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A month after historic flood, Michigan Catholics still stepping up to help

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy St. Brigid Church

By Gabriella Patti

MIDLAND, Mich. (CNS) -- Midland and the surrounding areas of Sanford and Edenville were already suffering from the effects of COVID-19 when another catastrophe struck May 19.

Although the mid-Michigan communities are no strangers to flooding, the historic breach of the Edenville and Sanford dams caused the worst flash flood in more than a century, forcing more than 10,000 people to evacuate their homes.

In response to the devastation, the area's Catholic parishes, which are part of the Diocese of Saginaw, say they've witnessed -- and been a part of -- a community recovery effort that has seen parishioners and citizens alike relying on one another for support, from food assistance to disaster cleanup to spiritual support.

"Individuals are helping individuals," said Father Daniel Fox, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, which includes St. Agnes Church in Sanford and St. Anne Church in Edenville.

Father Fox said many parishioners were hit hard by the flooding, and some were displaced from their homes, but other parishioners with means to help have risen to the occasion.

Some have volunteered their time daily to helping clean up downtown Sanford, even those who have been personally affected by the devastation, Father Fox said. Others have donated financial resources, helping the parish give away tens of thousands of dollars in relief aid.

"It isn't necessarily coming from wealthy people, but from people who are just struck by the devastation," Father Fox told the Detroit Catholic, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit, a neighboring diocese to Saginaw. "It is actually bringing some people together in solidarity because there is nothing like affliction that will gravitate people toward one another."

Our Lady of Grace also offered its parish grounds as a site to collect some of the refuse that littered the streets in the wake of the flooding. Until recently, the church property had several huge bins filled with debris.

"It has kind of compromised the beauty of the church, but it is a good compromise," Father Fox said.

The parish also set up a task force to reach out to every parish household to find out what they needed, Father Fox said. Although the task force wasn't able to reach everyone -- likely because of so many people being displaced, the task force connected with a few hundred, Father Fox said.

One parishioner, a licensed counselor, is even working to set up a grief support group for those who have experienced loss, Father Fox added.

A month after the initial flooding, relief efforts are ongoing, and the needs haven't disappeared. Many families have yet to see their homes restored or are still in need of food assistance. Some are still living out of hotels or other temporary housing without basic cooking utensils or stoves.

Local parishes have been coordinating with charities such as the United Way, Midland's Open Door and the Salvation Army to make sure families are fed. Even as far away as Detroit, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan stepped up to send a pallet of food including soup, cereal and evaporated milk to stock emergency food pantries.

Help also has poured in from parishes not directly impacted by the flooding. St. Gabriel Parish in Auburn, about a 20-minute drive from the devastation, has emptied its food pantry to help those suffering.

"Our food pantry is literally run by the parishioners; they supply it," said Kim Grant, office administrator at St. Gabriel. "They either contribute money or they contribute actual groceries. We were coming out of the pandemic with everything shut down, and we had an extraordinary number of people who were without jobs and needed food, and then the flood hit. "

The need for food has remained high, even as people have continued to generously donate.

All three of Midland's Catholic parishes -- Blessed Sacrament, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Brigid -- have gone out of their way to seek out those who need help, rather than waiting for people to ask.

"Our high schoolers were supposed to go on a mission trip this summer, but it was canceled because of COVID-19," said Kristyn Russell, coordinator of communication and technology at Blessed Sacrament. "Instead, they were hauling stuff out (of flooded homes). They were the ones who were cleaning out the homes and doing the mission work in their own back yard. They were able to be here, present to their own community."

Russell said local churches and organizations provided more than 6,000 lunches to flood victims in the first two weeks after the devastation. And starting in mid-July, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish will host a food truck open to anyone who needs it, said Cathy Converse, the parish's pastoral associate.

"No one wants to see the devastation of the flood, but it was astounding to see the community come together and lift up those who were affected by it," Russell said. "The church is here to help in whatever way we can. That is what the body of Christ is here for: to be Jesus' hands and feet."

Both St. Brigid and Blessed Sacrament have proudly watched as their youth groups have pivoted and volunteered their time cleaning up neighborhoods, providing help with landscaping, drywalling basements and other cleanup efforts.

While churches and parishioners continue to offer material help and physical labor, they also remain a safe haven for spiritual comfort, said Father Andrew Booms, St. Brigid's pastor. Within six days of the flooding, some of the restrictions on public Masses were lifted, and he offered the church as a place where people could pray and find refuge.

