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Laudato si': Atlanta archdiocese’s sustainability efforts 5 years on

Denver Newsroom, May 22, 2020 / 04:58 pm (CNA).- Susan Varlamoff, a retired biologist and parishioner at St. John Neumann Catholic Church, was in 2015 serving as director of the Office of Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia, when she heard that Pope Francis was working on an encyclical on the environment.

Varlamoff told CNA that working for a cleaner environment has been a personal mission for her for many years, in part because her family suffered the negative effects of living near a toxic landfill when she was a child. 

“I've been on the forefront of this, doing so much in my own home, but to actually see the Catholic Church embrace this and the pope, who's a trained chemist, come out with an environmental encyclical was absolutely thrilling,” she told CNA.

Varlamoff approached her archbishop at the time— Wilton Gregory, now Archbishop of Washington— to see if she could somehow offer her scientific expertise to the pope.

Gregory laughed and said the pope likely had all the scientific help he needed— but, he said, the archdiocese would need its own action plan.

Valamoff began collaborating with climate scientists and other professionals at the University of Georgia, along with several interreligious groups who also were working on addressing environmental issues, to begin the process of creating the action plan. Before they could do much, Laudato si’ was promulgated.

Valamoff said when she read the encyclical, it exceeded her expectations. It was clear to her that Pope Francis had received good input from his scientific advisors, she said.

“What I was surprised about the document was that it addressed many different environmental issues from biodiversity, energy, water, and then he talked about the unfair way that the environmental issues are affecting the poor. They're taking a disproportionate share of the burden, of these environmental issues,” Varlamoff said.

Laudato si’ was released in May 2015. By November, Susan and her team presented a 48-page, peer-reviewed action plan to the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

The plan suggests ten areas where Catholics in Atlanta can make changes to make their homes— or their parishes— more eco-friendly, from energy efficiency and recycling to sustainable landscaping and water conservation.

Each section includes a few concrete suggestions that vary in time commitment, cost, and resources. For example, if you want to conserve water, you can check your toilet for slow leaks. Or, if you want to do something bigger, you can install a drip irrigation system in your yard.

The archdiocese presented the plan in 2016, and sent a copy to every parish.

Now, four years on, there are at least 60 or 70 parishes throughout the archdiocese that have a sustainability ministry, Varlamoff said.

One of the first things Varlamoff did at her parish was to replace styrofoam and disposable dishes at events with actual dishes, which reduced waste after large events.

In addition, after an energy audit, the parish replaced all its light bulbs, and is transforming its campus by planting native plants and trees.

She said for the ministries to work well, each parish needs a point person.

“They need somebody to lead the effort, to inspire the people to do this work, and to bring together experts and interested people to move the parishioners and to move the pastor and facilities manager and parish council to do this work,” she said.

At the beginning of this year, the Atlanta archdiocese started the Laudato Si Initiative, meant to expand on what the parish teams were already doing under the action plan.

The archdiocese also hired two Laudato si’ coordinators, including a sustainability strategist, in February.

Leonard Robinson, the sustainability strategist, has some 45 years experience in the field and previously worked with several California governors at the California Environmental Protection Agency.

He said not every parish in Atlanta has embraced the call for greater sustainability, partly because it simply was something new for many of them.

“It's a slight change, but it's not the change people expect. A lot of the parishes said, ‘Okay, we're overburdened. We've got all these ministries we've got doing this, this and this. We don't have time for one more thing’," Robinson told CNA.

“Well, I explained that this one more thing it's not really a thing, we want to weave sustainability in all walks of Catholic life, education, ministry, and everything else. So if you're open to it, you won't even notice that it's extra work. You might find in some cases there's less, and you'll have more resources to do other things.”

In some cases, the best way to approach parishes or individuals is not to even mention the phrases “climate change” or “sustainability.”

“Let's say energy efficiency. Let's say water conservation. Let's say sustainable landscapes. Let's say extra resources for other ministries, because you're saving energy, and these things when you save them, it does save you money, but it's not about money, it's maximizing the things that you do to enforce other ministries."

Robinson said the Laudato Si Action Plan was a great starting point, a “roadmap” for his work at the archdiocese.

“That was one of the attractions for my job. I don't have to start from zero, I've got this roadmap. All I have to do is institute that and weave that into every part of Catholic life,” he said.

Varmaloff commented: "The Pope is so well respected as a moral leader in the world...why shouldn't Catholic churches be demonstration sites for energy efficiency, water efficiency, growing food sustainably? Why not recycling? There's no reason why the Catholic church can't lead the way.”

Church fighting Mississippi coronavirus restriction was burned down

CNA Staff, May 22, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Authorities are investigating the burning of a Mississippi church as a potential arson. The fire comes less than a month after the church filed suit arguing the city’s stay-at-home order was unconstitutional.

First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, located in the city of Holly Springs, MS, was destroyed by a fire on Wednesday, May 20. Firefighters responded to the blaze at approximately 2 a.m., and were unable to save the building.

