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Update: Pope, U.S. bishops 'saddened' by Turkish court ruling on Hagia Sophia

IMAGE: CNS photo/Murad Sezer, Reuters

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis said he was saddened after a Turkish court ruled to revert the iconic Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque.

U.S. bishops echoes his statement and urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "to reverse this unnecessary and painful decision and restore Hagia Sophia as a place of prayer and reflection for all peoples."

While commemorating the International Day of the Sea during his Sunday Angelus address July 12, Pope Francis told pilgrims in St. Peter's Square that "the sea carries me a little farther away in my thoughts: to Istanbul."

"I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened," he said.

Erdogan issued a decree to hand over control of Hagia Sophia to the country's Directorate of Religious Affairs after Turkey's highest court revoked its status as a museum July 10.

In a video message after the court ruling, Erdogan said Hagia Sophia will remain "open to all locals, foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims."

On July 14, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said in a statement: "Since its foundation as a Christian cathedral in 537, Hagia Sophia has been one of the world's great artistic and spiritual treasures. For many years now, this beautiful and cherished site has served as a museum where people of all faiths can come to experience the sublime presence of God. It has also stood as a sign of good will and peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims and an expression of humanity's longings for unity and love.

Other world and religious leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, criticized the ruling. His Orthodox patriarchate is based in Istanbul.

In a homily during a June 30 divine liturgy, the patriarch warned that the decision "will push millions of Christians around the world against Islam."

It is "absurd and harmful that Hagia Sophia, from a place that now allows the two peoples to meet us and admire its greatness, can again become a reason for contrast and confrontation," he said, according to Fides news agency.

Echoing the patriarch's words, Ioan Sauca, interim general secretary of the World Council of Churches, expressed his concern that the decision will "inevitably create uncertainties, suspicions and mistrust, undermining all our efforts to bring people of different faiths together at the table of dialogue and cooperation."

In a July 11 letter to Erdogan, Sauca urged the Turkish president to reverse his decision "in the interest of promoting mutual understanding, respect, dialogue and cooperation and avoiding cultivating old animosities and divisions."

The decision was strongly condemned by Archbishop Elpidophoros of the New York-based Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, who called the decision "the worst example of religious chauvinism."

"By shuttering Hagia Sophia as a monument, Turkey has shut the window that (Mustafa Kemal) Ataturk opened to the world," he tweeted July 10.

The cathedral, founded by Emperor Justinian I on the site of two earlier churches, was the world's largest at its dedication in 537.

Hagia Sophia remained a cathedral for the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when it served as a mosque following the Ottoman capture of Constantinople, today's Istanbul, for nearly five centuries.

Under Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, it then became a museum in 1935. It was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1985.

Audrey Azoulay, director general of UNESCO, issued a statement July 10 saying the decision was "regrettable" and "made without any form of dialogue or prior notice."

"UNESCO calls upon the Turkish authorities to initiate dialogue without delay, in order to prevent any detrimental effect on the universal value of this exceptional heritage, the state of conservation of which will be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its next session," Azoulay said.

Critics of the move have also accused Erdogan's government of using the decision to boost support for his governing Justice and Development party amid economic hardships exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju


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Update: ICE rule for international students rescinded

IMAGE: CNS photo/Nguyen Huy Kham, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) --The Trump administration July 14 rescinded a rule it announced eight days ago that would have required international students to transfer or leave the country if their schools held classes entirely online because of the pandemic.

According to The Associated Press, the decision was announced at the beginning of a Boston hearing in a federal lawsuit against the rule by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs said federal immigration authorities had agreed to rescind the directive and "return to the status quo."

U.S. Catholic college and university leaders had joined the nation's higher education community in condemning the policy announced by the Trump administration that would have prevented international students from remaining in or coming to the United States if their colleges use a completely online format in the fall semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The temporary final rule -- guidance for the Student and Exchange Visitor Program -- was issued without notice July 6 by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Two days later, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in federal court in Boston over the policy, seeking a temporary order to block the administration from enforcing it.

The lawsuit said the goal of the new guidance seemed to be to "create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible."

