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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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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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Death penalty opponents decry first execution carried out amid pandemic

IMAGE: CNS photo/J.D. Long-Garcia, The Tidings

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic advocates against the death penalty spoke out against Missouri's May 19 execution of a death-row inmate, Walter Barton, whose death by lethal injection was the first execution to happen during the pandemic.

So far, amid the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, eight executions have been rescheduled citing concerns over COVD-19 infections.

"Our nation has gone to great lengths to save lives and prevent unnecessary loss of life during the COVID-19 crisis," said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, a group working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice.

"It's tragically contradictory that Missouri put a man to death amidst the herculean efforts we see daily to protect life," she said in a statement, adding that his execution was "wrong-headed and unconscionable."

Capital punishment opponents also pointed out that Barton's execution went forward despite his strong claims of innocence.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, who is a longtime opponent of the death penalty, said in a May 18 tweet that Barton had been tried five separate times for the same crime and that "at least three of the jurors that sent him to death row now have doubts after seeing new evidence."

She said Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson "should stop this execution" and appoint a board of inquiry "to figure out what really happened."

She wasn't the only one asking the governor to stop this execution. Representatives of the Missouri Catholic Conference, Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People delivered over 5,000 petitions, including 2,500 petitions from the Catholic Mobilizing Network, to the governor, asking Parson to stop Barton's scheduled execution.

On its website, the Missouri Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's bishops, said Barton, who was 64, spent 26 years on death row and was confined to a wheelchair with a severe neurological disorder due to a traumatic brain injury.

It pointed out that Missouri would be the first state to move forward with an execution during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the Missouri Department of Corrections has suspended all prison visits until June 18, and 15 states, including Ohio and Texas, have stayed, rescheduled, or granted reprieves for executions during the pandemic.

The governor said May 18 he would not stop the execution, which took place in a state prison in Bonne Terre, south of St. Louis. Strict protocols were in place to protect workers and visitors from exposure to the coronavirus. People who entered the prison had their temperatures checked and face masks were required.

Barton was convicted in 1991 for fatally stabbing an 81-year-old woman. His execution was delayed for years because of appeals, mistrials and two overturned convictions. Appeals were rejected during Barton's final days. A federal appeals court May 17 overturned a 30-day stay of execution granted by a judge on May 15 and the U.S. Supreme Court on May 19 denied Barton's attorney's request for a stay of execution

The Associated Press reported that Barton's final statement released prior to his execution, said: "I, Walter 'Arkie' Barton, am innocent and they are executing an innocent man!!"

The Catholic Mobilizing Network also noted Barton's "execution went forward despite his strong claim of innocence" and stressed that his murder conviction was "largely based on the testimony of an unreliable jailhouse informant and the use of bloodstain pattern analysis -- a forensic method with questionable validity."

"Today, as we mourn the unnecessary loss of Walter Barton, we cannot ignore the stark inconsistencies in how society views some lives as valuable, and others as worthless," Vaillancourt Murphy said.

 

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Team effort helped convince Indians, Bangladeshis to evacuate for cyclone

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rupak De Chowdhuri, Reuters

By Bronwen Dachs

Sheltering people from one of the strongest storms in more than a decade required convincing affected Indians and Bangladeshi that evacuation centers would have masks and other coronavirus protections in place, a Catholic Relief Services representative said.

Cyclone Amphan slammed into low-lying areas of India and Bangladesh May 20, with winds of up to 115 miles an hour and surging waters as high as 16 feet.

Nearly 3 million people have evacuated their homes and moved to emergency shelters in the two countries.

In a coronavirus lockdown, this "natural disaster is doubly traumatic, and people will want to go back to their homes as soon as possible," Senthil Kumar, Catholic Relief Services' representative for India, said May 20 from Delhi.

With COVID-19, "people were wary of going to shelters," he said, noting that with widespread understanding "of the need for social distancing and hygiene" measures, "people weren't sure how this would work in the evacuation centers."

But with the cyclone's lashing winds and heavy rainfall, "evacuation is essential," Kumar said. "We've had community volunteers talking about the arrangements and reassuring people" who had to move, he said.

The Indian government, church agencies and civil society "took the approach of ensuring this was not camping," he said.

Centers that would normally fit 100 people are now set up for one-third of that number "and images of people sitting apart with masks on" were widely shared, he said. Schools and other solid structures are being used as extra shelters to enable adequate spacing, he said.

While there is "so much panic about COVID-19," the "heightened focus on health infrastructure" that the coronavirus has brought "is being used to prepare for this disaster too," Kumar said.

The number of COVID-19 cases in India, which has a population of 1.3 billion people, reached 100,000 May 19. The Indian government has extended the nationwide lockdown, but May 17 relaxed rules in areas with fewer cases.

