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Amid joy as Bethlehem reopens, Christians have uncertainty about future

IMAGE: CNS photo/Debbie Hill

By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- Bethlehem residents returned to the Church of the Nativity as the holy site opened to visitors May 26 after being closed since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But amid the joy was a feeling of uncertainty about their economic future, as pilgrims and tourists are not yet able to return.

In the creche where Christians venerate as the traditional site of Jesus' birth, local Syriac Catholic tour guide Rizek Nazi was filming a video on his cellphone with his two sons, George, 10, and Aram, 9, to give pilgrims a virtual tour of the place as it opened, and to entice them to plan a visit once international travel reopens.

The sole breadwinner for his family, Nazi has not worked since March 7.

"I want people to keep the idea of coming on pilgrimage to Bethlehem in the back of their minds for when they can travel," he said.

In his videos, he emphasized the safety and health precautions being taken in Bethlehem.

"As Palestinians, we know to always try to keep some savings for the dark days, but now all that is gone," he added.

Samir Hazboun, chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, noted that unemployment was 95% in the tourism sector of what he called the "Christian triangle" of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.

"The Christian triangle ... depends on tourism and handicrafts related to tourism. Whenever we look at tourism (now) around the world, we can see how difficult it is," he said. Though the spring and summer months are generally low season for the area, residents are still unsure when and how many visitors will return in the ensuing season, he added.

"All the hotels and restaurants are closed, bus drivers are out of work, people working in the handicraft industry producing religious articles have been heavily affected. We are trying to develop a plan," he said.

At the moment, even mail orders for the various cooperatives and fair trade workshops are not an option, because international shipping is not yet possible, he said.

"The social impact of the economic crisis on the Christian Palestinian community (will be serious.) The Christians will be heavily affected, as their income is mainly related to the tourism and service sector," said Hazboun.

Unemployment in all the Palestinian areas has doubled from the 22% pre-pandemic level, he said.

Saliba Bandak, who is Greek Orthodox, sat idly chatting with two friends, currently unemployed as tour guides. His souvenir shop normally supports his family of seven, which includes his parents and siblings.

"Without tourists, we have nothing," Bandak said. "Since the beginning of March, we have not had any income. But we are Palestinian and we keep God as our hope."

Father Rami Asakrieh of St. Catherine Parish said almost 450 families from his parish depend solely on the tourism sector for their income, and the parish council has been trying to organize special help for them.

He said Israel, which is also slowly opening up its economy, has not yet given entry permission to all the Palestinians who worked in the construction industry to return to work in Israel.

"People who had money have gone through their savings and now need to pay their outstanding checks and loans," he said.

While the Israeli government has been able to provide grants to its residents, the Palestinian government has not been able to do so, he added.

Through the Pontifical Mission, the St. Catherine parish council has been able to provide 150 families with vouchers for groceries, but now many more families than before need help to meet their basic needs, Father Asakrieh said. The usual partner organizations that help them are also feeling the crunch because their own donors are unable to contribute more, he said, so they are hoping individuals who visit the Bethlehem parish website will consider donating.

In Jerusalem May 25, sections of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were opened to visitors who are required to wear masks and use hand sanitizer before they enter. Though the Israeli government allowed businesses and stores to reopen, souvenir shop owners in the Old City who depend on tourism have been left with no form of income. The Knights of the Holy Sepulchre launched a support fund for needy Christian families and Latin Patriarchate schools in Palestine and Jordan who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

In Bethlehem, Father Emad Kamal of St. Catherine Parish welcomed parishioners filling the pews May 26 to recite the rosary and then celebrate the first communal Mass since March.

"I feel so happy today. When the church was closed we prayed on the phone, but it is a different feeling to pray together," said Eliana Alaly, who came to church with her three children, carrying a packet of disposable masks and wearing latex gloves. She was one of the few people who wore a mask. "We are still a bit afraid."

Before going to Mass at St. Catherine's, Naheeda Thaljieh lit a candle in the adjacent Church of the Nativity.

"When I entered the church, I just cried and cried and cried," she said. Her family depends on the income from a small grocery store but there have been few customers, she said. "After 80-plus days, I entered the church and I lit candles for all the people and that all the people who are sick in the world will get well."

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To donate to St. Catherine Parish in Bethlehem, go to To help with Latin Patriarchate schools, go to


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Group's filters help Navajo Nation have safe drinking water amid pandemic

IMAGE: CNS photo/Ruby Thomas, The Record

By Ruby Thomas

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (CNS) -- As the coronavirus digs deeper into Navajo Nation, infecting Native Americans at a higher rate than anywhere in the country, 1,500 miles away a nonprofit in the Archdiocese of Louisville is working to ease the suffering.