College leaders called the administration's policy simply a means to force colleges to reopen and offer in-person classes at the time when colleges are finalizing their fall plans. Harvard University, for example, announced July 6 it would reopen its campus for undergraduates but that it would only conduct classes online.

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, or ACCU, said the government's decision is "not only bad health policy, it is heartless."

"Allowing all students, regardless of country of origin, to be given equal access to online learning is the fair, sensible and moral thing to do. We can keep students safe and keep these young people on track," the July 8 statement said.

The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, or AJCU, similarly expressed "grave concern" about this guidance and asked Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf to withdraw it immediately.

In a July 9 statement, the association said the guidance "does not recognize the critical need for flexibility as we continue to battle a new, virulent and changing disease" and also "disregards previous guidance issued in the spring that recognized the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic and provided our schools the necessary flexibility to prioritize the academic needs of all students as they transitioned to a virtual learning environment."

Catholic university presidents also have expressed their concern and frustration with the policy's announcement.

John DeGioia, president of Georgetown University in Washington, said in a July 8 letter to the school community that the university "strongly opposes this reckless action," which he said "creates new and unnecessary barriers for international students and puts their health, stability and academic progress at risk if they are unable to participate in classes in person."

DeGioia said the new requirements "fail to recognize the invaluable contributions of our international students within our community." He said the university was working on a number of fronts to limit, and if possible prevent, the negative impact of this rule on its international students.

He also said the university was joining other colleges and universities in submitting an amicus brief in federal court "opposing this new, damaging guidance."

In a July 7 blog post, Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, said the Trump administration's action was "pushing two disgracefully irresponsible messages: the pandemic is no big deal, get over it; and, if U.S. universities want to enroll international students this fall then classes may not be online."

McGuire said: "Denying a safe education for international students, interrupting their academic progress and possibly forcing them to make premature departures from the U.S. with no guarantee of return, further diminishes the stature of the U.S. globally while causing untold hardship and needless stress for more than a million college students."

She said her campus was looking at options and "will do everything we can to take good care of our international students." School officials also are working with advocacy groups to see if there are legislative or legal solutions.

Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, also spoke out against the rule, even though Notre Dame has already announced it will have in-person classes, with a modified scheduled, in the fall.

In a July 8 letter to Acting Secretary Wolf, Father Jenkins said he was concerned about the government's "inhospitable, even hostile, approach toward visiting students and scholars who enrich our own learning and cultural environments."

"Having already overcome the hurdles of being accepted to an American university and authorized to travel and live here, foreign students now have to grapple with the uncertainty of being expelled from the country simply because of the way instruction is delivered," he wrote.

He said Notre Dame enrolls about 1,400 international students each year -- all of whom are already vetted before their entry into the United States. This past March, when the university stopped its in-person teaching because of the pandemic, more than 100 foreign students were stranded on campus because of restrictions on air travel to certain countries and for other reasons.

Father Jenkins said he is proud Notre Dame accommodated these students whom he described as an essential part of the campus community. He said the international students not only add to university life, but they strengthen local economies, saying: "A 25% decline in international student enrollment this fall would result in a loss of approximately $10 billion and 114,000 jobs."

The timing of this guidance also is something school leaders said cannot be ignored.

As the AJCU put it: "This new guidance comes just months before our schools prepare to reopen for a new academic year, undermining our ability to provide continuity in instruction for international students, and ignoring the realities that colleges and universities are facing in trying to adjust to a landscape that changes by the day."

The ACCU pointed to the stark difference from this spring when "universities had to pivot on a dime to shift instruction online in order to keep students, faculty and local communities safe from contagion." It pointed out that then, international students were accommodated by the government and allowed to finish their courses online, despite policies against online education for international students.

The group, whose members are leaders from Catholic colleges and universities across the country, said to send the international students "home, without a degree, would force them to start their lives over simply because a university is trying to keep its faculty and students safe as contagion levels continue to be unpredictable."

"There are difficult decisions to make in challenging times, but this is not one of those," it added.

On July 10, California's attorney general filed a lawsuit challenging this policy and seeking a court order to prevent the government from enforcing it.