With early warning systems providing "enough time to prepare" for the cyclone, Bangladesh also set up evacuation centers with similar support, Kumar said.

"People have moved with their most precious belongings," he said, noting that "it helps that trusted people in the community give these messages of reassurance."

Shortly before the cyclone hit, many thousands of migrant workers were on India's roads trying to return to their village homes after the lockdown destroyed their livelihoods.

Most are men who find part-time labor on farms or work in India's cities in manufacturing and other industries, including at small hotels, Kumar said.

Catholic Relief Services and others are helping the migrants to stay in camps until the cyclone has run its course, Kumar said. "Afterward, we will help them get back to their homes," he said.

Heavy rainfall was expected to lead to flash flooding across the region, and the damage would have a "considerable impact on the livelihoods of communities," he said.

Many of those in the storm's path "are fishermen, and they have been warned not to be out at sea" for a while, he said.

While farmers harvested early and "preserved what they could, there is only so much they can do," Kumar said, noting that food security will be endangered "depending on the severity of the damage" to crops and plantations.

 

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PPP loans to parishes not as large, or as many, as some believe

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Paycheck Protection Program loans to parishes did not meet the number of parishes, or the size of the loans, listed in some news reports, according to Patrick Markey, executive director of the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference.

A Washington Post report said 13,000 U.S. parishes had received PPP loans. In truth, Markey said, "round one was (that) 9,000-10,000 applied, and about 6,000 had received funds. In the second round, about 5,000 applied, and of those, 3,000 said they had their applications received."

He added, "Since it looks like about 3,000 in the first round didn't make it -- and 3,000 had their applications accepted immediately (in the second round) -- I assume they were already in the pipeline."

The numbers were gleaned from a DFMC questionnaire sent to parishes. Markey said there will be no second questionnaire to parishes, as "they all sound like they got beaten up by the press."

The amount of money given to parishes has also been inflated in some media accounts.

"In Christianity Today, the PBS story, churches would take $300 billion," Markey told Catholic News Service. "If you took all the employees of all the churches, all the synagogues, all the mosques, there's no way; $3 billion, $4 billion, maybe. But that's a fraction of $500 billion." Close to $700 billion was allocated in two rounds of PPP funding.

There are about 17,000 parishes in the United States. "Most parishes have a pastor, businessperson, someone on hand that covers all the catechesis, probably a music minister -- does the liturgical work -- someone who works with young people that's part time. A lot of parishes have about five people. Some big parishes may have up to 30 people."

But instead of seeing it as employers getting their payrolls met by applying for PPP funds, Markey said, some characterized it as "this evil church getting money from the federal government."

He added, "This was payroll protection, not church protection, not business protection. For small organizations -- parishes, churches, synagogues are small organizations -- they could apply for funding based on their payroll."

Moreover, "that money was to be used for their payroll," Markey told CNS. "A small percentage could be used for other things; it was clear from the law. Some could be used for rent, some could be used for utilities."

In short, Markey said, "this money went where it was supposed to go."

The PPP loans were intended for employers of fewer than 500 people. Virtually every house of worship in the United States, regardless of denomination, would fit that description.

But, Markey noted, much depends on how "employer" is defined.

In the Catholic Church in the United States, most parishes have separate employer identification numbers, or EINs. But that isn't true everywhere. Markey mentioned one California diocese with a single EIN covering all parishes. That, he said, put the diocese over the 500-employee threshold, rendering it ineligible to apply for a PPP loan.

A parish school may have its own EIN, or it may be tied to the parish's EIN, Markey said. Other entities -- Catholic Charities affiliates, for example -- may have their own EIN, but may also have too many employees to qualify for PPP loans based on the scope of their services.

Markey said the DFMC questionnaire did not ask how many employees were saved from furloughs or layoffs by the PPP loans.

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Update: Dozens gather virtually to sing psalms, hymns and inspired songs

IMAGE: CNS/frame grab from YouTube

By Dan Meloy

PONTIAC, Mich. (CNS) -- Notre Dame Preparatory High School's choir and alumni are bringing the world a little closer together, even when it remains far apart.

On April 19, the school released a video that featured 92 singers -- 67 current students and 25 alumni and teachers -- singing a rendition of "He Never Failed Me Yet" by Robert Ray, best known for his 1979 "Gospel Mass."

The five-minute video features shots of all 92 singers performing in unison, conducted by David Fazzini, director of choirs at Notre Dame Prep.

Fazzini said he was thinking about a virtual choir performance ever since the school closed its doors in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and seeing videos of similar performances persuaded him that the choir should try it.

"When the we got stuck with the school closing down, it seemed like an easy way to go," Fazzini told Detroit Catholic, the online news platform of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Fazzini recorded the different voice parts with his daughter, Chloe, an alumna of the choral program, and then sent those parts of the song to the students to practice and record a video of them singing.