Fire investigators described the incident as an “explosion” from the back of the church, which further damaged the front of the building. The church has been declared a total loss.

At the scene, several cans of spray paint were recovered. A message reading “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic]” was found painted on the church’s parking lot.

These factors, said Marshall County official Kelly McMillen, have led authorities to suspect arson.

“We do believe that based on the evidence and what we have seen at the scene and on top of the hill this was an arson,” said McMillen to local media.

Pastor Jerry Waldrop, who has led the congregation for more than three decades, said he would continue to “keep the faith,” and “keep doing what we have always done.”

“I’ll get with our faithful people, and maybe we’ll rent a building or whatever we need to do for the time being,” Waldrop said. He said that his church “has the means” to rebuild, and that he was unable to come up with any potential suspects.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said on Twitter Thursday that he was “heartbroken and furious” to hear of the burned church.

“What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country,” said Reeves.

Waldrop, through his church, filed suit against Holly Springs on April 23, one day after his weekly Bible study was broken up by three members of the Holly Springs Police Department. On Easter Sunday, Waldrop was cited for violating the city’s stay-at-home order by hosting a service inside the church building instead of in the parking lot.

To protest the Easter Sunday citation, Waldrop took his congregation en masse to a nearby Walmart, where they were permitted to gather without incident.

Churches were among the establishments listed as “nonessential” in the March 30, 2020 stay-at-home order issued by Holly Springs. According to the lawsuit, the order’s terms were so far-reaching that Waldrop would not be allowed to enter his own office at the church by himself.
In the lawsuit, Waldrop claims that his First Amendment rights were violated by the selective enforcement of the stay-at-home order. He states that efforts were taken to ensure social distancing at the indoor services, and that the services were indoors due to inclement weather.

There have been 68 reported cases of COVID-19 in Marshall County, with three deaths. Two of the cases were connected to long-term care facilities.

Holly Springs is not the only Mississippi city home to a controversial stay-at-home order. In April, the city of Greenville withdrew an order that forbade even socially-distant drive-in church services.

On Wednesday, April 15, the City of Greenville announced on its website that “all drive in and parking lot church services are allowed as long as families stay in their cars with windows up and adhere to all state and federal social distancing guidelines.”

Mayor Errick D. Simmons (D) was quoted saying that he was “pleased to announce that Governor Tate Reeves has responded to my public request for definitive guidance on drive-in and parking lot church services. Thank you, Governor Reeves.”

Prior to rescinding the order, a church had been fined for having a parking lot service, and Greenville police blocked the parking lot of another church to prevent a gathering of parked cars.

Corpus Christi bishop condemns naval base shooting

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 22, 2020 / 02:11 pm (CNA).- Bishop Michael Mulvey of Corpus Christi offered prayers for a sailor who was injured in a terrorist attack in his diocese on Thursday, and pledged to be a force for peace in the face of evil.

Early on May 21, a 20-year-old man named Adam Salim Alsahli drove to the entrance of the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi and shot a member of the base’s security forces, who was wearing a bulletproof vest. He then proceeded to crash his car into a barrier, and continued to fire shots. Alsahli was shot and killed, and the base was locked down.

“I condemned the act of terrorism that was perpetrated this morning at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi,” said Mulvey in a statement released shortly after the attack. “These acts of violence are heinous, but they will not undermine our resolve to work for peace in our hearts, and our society. Our prayer is with the sailor who was injured this morning.”

Mulvey prayed for “the Lord to sustain those on the front lines who courageously confront this evil,” and for “calm and peace to our community and the world.”

The base’s guard suffered non-life-threatening injuries and was released from the hospital on Thursday.

Alsahli’s vehicle was checked for explosives, but none were found. Authorities said that “electronic media” was found at the scene, but did not elaborate as to what this meant.

The FBI’s Houston office confirmed Alsahli’s identity shortly after 1 p.m. local time May 22, following the notification of his family .

“The FBI would like to recognize the bravery and heroism of the NAS personnel who took quick action to prevent the shooter from entering the base and engaged the shooter, potentially saving many innocent lives,” said the agency on Twitter.

By Thursday afternoon, law enforcement had declared that the shooting had been “terrorism related.”

Law enforcement told Texas media that they believed Alsahli, who lived in the United States but was born in Syria, had expressed online support for various terrorist groups, including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Authorities are continuing to investigate if there is a second person connected with Thursday’s shooting.

Thursday’s attack on the Naval Air Station is the second terrorist attack in a six-month period to occur on a naval air station. On December 6, 2019, three people were killed and eight were injured after a shooting at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Pensacola, Florida. The shooter was killed shortly afterwards by law enforcement.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took credit for that attack in February 2020, and the FBI confirmed on May 18 that the shooting was related to terrorism.

President Trump: Churches should reopen 'right now'

Washington D.C., May 22, 2020 / 12:57 pm (CNA).- President Donald Trump on Friday called on state governors to reopen churches “right now.”