Three days later, 17 state attorneys general and the attorney general for the District of Columbia similarly filed a lawsuit against this rule. The states that joined in the lawsuit were: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The attorneys general said in a statement the new rule and reversal of the previous guidance for colleges amid the pandemic fails to consider the health and safety of students, faculty and staff or the tremendous costs and administrative burden it would place on schools to readjust plans. It also "fails to consider that, for many international students, remote learning in their home countries is not possible."

They said the policy poses "significant financial harm to schools, as international students pay hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition, housing, dining and other fees," while it also "forces colleges and universities to offer in-person classes amid a pandemic or lose significant numbers of international students who will either have to leave the country, transfer or disenroll from the school."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

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First Cow

Supreme Court allows blocked federal execution to proceed

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bryan Woolston, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In a 2 a.m. decision July 14 after numerous last-minute filings, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to overturn a trial court order blocking the execution of federal death-row inmate Daniel Lewis Lee.

The court's unsigned order enabled federal executions to go forward.

Lee, 47, convicted of being an accomplice in killing three family members in 1996, was executed July 14 and pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana.

His last words, according to a pool reports were: "I didn't do it. I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I'm not a murderer. You're killing an innocent man."

Federal executions, on hold for the past 17 years, have been challenged by death-row inmates since the Justice Department announced last year these executions would resume with the use of one drug in the lethal injection. A challenge of this method continued right up until the last minute, and past it, for Lee, whose scheduled July 13 execution was blocked by a federal judge's order.

The Justice Department immediately appealed the ruling by Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who had issued a preliminary injunction against Lee's scheduled execution describing the "extreme pain and needless suffering" caused by the government's lethal injection protocol.

But several hours later, the Supreme Court's unsigned majority opinion said the plaintiffs, Lee and three others in federal prison appealing the manner of their death sentence, had "not established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim" in their dispute about the specific drug protocol to be used in the executions.

Lee's execution had already been stopped over pandemic concerns raised by relatives of Lee's victims who said people who would normally have been present at the execution would not want to risk COVID-19 exposure.

The Supreme Court's early morning ruling that cleared the way for the federal executions to proceed said a "last-minute intervention" to stop executions "should be the extreme exception, not the norm." The opinion also said it was the court's responsibility to ensure that challenges to the method of execution "are resolved fairly and expeditiously" so the death penalty issue can remain "with the people and their representatives, not the courts, to resolve."

Dissenting opinions were written by Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan.

Breyer's dissent echoed his previous concern about the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Breyer wrote that Lee's case "illustrates at least some of the problems the death penalty raises in light of the Constitution's prohibition against 'cruel and unusual punishment,'" noting that Lee spent more than 20 years on death row, which itself can cause "severe psychological suffering."

He also said the death penalty is "often imposed arbitrarily," pointing out that Lee's accomplice received a life sentence for committing the same crime.

Sotomayor wrote that the majority opinion in its acceptance of the government's "artificial claim of urgency" to stop judicial review in this case sets a "dangerous precedent."

In a July 14 statement issued by the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr said: "Today, Lee finally faced the justice he deserved. The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence."

Lee's attorney, Ruth Friedman, did not agree. She called it "shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution when counsel for Danny Lee could not be present with him, and when the judges in his case and even the family of his victims urged against it."

She also said in a statement that it was "beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste, in the middle of the night, while the country was sleeping."

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice, said Lee's "execution was unnecessary and avoidable."

She said the federal government "relentlessly plotted its course to execute Daniel Lee despite a historic decline in public support for the death penalty, clear opposition by the victims' family, unwavering Catholic opposition to the restart of federal executions, and an unyielding global pandemic which has already taken more than 135,000 American lives."

And Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, who is a longtime death penalty opponent, tweeted: "I'm appalled to hear that the federal government executed Daniel Lee early this morning after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a seemingly unprecedented opinion at 2 am. While we were all sleeping, the government killed a man under cloak of darkness."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim


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

PPP loans have had direct benefits for church communities, recipients say

IMAGE: CNS photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters

By Tom Tracy

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CNS) -- Catholic entities that took part in the Paycheck Protection Program said the federal emergency bridge loans translated into rapid assistance for their communities in the early months of the pandemic's economic impact.

In Nashville, Tennessee, when Mayor John Cooper convened local philanthropic and business leadership to create the city's COVID-19 Response Fund, one of the first local agencies to join the Nashville effort was a team of staff at Catholic Charities of Tennessee.