The impact of the flood will be felt in the community for years, and the work is not yet done. Still, Midland's Catholics continue to count their blessings, Father Booms said.

"People recognize that we sink or rise together," Father Booms said. "Spiritually, they're just hungry, and thankfully with the relaxing of the ban on public Masses, we have been able to, in creative ways, help return people to the Eucharist."

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Patti is a news reporter on the staff of the Detroit Catholic, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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Pope asks prayers for Syria, Yemen, Ukraine

IMAGE: CNS photo/Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With the coronavirus pandemic continuing, Pope Francis asked people to also remember the ongoing crises in Syria and Yemen, and he offered prayers to the thousands of people in western Ukraine suffering the effects of violent flooding.

After reciting the Angelus prayer June 28 with visitors in St. Peter's Square, the pope noted that June 30, the European Union and the United Nations were to hold their fourth conference on "supporting the future of Syria and the region."

Because of the pandemic, the conference was to be held virtually. A statement from the EU said that "with the conflict entering its 10th year, the situation in Syria and the region remains highly critical: the dire humanitarian situation, with millions of Syrians internally displaced and having sought refuge in Syria's neighboring countries, is now being further compounded by the consequences of COVID-19 pandemic."

Pope Francis asked Catholics to "pray for this important meeting, so that it may improve the dramatic situation of the Syrian people and neighboring peoples, particularly Lebanon, in the context of serious sociopolitical and economic crises that have been made even more difficult by the pandemic."

"Think of the fact that there are small children who are hungry, who do not have anything to eat," the pope said. "Please, may the leaders be capable of making peace."

The other dire situation in the region is Yemen, which has been locked in civil strife for five years. The U.N. defines the situation in the country as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis," with some 80 percent of the population relying on humanitarian aid -- which is slowing because of the pandemic -- and millions of children suffering malnutrition and the threat of starvation.

Pope Francis asked "everyone to pray for the population of Yemen, especially the children, who are suffering as a result of the very serious humanitarian crisis."

He also asked people to pray "for those affected by the severe floods in western Ukraine; may they experience the comfort of the Lord and the help of their brothers and sisters."

Heavy rainfall June 22-23 led to extensive flooding; three people died, hundreds were left homeless, roads and bridges were washed out and farmers' crops were swept away.


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Pope at pallium Mass: World needs to pray more, complain less

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Some people always will want to destroy unity and stifle prophets, Pope Francis said on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

And yet, Jesus challenges everyone to be -- like Peter -- a rock for building a renewed church and renewed humanity, and -- like Paul -- a missionary who brings the Gospel to others, he said during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica June 29.

People also need to complain less and pray more, especially for those who govern, the pope said.

People must ask themselves whether they "simply talk and do nothing" because God wants people to pray and "be mindful of those who do not think as we do, those who have slammed the door in our face, those whom we find it hard to forgive."

The feast day celebration in St. Peter's Basilica was markedly different from other years because of ongoing restrictions in place to stem the spread of COVID-19. Normally archbishops appointed over the course of the previous year would have been invited to concelebrate the feast day Mass with the pope and watch as he blessed their palliums, woolen bands worn around their shoulders.

The 54 archbishops from 33 different countries who were named over the past 12 months included: Archbishops Paul D. Etienne of Seattle; Nelson J. Perez of Philadelphia; Andrew E. Bellisario of Anchorage-Juneau, Alaska; Mitchell T. Rozanski of St. Louis; Gregory J. Hartmayer of Atlanta; Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa-Cornwall, Ontario; and Patrick M. O'Regan of Adelaide, Australia. 

But the archbishops were not there. Instead, a congregation of about 90 people attended the Mass concelebrated by the pope, nine of the 11 cardinal-bishops resident in Rome and the archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica, Cardinal Angelo Comastri.

While the actual imposition of the pallium was to take place in each archbishop's archdiocese, Pope Francis did place a pallium on Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the new dean of the College of Cardinals. Conferring a pallium on a new dean was a custom begun by St. John Paul II.

The pallium symbolizes an archbishop's unity with the pope and his authority and responsibility to care for the flock the pope entrusted to him. The pope blessed the palliums after they were brought up from the crypt above the tomb of St. Peter.

In his homily, the pope said Sts. Peter and Paul demonstrate unity in diversity; they were two very different individuals, who sometimes argued heatedly, but they saw one another as brothers, united by Jesus.

Jesus "did not command us to like one another, but to love one another," the pope said. "He is the one who unites us, without making us all alike."