At a Friday press briefing, Trump said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  would “at my direction” be issuing new guidance for churches to reopen. He said he was identifying houses of worship as “essential places that provide essential services,” noting that state governors had classified such establishments as liquor stores and abortion clinics as providing essential services, but not churches.

The White House and the CDC have for weeks reportedly been in the process of drafting and publishing new guidelines for churches to reopen.

On Friday, CNA learned that, according to someone familiar with the deliberations, the new CDC guidance is expected on Friday afternoon and will differ from its previous interim guidance for faith communities that was issued in March, at the outset of the U.S. pandemic. That guidance was reportedly not cleared by the White House before publishing.

That guidance was reportedly met with concern by many in the faith community for certain provisions that seemed to intrude on the autonomy of religious groups, such as one recommendation that Jews should be allowed to use electronic devices on the Sabbath to stream services online.

The new guidance, CNA was told, would be more sensitive to the autonomy of churches and religions and will apply a “lighter touch” to them, functioning as a set of recommendations rather than instructions, and implying that actions taken by state and local governments that go beyond the federal recommendations are inappropriate. It has the input of lawyers with experience in religious freedom cases.

The guidance will include a section for state and local leaders, saying they should recognize religious gatherings as something unique and different from other gatherings and protected by the First Amendment; it will imply that states should not be treating churches more strictly than they are treating other public gatherings or businesses reopening.

Churches, however, will not be officially classified as “essential” establishments, CNA was told, as that classification can vary state-by-state in its implications for religious groups. However, calling churches “essential” in the administration’s “messaging” on the guidance was reportedly discussed.

Earlier on Friday, Trump said that he believed the CDC would “be issuing a very strong recommendation” for churches to reopen, speaking at the end of an event with military veterans at the White House.

Trump added that “we’re going to make that [churches] ‘essential.’”

On the previous day, Thursday, Trump spoke several times about his desire for churches to reopen soon, and said health officials would issue relevant guidance “today or tomorrow.”

“I think CDC is going to put something out very soon. I spoke to them today; I think they're going to put something out very soon,” Trump said at a listening session with African-American leaders on Thursday afternoon in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Conversations about guidance for churches to reopen during the pandemic have taken place for weeks. On April 28 and 29, officials at the White House and U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) talked with four Catholic bishops who had decided to resume public Masses in their respective dioceses. The conversation focused on the reopening of churches and what federal guidance on that might look like.

The CDC reportedly drafted guidance for reopening businesses, churches, and other places of public accommodation earlier in May, but on May 7, AP reported that the Trump administration had shelved a 17-page CDC report that included an “Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith.”

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the White House pushed against the CDC issuing guidance for churches, with the concern that it did not want to unnecessarily limit the freedom of churches.

The CDC, meanwhile, has published a report this week warning that “COVID 19 spreads easily in group gatherings” and citing the case of a rural Arkansas church where 35 of 92 attendees of services between March 6 and 11 ended up testing positive for COVID-19, with three deaths.

On Thursday, however, Trump spoke several other times of his desire to see churches open again soon.

“I saw a scene today where people are trying to break into a church to go into the church -- not to break in and steal something, to break in -- they want to be in their church,” Trump said on Thursday afternoon.

“I said, ‘You better put it out,’” he added, referring to the CDC guidance. “And they [the CDC] are doing it and they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We got to get our churches open.”

There have been more than 1.5 million cases of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) in the U.S., and more than 93,000 deaths, according to the CDC.

As the virus spread in March, all U.S. Catholic dioceses curtailed public Masses to prevent the spread of the disease. However, beginning in mid-April, dioceses have begun resuming the offering of public Masses.

In Minnesota, the state’s Catholic bishops decided on Wednesday to resume public Masses on Pentecost weekend, in defiance of a state order. As the order had allowed some businesses to begin reopening, but not churches, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis said on Thursday that Catholics “really depend on the Eucharist to get through the challenges of their lives” in defense of the decision to reopen.

Masses will be offered in churches at no more than 33% capacity, the bishops said, and with safety precautions.

Trump hosted a conference call with administration officials and 1,600 “pastors and faith leaders,” the White House said on Thursday. The participants included Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church.

According to the White House readout of the meeting, Trump said the right of church congregations to hold services was part of America’s “transition to greatness.”

Speaking with reporters before he boarded the Marine One helicopter on Thursday afternoon, the president said that “One of the other things I want to do is get the churches open.”

“The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors,” he said. “I want to get our churches open. And we’re going to take a very strong position on that very soon.”

When a reporter asked if he wanted mosques to reopen as well, Trump said that he did.

In the listening session with African-American leaders in the afternoon, Trump repeated his desire to have churches reopened swiftly.

When asked if he “prioritizing the reopening of churches over other establishments,” Trump answered “No, not at all.”

Regarding churches, he said “they’re so important, in terms of the psyche of our country,” and that they “are essential.”