Catholic Charities there reassigned some of its staff to the project after ongoing work with refugee resettlement was brought to a halt by the pandemic and the related international border closures and travel stoppage.

Supported in part by the federal loans, Catholic Charities of Tennessee was able to divert some 20 staff who, working remotely, were able to help the COVID-19 Response Fund screen and process local residents who were in need of emergency cash grants for everything from rent assistance to utility and car loan payments.

"The PPP money enabled us to confidently keep our staff in place and immediately assign them with ad hoc work in our city and we became an important player in our city," Judy K. Orr, executive director of the Catholic Charities of Tennessee in Nashville, told Catholic News Service.

The region's expansive tourism-related economy has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic closures. Orr noted the COVID-19 pandemic also came on the heels of a catastrophic tornado event in Nashville that further stretched staffing at the agency in early March.

"I spoke to the mayor's office about taking my partly idled refugee staff for vetting applicants for the fund and in 48 hours we were tapped to do that work," Orr said. Other partners in Nashville's COVID-19 Response Fund included United Way of Greater Nashville and the Frist Foundation.

"It was critical to the city to process these applications for emergency assistance," Orr said of the Nashville program. "We normally help about 200 families a year and instead we helped 500 in one month. Not only did the PPP keep our people working but we were working harder, working remotely and really apropos to the times."

The Paycheck Protection Program -- established by the CARES Act -- is implemented by the Small Business Administration with support from the Department of the Treasury. This program provides small businesses and other entities with a period of funds for payroll costs including benefits. Funds also were used to pay interest on mortgages, rent and utilities.

In late April, the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference had calculated that 8,000 parishes, 1,400 elementary schools, 700 high schools, 104 chanceries, 185 Catholic Charities agencies and 200 other diocesan organizations in 160 dioceses had applied for assistance at that point.

The conference said that church entities that were not funded in the first round or had applied after the original allocation of federal money was exhausted had already applied or planned to file applications as new monies flowed into the program.

In Portland, Oregon, Catholic Charities of Portland was able to acquire a Paycheck Protection Program loan and retain all of its staff while retooling -- even expanding -- many of its programs for the new unemployment and food insecurity challenges posed by the pandemic, according to Vanessa Briseno, director of the Pope Francis Center in Portland and senior development officer for Catholic Charities Portland.

As with the nation's 2007-2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has been met with an impressive amount of community goodwill and volunteerism, but the current crisis is proving far-reaching and complicated for older and vulnerable populations, Briseno said.

Catholic Charities of Portland has used the loan to support a food response network; housing transitions programming, an expansion of resident services and a food pantry program.

"We are very blessed, but what is different is the sheer number of people and the volume of needs; we are seeing a lot of needs we didn't see before," she told CNS. "So many don't have a sense of timeline when they can go back to work."

"We weren't really a provider of food before but now have partnered with the Portland Archdiocese, Blanchet House and St. Francis Dining Hall to provide 10,000 hot meals a week and with farmworker agencies to provide food boxes for (agricultural) workers," Briseno added. Partnerships with local grocery stores have opened up another source of discounted food for needy families.

Marcie Pierce, chief financial officer for Catholic Charities in Portland, said applying for the PPP loans, as they are called, required the agency to affirm it has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, and Catholic Charities of Portland was able to show a related reduction in fundraising.

"Once we were aware of the fact that we were harmed (by the pandemic), we applied for the loan with another agency and we were able to secure a loan -- we hope to receive forgiveness," Pierce said, indicating she thought by then the PPP loan funding was likely exhausted.

The loan Catholic Charities was able to get from another agency "focused directly on maintaining employment of our social services organization so they can continue doing the good work that they do," she added.

The U.S. Senate extended the deadline to apply for the PPP loans to Aug. 8. The Senate's action June 30 came as over $130 billion allocated to the program actually remained unused.

Catholic schools and parishes also were among the participants of the Paycheck Protection Program.

In Indianapolis, Holy Spirit Parish and School secured the loan funding during a second round of funding. It enabled the parish to offset the reduction in Sunday collections, which support the tuition subsidy there. The result was teachers, child care, summer camp and other staff were able to keep working through the end of June. The school has a student body of 400, according to Rita Parsons, Holy Spirit principal.