Water With Blessings -- which provides donated Sawyer PointOne water filtration systems to communities around the world that lack safe drinking water -- is sending water filters to the Navajo people.

Ursuline Sister Larraine Lauter, co-founder of the nonprofit, said a lack of safe drinking water is making the Navajo people especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

As of May 26, 4,153 people had become infected with the coronavirus on the vast reservation that spans 27,000 square miles across Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Of those, 144 people have died, according to the Navajo Department of Health.

A third of households in the Navajo Nation do not have access to safe drinking water, said Sister Lauter. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in 2011 found that 30% of households didn't have running water. As a result, individuals get water from unregulated and untreated sources.

"Clean water is the very basis of health. It's the most fundamental part of access to health. If you are drinking contaminated water or you don't have enough water, the body is that much more vulnerable and it's harder to fight off any kind of illness," Sister Lauter told The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville. "I think that's why they have a very high rate of death."

National news sources reported that the Navajo Nation has the highest coronavirus infection rate per capita in the U.S.

"There are devastating losses," said Sister Lauter, noting that multiple members of some families have succumbed to the disease. "Water insecurity just adds to that."

With that in mind, Sister Lauter said she reached out to leaders on the reservation and offered to donate water filters.

Knowing that native peoples have not always had good outcomes from outside interference, she went about it cautiously, she said.

"I didn't want to proceed without official acceptance and approval from the Navajo Nation leadership. I wanted to be sure we had a very respectful, official relationship established," noted Sister Lauter. The people were "cautious" but "friendly" and are interested in obtaining the filters.

The challenge is that they are working around the clock to pack and deliver food and water to families in remote areas, said Sister Lauter.

Water With Blessings is working with the Navajo Nation's Department of Justice and was on track to send 500 filters soon, but doesn't intend to stop at 500, said Sister Lauter. The nonprofit has raised more than $38,000 to fund them so far. Each filter costs $75.

The organization also is working with individuals in that department to develop a plan for members of the Navajo Nation to train their people to use the filters.

Since its inception, Water With Blessings has had a distinct distribution and training model. Typically, it trains "Water Women" in groups and ask that they make a covenant with God to share a filter with three other families.

This model will be altered a bit due to circumstances created by the pandemic, such as social-distancing norms, and because families on the Najavo reservation typically live dozens of miles apart. Sister Lauter said there are 47,000 households spread across 27,000 square miles.

She will talk to filter recipients about "paying it forward" and ask them to consider, "What will they do spiritually for someone?" she said.

Though many individuals in the community have been generous, Water With Blessings is still in need of donations, said Sister Lauter.

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Editor's Note: To donate or to learn more about Water With Blessings and its work with the Navajo people, visit

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Thomas is a staff writer at The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

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Update: Pope clears way for beatification of Knights of Columbus founder

IMAGE: CNS file photo

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis has approved a miracle attributed to the intercession of Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, clearing the way for his beatification.

While the Vatican announced May 27 that Pope Francis had signed the decree, it did not announce a date for the beatification ceremony.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, previously scheduled beatification Masses have been postponed.

For beatification, the Vatican requires proof of a miracle attributed to the candidate's intercession, unless the candidate was martyred for his or her faith.

A statement from the Knights of Columbus said, "The miracle recognized as coming through Father McGivney's intercession involved an unborn child in the United States who in 2015 was healed in utero of a life-threatening condition after prayers by his family to Father McGivney."

"A date will soon be set for the beatification Mass, which will take place in Connecticut," the statement said.

Meeting with the board of directors of the Knights of Columbus in early February, the statement noted, Pope Francis said the organization has been faithful "to the vision of your founder, Venerable Michael McGivney, who was inspired by the principles of Christian charity and fraternity to assist those most in need."

"Father McGivney has inspired generations of Catholic men to roll up their sleeves and put their faith into action," said Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson. "He was decades ahead of his time in giving the laity an important role within the church. Today, his spirit continues to shape the extraordinary charitable work of Knights as they continue to serve those on the margins of society as he served widows and orphans in the 1880s."

For canonization -- the declaration that the candidate is a saint -- a miracle must take place after the beatification ceremony; it is seen as God's final seal of approval on the church's proclamation that the candidate is in heaven with God.

Father McGivney was born Aug. 12, 1852, the eldest of 13 children born to Patrick and Mary Lynch McGivney in Waterbury, Connecticut. Emigrating from separate towns in Ireland's County Cavan, the couple met and married in the United States. Only seven of their children lived past childhood.

Young Michael attended school in Waterbury's working-class neighborhood, but he left school at 13 to work in the spoon-making department of a brass factory.