“It’s wonderful to sit home and watch something on a laptop, but it can never be the same as being in a church and being with your friends.”


Catechist has special message for children waiting for first Communion

IMAGE: CNS composite; photo courtesy the Canavan and Murawski families via The Catholic Spirit

By Joanne Ward

METUCHEN, N.J. (CNS) -- May is the month many eagerly await because it is the time many children receive first holy Communion. Sadly, this year the coronavirus has made pastors postpone this momentous milestone in the spiritual lives of waiting first communicants.

Not wanting her young students to think they have been forgotten, Coleen D'Amato, who has been preparing her 78 boys and girls to receive Jesus into their hearts sacramentally, decided to talk to them via social media.

In a heartwarming message to the children, D'Amato, who has served for the past three years as parish catechetical leader at Immaculate Conception Parish in Annandale, New Jersey, told her class: "I know that you have waited and longed to receive our Lord's Most Precious Body and Most Precious Blood in the holy Eucharist and you will."

She acknowledged they had done a lot of preparation for the sacrament and many parents had planned parties and family get-togethers for their special day, but now everything was put on hold because of the coronavirus.

Continuing, D'Amato said, "Sometimes it's hard to wait for something we really want, but you are going to have to be patient." She then posed a question, "Being patient can be hard, can't it?"

"I struggle with that, too," she added.

Having gotten the attention of her boys and girls, D'Amato then told them, "The good news is as much as you're waiting to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus can't wait to meet you there either." She said that while they are waiting they should pray to Jesus and ask him to help them be patient.

The catechist then went on to give the children some challenges. She had sent their parents links to pictures of chalices and hosts.

"Pick the one you like best and color it as best as you can, cut it out and hang it on your bedroom window," she instructed. "When you wake up each morning and see your picture, I want you to say a special prayer to Jesus, and each night before you go to bed, I want you to say that prayer again," she added. D'Amato had sent the prayer to the parents.

"Jesus, I trust you and I will be patient while I wait to receive you in first holy Communion. Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I adore you. Jesus, I trust you. Amen," was the prayer D'Amato wrote for the children to keep by their bedside and say daily.

She said she had colored a picture of a host and chalice and showed them where it was on a window in her home office. "Every time I come in here, it reminds me to pray for you," she said.

Speaking again about her challenges to them, D'Amato asked the children to send her a picture of their artwork, telling them if they wanted, they could be in the picture. She said she planned on doing something special with the artwork and would share it with them the next time they were together. She ended her special message saying, "Be patient, know that Jesus loves you, know that we all miss you at church, and we'll see you soon to celebrate. God bless."

Asked how she decided to send her special message, D'Amato said once parishes were closed and public Masses and events canceled, she began thinking about her students who were to receive sacraments this year.

"One of the blessings of parish catechetical leaders is that we are always happy to share our ideas with each other," she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.

She explained that her message for her Facebook post and prayer "was a compilation of ideas" gleaned from other parish catechetical leaders, and email discussions with Carol Mascola, director of the Metuchen diocesan Office of Discipleship Foundation for Children, "as well as through various national and international faith formation and youth ministry groups on Facebook."

"I put all of the ideas together," she added, "and shaped them into what I wanted to get across to my own first communicants, through my own personality and my own personal relationship with Christ."

A catechist for more than 20 years, D'Amato noted that in addition to talking to her first Communion class, she hoped to evangelize their families as well as others who might see her message, which she shared on her personal Facebook page and was posted on her parish's and even the diocesan Facebook pages. She wanted people to know they were loved. The response was unexpected.

"I was surprised by how much I touched people that were not getting ready to receive communion for the first time," she said. "Many told me 'I really miss Jesus. I really miss receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.'"

"I, too, really miss receiving Jesus, and I think that's true for all of us that are Catholic," stated D'Amato.

From the reaction she has received to her heartfelt message viewed by far more than just her first Communicants, it seems that once parishes are opened and the faithful return to Mass, many may receive Jesus as if it were their first time, too.

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Ward writes for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.

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Catholic aid groups provide relief to those affected by Cyclone Amphan

CNA Staff, May 22, 2020 / 11:29 am (CNA).- Catholic Relief Services is among the agencies providing aid to those impacted by Cyclone Amphan in Bangladesh and eastern India. The storm killed at least 96, millions were evacuated, and Kolkata was devastated.

The cyclone made landfall in India May 20, and it dissipated the following day. It brought winds of as much at 160 mph, and waves up to 15 feet.

Kolkata, a city of 4.5 million, was without power for at least 14 hours, and its roads were flooded.

“Initially they were not willing to evacuate, because they were weighing between the risk of the cyclone and the invisible risk of Covid-19,” Snigdha Chakroborty, CRS' Bangladesh country director, told PBS NewsHour May 20 of local residents.

“They do not have income, they do not have homes, they also lost their crops in the field. So basically it a devastating and painful situation that they will have to live with now.”