"We would have had to take out a personal loan to cover contracted teachers' salaries," Parsons said, had the PPP loan not come through in May. The school is to resume child care and summer camp programming July 20.

"We completed a survey with all our families and they were very pleased at how everything turned out although they would have wanted to for their children to go back to school earlier -- but they understood that we had to deal with (safety measures)," Parsons said. "We are going to make it and we are going to start back in August stronger than ever."

In Brookline, Massachusetts, Theresa Kirk, principal of St. Mary of the Assumption elementary school, worked with a local bank to secure a PPP loan for the school -- the federal program is administered by the SBA and local approved lenders provide the money and in turn the loan kept faculty and staff working remotely without missing a beat, she said.

"It certainly assisted in keeping us going," Kirk said of the federal loan program. She explained the school had to break March 13, stopping in-classroom instruction to turn to remote learning. "We pivoted over a weekend at a time when no one (on staff here) had even heard of Zoom."

Now, the school is conducting an optional summer bridge program through remote learning to offset the "summer slide" impact and to provide additional social and emotional support for students.

Teachers are expected to reconvene with students on campus for the fall term beginning Sept. 9 with a staggered schedule, moving soon after into a more normal school day as conditions permit.

"We are very lucky in Brookline and the parents are grateful: our enrollment is actually up for fall. Some families came back to us who were considering maybe not coming back," Kirk said.

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

New study: Lead poisoning from Notre Dame fire worse than first thought

IMAGE: CNS photo/Charles Platiau, Reuters

By Barbara Fraser

LIMA, Peru (CNS) -- When the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris went up in flames in April 2019, images were made even more dramatic by thick smoke tinged with yellow as the 460 tons of lead on the roof and spire melted.

After the fire, French officials said the lead did not pose a health hazard, and relatively few families followed up on a government offer to test their children's blood for the metal. But some environmental activists were sharply critical of the way officials handled the possible contamination.

Now a new study has found that the amount of lead that settled to the ground and likely seeped into houses downwind of the fire and within about half a mile of the cathedral was far greater than officials indicated at the time.

"I knew there was a controversy. I knew there were mixed reports on the government reaction," geochemist Alexander van Geen of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City, who led the study, told Catholic News Service.

Accompanying his wife on a two-month sabbatical in Paris early this year, he took advantage of daily walks to collect soil samples from parks, under trees, planters and even cracks in the sidewalk.

French government-funded studies estimated that about 330 pounds of lead were deposited between about half a mile and about 30 miles downwind from the fire, and that more probably settled out closer to the cathedral. They did not estimate that larger amount, however.

Van Geen's calculations show that about a ton of lead probably ended up on the ground, on sidewalks and streets, and filtering into buildings in a 50-degree arc within 0.6 mile downwind from the cathedral.

Although officials initially downplayed risk from lead exposure, cleanup work was stopped after environmental activists raised concerns. It resumed after crews were given equipment to protect them from toxic substances at the site, including lead.

In June, when the French government offered to check children's blood for lead, the results showed about 80 children with levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, the maximum allowable limit for children set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lead is known to affect children's cognitive and neurological development and can cause other health problems. Very young children are at particular risk, because their brains and bodies are still developing, and because they are most likely to play on contaminated floors and put objects into their mouths.

Although the lead exposure lasted a relatively short time, French government officials reacted slowly to the hazard that lead dust posed, van Geen said.

"They did a lot of testing, but it all happened too late," he told CNS. "In this situation, it's the dust on the table where the child is going to eat -- that's what matters."

Officials recommended wiping surfaces clean of dust, but did not issue a strict warning, and their recommendations may not have reached low-income residents, van Geen said.

"They could have been proactive," visiting the houses most likely to be affected, especially those where children lived. The fact that they did not "was inexcusable," he said.

The study, published July 9 in the scientific journal GeoHealth, highlights the importance of having teams that can react quickly in cases of fires or other disasters that release toxic substances. It is also crucial to let residents know of risks immediately, something that is made easier by smart phones, he said.

