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Las Cruces bishop first in US to resume public Masses amid pandemic

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 18:45

Washington D.C., Apr 15, 2020 / 04:45 pm (CNA).- The Bishop of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has lifted a diocesan ban on the public celebration of Mass and told priests they may resume sacramental ministry if they follow state-ordered health precautions. He is the first U.S. bishop known to have lifted a diocesan ban on public Masses since the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the U.S. last month.

“We [as priests] have been called by Christ and ordained to serve the people of the Diocese of Las Cruces, to bring them hope and consolation during this difficult time,” Bishop Peter Baldacchino wrote in a letter dated April 15 and obtained by CNA.

Christopher Velasquez, communications director of the diocese, confirmed the letter to CNA on Wednesday evening.

Velasquez stressed the "essential ministry of hope" the Church is called to undertake during the pandemic. He added that the diocese urges all Catholics in at-risk demographics to exercise prudence, remain at home and watch the Mass on livestream whenever possible

In his letter, Baldacchino said that “At the outset of the pandemic, I ordered the priests of the Diocese of Las Cruces to suspend all public Masses as we assessed the situation and established a safe way to continue to bring Christ to the people, both through the Word of God and the Sacraments."

"These past few weeks have allowed me to further analyze the situation and discern a safe way to proceed,” the bishop wrote.

“It has become increasingly clear that the state shutdown will last for some time. Depriving the faithful of the nourishment offered through the Eucharist was indeed a difficult decision, one that I deemed necessary until I had further clarity regarding our current state of affairs, but it cannot become the status quo for the foreseeable future.”

Dioceses across the United States have suspended the public celebration of Mass, and many have restricted priests’ ability to hear confessions and anoint the sick. While priests in some dioceses have tried to find ways to provide sacramental ministry, including drive-in Masses and Eucharistic adoration, some bishops have banned these practices.

Baldacchino said in his letter that the public danger posed by the coronavirus had to inspire renewed reflection by the Church, and demanded a response from ministers. He also said that his action was in part inspired by the deaths of two priests, close friends and seminary classmates, who contracted the virus.

“We are all aware of the tragedy caused by the Coronavirus, I myself have lost two close friends of mine, priests I studied and served with. I am fully conscious of the death and sadness these days seem to bring. And yet there is more. The Coronavirus can also be a help to us. How long have we settled down in our ‘usual way’ of doing things? For how long have we grown comfortable with our routines? For how long have we taken the grace of the sacraments for granted? Or the beauty of the assembly at Mass?”

Baldacchino said the crisis created by the pandemic had brought about “a time for renewal.”

“In the events of these days and weeks the Lord is calling us out of our comfort zone, he is calling us to seek new ways to reach the people. In addition to this mission with which we are entrusted, we also have the mission to keep people safe. The two must be equally pursued,” he said.

“While it is true that we need to take every reasonable precaution to reduce the spread of Coronavirus, it is equally true that we offer the greatest ‘essential service’ to our people. The past few weeks have brought to light many unintended consequences of the ‘stay-at-home’ order.”

The bishop pointed to reports that the Disaster Distress Helpline, a federal crisis hotline run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has seen an 891% increase of calls during the pandemic, with large spikes also being recorded at suicide prevention hotlines. He also noted reports of increases in domestic violence in places under lockdown.

“Simply put, in the midst of financial uncertainty, fear for one’s health, pandemic induced anxiety and confinement to their homes, people definitely need a word of hope,” he said.

“We, as priests, are called to bring the Word of Life to people, we are called to minister the life-giving sacraments. Televised Masses have been an attempt to bridge the gap during this time, but I am increasingly convinced that this is not enough,” Baldacchino said.

“The eternal life offered in Christ Jesus needs to be announced. It was precisely the urgency of this announcement that drove the first apostles and the need is no less today. Christ is alive and we are his ambassadors.”

Revoking the suspension of public Masses, in place in the diocese since March 16, the bishop said that priests are now allowed to celebrate Masses in the presence of the faithful “while maintaining all current health precautions set forth by the state and federal government.”

Baldacchino’s letter noted that the state of New Mexico recently updated its Public Health Order, which no longer includes churches as “essential services.”

“I strongly disagree,” he said. “Sadly, the Governor is no longer exempting places of worship from the restrictions on ‘mass gatherings.’ It seems to me that while we run a daily count of the physical deaths we are overlooking those who are dead interiorly.”

To comply with the governor’s directive, guidelines issued to all priests limit attendance at Mass in church buildings to 5 people, including the celebrant, and insist that a minimum safe distance of six feet be observed and all seating sanitized after Mass ends.

Baldacchino also authorized priests to celebrate Mass outdoors, in compliance with state guidance on social distancing, and specifically recommended setting up an altar in the parish parking lot with parishioners remaining in their cars with an empty space between each vehicle.

“Parishes that lack sufficient parking spaces may celebrate the liturgies in open cemeteries or other available open spaces. Parishioners should maintain at least a six feet separation at all times,” the guidance states.

Over the Easter Triduum, the bishop had a stage erected outside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and celebrated the liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil for local Catholics who remained in their cars.

The guidelines also lay out strict instructions for the distribution of Communion, with priests told to wear a face mask, sanitize their hands, and wear gloves for the distribution.