When the early church faced fierce persecution, the pope said, "no one ran away, no one thought about saving his own skin, no one abandoned the others, but all joined in prayer," which created "a unity more powerful than any threat."

They also prayed instead of complaining about the injustice they faced, the pope added.

"It is pointless, even tedious, for Christians to waste their time complaining about the world, about society, about everything that is not right," he said. "Complaints change nothing."

"Are we protecting our unity with prayer, the unity of the church?" the pope suggested people ask themselves. "Are we praying for one another? What would happen if we prayed more and complained less?"

The answer, he said, is what happened to Peter in prison: closed doors open and chains break.

The pope asked people to pray for everyone, especially those who govern.

"God will judge them, but we should pray for those who govern. Pray. They need prayers. This is a task that the Lord has entrusted to us. Are we carrying it out? Or do we simply talk, insult them and that's all?" he said.

The feast day also highlights the importance of prophecy, which is "born whenever we allow ourselves to be challenged by God, not when we are concerned to keep everything quiet and under control," Pope Francis said.

"Today the world needs real prophecy, not fast talkers who promise the impossible, but testimonies that the Gospel is possible," he said.

"What is needed are not miraculous shows," he said, "but lives that show the miracle of God's love. Not forcefulness, but forthrightness."

The world needs "not speeches, but service. Not theory, but testimony," he said. "We are not to become rich, but rather to love the poor. We are not to save up for ourselves, but to spend ourselves for others. To seek not the approval of this world, but the joy of the world to come. Not better pastoral plans, but pastors who offer their lives -- lovers of God."

Before the Mass, the pope had spent a few minutes alone praying in the crypt above St. Peter's tomb. Customarily, he would have been joined by the head of a delegation from the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, but "it was not possible because of the pandemic," the pope said after praying the Angelus.

"Spiritually I send an embrace to dear brother Patriarch Bartholomew, in the hope that our mutual visits may resume as soon as possible," the pope said.

During his Angelus address, the pope said Jesus called Simon, "Peter" or "rock," not because he was a "solid and trustworthy man. No, he made many mistakes," even denying Jesus.

Peter is the rock because "he chose to build his life on Jesus," not on himself, the pope said. "Jesus is the rock on which Simon became stone." 

St. Peter became a hero "because he gave his life here. His gift transformed a place of execution into the beautiful place of hope in which we find ourselves," the pope said to the sparse crowd spread out in St. Peter's Square.

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Advocates call order advancing religious freedom globally a needed action

IMAGE: CNS photo/Antara Foto, Budi Candra Setya via Reuters

By Ian Alvano

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- President Donald Trump's executive order on religious freedom issued in early June lays out a strategy for expanding U.S. support for international religious freedom that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has been urging, said the chair of the commission.

"USCIRF has long called on the U.S. government to develop an overall strategy for promoting religious freedom abroad, as well as country-specific action plans, and we welcome the fact that this executive order requires the State Department and USAID to do exactly that," Gayle Manchin said June 24 in a statement to Catholic News Service.

"We also appreciate the express reference to U.S. officials working for the release of religious prisoners of conscience, which is a high priority for USCIRF," she added.

On June 2, Trump signed the order to promote and advance religious freedom across the globe.

"Religious freedom, America's first freedom, is a moral and national security imperative," the order said. "Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority of the United States, and the United States will respect and vigorously promote this freedom."

The State Department and USAID have 180 days since the order was issued to develop a strategy to prioritize international religious freedom in the planning and implementation of U.S. foreign policy and in their foreign assistance programs.

"The secretary shall, in consultation with the administrator of USAID, budget at least $50 million per fiscal year for programs that advance international religious freedom, to the extent feasible and permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations," Trump's order said.

It directs departments and agencies that fund foreign assistance programs to ensure "faith-based and religious entities, including eligible entities in foreign countries, are not discriminated against on the basis of religious identity or religious belief when competing for federal funding."

Among other provisions, the order also calls for integrating international religious freedom into U.S. diplomacy; requires State Department employees complete training on international religious freedom issues at least once every three years; and says the secretary of state and the USAID administrator must advocate, "when appropriate," for U.S. international religious freedom policy in bilateral and multilateral forums.

It also asks that the heads of U.S. agencies when meeting with their counterparts in foreign governments -- in coordination with the of U.S. secretary of state -- raise concerns about international religious freedom "and cases that involve individuals imprisoned because of their religion."

When Trump issued the executive order, Tony Perkins, the commission's vice chair, applauded the president "for continuing to prioritize international religious freedom as a national security imperative and a foreign policy priority."