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">We just received photos of damage caused by <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#CycloneAmphan</a> in <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Bangladesh</a>. Please keep everyone impacted in your prayers. We&#39;re assessing damage will provide updates on our response asap. <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; CatholicRelief (@CatholicRelief) <a href="">May 21, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

CRS and Caritas have indicated there are immediate needs for shelter, potable water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Ahead of the storm, the groups indicated they had “pre-positioned emergency supplies” and were “supporting efforts to clean evacuation centers and procure critically needed supplies in local markets.”

Archbishop Thomas D'Souza of Calcutta has asked Church officials to open their facilities to those rendered homeless by the cyclone, according to UCA News. The “top priority is to arrange food for so many people who have lost everything,” he told the independent Catholic news source.

American Indian communities feel COVID's wrath

IMAGE: CNS photo/David Wallace, The Republic, USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Few places in the U.S. have been more vulnerable to the wrath of the coronavirus than the sovereign tribal territories of the country's first dwellers.

Long before COVID-19 came into being, lack of running water and food deserts -- places with few places to buy groceries -- within American Indian tribal lands already made daily life difficult for those living on reservations, colonies and other tribal territories. Some say those conditions, in the midst of a pandemic, now have led to the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 within the continental U.S.

In recent days, Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez has been calling attention to the more than 4,000 cases in the largest area of tribal territory in the United States, citing 2,304 cases of the virus per 100,000 people, compared to New York, considered the U.S. epicenter, and its rate of 1,806 cases per 100,000. Navajo Nation's death toll, as of May 22, neared 150.

The situation in places such as Navajo Nation became so dire in mid-May that the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders sent a team in to help the community, known as the Dine, within New Mexico -- the first time it has done so within the United States.

"There are many situations in which we do not intervene in the United States, but this has a particular risk profile," Jean Stowell, head of the U.S. COVID-19 response team for Doctors Without Borders, told CBS News in mid-May.

Though $8 billion was allocated to American Indian communities in the CARES Act Congress passed March 27, the money did not arrive until late April, making it difficult in the meantime to provide conditions that would have brought running water and food to those living within the territories. By the time some of the money arrived, many had contracted the virus.

Conditions such as a higher than average rate of diabetes among American Indians, a chronic condition that becomes even more dangerous for those who acquire the virus, lack of running water to put into place the handwashing precaution to prevent the spread of the virus, plus the added challenge of having to travel long distances to buy food and coming into contact with communities where the virus was running rampant, set up a steep hill for many tribal communities.  

By May 22, the Indian Health System had confirmed more than 6,500 cases of COVID-19 and confirmed 184 deaths at its facilities.  

Concerned about the alarming situation, on May 13, three U.S. bishops issued a joint statement, saying they were "heartbroken" that indigenous people in the United States "continue to greatly suffer from the COVID-19 epidemic" and at "disproportionately high rates" compared to other U.S. communities.

Nationally, the Catholic Church, through organizations such as the Chicago-based Catholic Extension, which works in the nation's mission dioceses in the poorest regions of the United States, has funded the salaries of church members as well as of facilities such as schools that have served places such as Navajo Nation. The U.S. bishops support these regions of the country through their annual Catholic Home Missions Appeal.

A May 15 report on Catholic Extension's website says the organization supports 15 parishes and missions "spread across the vast Navajo Nation," in "a population that has many challenges even in 'good times.'"

Even before the pandemic, a third of the population had no access to running water, the organization said, making it difficult to comply with the handwashing recommendation as a means to prevent the virus. Though with limited resources in the region, Catholic parishes have kept facilities open to the public during certain hours, so that people can access potable water and take it home during the pandemic, the organization said.

A group of women religious, the Daughters of Charity in Tuba City, Arizona, also supported by Catholic Extension for 20 years in the area, have been involved in food distribution to the hungry, and funding the electricity bills of the poor, Catholic Extension said.

The St. Anthony Indian School in Zuni, New Mexico, has been providing study packages for students that each week are distributed and returned via a drive-through system since many pupils lack access to the internet at home. Some access lessons by teleconferencing with students listening via a telephone system, which also is used to broadcast Masses.

And even at the parish level, some like Father Tai Nguyen, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Kearns, Utah, began sewing masks in early April to send to Navajo Nation.

The unfolding situation also called the attention of celebrity chef Jose Andres, who mobilized his charity World Central Kitchen's Relief Team to go to New Mexico to make food packages for hungry families as well as those affected by COVID-19.

"We are especially mindful of the Navajo Nation where people are being infected with the coronavirus at some of the highest rates in the country," said the statement signed by Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism; Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the USCCB's Domestic Justice and Human Development; and Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, chairman of the USCCB's Subcommittee on Native American Affairs.

"We hold in prayer our brothers and sisters who are suffering and grieving in these communities, and we stand with them in calling for a robust response to the pandemic in their lands," they said, adding that the current pandemic "is exacerbating health disparities and long-standing social inequalities facing native and indigenous communities."