Baldacchino also encouraged priests to continue hearing confessions and ensure that the anointing of the sick was still available where necessary.

“Priests may and should continue to offer” the sacraments, he said. “The faithful are not to be deprived of this sacrament, especially when in danger of death.”

In recent weeks, Baldacchino himself has frequently heard confessions behind a screen outside the cathedral in Las Cruces.

The bishop also made provision for priests to resume weddings and funerals in accordance with state regulations on social distancing, and granted permission for them to be held outside on Church property for the duration of the pandemic.

Catholic Relief Services leans on experience to fight coronavirus pandemic

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 15:00

Washington D.C., Apr 15, 2020 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- As aid agencies struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic in parts of the developing world, Catholic Relief Services said it is relying on past experience in handling mass outbreaks of disease as it manages its own response to COVID-19. 

The aid agency, which is present in more than 90 countries and serves more than 130 million people each year, said Wednesday that it is ramping up aid efforts in countries across the world and taking a flexible approach to fighting the coronavirus. CRS is part of Caritas International, the global network of Catholic humanitarian organizations. 

Nikki Gamer, a spokesperson for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), told CNA on Wednesday that the organization is “working tirelessly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to respond to its impact on some of the most vulnerable communities.”

“We are adapting existing programs to ensure things like social distancing and proper handwashing, for example, and are initiating new activities focused on creating awareness, prevention and quality care for those affected,” she told CNA.

Previously, CRS has worked to contain the spread of other infectious diseases and viruses, including tuberculosis, cholera, HIV, and polio. The organization worked extensively from 2014-2016 in various western African nations during the ebola outbreak, something that CRS President and CEO Sean Callahan said has influenced how they are handling COVID-19. 

“Our COVID-19 response will draw upon our experience in acute health emergencies,” such as ebola and HIV, said Callahan in a release issued Wednesday by CRS. “Our work will be informed by the local context and focus on some of the most vulnerable communities.” 

Callahan called CRS particularly “well-positioned” to assist throughout the world. 

“Our staff and partners have been a constant presence in some of the most vulnerable communities for more than 75 years and we are leveraging those relationships in times of an outbreak,” said Callahan. This extensive existing network has meant that CRS was able to “scale up” its efforts in key locations. 

Presently, CRS is focusing much of their efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus in parts of Africa, as well as Gaza and Cambodia. In Cambodia, which is not currently experiencing outbreaks at the same levels as other countries, CRS said it is working proactively with the country’s Ministry of Health and conducting health training at the provincial level to prevent mass spread of the disease from occuring. 

CRS has also sent nurses from its internship program to Gaza to help provide “surge staffing” in health facilities there.

In Kenya, CRS is moving to assist the health system in the capital of Nairobi through trainings on prevention and control of COVID-19, and has been training Kenyan healthcare workers located in areas where the disease may become prevalent. In Ethiopia, CRS has been providing workers at Catholic health facilities with personal protective equipment and isolation tents. 

As lockdown measures in many countries create widespread economic uncertainty and hardship for many families and businesses, Gamer told CNA that the organization faced similar challanges. 

“We are immensely thankful to know that the Catholic community always unites in crisis to come together to help those in most need,” said Gamer. “There is no difference now, even with the added layers of lockdowns and social distancing closing churches in our communities.” 

A person can donate through the CRS website, said Gamer, adding, “we thank all of our supporters for their collective efforts in helping us slow the spread of coronavirus for the most vulnerable people around the world.”

California churches sue governor to allow public worship services amid coronavirus

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 14:01

CNA Staff, Apr 15, 2020 / 12:01 pm (CNA).- Three Southern California ecclesial communities have filed a lawsuit against Governor Gavin Newsom, alleging that social distancing orders he imposed amid COVID-19 violate their first amendment right to freedom of religion.

Newsom imposed a stay-at-home order for the state March 19, mandating that nonessential businesses close their doors and restricting gatherings. Newsom’s order does not list houses of worship as “essential.”

The Center for American Liberty, a California-based nonprofit, filed the suit April 13 in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. State Attorney General Xavier Becerra, as well as officials of San Bernardino and Riverside counties who imposed additional stay-at-home orders, are also named in the suit.

“If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions,” Harmeet Dhillon, chief executive of the Center for American Liberty, said in an April 13 statement.

The churches involved in the suit include Church Unlimited, a church located in Riverside county, whose pastor received a $1,000 fine for holding a Palm Sunday service.

The head pastor of Shield of Faith Family Church in San Bernardino county and the senior pastor of Word of Life Ministries International in Riverside county also are involved in the suit.

The churches argue that the state and local orders are overly broad, and that they can practice safe social distancing in the same manner as grocery stores and other businesses considered essential, the Associated Press reports.

San Bernardino county’s April 7 stay-at-home order mandated that faith-based services “must be electronic only through streaming or online technology,” adding that people may not leave their homes for “driving parades or drive-up services or to pick up non-essential items such as pre-packaged Easter eggs or bags filled with candy and toys at a drive-thru location.”

Riverside county’s order, imposed April 10, allowed for drive-up church services the weekend of Easter, but mandated that such activities would be prohibited after Easter Sunday.