Van Geen has investigated the environmental health impacts of lead, arsenic and other metals in countries around the world. His studies have included lead from a smelter in the Peruvian Andes, where the Catholic Archdiocese of Huancayo has been active in pressing for a cleanup.

As work on the Notre Dame Cathedral progresses, including reconstructing the spire in its original design, "this might be a closed chapter," van Geen said of the lead pollution in Paris. Nevertheless, he added, "I still worry about the area very close to the cathedral."


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Cardinal Dolan blesses ashes of Mexican nationals who died of COVID-19

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Inside New York's iconic St. Patrick's Cathedral, some 250 Mexican nationals were hailed as anonymous heroes July 11, after dying of COVID-19, which they likely contracted as they kept the city moving when it was experiencing the peak of the pandemic earlier this year.

Their cremated remains were blessed at the cathedral and, via an arrangement with the Mexican government, were sent to Mexico later that day to be received by family.

"When the pandemic (in the New York City area) was at its peak, they never ceased working," said Jorge Islas Lopez, consul general of Mexico in New York, speaking of the deceased to the press after the service.

Though anonymous, some of the immigrants had worked to keep New York's hospitals clean as medical staff struggled to save lives, Islas said, while others kept the food supply or necessary construction moving.

"Today, we lovingly take them to Mexico, their earthly home, and we pray so that they will live forever in their true celestial home," Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York said during the service in Spanish.

He blessed their ashes covered in white on the main altar as mariachis played traditional Mexican songs in the background.

While speaking to the press, Cardinal Dolan explained he was hoping to have brought some comfort to the migrants' families so they would know that their loved ones had received God's blessing.

"These families suffered because they were unable to be with their loved ones at the time of death," he said.

But some friends and family were present for the service at St. Patrick's, wiping tears and holding pictures of their loved ones in the pews. Others watched the blessing of the ashes via Facebook Live, where the service was livestreamed by the Mexican Consulate in New York, and they left messages in the comments section.

"Goodbye, my brother. I am not at the Holy Mass but you are in my heart. I love you always," wrote Clemencia Bravo.

"May your soul rest in peace, Teresa Romero," wrote Jafed Fer Dax. "We love and miss you in your beloved Huamantla."

"Uncle Alfredo, may God keep you in his glory," wrote Jonathan Lopez."We will always remember and miss you."

"Many of them died alone because they did not have family here," said Islas, the consul general, addressing the press. "That's why it's important that they return with the utmost dignity and decorum, an utmost respect that the faithful should be given."

After the blessing, the cremated remains were loaded on a Mexican army plane that took off from New York's La Guardia Airport to Mexico City, where the Mexican government had arranged to send the cremated remains to different localities throughout the country.

In a news release, the Archdiocese of New York said the consul general had helped organized the service for those who had not been able to have a funeral Mass and burial at the height of the pandemic in the city. 

"The Catholic Church shows care and reverence for the earthly remains of those who have died by insuring a proper, dignified repose of earthly remains," the statement said. "This is so important that it is considered to be one of the Corporal Works."

Burying the dead is one of the seven corporal works of mercy, part of the teachings of Jesus practiced by Christians as a model for how to treat others. Others include feeding the hungry and giving alms to the poor.


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Fire ravages historic California mission, but community vows to rebuild

IMAGE: CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Angelus News

By Pablo Kay

LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- The fire that ravaged Mission San Gabriel Arcangel church in the predawn hours of July 11 left behind a haunting scene.

In a matter of minutes, the mission's 230-year-old roof was nearly gone. The sunlight pouring down through the holes revealed the charred planks that had crashed down on the church's pews. The altar, along with the mission's bell tower and museum, were spared, but the thick adobe walls were blackened.

As bad as the damage is, it could have been worse. Because the church had been undergoing renovations, much of the artwork in the sanctuary, including historic paintings and other devotional artifacts, had been removed prior to the fire.

But for Anthony Morales, tribal chief of the San Gabrielino Mission Indians and a parishioner of San Gabriel, the damage was more than material.

"These are my roots," said Morales, holding back tears as he surveyed the scene just hours after the fire had been contained. "This is my church. All my ancestors are buried in the cemetery next door. Six thousand of my ancestors are buried on these grounds, and this is the church that they built. It's just very devastating."