"This executive order encourages swift action by the U.S. government to hold accountable foreign governments that commit severe violations and substantially increases U.S. economic assistance to support programs that advance religious freedom around the world," Perkins said in a statement.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is a bipartisan body created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. It reviews the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations and makes policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress.

As the month of June opened with the president's focus on international religious freedom, it came to a close with a focus on these issues by the U.S. Catholic bishops. They declared the week of June 22-29 as Religious Freedom Week and called on Catholics to "pray, reflect and take action" on religious liberty in the United States and abroad.

Before Trump signed his executive order at the White House, he and first lady Melania Trump paid a brief visit across town to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Northeast Washington. They marked the 41st anniversary of the start of St. John Paul's pilgrimage to his native Poland, the pontiff's first trip to that country and where he repeatedly addressed religious and political freedom.

The Trumps were met with protesters gathered across the street from the shrine calling for justice for George Floyd, the African American who died at the hands of a white police officer about a week earlier. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Washington also issued a strong rebuke over the Trumps going to the shrine at such a time of national unrest over racial injustice.

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Inmate lived inspiring Catholic life behind bars, 'serving God, not time'

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Jeri Down-Jon

By Ed Langlois

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) -- In 1993, 39-year-old nuclear engineer Hal Elkins hit the bottle and fell into a jealous rage. He pocketed a gun and stumbled into a Salem restaurant. There, he shot his girlfriend, Kathryn Linn, and the man she was with, Marvin Eugene Mayer.

Linn died and Mayer was seriously hurt. A jury convicted Elkins and the judge imposed a 33-year sentence in Oregon State Penitentiary.

Within a decade, other inmates would be calling Elkins "the Bishop of OSP." A bear of a man at 6-foot-2, he became a legendary lay Catholic leader, sacristan, altar server and chaplain's clerk. He would tell anyone he met that prison got his faith life moving from 0 to 100.

"His attitude in prison seemed to be that he was serving God, not time," said Deacon Allen Vandecoevering, a longtime Oregon prison minister.

Elkins' sentence came to an end in 2018. On the outside he continued as a stellar Catholic, going to Mass as often as work would allow and attending faith formation sessions. Then, on June 26, 2019 -- nine months after his release -- he died of liver cancer at age 66.

"He was enjoying life to the fullest and when he discovered that he had a terminal illness his faith was not shaken," said Deacon Vandecoevering, who took Elkins Communion as he lay dying. "He wanted to live so badly, but he surrendered to God's will with beauty and grace." The Eucharist was all Elkins wanted at the end.

"His life was an amazing example of what God will do for us when we turn from our sins and find forgiveness," Deacon Vandecoevering told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

A graduate of North Salem High school, Elkins joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and gained expertise in nuclear power. He wed young, and that marriage eventually ended, leaving him devastated. It was in that emotional maelstrom that he committed murder.

"He regretted his crime," said Laura Kazlas, head Catholic volunteer at Oregon State Penitentiary. "He did feel Christ's forgiveness eventually. It was a long road for him to get there."

In prison, Elkins carried what he called "the burden of a serious felony on one's conscience." Amid that, he experienced a deep conversion and became a gentle Catholic leader, marshaling other convicts in the faith.

"He said being in prison had brought him closer and closer to Jesus," said Kazlas. "He led almost a monastic life in his cell."

Prison staff and volunteers noticed the change and entrusted Elkins with more and more. He tended to the prison altar, but also to the men. He'd tell Kazlas if an inmate was having trouble or needed a Bible or a rosary. Elkins made sure there were Spanish hymns at Mass since some Catholic inmates are native Spanish speakers.

"He took care of the men almost like a deacon or priest would," Kazlas said. "He was very unselfish in the way he looked out for their well being."

If a new inmate or visitor came onto the cell block, it was Elkins who introduced himself and extended a warm welcome. He treated people like he was their loving big brother, Kazlas explained.

Elkins was generous, tithing at St. Joseph Parish in Salem even while behind bars and giving a donation to set up a prison ministry at the parish. He paid for a large crucifix in the prison chapel, but let other inmates help choose it.

He was a regular in the prison leather shop. Among his works was a briefcase for  Catholic prison volunteer Dennis Lulay and a sign showing Jesus behind bars, a piece now hanging in the Archdiocese of Portland prison ministry office. Elkins also made leather key fobs for seminarians who did field education at the prison. Showing Elkins' sense of humor, the fobs read: "Stolen from Oregon State Penitentiary."