On Friday, a federal judge refused to allow a small church in Campo, Abiding Place Ministries, to gather for Easter Sunday services, the AP reports.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread in the U.S., state and local governments have enacted various restrictions on public activities and gatherings.

Some officials have curtailed public religious services entirely and threatened serious consequences for churches which do not comply.

New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio threatened to close down churches and synagogues permanently if they still held public services. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (D) said state police would record the license plate numbers of attendees of large religious services over Easter, with local health officials requiring them to self-quarantine for 14 days afterward. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) criminalized certain public gatherings of 10 or more people, which included religious gatherings.

In Kansas, Governor Laura Kelly (R) initially exempted religious services from the state’s limitation of public gatherings to no more than 10 people, but then included religious services in the regulations.

Local authorities on April 8 fined attendees at a drive-in service at a Baptist church in Greenville, Mississippi, prompting the Department of Justice to file a statement of interest on Tuesday in support of the church.

Attorney General William Barr issued a statement April 14 “on religious practice and social distancing” where he clarified that governments cannot put special burdens on religious practice that they do not also impose upon other activities.

“For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings,” Barr said.

“Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.”

Federal court says chemical abortions can continue despite Texas order

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 13:00

CNA Staff, Apr 15, 2020 / 11:00 am (CNA).- Chemical abortions in Texas will continue during the coronavirus pandemic after the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to overturn a lower court’s order on Tuesday.  

On April 9, the Western District Court of Texas placed a temporary restraining order on parts of the state’s ban on elective abortions during the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The court’s order allowed chemical abortions in the state to continue, as well as some surgical abortions.

Reviewing the court’s order on chemical abortions, a three-judge panel for the Fifth Circuit on Tuesday declined to overturn it, saying it had “doubts” about the state’s argument.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had issued an executive order in March halting non-essential medical and dental procedures during the pandemic to conserve medical resources for treating COVID-19.

Attorney General Ken Paxton applied the order’s prohibitions to elective surgical and chemical abortions, except in cases where the mother’s life or health was deemed to be in jeopardy.

In a March 31 interview with EWTN Pro-Life Weekly, Paxton explained that the ban also applied to other non-essential procedures such as non-emergency dental and orthopedic procedures. The order was “something that could be used to save peoples’ lives,” Paxton said.

Abortion providers sued and the district court halted the abortion provisions of the order from going into effect, allowing abortions in the state to continue.

After reviewing the district court decision, however, the Fifth Circuit sided with Texas and allowed the state’s order to continue.

Then, on April 9, the district court applied a narrower restraining order on Abbot’s act, allowing chemical abortions in the state to continue as well as certain surgical abortions—in cases where women would be past 18 weeks of pregnancy and unable to access ambulatory surgical centers by April 22, or when mothers would be past 22 weeks of pregnancy by April 22.

The Fifth Circuit ruled on Tuesday that both the state and abortion providers failed to “settle” the question of whether or not the executive order “applies to medication abortions,” and thus “given the ambiguity in the record,” the judges concluded that the state failed to make its case for the district court’s order to be overturned.

Similar state actions in Ohio, Alabama, and Oklahoma have been halted in whole or in part from going into effect by courts.

A federal judge on Easter Sunday ruled that the goals of Alabama’s order, issued to conserve medical resources during the pandemic, “do not outweigh the lasting harm imposed by the denial of an individual’s right to terminate her pregnancy, by an undue burden or increase in risk on patients imposed by a delayed procedure, or by the cloud of unwarranted prosecution against providers.” 

Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser warned about an increase in chemical abortions as many parts of the U.S. are under shelter-in-place orders. She called chemical abortions the “next frontier” of the abortion lobby, in an op-ed for Townhall.

“The next frontier is the expansion, via telemedicine and the mail, of so-called ‘self-managed’ abortion (their term) using dangerous drugs,” Dannenfelser wrote, noting that chemical abortions already make up anywhere from 30 to 50% of abortions in the U.S.

Justice department backs Mississippi church over drive-in services

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 12:00

CNA Staff, Apr 15, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- The Justice Department (DOJ) is supporting a Mississippi church after local authorities fined attendees at a drive-in service during the coronavirus pandemic.  

The DOJ filed a statement of interest on Tuesday in support of Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, that held drive-in services where attendees listened to the service on their car radios. The church took the special precautions in response to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended gatherings of fewer than 10 people, spaced at least six feet apart, to halt the spread of the virus.

In its brief, the DOJ argued that the church tailored its services to comply with public health guidelines, and that the city government acted unfairly in enforcing its restrictions on churches but not on other entities such as restaurants serving drive-in patrons.

“In addition to appearing non-neutral, the church’s allegations also tend to show that the city’s emergency actions are not applied in a generally applicable manner,” DOJ stated.

Mississippi’s governor Tate Reeves (R) issued a shelter-in-place order requiring citizens to stay at home except for certain reasons, and listed churches as “essential” institutions that could remain open while complying with certain guidelines.

The city of Greenville, however, curtailed drive-in religious services until the governor’s order was lifted. On April 8, law enforcement handed out citations to attendees at a Temple Baptist Church drive-in service, with fines of $500.

According to the church’s complaint, attendees were inside their cars with their windows rolled up. Member Lee Gordon told the Delta Democrat Times that a nearby SONIC fast-food restaurant was open for drive-in patrons. 

