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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church fighting Mississippi coronavirus restriction was burned down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corpus Christi bishop condemns naval base shooting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President Trump: Churches should reopen 'right now'

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Archbishop Hebda: Catholics ‘depend on the Eucharist,’ and Masses will resume

Denver Newsroom, May 21, 2020 / 05:36 pm (CNA).- The day after announcing that parishes in Minnesota can ignore a statewide order on religious gatherings, the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis explained the pastoral motive for his decision.

Catholics “really depend on the Eucharist to get through the challenges of their lives,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda told reporters May 21.

“The reception of the Eucharist is extremely important,” the archbishop added. “We can’t have the opportunity for communion by livestreaming.”

Speaking at a press conference Thursday afternoon, Hebda said the May 20 decision of Minnesota’s bishops to ignore a prohibition of religious gatherings of more than 10 people was a pastoral decision.

“We have this responsibility to take care of the spiritual needs of our people,” Hebda said.

The archbishop’s remarks came one day after a historic decision that Minnesota’s six dioceses would permit parishes to resume public Masses amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to flout statewide pandemic orders.

The bishops said that parishes can open for Mass next week, if attendance is no more than 33% of building capacity, and if parishes follow rigorous sanitary and liturgical protocols designed in consultation with public health experts.

Missouri Synod Lutherans in Minnesota have also announced that services will resume under similar strictures.

Speaking on Thursday, Hebda said that he had not had the opportunity to speak with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz in the days leading up to the bishops’ decision, but that he would be doing so on Thursday. Walz said last night that he would be speaking to the state’s bishops alongside state public health authorities.

“These are very challenging times, and I recognize that he has a very difficult job,” Hebda said of the governor. “We want to help all of Minnesota get through this pandemic. I look forward to our conversation, but I can tell you I hope the governor changes his mind.”

It is not clear whether priests or bishops who begin celebrating public Masses next week could face civil penalties. Hebda said his “hope is that there won’t be a conflict, and that we will come to some kind of agreement.”

“I’m hoping that when we actually have this opportunity to speak with the governor that we might find more common ground,” he added.

The archbishop also said he believes the bishops are “on solid footing” from a legal perspective. On May 20, Becket Law, a religious liberty advocacy law firm, sent Walz a letter laying out a legal case arguing that Minnesota’s Catholic and Lutheran parishes have First Amendment protections ensuring continued public worship.

In a California fight over reopening churches, federal Department of Justice officials intervened this week, to argue that unless states can prove that churches pose some specific risk for spreading the virus, they can’t be held to more stringent measures than other places of public assembly.

In Minnesota, retail businesses will be permitted to open at 50% capacity on June 1, salons and tattoo parlors will reopen, and restaurants will gradually reopen.

On Thursday, Hebda said equality in law is important.

“Obviously, part of our faith is that we want to respect always legitimate civil authority, so that’s one of the reasons why we have really been trying to reach out to the govern and his administration to explain the needs of our Church, which are kind of particular,” Hebda told reporters,

“And really as we’ve seen other openings and plans for other openings, it makes us feel much more comfortable with what we’re doing, because we see a parallel that’s there and we see that we need to be treated equally.”

There has not yet been any official response from the apostolic nuncio in the United States or from the Holy See to the Minnesota announcement. Officials at the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have not yet answered questions from CNA about whether Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the pope’s representative in the U.S., had been consulted before the bishops announced their decision.

When Italian bishops raised objections in late April to continued strictures on public Masses in the country, Pope Francis did not address the matter directly, but did praise the virtue of obedience at a Mass a few days later.

For his part, Hebda acknowledged that no sanitary precautions are enough to completely stem the spread of the virus, and acknowledged that a parish outside Minneapolis had announced May 20 that at least one priest in the community had tested positive for the coronavirus.

But the archbishop said he appreciated the speed and clarity with which the parish had made the announcement. And he emphasized the risk inherent to life in a global pandemic.

“We’re living in a dangerous time and we can expect that we’re going to have priests and faithful who are infected with COVID, that’s going to be part of life, what’s important is how we handle that,” Hebda said.

“I think we can expect in all dimensions of life, right now, that there are those risks that are there.” Even in the supermarket, he said, “there’s always that risk.”

More than 800 people have died of the coronavirus in Minnesota, and more than 18,000 have been diagnosed with it. Nearly 100,000 people have been recorded dead from the virus across the U.S., with more than 1.6 million positive coronavirus tests.