John Hoffmeister, another Catholic volunteer, said Elkins' story proves the point that most inmates are people with good hearts who made grave mistakes. God loves them and calls on them no less, said Hoffmeister.

"He showed the men what being a Christian is about," Hoffmeister said.

"It's a wonderful story of redemption," said Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, who met with Elkins during prison visits and later after the sentence was served. "A person can go down the wrong path in life and then have a profound change of heart and a conversion and become a very holy person."

The archbishop, like most prison ministers, never asked what crimes Elkins had committed.

"God is merciful and loving and understanding with us and offers that opportunity for repentance and conversion," the archbishop said. "I saw that in Hal."

Archbishop Sample described Elkins as kind, gentle, joyful and faithful.

Once out of prison, Elkins landed work right away with an Albany, Oregon, company that produces gel for fighting fires.

"He held no bitterness in his heart, which allowed him to have such peace and joy when he was freed," Deacon Vandecoevering said.

The peace remained even with a fatal diagnosis. A week before he died, Elkins told Kazlas, "I am ready to meet Jesus."

After he left prison, Elkins moved in with his sister Jeri Down-Jones of Salem. The two had spoken each week since Elkins was arrested.

"Faith is the thing that carried him through," said Down-Jones, who herself became Catholic in 2009. "Any time I had a question about faith, I asked him. He was my source and my rock."

Down-Jones, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Salem, said that a "stupid five minutes" defined Elkins for the rest of his life. But her brother later worked hard to be a good man.

"When he was dying, he told me something," said Down-Jones, weeping at the memory. "He said when he gets to heaven, he is going to prepare the altar every Sunday for God."

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Langlois is managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

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Update: Maryknoll Father Robert Astorino, founder of UCA News, dies at age 77

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Maryknoll


HONG KONG (CNS) -- Maryknoll Father Robert Astorino, founder of the Asian Catholic news agency UCA News and executive director of the agency for 30 years, died June 25 at Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla, New York. He was 77 and a priest for 50 years. reported he went to Hong Kong in 1971 and, after language studies, was part of a Maryknoll team that researched the situation of youth, many of them children of refugees from mainland China, in the Kwun Tong area of Kowloon.

Father Astorino, who earned graduate degrees in sociology from Fordham University and in journalism from Columbia University, both in New York City, saw that the churches of Asia needed a means of communicating their experiences and missions with one another without passing through Western filters. After conducting a feasibility study on church information needs in Asia, he launched UCA News in 1979 to provide news of and for the Catholic Church in Asia.

Catholic media professionals worldwide recalled Father Astorino's contributions to social communications in Asia, and his impact on Asian news worldwide.

"For decades, Father Astorino was a giant of the international Catholic press," said Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service. "As founder of UCAN, he provided trustworthy news on the emerging church in Asia to the larger Catholic world. He was a friend and collaborator with Catholic News Service, and we will miss him."

Jesuit Father Michael Kelly, who succeeded Father Astorino as executive director of UCA News, said Father Astorino was especially attuned "to the needs of the emerging churches in Asia in the 1970s and '80s."

"The Catholic Church in Asia had grown and developed to a new stage, and both national and regional bishops' conferences and international agencies were sprouting up as the first fruits of the post-Vatican II renewal," Father Kelly noted.

"Bob married media professionalism to a passion for the church in Asia to develop its outstanding news media channel," eventually establishing 14 news bureaus to cover 22 countries, Father Kelly said.

In 1974, he became involved in the social communications apostolate in Hong Kong and throughout Asia. He helped launch the Hong Kong Catholic Social Communications Office and was its assistant director for several years. He served in various positions in the Asian branches of several international Catholic media organizations, including the East Asia Catholic Press Association. He also taught journalistic writing at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1975-1977.

In the course of shepherding UCAN, Father Astorino devoted his major energies to developing professionalism among Catholic journalists in Asia. He traveled throughout the continent to conduct training seminars to develop the quality of news reporting, feature writing and analytic assessments provided by UCAN reporters and commentators. Many of those he trained not only continued to work in Catholic journalism but also went on to develop careers in secular journalism.

Barb Fraze, international editor of Catholic News Service, recalled that when Father Astorino would visit Catholic News Service in the early days of UCAN, he would tell her he did not care if stories were a week old. The important thing was that "the Asians did it," he would say.

Christopher Khoo, a former editor with UCAN, recalled when Father Astorino visited Singapore in the 1990s. Khoo said Father Astorino "upheld rigorous journalistic standards" and "treated staff as family."