The church said that many members do not have the ability to stream services online, and thus a drive-in service would accommodate far more congregants.  

In addition to the DOJ’s brief in the case, Attorney General William Barr issued a statement on Tuesday “on religious practice and social distancing” where he clarified that governments cannot put special burdens on religious practice that they do not also impose upon other activities.

As states and local governments have the authority to enact certain restrictions tailored to a public emergency, “the constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances,” Barr said.

However, he added, these regulations cannot impede religious practice while allowing exemptions for other public activities.

“For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings,” Barr said. “Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.”

In applying the test of the federal and state Religious Freedom Restoration Act—where a government must prove that its substantial burden on religious exercise furthers a compelling public interest and is the least-restrictive means of doing so—the DOJ said the city’s prohibition on drive-in religious gatherings likely fails the test, as it is being less restrictive of other establishments such as drive-in restaurants.

As the church requires attendees to space their cars out beyond federally-recommended social distancing guidelines, and to remain in their cars with their windows up, “it is unclear why prohibiting these services is the least restrictive means of protecting public health, especially if, as alleged in the complaint, the city allows other conduct that would appear to pose an equal—if not greater—risks,” DOJ stated.

As the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread in the U.S., state and local governments have enacted various restrictions on public activities and gatherings.

Some officials have curtailed public religious services entirely and threatened serious consequences for churches which do not comply.

New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio threatened to close down churches and synagogues permanently if they still held public services. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (D) said state police would record the license plate numbers of attendees of large religious services over Easter, with local health officials requiring them to self-quarantine for 14 days afterward. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) criminalized certain public gatherings of 10 or more people, which included religious gatherings.

In Kansas, Governor Laura Kelly (R) initially exempted religious services from the state’s limitation of public gatherings to no more than 10 people, but then included religious services in the regulations.

Knights of Columbus in New Mexico, Hawaii help Native people during coronavirus

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 05:01

Gallup, N.M., Apr 15, 2020 / 03:01 am (CNA).- Native Americans have not fared well in pandemics and epidemics.

The smallpox virus, which killed the parents and brother of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, is estimated to have wiped out 90-95% percent of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in the span of about two centuries.

The H1N1 flu epidemic of 2009 had a death rate that was four times higher for Native Americans than for any other ethnicity combined, according to the National Library of Medicine.

And now, Native Americans are being similarly hard-hit by coronavirus, and reservation conditions mean the disease spreads quickly, and already-limited resources could soon run out.

“Unfortunately, on top of everything else that people are dealing with, adding this whole (coronavirus) situation is just going to make life that much more difficult for many families on the reservation,” Jeremy Boucher, co-director of the non-profit Southwest Indian Foundation, told CNA.

Since the Navajo Nation announced a shelter in place order March 20, Boucher and the foundation have been making food deliveries to a food pantry on the reservation to ensure that those in quarantine or far away from grocery stores had access to food.

But the Navajo Nation extends into three states - New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah - with several other reservations in the area as well. And local food pantry rules limited Boucher to delivering food within McKinley County, New Mexico.

“The (Navajo) reservation itself is about the size of West Virginia, and there is maybe a total of five grocery stores on the reservation, and most of those grocery stores are close to border towns,” Boucher said.

“And so Gallup (county seat of McKinley County) is really the central town for most people living on the reservation. So people sometimes drive two, two and a half, three hours to come into town to get supplies. And right now, they're facing a situation where, if they're home-bound under quarantine for 14 days, it's really difficult to have someone come into town for you and get a bunch of stuff with all of the limitations that are happening at the grocery stores,” he said.

“So if you're not able to make it, you've got to send someone for you, but then there's no guarantee that, when you come into town, you're going to be able to find what you need, because the stores are wiped out,” he added.

To expand the relief efforts, Boucher teamed up with Patrick Mason, a member of the Osage Tribe and the Knights of Columbus board of directors, to bring food to more people.

“We knew just from living out here - I was born and raised here - the need is out there,” Mason told CNA. “Whenever something like this hits, whenever an epidemic or pandemic hit, a lot of times it's just devastating.”

Besides direct deaths from illnesses, Mason said, ancillary suffering and deaths typically occur in such crises. Many elderly people on the reservation live in simple, traditional hogans and lack running water and electricity and the ability to get themselves supplies.

They rely on family and friends to look out for them, but they’re often the first people forgotten in a crisis, Mason noted. “Not intentionally, it's just, people are concerned, and they forget to go check on so-and-so. A lot of times they end up suffering in a myriad of ways,” he said.

When Mason heard Boucher needed help, he worked with the Knights of Columbus as well as Life is Sacred, a Native American pro-life organization, to organize and deliver food baskets to the Acoma people, a Pueblo tribe 90 miles away that includes Sky City village, the oldest continuously inhabited place in the United States.

They also consulted Lance Tanner, one of the owners of T and R Market (a family-run grocery store that primarily serves Navajo clientele), for the food baskets.

Tanner, also a member of the Knights of Columbus, knew what staples his customers would like in a food basket, including flour, lard, potatoes, coffee, and spam, as well as toiletries and water; and treats like Crackerjacks and Kool-Aid for the kids.

