through theirs. It creates an incredible bond, a special sort of vulnerability that just doesn’t exist with other people. 

I know that not everyone is called to a life with a romantic partner, but for those who are – it is the most unbelievably life-giving gift. There is a reason romantic love is celebrated – why long-term relationships are valued in society. It is because they create a container for our hearts to open in safety.

Now, more than ever, our world needs that kind of space. 

I was happy before I met Patrick, too. I enjoyed my life, my friends, my travels. But the contentment of sharing a home with a partner, and the every-day sweetness of getting to love someone, was overtly missing. Instead of it, I had placed an over-sized role on my work life, on what I could create in the world. Those things are important, but it is just so easy for our egos to get out of whack when it’s the only priority. 

The extremely long and difficult task of establishing a really solid relationship, rather, has been work that has made me more content than anything (although, prioritizing my writing lately has also been hugely satisfying, I have to admit). Patrick’s incredible patience, kindness, and openness has helped me become a more healthy version of myself, and a much more peaceful person. 

Now, I feel that I am living the way I was designed to live. To make every day meaningful because I have someone to live with and to love. It is so good. I am so happy, and ever more so because this did not come to me easily. 

The reality is, the act of working toward love and a lasting relationship doesn’t mean you’ll have a happy ending. I knew it with others and I’ve known it with Patrick, too. Working toward marriage was a huge act of faith for me, and I had to know all along that the process itself had to be worth it too, because at the end of the day, I didn’t always know we’d end up engaged. 

And that’s why it feels so real, and so good. The gentle spirit of God wrapped us up together, and I feel SO at peace. I know all I can control is what I do in this relationship. And I know that we’re in the same place together with the help of a divine universe hugging us along. 

And what unbelievable support from friends and family along the way. We never could have gotten here without the collective wisdom of our community. 

While living abroad, I learned how content I feel living slowly and intentionally, and soaking in the present moment, no matter what it is. I believe Patrick and I are especially connected because of our orientation and attraction for the simple life, in prioritizing friends and family, creativity and the beauty of shared meals, of exploration. 

Ah, couple costumes! This is Halloween 2018.

Living slowly in the present means SO MUCH every-day sweetness. It means giggling in bed and cooking together and playing music and sharing hopes, dreams, fears. It means discussing the news, it means caring for friends, family and the world. It means sitting on our porch late into the night, and now during quarantine, taking work breaks together and sharing a mid-day meal (it’s always fried eggs with hot sauce.) 

This quarantine has been a hell of a good romantic time, amid the alway terrible news and grief of the pandemic. 

Living in the present also means I have to let myself feel all of the difficult emotions of life. Being present means not giving in to the temptation to numb out difficult things. It means giving time for grief, anger, rage, jealousy, etc. to surface and then, as well as I can, to process. I have written extensively on grief and trauma because I’ve had to bear the searing pain, the relentless ache, many times. And Patrick helped me, more than anything, or anyone else possibly could, to heal. 

And that is the stuff of life. I think it may be nearly impossible to get through some of it without the safety of a container of love. Those deep dark spaces, and some memories are just too frighteningly painful, too overwhelming, to visit and set free without incredible support. 

In the backdrop of such incredible suffering during this pandemic, it does of course feel a bit strange to be boldly celebrating. Yet life does not stop when major world events occur. I believe Dr. Zhivago said it best, in that despite wars, [and pandemics] someone has to go on living. 

We all have to go on living. Searching out beauty, love, art and rest as much as possible. Love is the only antidote to the forces of evil that seem more powerful in our world every day. 

The pursuit of a meaningful life is about trying to do what we are called to do. Living a meaningful life is about working toward something, not knowing if it will be achieved. It is in taking stock in the process, and gleaning wisdom from the journey. 

This time, the journey led to a sweet beginning. This time, love did prevail. 

And now I rest in the beauty of two lives that have come together freely, passionately. I feel an incredible sense of achievement, because it has been a very long and winding road. 

And resting in the love, in the unbelievable emotional state of being engaged, is incandescently beautiful. 

These days, I am watching a lot of Jane Austen movies. 

We are living slowly, soaked in the warmth of our engagement love. We have returned from a long winter, to, once again, a soft, bright summer. 