"I was impressed with Father Bob's passion for Asian church journalism, and when he invited me to work with the Union of Catholic Asian News, I took up the offer," Khoo told Catholic News Service. "I consider him one of Asia's great missionaries, blazing the path for Asian Church journalism."

Father Raymond Finch, superior general of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, told CNS: "Father Astorino dedicated his life to the mission of the Church in Asia and in a special way Hong Kong. He was instrumental in holding that church up before the eyes of the world. His work with UCA News was exceptionally creative and groundbreaking."

Father Astorino's work on behalf of Catholic journalism drew recognition from various sources. He was appointed a member of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications. In 1998, the Catholic Press Association in the United States recognized Father Astorino with the Bishop John England Award, honoring "publishers who used the Catholic press to defend the rights of religion and individuals in a free society."

Robert F. X. Astorino was born in New York City May 27, 1943, and was educated in Catholic schools there before entering Maryknoll as a seminarian.

A Mass of Christian Burial is schedule June 30 at Maryknoll's Queen of Apostles Chapel. Access is restricted because of the COVID19 pandemic.

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Editors: The original story can be found at


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Rohingya refugees threatened by pandemic, Caritas warns

IMAGE: CNS photo/Antara Foto, Rahmad via Reuters

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Flimsy shelters and inadequate space in Bangladeshi refugee camps amid the COVID-19 pandemic have compounded the sufferings of the already beleaguered Rohingya community, a representative of Caritas said.

"One of the key measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic is social distancing. But if you live in a refugee camp, you don't have the luxury of space to do this," Inmanuel Chayan Biswas, communications officer for Caritas Bangladesh's Rohingya Response Program, said in a June 26 statement.

The Caritas program is based in Cox's Bazar, the southern Bangladeshi city hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled Myanmar to escape a Myanmar military crackdown in Rakhine that began in August 2017.

According to Biswas, overcrowded shelters in the Bangladeshi refugee camp mean proper distancing and overall hygienic measures cannot be maintained "to provide the effective prevention against the spread of the coronavirus."

"Rohingya people living in Bangladeshi refugee camps are victims four times over," Biswas said. "They are victims of the violent and traumatic uprooting from their homeland in Myanmar; victims of the health emergencies such as dysentery and pox; victims of the repeated climate emergency they face when cyclones batter Bangladesh. And now they are also victims of the global pandemic, which is bearing down on Bangladesh."

According to Caritas Bangladesh, the first coronavirus case in the Rohingya community was registered May 14. As of late June, there were 45 confirmed cases and four deaths.

However, Biswas said that due to "lack of expertise in the testing centers," the accuracy of those numbers is unclear. The spread of COVID-19 has also forced the Bangladeshi government to limit the refugees' access to primary health care facilities.

"Initially, Rohingya who were critically ill with COVID-19 were referred to Ukhiya General Hospital or Cox's Bazar Medical College," he said. "Now it is not possible because these hospitals are facing challenges to provide treatment facilities to the local people."

Caritas Bangladesh provided soap and hygiene kits and have installed hand-washing stations in public places and near toilets at the refugee camp.

"They know that they need to wash their hands frequently, but a big challenge is the poor water supply and sanitation facilities at the camp," he said.

Despite the efforts of Caritas Bangladesh, Biswas urged world leaders to act to protect the lives and dignity of Rohingya refugees.

"The international community must pay attention to the Rohingya community's plight," he said. "As yet another emergency hits these vulnerable people, we must work on all levels to ensure there is an end in sight to their suffering."

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju

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DACA ruling called 'a beautiful moment'; concern about future remains

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters

By Juan Carlos Ramirez

PHOENIX (CNS) -- For Cinthia Padilla Ortiz, the Supreme Court's recent decision on the DACA program was "an unexpected and beautiful moment" and left her feeling "that sense of hope in our community."

"When I read the decision -- there are moments where there are no words to describe the feelings," the recent law graduate from Loyola University New Orleans told Catholic News Service.

"There was a mixture of feelings because I felt thankful and optimistic about this decision due to the fact that earlier this week we had a favorable decision on another civil rights case for federal workers who identified as part of the LGBT community," she added.

On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling said President Donald Trump could not stop the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program with his 2017 executive order. DACA protects about 700,000 young people who qualify for the program from deportation and allows them to work, go to college, get health insurance and obtain a driver's license.

The program was established by President Barrack Obama with an executive order in 2012 to allow young people brought into the country illegally as minors by their parents to stay in the United States.