Once assembled, Mason said the baskets - which were actually three large boxes - contained enough food to feed a family for about two weeks.

“I had a trailer (from the Knights of Columbus) and we called it the COVID-19 Relief Canteen,” Mason said. They made their first delivery during Holy Week.

“Our first delivery went to the Acoma people, which is one of the old Pueblo tribes. Those are Catholic tribes. They've been Catholic for hundreds of years,” he said.

“They have some churches there that are hundreds of years old, and they're very faithful Catholic people. They were suffering, and they said that they had about 140 people that were in desperate need of food, so we did our first delivery there,” Mason said.

When they arrived, they were told by the local volunteers that 60 more people had called in that day looking for food.

Wearing facemasks and gloves, Mason and the Knights and local volunteers unloaded the boxes at a centralized distribution center. Mason said they worked with local organizations who were able to deliver the boxes to the families most in need.

As word spread through the region that the Knights of Columbus were organizing food baskets, “then names kept coming in” of more people in need of help, Mason said.

Mason added that he also learned that another member of Life is Sacred, Dallas Carter in Hawaii, had been organizing similar relief efforts with his local Knights of Columbus for the native and vulnerable people there, and was in need of some additional help.

“Independently from what we were doing, he was doing something similar down in Hawaii. I talked to him and I said, ‘Well hey, we need to support you too.’”

Mason said the New Mexico Knights were able to provide a grant to the Hawaii Knights to keep their efforts going for two more weeks.

“Caring for our kūpuna (elders) has always been an essential value to the people of Hawaii,” the Knights from the Diocese of Honolulu said in a statement provided to CNA.

“With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent mandatory state quarantine many of our kūpuna were required to stay home without regular access to their normal means of acquiring food and other essential items. In fact even many of the regular food pantries, which many kūpuna depend on, were completely shut down for the safety of their volunteers,” they said.

“Several Knights of Columbus in the diocese of Honolulu, with the announcement of the quarantine and its inevitable effects on the vulnerable, stepped into the breach and began their own personal initiatives to help the kūpuna and other vulnerable people in their community,” the statement added.

Like the Knights in New Mexico, the Knights in Hawaii were delivering food supplies for two weeks and other necessities to the elderly and vulnerable populations - and so far have served about 5,000 people in their efforts.

Mason said his group of Knights have enough funding to keep their own relief efforts in New Mexico going for another two weeks, but he is hoping they are able to garner more support to keep it going even longer.

“We want to get the word out there, because really, everybody’s suffering right now,” he said. “But I think sometimes...those people on the peripheries are sometimes the most forgotten and the most suffering. A little old, 80-year-old grandma living by herself an hour from the closest person, is one of the first people forgotten,” he said.

In a statement, the Knights of Columbus in Gallup said that while this has felt like a long Lent for everyone, “by standing together, the light of Easter will be upon us, and together we will sing the Non Nobis and Te Deum as the mists of darkness clear.”

US bishops join Pope Francis' call for global ceasefire to counter coronavirus

Tue, 04/14/2020 - 20:00

Washington D.C., Apr 14, 2020 / 06:00 pm (CNA).- The U.S. bishops have echoed Pope Francis’ call for a global ceasefire to help defend vulnerable populations from the COVID-19 virus and respond to the global pandemic.

Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Ill., who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, said the Pope's plea for peace seeks to deepen “fraternal bonds of the human family” in search of “lasting peace.”

“May God use even the difficulties of this moment to bring about peace and solidarity in the world,” Malloy said in an April 8 statement.

“May God’s grace open the hearts of combatants throughout the world so that they realize their shared frail humanity and allow a cessation of hostilities to come to pass,” he added. “With such cessation, corridors of humanitarian assistance can be established and strengthened to allow relief to reach those in greatest need.”

Malloy’s comments followed Pope Francis’ appeal for a global ceasefire as countries work to protect their populations from the coronavirus pandemic.

Close to 2 million people are confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus, with some 125,000 dead and 470,000 deemed to be recovered. In some parts of the world the numbers of people with severe symptoms have overwhelmed hospital facilities. Efforts to halt the spread of the virus through mandatory self-distancing have led to business closures and massive new unemployment.

Even wealthy nations at peace have faced difficulties securing medical tests, protective equipment and hospital space in their responses to the novel coronavirus. These difficulties are amplified in regions at war.

About 70 countries are engaged in some kind of conflict, with some conflicts dating back decades.

“Over a billion people on our planet live without access to the basic necessities of life. Over 70 million are displaced who already live amidst violent conflict and persecution,” Malloy said. “The unfolding global health pandemic and subsequent economic crisis only exacerbate their intolerable suffering.”

Pope Francis urged nations in conflict to respond to the March 23 appeal from the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who called for for an “immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world” to “focus together on the true fight of our lives,” the “battle” against the coronavirus.

“The current emergency of COVID-19 … knows no borders,” the pope said in his March 29 Angelus address.

“I invite everyone to follow up by stopping all forms of war hostility, promoting the creation of corridors for humanitarian aid, openness to diplomacy, attention to those in a situation of greater vulnerability,” the pope continued.

Francis repeated his call for a ceasefire in his Easter Sunday Urbi et Orbi address.