The bishops said that "adequate funding" has "long been a challenge" for the Indian Health Service, or IHS, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the prelates pointed to reports that IHS has "shortages of medical personnel and hospital beds." The agency provides comprehensive health care services to nearly 2 million Native Americans and native peoples in Alaska.

Though dealing with the virus, tribal communities also are fighting battles with state governments and federal agencies to keep others from entering their lands and exacerbating the situation.

In South Dakota, to prevent their weak health care systems from collapsing, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe set up checkpoints along federal and state highways that run through tribal lands, saying that they're needed to prevent unnecessary visitors into tribal lands during the pandemic. But the South Dakota governor has asked the White House to step in and lift the checkpoints.

Navajo Nation president Nez also urged the National Park Service to keep the Grand Canyon, which borders tribal lands, closed.

Harold Nez Frazier, chairman for Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, in various interviews with media has said the tribe has to take such measures because it's a vulnerable population, with members dealing with obesity and diabetes, as well a bare-bones health care facility. For similar reasons, tribal governments in Arizona and New Mexico, also have set up checkpoints.

"The nearest health facility is a three-hour drive (to) Rapid City, South Dakota, for critical care. And our health facility is basically just -- we only have eight beds. There's only one respiratory therapist," he said in a May 10 interview with National Public Radio. "You know, there's probably about over 10,000 residents here that live on the reservation. So, if we were to have a massive outbreak, you know, where are they going to go?"

The fear of overwhelming a facility is an all too-real situation in the rural settings that surround tribal lands.

On May 19, The Associated Press reported such a case near Navajo Nation in New Mexico, where a small rural hospital became overwhelmed after a series of events led to the transfer of 22 patients to their center. The patients then had to be transferred once again to another facility because the hospital didn't have enough staff to deal with the outbreak.


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Pandemic has changed parish outreach methods 'forever,' says evangelist

IMAGE: CNS photo/Deacon Skip Olson, courtesy Diocese of Lexington

By Peter Finney Jr.

NEW ORLEANS (CNS) -- During two months of social isolation, the work of American business has migrated, ready or not, into the home.

If pajamas have become the new workplace attire and the sofa has been transformed into the new desktop, where does that leave a U.S. Catholic Church yearning to stay connected with its parishioners through Zoom liturgies and Facebook Live spiritual pep talks pumped into living rooms by social media?

For Scot Landry, the Boston-based Catholic evangelist whose vocation as co-leader of Dynamic Catholic requires him to think in broad strokes, the church has a unique opportunity to step up to the challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.

"I think the Catholic Church and every parish is going to be different because of the virus and how we've responded," said Landry, qualifying his answer because of the unknowns about how long it will take to find a vaccine or a therapeutic medicine to combat the virus. But, "the parishes that have invested in technology and robust communication with their parishioners have done much better throughout the last eight weeks."

One of the major advances, Landry said, will be in the number of parishes who move forward with plans to offer online giving so that people can more easily "support the mission."

"Some of the parishes who have immensely struggled over the last eight weeks are the ones that relied almost exclusively on the weekly Sunday offertory," Landry told the Clarion Herald, New Orleans' archdiocesan newspaper. "Liturgically, it's a very important part of our Mass to bring up the gifts, but it's far from 'best' if our parishes are going to have consistent support from their parishioners."

Livestreamed Masses are here "forever," Landry said.

"Most growing parishes, down the road, will continue to broadcast a lot of their liturgies and a lot of their events," he said. "It's an open question on how much parishes invest in that. Does it become a central part of their outreach or does it become just a part of their outreach?"

The massive changes in remote learning in schools also have ushered in a technological movement, Landry said.

It's going to accelerate the idea of the 'flipped classroom,' where a lot of instruction happens on video. Then, when people gather with the teacher, it's more to ask questions," Landry said. "The flipped classroom could be a great model for handing on our Catholic faith to people because many parishes have been challenged with (having enough) catechists."

Landry works with 61 parishes across 12 U.S. dioceses. One of the biggest questions he has had to grapple with is how fearful Catholics will be to return to Mass.

"Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of our regular Mass attendees on Sunday will be cautious in returning or scared to come back," Landry said, including seniors and families with younger children.

"While there is a strong desire for the Eucharist, how will every faithful Catholic look at the idea of a crowded, packed church ever again? We used to look at the Christmas and Easter crowds, if we were able to get a seat, and say, 'Isn't that wonderful how packed it is?' I do think people are going to look at a packed church now and say, 'Do I really want to be in a packed church?'"

With most dioceses across the U.S. "dispensing" Catholics from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass, Landry said parishioners may begin choosing to attend weekday Masses, when the churches will be less crowded.

The most important thing a diocese -- or a parish -- can do right now for parishioners is to "over-communicate," Landry said.