The court ruled that the manner in which Trump terminated the program was not correct. So although this has given DACA recipients time to breathe and renew their DACA status, the court's decision also plays in favor of Trump, so the president could still end it if he follows different steps.

Law professor Laura E. Gomez at the University of California, Los Angeles said Trump could start the process over again to end DACA.

"President Trump was contending that since the program was made by executive order, all they had to do to rescind it was to announce via executive order that it was done," said Gomez. "What the court said in this case was that it was not sufficient."

"Because the program existed for eight years and those people who have DACA status have relied on the benefits of that law like work permits, the court said that since they have a reliance interest -- they have relied on having that right to work in choosing their educational, training or via home and starting a family -- because they have relied on that, the government has to rationally justify why they are taking that away," she added.

"Yes, the Trump administration could say on Monday, 'OK, we are going to rescind DACA and here is our 30-page memorandum. We have looked at it in detail and here is what we have come up with."

Gomez said although there is a possibility that DACA could be rescinded, even Republicans were pleased with the Supreme Court's decision, which indicates to her that Trump is likely not going to be taking down DACA before the presidential election in November.

However, Trump has already gone on Twitter and said he will immediately seek to resubmit the process to end DACA. He also said court decision has given him more power than anticipated.

For some college students, like Nelson Martinez del los Santos, the decision came with initial excitement and optimism, but soon the reality of what door it left open hit him, that door that leads toward DACA's termination.

"I was sleeping, and my mother and sister run through the door screaming that they kept DACA," said del los Santos, a junior at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

"I was very excited in that moment," he told CNS. "Now that I educated myself and learned about what is actually going on, yes -- the Supreme Court sided with DACA, but they, more or less, just did not agree with the way the Trump administration went about it."

"I am just hopeful that the people of this country can see the humanity in this program," he added. "As for my future, the DACA program is uncertain, but that is not going to stop me or anyone else in the DACA program in achieving what our parents came here to give us -- that immigrant dream."

Another thing to note in the Supreme Court decision was the lack of condemnation of racial bias by Trump in his DACA order; the ruling concluded there was no racial animus on the part of the president. Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was in the majority on the ruling, disagreed with this conclusion on bias and wrote a separate opinion.

"Not a lot of people have talked about the fact that even though 100% of the Supreme Court majority, the five justices in the majority, did the right thing but did not go far enough," said Gomez. "If you look at Sotomayor's opinion, she is both agreeing with Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts (who wrote the majority opinion) but is disagreeing with him.

"Out of the nine Supreme Court justices in the court, she is the only one who believes the decision should have allowed all the plaintiffs to continue with their lawsuits saying that the law was racially bias and discriminatory."

"The lower courts' judges, many of them, had agreed that there was plausible concern of racial discrimination," she added. "The case had not gone far enough for the plaintiffs to introduce their evidence and have a full-blown hearing. If the Supreme Court would have ruled the way Sotomayor wanted it to, then that hearing would have been playing out just as we are getting up to the election."

Ortiz noted that DACA recipients have lived in the United States for the majority of their life and identify as Americans, and are deserving of the moral support of their communities.

They have made positive contributions to this country. For example, a CNN article pointed out that an estimated 29,000 DACA recipients are health care workers. In addition, a 2018 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated DACA recipients contribute $1.7 billion dollars in taxes annually.

"Dreamers, as a community, share a common collective characteristic -- we all arrived in the United States when we were children," said Ortiz. "Children should not be punished, held hostage or be a political pawn ever."

"We are helping Dreamers who identify as American to stay at home and continue the natural progression of them becoming the best version that they can be and serve their community here in the United States," she added.

Nelson said he wants people to realize there are good people in this program. DACA recipients have to be ideal American citizens, because any mistake can get them deported.

"At the end of the day, they are good people and they are people first before (they are) immigrants," said del los Santos. "They are trying to do the best they can for their family. That is an idea that everyone can believe in and respect. A lot of what that looks like for people in Latin America is going to a country that has better safety, better opportunities, better quality of life and striving to maintain that while you are here."

As she looks back, Ortiz said she had to overcome many financial and mental hurdles due to the limitations put on DACA recipients.

"I was an 'A' student," said Ortiz. "I graduated with a 4.0 from high school as a distinguished scholar. My mind was set on Harvard University and subsequently Harvard Law," and instead she went to law school at Loyola University New Orleans.

"Digesting the fact that I had to reinvent my dream, keep myself afloat with optimism and protect my mental health has been the biggest challenge of my life," she explained.

"Some Dreamers gave up on their dream," she said, but she was able to reinvent her dream.