“This is not a time for division. May Christ our peace enlighten all who have responsibility in conflicts, that they may have the courage to support the appeal for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world,” he said. “This is not a time for continuing to manufacture and deal in arms, spending vast amounts of money that ought to be used to care for others and save lives.”

Some parties to war appear to have backed the call for a ceasefire, but such efforts could be tenuous.

Humanitarian advocates at the United Nations feared that the COVID-19 virus could be especially devastating in Yemen, which continues to suffer a five-year-long civil war between Saudi Arabia-led forces and the Iran-aligned Houthi movement, whose forces hold the national capital of Sana'a.

The Saudi- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition announced a unilateral ceasefire to begin on April 9.

Skeptical Houthi officials called it a “political and media maneuver.” Their counter-offer appeared to apply a ceasefire only to fighting between their forces and Saudi Arabia, and not to groups loyal to Yemeni leader Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian reports.

Within a week the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition accused Houthi forces of violating the ceasefire. On the ground, few civilians think the ceasefire will be more effective than previous efforts.

Over half of Yemen's hospitals and clinics have been destroyed or closed by the fighting. UN officials say over 90% of the population could become infected by the COVID-19 virus. Only one case has been confirmed in Yemen, but there are almost no testing facilities there.

More than 100,000 have died because of the war, including 12,000 civilians dead in direct attacks. Another 3.6 million people have been displaced. About 12 million Houthis, about 80% of whom live in Houthi territory, depend on UN food supplies each month. About 24 million Yemenis need some form of humanitarian assistance, and close to 10 million people are considered to be on the brink of famine.

In Syria, where the civil war is now nine years old, fighting has calmed since Turkey and Russia agreed to a ceasefire. Russia backs the Syrian government in Damascus, while Turkey backs some rebel groups which oppose it.

At least one million people fled their homes since December during the Syrian government’s offensive in northwest Idlib province, Syria’s last rebel-held territory, which borders Turkey. Some displaced persons have returned home to Idlib, in part due to fears of coronavirus outbreaks in refugee camps, Reuters reports.

The Southern Cameroons Defence Forces, an armed rebel group in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, announced a two-week ceasefire to begin March 29 as “a gesture of goodwill” and to allow testing for the new coronavirus, BBC News reports.



Judge rules abortion access outweighs efforts to fight coronavirus

Tue, 04/14/2020 - 19:00

CNA Staff, Apr 14, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- A federal judge said on Easter Sunday that the state of Alabama cannot move to limit abortion procedures through measures intended to focus medical resources on fighting coronavirus. 

Granting a preliminary injunction on Sunday, April 12, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote that “efforts to combat COVID-19 do not outweigh the lasting harm imposed by the denial of an individual’s right to terminate her pregnancy, by an undue burden or increase in risk on patients imposed by a delayed procedure, or by the cloud of unwarranted prosecution against providers.” 

The defendants in this case were Alabama’s state health officer Scott Harris and Attorney General Steve Marshall. The case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of Dr. Yashica Robinson. Robinson is an abortion doctor based in Huntsville, AL. 

Several other states, including Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alaska, Arkansas, and Texas, have attempted to classify elective abortions as non-essential procedures during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Many states have suspended medical procedures deemed non-emergency or non-essential in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus among healthcare professionals and to free up medical resources and hospital capacity. 

On March 19. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) issued a statewide order which stopped all medical procedures except for emergencies or those needed to “avoid serious harm from an underlying condition or disease, or necessary as part of a patient’s ongoing and active treatment.”

The order was later expanded to a statewide stay-at-home order on April 3. 

The suit was filed after Alabama health officials refused to clarify that abortion clinics would be permitted to stay open under the new directives. The injunction means that abortion will remain available in Alabama. 

Federal courts have issued a variety of decisions regarding a state’s ability to restrict abortions due to COVID-19. On April 7, a three-judge panel for the Fifth Circuit Court ruled in a 2-1 decision that Texas has the authority to halt elective abortions as non-essential medical procedures during a public health emergency. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued that order on March 22. 

Citing precedent, the court said that “the pressure of great dangers” constitutional law “allows the state to restrict, for example, one’s right to peaceably assemble, to publicly worship, to travel, and even to leave one’s home. The right to abortion is no exception.”

On March 31, the court had ruled in the state’s favor, putting a temporary stay on a lower court’s decision that halted Texas’ order from going into effect, and considering the matter further.

Other judges ruled the opposite for Ohio and Oklahoma. 

On April 6, separate courts both ruled that Ohio and Oklahoma cannot stop abortion clinics from operating due to COVID-19.

Ohio had ordered a halt on surgical abortions as “non-essential” medical procedures during the pandemic, before a district court put a temporary restraining order on that policy on March 30.

On April 6, the Sixth Circuit declined the state’s appeal of the decision, saying it lacked jurisdiction, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

That same day, Federal Judge Charles Goodwin of the Western District of Oklahoma issued a temporary restraining order on the state’s act to stop non-emergency abortions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the state can take lawful “emergency measures” during the new coronavirus crisis, Judge Goodwin wrote, such actions should not be “a plain, palpable invasion of rights,” including of “access to abortion.”