At 16, he left the factory to begin seminary studies at the French-run College of St. Hyacinthe in Quebec. He also studied at Our Lady of Angels Seminary, attached to Niagara University in Niagara Falls, New York, and at the Jesuit-run St. Mary's College in Montreal.

He went home to Waterbury when his father died in 1873 and stayed there for a time out of concern for his family and because he lacked funds. At the request of Hartford's bishop, he enrolled in St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, where he completed his priestly studies.

In 1877, he was ordained in Baltimore by Archbishop James Gibbons for the then-Diocese of Hartford. A few days after his ordination, he said his first Mass in the presence of his widowed mother at Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury.

Father McGivney served as an assistant pastor at St. Mary's Parish in New Haven, 1877-1884. He founded the Knights of Columbus with a small group of Catholic laymen, in order to strengthen religious faith and to help families overwhelmed by the illness or death of their breadwinner.

In 1884, he was named pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, a factory town about 10 miles from Waterbury. He fell ill during an influenza epidemic and died Aug. 14, 1890, probably from complications of pneumonia and tuberculosis.


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California school lunch service shifts focus to stay afloat, help others

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Choicelunch

By Sydney Clark

NEW ORLEANS (CNS) -- When the COVID-19 pandemic led schools to close, the day-to-day operations at Choicelunch, a healthy school lunch delivery service, paused.

Choicelunch, established in 2003 by three University of Notre Dame alums, provided lunches for 25,000 children at 300 schools statewide before schools closed.

"Instead of 25,000 lunches a day, we were making zero lunches a day," said Keith Cosbey, chief operating officer.

The company's five kitchens and the majority of its 200 employees were impacted.

"I was distraught," said Justin Gagnon, Choicelunch co-founder and CEO. "We ended up having to lay off all of our hourly employees, our kitchen staff and our drivers."

Out of the 300 schools that Choicelunch serves, 120 are Catholic schools, according to Cosbey.

He said the Archdiocese of San Francisco was the first client to announce that it would be closing schools for three weeks.

"Of our 300 schools, that was 22 immediately that closed," Cosbey told Catholic News Service.

Within three days, there was a chain reaction of calls from other diocesan clients, including the San Jose and Oakland dioceses and the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Gagnon said shutting down and laying off employees were difficult, but the reality was without lunches and revenue coming in, Choicelunch wasn't going to sustain itself long term.

Although schools announced three-week closures at the time, Choicelunch was looking at trends, data and the virus' impact overseas. The company expected the school year was going to be cut short.

"We had to figure something out to get some money coming through the door so we could keep some of our people paid and employed and hopefully begin to even bring back a lot of our hourly employees," Gagnon said.

Around that time, Gagnon received several voicemails one day from the Office of Emergency Management of Orange County, California, asking if he was the emergency contact for a particular business. He, however, hadn't heard of the business mentioned.

He googled the business and found that it was located at one of the former Choicelunch kitchens in Huntington Beach, California.

Gagnon called the county representatives back to learn more about what they were seeking. They said they had a homeless shelter and needed to find a way to deliver breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Gagnon informed them that Choicelunch kitchen was no longer at that location, but there was one in Santa Ana, California.

"The first thing that came in was the contract with Orange County in doing our homeless meal preparation, and that eventually expanded to three sites," he said.

Choicelunch provides daily meals at two sites in Santa Ana and one site in Fullerton, California, serving about 600 people.

The company sent letters to other Bay Area counties to see if they needed similar services, but there was no response.

Gagnon said in the midst of that, family members were contacting him to see if the company's suppliers had staple foods, like meat, dairy products, fruit and vegetables. Grocery store shelves were bare, and grocery services such as Instacart didn't have any available deliveries.

"We were watching very closely what was happening in retail," Gagnon said.

He, Cosbey and Ryan Mariotti, the company's chief technology officer, exchanged ideas and decided to use the company's kitchen in Danville, California, as a food pantry and drive-through pick-up center. Gagnon said the pantry saved 45 jobs.

Choicelunch partners with about seven or eight food distributors, including Sysco, its mainline distributor. Cosbey said getting food from their suppliers has helped Choicelunch and its distributors.

"The food service world is a completely different supply chain," Cosbey said. "We worked with suppliers that had all of this food being unused with restaurants, hotels, caterers, convention centers and school lunch companies like us all closed."

In addition to the homeless communities in Orange County that receive meals from Choicelunch, other vulnerable populations use the pantry. Gagnon said those with compromised immune systems often come. Cosbey said he has elderly neighbors that also use the pantry.