"It's to speak from the heart about the care for everybody individually and the care for the community when it regathers and that we want to be safe," Landry said. "Then each parish needs to figure out how it can distribute Communion to the homebound or those who choose to stay home during this time in much larger numbers than most parishes have ever been asked to do. That would allow people to still participate in Mass and satisfy that hunger for the Eucharist."

Communication is key, Landry said, because not all age or demographic groups are reached through the same methods of communication.

"Think in terms of the multiple platforms -- who is the best target audience for that platform and how the message could be shaped slightly differently to reach the people that read that platform?" he said.

Printed bulletins and Catholic newspapers remain important platforms, Landry said, "because for some of the most generous people in the church today in terms of their giving, that's how they access information about the church and the diocese."

Landry is working with 10 parishes across the Archdiocese of New Orleans on a pilot program to raise the level of evangelization within their respective communities.

He heaped praise on Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Mandeville, Louisiana, for the way in which it has become a "dynamic" online parish through Masses, devotions and email communication.

He also said St. Luke the Evangelist in Slidell, Louisiana, has done wonderful online Masses, and St. Pius X in New Orleans came up with an idea to pair up two parishioners who are living alone to serve as telephone buddies to each other.

Several parishes have reached out to parishioners by telephone to let them know they are thinking about them and asking if they have specific needs or prayer requests.

"Parishes across the country love the idea of calling their parishioners," Landry said. "We mentioned the idea, and probably half of our parishes started calling the next day. One parish in California called 5,000 families in one week."

The biggest takeaway from the virus quarantine, Landry said, is the recognition of "how fragile life is."

"Sometimes people, particularly young people, consider themselves invincible and that they might be the first people besides Jesus to not die," Landry said. "Life is fragile. Loneliness is high."

"This is an awesome opportunity for the Catholic Church to stand ahead and provide the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. We've always been the largest caring organization on the planet," he added. "It would be awesome if because of the outreach of parishes today, that people saw us as the leader in caring and as the leader in prayer."

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Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

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Homeland Security decision doesn't surprise Catholics working at border

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters

By David Agren

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- The recent decision by the Department of Homeland Security to extend restrictions on nonessential crossings of the southern border due to the COVID-19 pandemic did not surprise Catholics who work with migrants in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

They said the decision, which includes a freeze on asylum claims and the immediate expulsion of migrants, only deepened the difficulties migrants confront as they wait in dangerous Mexican border towns, where criminal groups often try to kidnap them.

"It's taking advantage of the virus as a means to continue deterring (migrants) from coming," Sister Norma Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus and director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said of U.S. border policy implemented with a March 20 emergency order.

"The more the rules are extended, the harder and longer it will be for migrants," said Dominican Brother Obed Cuellar, director of the diocesan Dignified Border shelter in Piedras Negras, Mexico, which borders Eagle Pass, Texas, and has been closed for two months. "We were expecting this."

The May 19 extension involves a provision known as Title 42, first invoked by the U.S. with the March 20 coronavirus emergency. It allows for the exclusion of people and property "by reason of the existence of any communicable disease in a foreign country," according to the Federal Register.

"This order has been one of the most critical tools @DHSgov has used to prevent the further spread of the virus and to protect the American people ... frontline officers, and those in their care and custody," Chad Wolf, acting secretary of homeland security, tweeted May 20.

The order stirred criticism from immigration lawyers and advocates that the Trump administration was using the pandemic to further its aims of keeping out migrants.

Brother Cuellar pointed out that in many parts of the border, the COVID-19 contagion is worse on the U.S. side, although Tijuana had been hit hard. He said he thought the U.S. pandemic policies had denied asylum-claimants the right to due process, but said, "I don't think the policy is a pretext" to stop migration, "Rather it's an act of prevention."

Other priests and religious working with migrants voiced opposition to the U.S. policy, saying it failed to take into account the urgency of asylum-seekers feeling violence.

"Their intention was to make it as difficult as possible for people to ask for asylum, and the vast majority are being rejected," said Scalabrinian Father Pat Murphy, director of the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, which was sheltering 28 migrants and has been unable to accept new guests.

"I understand they want to be really cautious, but when people are escaping violence and war, you can't say: Don't come in for a year," he said.

The U.S. government has been making the asylum process more difficult through a 2019 program known as Remain in Mexico.

The program, formally called "Migrant Protection Protocols," requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases are heard in U.S. courts. Some 64,000 asylum-seekers have been returned to Mexico under the program, and just 6% have legal representation, according to a report issued May 19 by Jesuit Refugee Services, which called for an end to the program and restoration of the right to asylum.

More than 20,000 migrants have been expelled since the COVID-19 restrictions were implemented at the border, according to the report.

"Even in the current context, we can both welcome them and protect public health," said Giulia McPherson, the report author and director of advocacy at Jesuit Refugee Services/USA.

The remaining asylum-seekers in the program have had their court dates pushed into the future due to COVID-19.

"They just pushed pause with no definite answers," Sister Norma said of the program. "I suspect that they're going to just keep postponing and postponing and postponing, saying they're not ready and just trying to frustrate people not to ask for asylum in the U.S."