He concluded that the state “acted in an ‘unreasonable,’ ‘arbitrary,’ and ‘oppressive’ way—and imposed an ‘undue burden’ on abortion access—in imposing requirements that effectively deny a right of access to abortion.” 

Regarding its ban on medication abortions, Goodwin said its “minor” contribution to public health is “outweighed by the intrusion on Fourteenth Amendment rights.”

In New York, former Catholic nursing home opens as COVID rehab center

Tue, 04/14/2020 - 18:06

CNA Staff, Apr 14, 2020 / 04:06 pm (CNA).- A former Catholic nursing home in New York state is set to open as a rehabilitation center for coronavirus (COVID-19) patients who have been discharged from Catholic hospitals but are not yet ready to return home.

Mark Sullivan, president and CEO of Buffalo-based Catholic Health, said the facility will help to free up hospital beds in western New York ahead of an expected surge in COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks.

“From conception to completion, we were able to renovate and equip this facility to meet our high standards in less than two weeks,” Sullivan said April 13.

The facility is set to open April 14 in Orchard Park, New York, about 15 miles southeast of Buffalo.

Sullivan said Catholic Health— partnering with a nursing home company called the McGuire Group— is responding to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call to prepare for a surge of COVID-19 cases in the area. Catholic Health worked with the New York State Department of Health to develop the plans for the facility.

The former AbsolutCare nursing home, where the center will be located, closed in 2019. The facility will feature 80 beds and will likely serve older, at-risk patients who are COVID-19 positive, the medical director told WKBW.

The entire facility will be divided into color-coded zones to keep appropriate distance between patients, modeled off of a 120-bed acute care facility that the health system opened near Buffalo on March 27. Most patients are expected to spend around 21 days at the center, depending on how well they recover, the medical director told WKBW.

Erie County, where Orchard Park is located, has over 1,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19. New York state as a whole has the most confirmed cases of any state, with nearly 200,000 as of April 14.


Pro-life counselors 'singled out' for coronavirus enforcement, lawsuit alleges

Tue, 04/14/2020 - 17:00

Washington D.C., Apr 14, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Lawyers have filed suit against the city of Greensboro, North Carolina, for enforcing public health restrictions in an allegedly discriminatory manner following the arrest of several pro-life sidewalk counselors.

A lawsuit filed on April 14 by the group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on behalf of pro-life sidewalk counselors alleges that the city of Greensboro selectively enforced county public safety rules against the counselors. 

The rules on social distancing and public gatherings were enacted to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Four counselors with the group Love Live were arrested on March 28 by Greensboro police as they stood on public sidewalks outside the local abortion clinic A Woman’s Choice. They gathered in groups of fewer than 10 people and people were spaced six feet apart, in an effort to comply with public health regulations.

The group’s president Justin Reeder and lawyer Jason Oesterreich were arrested again on the morning of March 30, along with a pastor who had joined them. Seven more arrests were made later that morning when other members of Love Life attempted to counsel at the location.

According to the initial March 28 citations, the counselors had violated the county’s rules by gathering with more than 10 people, but then the citations were amended to state that they were “travel[ing] for a non-essential function[/purpose].”

Guilford County enacted public health rules during the pandemic that included limits of gatherings to fewer than 10 people, spaced six feet apart, with hand sanitizer present.

The counselors were meeting these requirements outside the Greensboro clinic, ADF argued in its brief, showing that the city was enforcing the restrictions in a discriminatory manner.

County guidelines, issued during the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, allow for travel into or out of the county for “Essential Businesses and Operations” which include “organizations that provide charitable and social services.” ADF argues that Love Life meets this definition of a charity providing essential services, and thus should not be subject to the transportation regulation.

In its brief, ADF says the pro-life counselors were “singled out” by the city, which is allowing abortion clinics to stay open but was prohibiting the sidewalk counselors from exercising their ministry.

“The government can’t allow some people to walk and talk on sidewalks and then say that these pro-life citizens can’t walk and pray there,” ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle stated.

“While we support the efforts of authorities to prioritize the public’s health and safety, people of faith can’t be singled out as the city has done here. If abortion businesses can stay open to perform elective abortions during the pandemic, Christians who abide by health and safety guidelines should certainly be allowed to pray outside.”

In a similar case, ADF sent a letter to the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, defending the right of pro-life sidewalk counselors to exercise their ministry as charity providing essential social services during the pandemic.

As the new coronavirus (COVID-19) spread through the U.S. in recent weeks, state and local governments have enacted various restrictions on businesses, non-profits, and public gatherings in an effort to contain the virus.

Many abortion clinics have remained open, including the clinics in Charlotte and Greensboro. ADF argues that if abortion clinics are allowed to remain open, then pro-life sidewalk counselors should also be allowed to perform their “essential” ministry.

Furthermore, the city reportedly claimed that they had the authority to curb all First Amendment activity during the pandemic.

On April 4, pastors and others who were regular Love Life volunteers were praying on the public sidewalk when they were threatened with arrest. According to ADF’s brief, an officer told one of the pastors that “praying is a form of demonstration” that is “outside the realm of the stay-at-home order.” According to the officer, citizens could use the sidewalk for essential activities such as buying groceries, but not for demonstrations.

In the brief, ADF states that a city attorney said people can travel on foot to a location to perform outdoor activities, but not by car. The attorney also said the counselors could “pray and speak at home.”