Reporting on the pandemic

In the past month, National Catholic Reporter published two articles I wrote about how the pandemic is exacerbating the terrible reality undocumented immigrants, and people experiencing food insecurity face.

I love reporting more than any other job I’ve ever done. Telling people’s stories and being trusted with their vulnerability is an incredible gift.

Read my pieces here:

Pandemic exacerbates fear, challenges for undocumented immigrants

Catholic ministries step in as food insecurity skyrockets across the US

Shout-out to Rose & Dan for subscribing to NCR and sending me this piece in print!

National Catholic Reporter Feature

I was thrilled to see my first feature for National Catholic Reporter published last Saturday, March 21!

Read it here: Masses go digital with live streamed services; find out how to join

My favorite paragraph reads:

“This growing pandemic could, as this New Yorker article suggests, give rise to new forms of ritual and human behaviors — including religious rituals. In this new age of anxiety, Alonso, Erikson and other leaders have already begun to meet Catholics’ spiritual needs with creativity.”

“Age of Anxiety” is a reference to a famous work by one of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden. I included the line as a shout-out to Auden, and to my favorite journalist, Chris Hedges, who also loves Auden, and whose journalistic work continually inspires me.

Featured in travel series

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Fabulous travel writer Charish Badzinski invited me to be featured in her Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications series on lady travelers, published yesterday.

In the interview, I wrote about working in East Africa, living in Poland, and my subsequent travels. I write about what travel ultimately taught me: to trust, and keep moving.

Check out the interview and photos of my travels here:

Featured RBG | Sophie Vodvarka: Writer, Traveler, Creative

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

RBG: What travel experience has most transformed you as a person?

“I spent a year abroad after I graduated from college, during which I lived in and traveled to 10 different countries. During that year, I spent four months in East Africa with a refugee advocacy organization as a communications intern. During the internship I visited Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya and spent a week in South Sudan, which at the time was a semi-autonomous region of Sudan.

I remember I visited a doctor in the U.S. to get shots before I departed, and he told me “You need to learn how to take care of yourself.” He was talking about anti-malaria medicine, rehydration salts, and knowing basic first-aid. But he was also talking about the reality that the illusion of safety we cling to in America was about to disappear. I was about to step out into the stark reality of the world, and I needed to know how to keep my shit together.

The week in Kakuma refugee camp and in South Sudan was transformational because it made me realize how little I knew about the world, how ridiculously privileged I am as a white middle-class American, and it taught me that I could trust myself and to trust in God and the universe. I learned that I could walk through fear and reach the light.”

Compound of JRS Yei
The tukel I stayed in for a week in 2010 in Yei, South Sudan.

2020 Update to Articles & Essays Page

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Writing  on a mountain in Cuba, 2019

This year I’ve been updating my blog to better reflect my life in 2020. One major addition is the Articles & Essays page that shows examples of news & feature articles, and essays I’ve written in the past 10 years.

A few notable pieces include:

My article & video interview with Sister Helen Prejean

A profile on Roy Bourgeois

The press release for Helix Cafe’s grand opening (a cafe run by two of my friends)

A deep-dive travel essay on visiting Cuba in 2019

I love to write, and I’m looking to expand my freelancing in 2020. Looking for a writer for a news, feature, or commentary piece? Learn more here.

Night train

At the Krakow Glowny train station.

There are few experiences that define my haphazard years living abroad more than taking a night train. 5-hour border-delays, accidentally missing my stop, waking up to discover there is someone new in my compartment, and making friends in the bar car at 2am all mark my experiences of this well-worn traveler’s adventure.

This past November my partner and I took a trip to Poland and Czechia to visit my old stomping grounds. I studied for a semester at Charles University in Prague in 2009. In the summers of 2008-2011 I was in Piekary, a village 15 km outside of Kraków, working as an English teacher at summer camps for Polish high school students. In 2010 & 2011, I lived about 9 months in Kraków, teaching and writing.

Patrick & I aboard the night train from Prague to Krakow.

While living in Kraków, I often crossed the border to visit a good friend living in Lviv, Ukraine. One of my most spontaneous night-train trips occurred with her. It was about 5pm and she texted me to say they were having a party for a friend the next day. She had to go to the border that night to meet a friend. “If you can get to the Przemyśl train station by midnight, we can walk across the border together,” she said.