"They can get their groceries without going into the store and navigating the aisles, and in some cases, navigating the aisles to come away empty," Cosbey said. "With the pantry, people can rely on getting what they need."

Gagnon said despite the recent successes for Choicelunch, the past few months have been an "incredibly emotional time" for him.

The day before the company released 160 of its employees, he wept while watching a movie with his children at home. And then after the pantry was up and running, he had a "near-nervous breakdown" from not having clarity on how things would turn out.

Gagnon called his aunt, who he said is "probably the most faithful woman he's ever known." He vented to her about all of his anxiety, fears and frustrations.

She told Gagnon, "The things that are happening now that you think are working against you will somehow end up being favorable. Not only will God get you through this, but he will also bless you abundantly."

He said looking back on the various trials and setbacks Choicelunch has faced during the pandemic has ultimately allowed him to see other doors open and to celebrate the small wins.

"I'm already seeing those blessings come to fruition," Gagnon said.

He said there's still a great amount of uncertainty moving forward, but he will continue to remain faithful and trust in God.

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Faith leaders: Protecting human life is priority in reopening churches

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mike Segar, Reuters


WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The bishops of the state of Washington said suspension of the public celebration of Mass because of the coronavirus pandemic was undertaken "not out of fear, but out of our deepest respect for human life and health."

"As disciples of Jesus, we are called to be instruments of God's protection for the vulnerable and the common good," the five bishops said in a May 22 statement released by the Washington State Catholic Conference. "Our love of God and neighbor is always personal and not partisan.

"While we share the desire to bring people back to Mass as quickly as possible, we will wait to schedule our public worship when it is safe and we are prepared to do so," the statement said.

Washington state was the site of the first widespread outbreak of the COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and public health officials quickly enacted a massive shutdown of the state, including churches, to stem the outbreak.

The bishops' statement came in response to President Donald Trump's May 22 declaration that houses of worship are "essential." He directed the country's governors "to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, this weekend."

The president's appeal to the governors came as segments of the U.S. economy began to reopen after weeks of mandatory shutdowns and stay-at-home orders governing the general population.

Trump said he would "override the governors" to ensure that churches would open for worship. He also noted that several governors "have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It's not right."

While some religious freedom advocates praise Trump's declaration, critics said he could not constitutionally "override" governors' authority on a matter in their own states.

Washington's bishops said they hoped "that our right to responsibly and safely gather for worship will soon be honored so we can collaborate in a manner that respects both our Catholic tradition as well as our civic responsibilities."

"We eagerly await the governor's response to our suggestions on this so we can proceed together with our reopening plans," the statement concluded.

The archdioceses of Baltimore and Los Angeles also issued statements May 22 that explained why churches remained closed for public worship.

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez said in video message that while church buildings remained closed, parishes were open. He stressed that the safety of people was his top concern.

He expressed solidarity with the faithful of the archdiocese, acknowledging the difficulty for people in not being able to celebrate Mass and the sacraments as a community.

"But I think we all have to understand that the reason that we have to do that is because we care for one another," the archbishop said. "The reality of this coronavirus pandemic is that it is a very dangerous illness and the virus is easy to be passed to one another. We didn't know exactly what was the reality and we started seeing the consequences of so many people dying and so many people getting sick, so that's why we had to be extremely careful in taking care of one another."

He said the number of COVID-19 cases continued to climb in Los Angeles County, but that the number of illnesses in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, which also are part of the archdiocese, were not as high. "But it is still a very contagious illness," he said.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore reiterated that it has undertaken plans to reopen parishes for public Mass for the weekend of May 30-31 in jurisdictions that are allowing religious gatherings of more than 10 people and parishes are able to implement the necessary precautions to mitigate the risk of transmission of the coronavirus.

"The guidance is informed by church doctrine, expert medical advice and federal, state and local recommendations for maintaining public safety and prevention community contagion of the COVID-19 virus," the statement said.

The archdiocese also expressed gratitude to government leaders "who have consulted the advice of the religious community" to respect religious freedoms while ensuring the safety of worshippers and the wider community.

Making decisions amid "these unchartered challenges," the statement continued, requires that religious and personal freedom must be balanced with the need for economic stability and the pandemic's impact on the physical, mental and social health of local communities.

The archdiocese said it would "continue to give first priority to the protection of the sacredness of life as we strive to minister to the spiritual needs of the faithful."

Trump's May 22 announcement came less than a week after the Department of Justice challenged the "unequal treatment of faith communities" in California's coronavirus reopening plan, warning that continued restrictions on worship services threaten believers' civil rights to practice their religion.

"Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights," said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband in a three-page letter sent to California Gov. Gavin Newsom May 19. Dreiband is in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Elsewhere, Minnesota's Catholic bishops and Lutheran officials said they were moving ahead with plans to resume liturgies at 30% capacity May 26, despite the Gov. Tim Walz's executive order capping faith-based gatherings at 10 people due to the pandemic.

But after two days of meetings with Catholic and Lutheran leaders, Walz May 23 announced a new executive order permitting faith-based gatherings at 25% church capacity, with a total limit of 250 people, beginning May 27. The Minnesota governor announced the new order May 23.

In response, Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the state's other Catholic bishops said they find the new guidance reasonable and so have modified their plans to align with the 25% of capacity now allowed. In addition to slightly lowering capacity limits, they also were waiting to resume public worship May 27 instead of May 26, as they initially planned.

The faith leaders had pushed Walz to allow bigger crowd capacity for worship services as an "urgent need." In past weeks, Minnesota restaurants, bars, malls, retail stores, salons and tattoo parlors had been green-lighted to reopen with certain restrictions.


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Pope to lead world shrines in rosary prayer for pandemic May 30

IMAGE: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis will lead the major shrines around the world in praying the rosary to implore Mary's intercession and protection amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The pope will pray at the replica of the Lourdes Grotto in the Vatican Gardens May 30, the eve of Pentecost, and will also be joined by several "men and women representing various categories of people particularly affected by the virus," the Vatican said May 26. The service will be at 5:30 p.m. in Rome (11:30 a.m. EDT).

"At the feet of Mary, the Holy Father will place the many troubles and sorrows of humanity, further worsened by the spread of COVID-19," said a statement released by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.

According to the statement, the prayer, which coincides with the end of the Marian month of May, "is another sign of closeness and consolation for those who, in different ways, have been struck by the coronavirus, in the certainty that the Heavenly Mother will not disregard the requests for protection."

Among those who will accompany the pope in praying the rosary will be a doctor and a nurse, a recovered patient as well as a person who lost a family member to COVID-19. Also taking part in the rosary will be a hospital chaplain, a pharmacist, a journalist, a Civil Defense volunteer and his family and a family that welcomed a new baby, "a sign of hope and the victory of life over death," the pontifical council said.

Shrines around the world will connect to the event and take part in the prayer, including the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju


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Pope marks anniversary of 'Laudato Si'' with call to prayer, action

IMAGE: CNS photo/Phil Noble, Reuters

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Commemorating the fifth anniversary of his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis called on Christians to join in prayer and acts of care for the Earth and for the poor.

After reciting the "Regina Coeli" prayer May 24, the pope encouraged Catholics to participate in the celebration of the "Special Laudato Si' Anniversary Year," a yearlong series of initiatives dedicated to putting the encyclical's teaching into action.

"I invite all people of goodwill to join, to take care of our common home and of our most fragile brothers and sisters," he said.

According to the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, the yearlong celebration from May 24, 2020, to May 24, 2021, will emphasize "ecological conversion in action" through a series of events dedicated to environmental care, education and the economy.

The pope also said that "it would be beautiful" for Catholics to recite the prayer dedicated to the anniversary celebration of the encyclical.

The prayer, which is available on the dicastery's "Laudato Si' Week" website, asks God to "be present to those in need in these trying times, especially the poorest and those most at risk of being left behind."

"Help us to show creative solidarity in addressing the consequences of this global pandemic. Make us courageous to embrace the changes that are needed in search of the common good," the prayer states.

In a statement released by the Vatican press office May 16, the dicastery also detailed the rollout of a "seven-year journey toward integral ecology" for families, dioceses, schools, universities, hospitals, businesses, farms and religious orders.

Among the events is the ecumenical "Season of Creation" initiative, which runs from the Sept. 1 Day of Prayer for Creation through the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Oct. 4.

The initiative, explained at is "an annual celebration of prayer and action to protect creation" that will include an online prayer service, a webinar and conferences.

In a May 25 statement announcing the initiative, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development said that in light of the coronavirus pandemic, "the Season of Creation is especially relevant this year."

The dicastery, it said, "is currently engaged in work to develop a comprehensive response to the pandemic, addressing both the immediate needs of those who suffer today and the long-term need to create more just societies."

Throughout the anniversary year, Catholic dioceses, schools and institutions also will be encouraged to implement the use of clean renewable energy, as well as the sober use of resources and energy and updating educational curriculum "to create ecological awareness and action, promoting the ecological vocation of young people, teachers and leaders of education."

The dicastery also instituted the "Laudato Si' Awards," which will recognize individuals, educational institutions, dioceses and parishes for their efforts in encouraging and promoting the care of the environment.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju

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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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Copyright © 2020 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at [email protected]