Justice Department to act on unfair religious restrictions during coronavirus

Tue, 04/14/2020 - 13:10

Washington D.C., Apr 14, 2020 / 11:10 am (CNA).- The Justice Department (DOJ) has promised to act on any abuses of religious freedom after some state and local governments sought to enforce tough restrictions on Easter services during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday, DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec tweeted that Attorney General William Barr “is monitoring government regulation of religious services” in a week when Christians celebrated Easter and Jews commemorated Passover.

“While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly and not single out religious organizations. Expect action from DOJ next week!” Kupec tweeted.

As the coronavirus continues to spread in the U.S., state governors, mayors and county governments have issued various restrictions on businesses, transportation, public gatherings and religious services. There are nearly two million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with almost 600,000 cases in the U.S.

Some state and local governments have drawn criticism for allegedly burdensome restrictions on religious exercise.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (D) announced on April 10, Good Friday, that State Police would record the license plate numbers of any vehicles seen at religious mass gatherings on Easter weekend. Local health officials would then contact the owners of the cars and instruct them to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“This is the only way we can ensure that your decision doesn’t kill someone else,” Beshear stated.

An executive order of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) that went into effect on March 24 criminalized public gatherings with more than 10 people present—including religious services.

Other states first restricted other gatherings before applying the same regulations to churches. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday of Holy Week extended a prohibition of public gatherings with no more than 10 people to churches, after previously encouraging churches to stop public services but not forbidding services with more than 10 people.

Some local restrictions have been overturned in court. In Kentucky, district court judge Justin Walker allowed a Louisville church’s drive-in Easter services to continue, ruling that that the city’s actions would “substantially burden” the religious exercise of On Fire Christian Center “on one of the most important holidays of the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday.”

Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer stated to WHAS11 local news after Judge Walker issued his temporary restraining order that “There was never a Louisville Metro Government ban on drive-in church services, as we would have explained in court if we had been allowed.”

“I urged, and will continue to urge, against these kinds of services, because I want to protect my city and its residents from the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” Fischer stated.

Action by the Justice Department is anticipated this week to protect the rights of churches and other houses of worship from unconstitutional limitations of religious exercise during the pandemic.

“Generally speaking, there are occasions where liberties have to be restricted during certain emergencies such as war, or in this case, a potentially devastating pandemic,” Barr stated in an April 8 interview on Fox News.

He added that such restrictions, however, must be “balanced against the civil liberties of the American people” and must be applied equitably across sectors of society, not imposing “special burdens on religion.”

In some cases, Barr said, the Justice Department has already “jawboned” local governments which had put special burdens on religious practices. The governments subsequently “changed their rules to be neutral in that respect,” Barr said.

Restrictions on religion should be temporary, he emphasized. “I would hate to see restrictions on religion continue longer than they’re strictly necessary,” he said.

Eric Dreiband, DOJ assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, also wrote in an April 9 Washington Examiner op-ed that government cannot “impose special restrictions on religious activity.”

“For example, if a government orders that houses of worship close or limit their congregation size, those limits must also apply to movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and all other comparable places of assembly,” he wrote.

Bishops pray for victims of Easter storms

Tue, 04/14/2020 - 11:31

Washington D.C., Apr 14, 2020 / 09:31 am (CNA).- The bishops of the United States have offered their prayers in solidarity with the victims of extreme weather over the Easter weekend. At least 30 people were killed due to severe weather across the southern U.S. April 12 and 13. 

“This Easter Monday began with the sad news that storms swept across multiple states in the South overnight, killing at least 19 people [at the time of this statement] across Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, and South Carolina,” said a statement co-signed by USCCB President Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, who leads the conference’s domestic justice and human development committee.

Storms also caused damage in Alabama, Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Tennessee. On Monday evening, the death toll from the storms was revised to “more than 30.”  Recovery efforts are ongoing. 

The archbishops said Monday that “we must reach out and offer assistance to those affected, especially those who are grieving the loss of loved ones.” They acknowledged that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is harder than normal, but still essential. 

“We pray for those who are suffering, for those who have died, and for the first responders who are courageously offering help,” said the archbishops. “We also pray for those who remain in the path of these storms and for their safety and well-being.” 

The archbishops reflected on Monday’s Gospel, saying that the Lord told Mary Magdalene and the other woman at the tomb to not be afraid, and to go and tell the disciples that they had seen the risen Christ. 

Hope, said the archbishops, was described in the letter to the Hebrews as “an anchor of the soul, sure and firm.” 

“In the midst of disasters from weather and illness, we cling to this hope, that God can redeem our suffering and loss, that God is present to us even now, and that the Lord has conquered death for all time, inviting us to see Him face to face in eternal life,” they said. 

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), who represents a district that was hard hit by the storms, said he was “heartbroken” by the damage, and that he found it “heart wrenching to see.” 

Fleischmann told CNA in a statement that faith is a source of comfort in these increasingly troubling times.

“Even in our darkest moments faith will always remain a source of strength and hope,” said Fleischmann. “As our nation deals with the adversity brought on by COVID-19, my community now has the added challenge of recovery from deadly tornadoes. I am praying for the victims and my staff and I stand ready to help our community rebuild.”