20 minutes later, I was on my way to the Kraków Glowny train station. And, walk across the border at midnight we did.

Other times, I took night trains in Ukraine from Lviv to Odessa, and Kyiv, and from Kraków to Prague several times. In Spain, I traveled via night train from Valencia to Granada, and in Bolivia, from the salt flats in Uyuni to Oruro.

Often, my travel plans were made on the fly, or with just a day in advance. There was one particularly haphazard experience from Prague to Kraków where I’d bought the wrong ticket, and had to take one slow inter-city train to Bohumín, then transfer to a basic international train. I remember finding an empty compartment around 3am and using my jean jacket as a pillow as I stretched out on a bench.

So, it was an absolute joy to take a proper sleeper with my partner, Patrick, on our trip. I bought tickets in advance on Polrail – undoubtedly more expensive than would be at the station, but it was nice to be prepared. The compartment had 2 bunk beds, sturdy locks on the doors, and a working sink. They supplied a toothbrush and, delightfully, Polish slippers. In the morning, we were brought coffee and breakfast.

Typical of my past night train journeys, we bought cheese and crackers and booze for the journey. We boarded around 10pm, and had a high time rolling through dark sleepy villages in our secret little compartment. Though we didn’t sleep much, the experience was a pleasure and it made me laugh when Patrick, who has traveled extensively yet never taken a night train, asked when I had taken my first.

Train snacks.

I wracked my brain for a moment. It would have been the summer of 2008, my first year at the English summer camps. Before the program began, another volunteer and I went to Ukraine. Our train from Lviv to Odessa was leaving around midnight and we’d spent the evening drinking beer outside in the Plosha Rynok in Lviv. I remember with horror arriving at the train station to find only squat toilets, that you had to pay for. After jumping onto the train, we both passed out in a 4-person compartment, each on a top bunk. In the morning, I noticed there was additional luggage on the floor.

I peeked over my bunk to the bed below. A middle-aged Russian man peered up at me. I was so startled I quickly jerked my head back to my pillow.

“Good Morning” his voice boomed.


Thankfully, this train only had rooms for 2, and we drifted into morning undisturbed through the misty Polish countryside.

Rynek Glowny, Krakow around 7am.

A bucket-list check-off complete, we spent the morning strolling sunny Kraków, content in the soft Polish light.

Thailand Revisited

img_2205I loved writing this story about the dear friends I made in a sleepy Thai fishing village during a trip in 2016. Here’s how it begins: 

I stood waist-deep in the crystalline sea, my finger-tips slowly moving through the water. Across the horizon to my left and to my right, the soft curves of Ao Manao Bay’s rocky hills wrapped me in a gentle paradise.

In the piece, I chronicle my first scooter-driving attempt (during which I get lost at night in the rain,) my exploration of breath-taking caves, temples and beaches, and the thrill of being present in every moment of newness and delight.

You can read the whole blog here: Prachuap Khiri Khan – Thailand

Adventures in Cuba!

Havana balcony

I took a week-long trip to Cuba last month! It was a fantastic adventure, which I posted in the fabulous travel-writer Charish Badzinski’s blog, The Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications.

Here’s the link to my full piece:

Cuba, 2019: Adventures in communism & vulnerability 

Here’s an excerpt:

I jolted awake in the passenger seat of a 1953 Chevrolet speeding past farmers in horses-drawn carriages. Our driver texted while blasting music, steering the seatbelt-less American antique to Havana. I glanced at the rear-view mirror. My friend was passed out cold.

That morning, we’d awakened before 5 a.m. to walk the star-lit road into the town of Viñales to meet our guide, who was to take us up a nearby mountain so that we could watch the sunrise.

We climbed the mountain, Los Acuáticos, with flashlights on the muddy trail. Our guide told us all about the land and the families who live on the mountain, which can only be accessed on foot. After 45 minutes, we reached the peak, where a simple house stands, and watched the misty mountains host the arrival of dawn.  

It is moments like these in my travels abroad, that are the most striking in my memories, and that stay with me throughout the years, when other memories fade.

Read the full blog here!