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Uncertain times are a call to build a better world, bishop tells police

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Binz, The Valley Catholic

By Junno Arocho Esteves

As tensions continue to mount in the United States, law enforcement, police officers and first responders should not be disheartened and work to better themselves in service to their local community, said Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas.

Much like the Catholic Church, law enforcement "seems to only make the news when something bad happens," Bishop Flores said in his homily June 24 during the diocese's annual Blue Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle in San Juan, Texas.

"And while that is a call for us all to examine ourselves and make things better for the future, we know that every day, much goodness happens. We shouldn't forget that," he told the estimated 300 officers and first responders present.

For decades, dioceses throughout the United States have celebrated the annual Blue Mass for law enforcement. The name comes from the traditional uniform color associated with law enforcement.

In his homily, Bishop Flores said that much like the previous generations of the 1940s and 1960s, this year's generation will be spoken of in the future "with all the things that we've had to live through."

"I hope in the future when they look back on us, they will say that there were many, in quiet ways, who faced this moment of pandemic and uncertainty and unrest with courage and compassion and with wisdom," he said.

Like St. John the Baptist, who was chosen not to perform miracles or healings like Jesus but rather to prepare the way for Christ, all men and women are called to be witnesses of justice, fairness, compassion and especially love, he added.

"We are living in the age where people are quickly losing confidence that love even exists, much less justice," Bishop Flores said. "And the only remedy for that -- for us, you and for me, for all of us -- is to kind of live it, speak it mercifully."

"Yes, the law has to be enforced, but the law is for the sake of the human being, not the human being for the sake of the law and we always have to keep the human being first," he said.

Bishop Flores reminded law enforcement officers their work is a daily act of selflessness and generosity that not only requires the help of God and their fellow officers, but also the local community they are called to serve.

"So much of what you do too often is to see some things that are very hard to see; people's cruelty to other people and to address them," the bishop said. "We need God's help because it's hard and we need to help each other. We were not meant to be alone."

"Every day, sacrifices are made to better the lives of others," Bishop Flores said. "And we should thank God for the grace to be able to do that. So, take heart; I encourage you to pray for the community, just like I encourage the community to pray for you because that's what kind of holds us together. A sense of trying to make a better world a better place."

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju

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Don't 'blackmail' kids into coming to church, archbishop says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Although he said, "I would never go to war" over the proper age to administer the sacrament of confirmation, Archbishop Rino Fisichella said too often it seems that the sacrament is delayed to "blackmail" young people into continuing to come to church.

The archbishop, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, made the comment June 25 at the Vatican presentation of the updated "Directory for Catechesis."

In his prepared remarks, he said the directory hoped to promote "a 'pastoral conversion' in order to free catechesis from some chokeholds that prevent its effectiveness."

The first "chokehold," he said, was treating catechesis as if it were a school subject with information a teacher imparts to students according to a fixed calendar and with a fixed text.

Instead, the directory insists catechesis is the process of leading a person to a personal relationship with Jesus in the church community and to a life lived visibly with Christian values, particularly through works of mercy and charity.

The second "chokehold," he said, "is the mentality by which catechesis becomes the condition for receiving a particular sacrament of initiation, with a consequent void opening up once initiation has ended."

Related to that, he said, "is the exploitation of a sacrament in the name of pastoral strategy, so that -- for example -- the time frame for confirmation is dictated by the need not to lose the small flock of young people remaining in the parish rather than by the significance which the sacrament possesses of itself in the economy of the Christian life."

Asked by a reporter to elaborate, Archbishop Fisichella said setting an age for confirmation is a decision the Vatican has left up to bishops and, besides, it is a "lost battle" that can never be won.

The archbishop said he was confirmed at the age of 7; early in the morning he received his first Communion and later that morning the bishop came to confirm his class. In addition, he noted, many of the Eastern Catholic churches have preserved the tradition of administering all the sacraments of initiation -- baptism, chrismation (confirmation) and Eucharist -- to infants all at once.

While Archbishop Fisichella said there were valid reasons the Latin-rite church began administering the sacraments separately, "saying that the sacrament of confirmation is only for adults, to manifest maturity in the faith, does not correspond to the nature of the sacrament itself."

And while different practices are acceptable, "I don't think it's nice to exploit a sacrament for pastoral aims such as delaying for as long as possible the reception of confirmation, with the necessary catechesis, to keep within the parish a group of very faithful" young people.

In other words, he said, some parishes seem to want to hold on to young Catholics "as long as possible under a kind of blackmail insofar as granting them the sacrament."


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