To Hebda, the difficulty of the pandemic emphasizes the need for pastoral ministry.

“Please remember, we bishops have a solemn duty, really a responsibility, to provide spiritual care and religious services to our faithful, and that responsibility includes doing it in a way that is safe and responsible,” the archbishop said.

Hebda told reporters about a man who had managed a years-long recovery from addictions.

“What makes that possible is that he goes to Mass every morning and receives communion,” the archbishop said.

 

 


 

 

Chicago police fine Pentecostal churches for violating 10-person limit

CNA Staff, May 21, 2020 / 03:10 pm (CNA).- Three churches in Chicago have been fined after defying an order banning services of more than 10 people on Sunday, May 17. A former mayoral candidate, who attended one of the services, has said that he will pay the fines. 

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, Philadelphia Romanian Church of God and Metro Praise International Church were cited on Wednesday by the Chicago Police Department for exceeding the state of Illinois’ stay-at-home order and city social distancing policies which currently ban religious gatherings of more than 10 people. The churches were each fined $500. 

“The Chicago Police Department has been working to ensure full compliance with the [stay-at-home] order,” said the police department in a statement. 

“As part of this effort, we continue to ask everyone to help slow the spread of the virus by staying home and practicing social distancing so that once we have begun to recover and reopen, residents can return to their religious services in a safe manner.”

The city further announced that no-parking zones would be established near churches to dissuade potential worshipers from attending. 

On Wednesday, Chicago businessman and former mayoral candidate Willie Wilson, who attended one of the church services last weekend, said he would pay the fines for the churches. 

“The governor and mayor continue to trample on our constitutional rights while hiding behind a Stay at Home Order that treats the church as non-essential,” said Wilson in a statement. “It is shameful that the church is discriminated against, while liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries and Home Depot [are] treated as essential businesses.”

Earlier this month, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker announced a five-part plan for reopening the state. Originally, gatherings of ten or fewer people were not allowed until phase 3, at earliest, on May 29. 

Following a lawsuit by another church in the state, the governor allowed citizens to leave their homes for religious services as long as ten or fewer people are gathered for worship.

Previously, religious services of any kind in the state—including drive-in and in-person services—were curtailed during the pandemic, and even other forms of sacramental practice such as drive-in confessions were not allowed. 

Pritzker has said that gatherings of more than 50 people will not be allowed until a vaccine or effective treatment for the coronavirus is made available, which could potentially be next year.

The Archdiocese of Chicago suspended the public celebration of Mass in March. The archdiocese announced on May 1 that public Masses with 10 or fewer people would resume. On May 13, the archdiocese announced a reopening plan that had been created with the guidance and cooperation of the governor’s office, and has since issued detailed instructions for the wearing of masks during Mass, for the distribution of Communion.

Despite the governor’s order, Metro Praise International Church wrote on its Facebook page earlier this month that they would hold services at their normal times as a “passive resistance” to the continued restrictions. 

"This is a principled stand for our First Amendment rights and, more importantly, our biblical mandate to gather with other Christians in worship and fellowship (Hebrews 10:24-25),” said the church. “Therefore, effective May 10, 2020, we will resume our 9am and 11am services as we had before the order.”

The pastor of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church told local media in Chicago that he would continue to hold services, even with the looming threat of arrest. 

"Incarceration? I truly believe the mayor and the governor would not want to go there," said Pastor Cristian Ionescu, adding that the arrest of a pastor would be a “PR disaster” for the city. 

Fox News reported that the church required congregants to meet 13 criteria to attend among them having no coronavirus symptoms and being younger than 65 years old. The congregation was limited to 75 people, less than 10% of church capacity.

Also on Wednesday, the bishops in the state of Minnesota issued a letter announcing that parishes would resume public celebration of Mass in defiance of a state order prohibiting religious gatherings from exceeding 10 people. 

“It is now permissible for an unspecified number of people to go to shopping malls and enter stores, so long as no more than 50 percent of the occupancy capacity is reached. Big-box stores have hundreds of people inside at any one time,” the Minnesota bishops wrote. 

While noting that “there is no state mandate that customers wear masks in those malls or stores, wash their hands consistently, or follow any specific cleaning protocol,” the state continued to bar more that 10 people from gathering in a church of any size.

“An order that sweeps so broadly that it prohibits, for example, a gathering of 11 people in a Cathedral with a seating capacity of several thousand defies reason,” the bishops of Minnesota’s six dioceses said in a May 20 statement.