"I recorded a video of myself conducting the song with their track as audio," Fazzini said. "So they watched a video of me conducting and used their phone to record their audio. So each student had to prepare themselves on their own with these materials."

The students sent the videos of them singing back to Fazzini, who then edited and synced the videos together to make the finished product -- about 40 hours of editing, by his guess.

"I work in a couple of different music groups that do weddings and different events around town, making small music videos that use five or six different angles," Fazzini said. "This had 92 different angles of video, 92 separate videos that had to be synced. Overall, it was 10 times what I have been used to."

The end result shows all members of the 92-voice choir at times on a grid eight frames high and 12 across, featuring solo performances from Chloe Fazzini and another Notre Dame Prep alumna, Gracie Calvaneso, who is currently pursuing a music career in Nashville, Tennessee.

In a time when the world seems upside down, David Fazzini is glad the song has been so well received, with more than 6,300 views.

"I picked the song not only because it's one of my favorite gospel tunes, but my wife was talking about linking it to Divine Mercy Sunday, because the song is all about singing of God's mercy," Fazzini said; the April 19 release of the video coincided with Divine Mercy Sunday. "I'm super happy with the results."

Fazzini said the greatest technical challenge for the singers was staying in rhythm and breathing together despite singing by themselves. Fazzini noted the cutoffs each of the singers recorded synced well together and required little editing, a credit to his students' and alumni's ability to adapt.

"What makes this whole feel process feel so great is that it is reaching so many people," Fazzini said. "It's about being inspired to have hope and faith, and if it links people to this idea of Divine Mercy, this great gift with have, then that's just amazing."

The Fazzini-Notre Dame effort isn't the only such one in the Catholic world.

In Italy, Coro Navicella got its 28 members to sing "Regina Coeli" a cappella in four-part harmony. A few new faces pop up from time to time, but each singer had to record separately, and then be mixed into the final version.

Also, a similar video was created and produced by Salt and Light Media, in collaboration with Oregon Catholic Press. Salt and Light Media gathered dozens of Catholic liturgical musicians, dubbing them "Catholic Artists From Home," to sing "Be Not Afraid," the popular hymn written by Jesuit Father Bob Dufford of St. Louis Jesuits fame. The video contains a fourth verse to the hymn not found in many hymnals.

Beginning the singing is Dan Schutte, who was a member of the St. Louis Jesuits along with Father Dufford, then the video movies briskly along to cover more than 50 singers and musicians who participated in the endeavor, among then John Michael Talbot, Tom Booth, Curtis Stephan, Steve Angrisano, Miley Azbill, Tony Melendez, Jesse Manibusan, Renee Bondi, Bob Halligan Jr., John Angotti, Pedro Rubalcava, Father Rob Galea, Camaldolese Father Cyprian Consiglio -- who launched his liturgical music ministry as layman Daniel Consiglio -- Danielle Noonan and even Todd Chuba playing the triangle.

As of mid-morning May 19, the Salt and Light Media video had close to 735,800 views.

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Editor's Note: The videos can be seen here:

"He Never Failed Me Yet": https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=18&v=PwfyVjVrMGA&feature=emb_logo

"Regina Coeli": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWN8v2kXCbo&feature=youtu.be

"Be Not Afraid": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RF0DIpFOoBg&feature=youtu.be

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Meloy is a staff writer for Detroit Catholic, the online news platform of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

 

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Vatican cautions Israel over West Bank annexation plan

IMAGE: CNS photo/Debbie Hill

By

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Holy See is concerned about an Israeli plan to unilaterally annex a large portion of land in the West Bank, said a Vatican statement.

"The Holy See is following the situation closely and expresses concern about any future actions that could further compromise dialogue," said the statement released May 20.

The Vatican press office said the statement came after Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister, was contacted by telephone by Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator and secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Erekat, it said, wanted "to inform the Holy See about recent developments in the Palestinian territories and of the possibility of Israeli applying its sovereignty unilaterally to part of those territories, further jeopardizing the peace process."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz reached an agreement to form a coalition government, and Netanyahu was sworn in again as prime minister May 17. He had promised to bring a proposal to the full government as early as July 1 to annex the land on which some 130 Jewish settlements are built in the West Bank, settlements the U.N. Security Council has declared a "flagrant violation" of international law.

The Vatican statement said, "The Holy See reiterates that respect for international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions is an indispensable element for the two peoples to live side by side in two states, within the borders internationally recognized before 1967."

The Vatican also expressed "its hope that Israelis and Palestinians will be soon able to find once again the possibility for directly negotiating an agreement, with the help of the international community, so that peace may finally reign in the Holy Land, so beloved by Jews and Christians and Muslims."

 

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