Sister Norma has tended to a camp of asylum-seekers who live in tents in Matamoros, Mexico, just across from Brownsville, Texas.

The camp has stayed free of COVID-19 thanks to prevention efforts, monitoring who's coming and going and some contact tracing. The camp's population has shrunk for roughly 2,500 residents to 1,500 residents, as no new residents are allowed to move in and, according to Sister Norma, people consider seeking options in Mexico.

"People still do come, it's just that the United States is just turning them right back," she said. Her team, she added, "is working with the Mexican government to see how we can integrate (asylum-seekers) into Mexico."

Mexico's refugee agency received 70,302 asylum claims in 2019, more than double the claims from 2018, even though it has a budget of just $2.35 million.

Jesuit Refugee Service accompanies migrants seeking asylum in Mexico, though fewer cases are currently being processed due to COVID-19, something causing angst for those pursuing claims.

"Almost none of them are in conditions to spend much time waiting for a response" in Mexico, said Felipe Vargas, advocacy director for Jesuit Refugee Service. "It's because they don't have a place to live, because they don't have anything to eat or because they're desperate."


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Pope: Church's preferential option for the poor is nonnegotiable

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A missionary or church reality that is truly inspired by the Holy Spirit "manifests predilection for the poor and vulnerable as a sign and reflection of the Lord's own preference for them," Pope Francis told the pontifical mission societies.

In a message May 21, the pope said that those involved with the church's missionary activity "should never justify their lack of concern for the poor with the excuse, widely used in particular ecclesiastical circles, of having to concentrate their energies on certain priorities for the mission."

"For the church, a preference for the poor is not optional," he said.

The mission societies, which are under the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, include the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Missionary Childhood Association, the Society of St. Peter Apostle and the Missionary Union of Priests and Religious.

The societies help poor churches and communities around the world and support more than 9,000 health clinics, 10,000 orphanages, 1,200 schools, 80,000 seminarians and 9,000 religious sisters and brothers in more than 1,150 mission dioceses -- mostly in Africa and Asia.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the societies' annual general assembly was canceled, prompting the pope to send them the message "in order to share what I had intended to say to you personally."

Reflecting on the celebration of the feast of the Ascension, the pope said that it was that event, followed by the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost, that defines the church's mission, which "is the work of the Holy Spirit and not the consequence of our ideas and projects."

"This is the feature that makes missionary activity bear fruit and preserves it from the presumption of self-sufficiency, much less the temptation to commandeer Christ's flesh, ascended to heaven, for narrowly 'clerical' projects and aims," he said.

Recalling his apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"), the pope said he wished to reiterate several "features of mission" that center on faith as a gift from God and not a result of proselytism.

"If one follows Jesus, happy to be attracted by him, others will take notice," the pope said. "They may even be astonished. The joy that radiates from those attracted by Christ and by his Spirit is what can make any missionary initiative fruitful."

He also encouraged them to maintain gratitude, humility and a focus on facilitating an encounter with Christ, recognizing "the real condition of real people, with their own limits, sins and frailties" instead of taking on an attitude "like those frustrated vendors who complain that people are too unsophisticated to be interested in their wares."

The church, he said "is not a customs office and anyone who participates in the mission of the church is called not to impose unnecessary burdens on people already worn out or to require demanding programs of formation in order to enjoy what the Lord gives easily, or to erect obstacles to the will of Jesus, who prays for each of us and wants to heal and save everyone."

He also warned of situations in the church today where "the primacy of grace appears to be no more than a theoretical concept or an abstract formulation."

"Instead of leaving room for the working of the Holy Spirit, many initiatives and entities connected to the church end up being concerned only with themselves," the pope said. "Many ecclesiastical establishments, at every level, seem to be swallowed up by the obsession of promoting themselves and their own initiatives, as if that were the objective and goal of their mission."

The pope also urged the mission societies to avoid certain "pitfalls and pathologies" that may threaten their unity in faith, such as self-absorption that can cause church organizations and agencies to devote "energy and attention primarily to promoting themselves and to advertising their own initiatives."

He also called on the societies to avoid the trap of presuming to "exercise supremacy and control over the very communities they are meant to serve" as well as falling prey to elitism and striving "to increase their own influence in collusion or in competition with other ecclesiastical elites."

A sense of superiority derived from elitism, he said, can create intolerance "toward the rest of the baptized, toward the people of God who may attend parishes and visit shrines but are not 'activists' busy in Catholic organizations."

Pope Francis encouraged the pontifical mission societies to let their work be illuminated by the "spark of true love for the church as a reflection of love for Christ."

"Move forward with enthusiasm!" the pope said. "There is much to do on the journey that awaits you. If there are changes to make in procedures, it is good that these point toward unburdening rather than increasing the load, aiming at operational flexibility and not producing more rigid bureaucracies that involve the threat of introversion."

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