The devastation was just the latest blow to be suffered this year by Los Angeles' oldest Catholic outpost.

As 2020 started, preparations were underway to celebrate a "Jubilee Year" leading to the 250th anniversary of St. Junipero Serra's founding of the mission Sept. 8, 1771.

But that was before the coronavirus pandemic forced the shutdown of California churches and a lockdown of the economy. Just several weeks before the fire, mission officials had decided reluctantly to postpone the jubilee plans for a year, while continuing work on much-needed renovations and improvements to the church.

As the church reopened for public Masses, along with others in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, waves of anti-racism protests had broken out across the country, protests that included attacks on public monuments and statues of figures from U.S. history, including statues of St. Junipero, like those found on the mission's campus.

In late June, statues to the California missionary were toppled in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, and the weekend before the fire, a long-standing St. Junipero statue outside the state Capitol in Sacramento was felled.

That same weekend before the fire, San Gabriel staff had quietly removed one of St. Junipero's statues from public view to keep it safe from possible vandalism.

The July 11 blaze at San Gabriel was part of a weekend that saw churches vandalized in other parts of the country. Statues of Mary were damaged in Queens, New York, and in Boston; in Ocala, Florida, a man drove a minivan into a Catholic church before pouring gasoline in the foyer and setting fire to the building.

While there was no immediate word on the cause of the fire, investigators from a regional task force and from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent Saturday afternoon in the front of the mission, where the fire is believed to have started, City News Service reported July 12.

Local Catholics who showed up at the mission the next day to pray were suspicious. The timing of the fire -- and the broader attacks on St. Junipero statues and other church properties -- was too much of a coincidence for them.

"We don't know how it happened, but it seems like the church is under attack. There's a lot of resentment and a lot of anger," Miguel Sanchez, president of the local "Knights on Bikes" chapter, told Angelus, the online news platform of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Sanchez and his fellow motorcycle-riding Knights of Columbus members were among the dozens who gathered outside the damaged church Sunday morning July 12, despite nearly triple-digit temperatures to pray the rosary. Some came from as far as Orange and San Diego counties after word about the gathering spread through social media.

One of those was Barbara Quigley, a teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Downey. She said the lessons of her fourth-grade California history class were worth keeping in mind.

"I'm not a stranger to teaching my students that a lot of the missions have gone through earthquakes and fires, and they've been able to rebuild," said Quigley, who drove from Anaheim to join the prayer group Sunday morning.

"So I have full faith and confidence that our church will be able to restore the mission. It won't be the same, but (the mission) will still stay and we'll be resilient," she said.

Resilience was the theme that morning inside the mission's Chapel of the Annunciation, where the mission's pastor, Claretian Father John Molyneux, made a bold pledge to Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles.

"You will be back to celebrate our 250th anniversary in a rebuilt church," Father Molyneux promised the archbishop at the start of Mass.

Archbishop Gomez had visited the mission just after the fire was contained and came back the next day to celebrate the Sunday Mass and to show solidarity with grieving parishioners.

In his homily, he sounded a hopeful tone.

"This fire changes nothing," the archbishop said. "Mission San Gabriel will always be the spiritual heart of the church in Los Angeles, the place from which the Gospel still goes forth."

Archbishop Gomez invoked the intercession and example of the mission's founder, St. Junipero, a Spanish missionary who advocated for the rights of California's native peoples, including the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, who built San Gabriel.

"St. Junipero and the first Franciscan missionaries answered the Lord's call and sacrificed everything to bring his word to this land," he said. "Now it is our turn to make sure his word is proclaimed to the next generation."

After the Mass, Kathleen and Elizabeth Chelling said they were encouraged by the archbishop's message.

"I think that for a lot of years, there has been this kind of complacency in a lot of Catholic circles," said Kathleen, who drove up from Orange County with her sister to participate in the rosary and stayed for Mass.

"I hope that these difficult times can serve as a wake-up call," she added. "If you look at a lot of the saints' lives, a lot of them came from time periods of difficulty. Instead of turning into despair or bitterness or walking away, they used it as motivation to go deeper."

A tragedy like the fire, she added, "is a reminder of how deeply Jesus is needed."

In a time of pandemic and economic recession, the task of rebuilding the historic church in time for the anniversary on Sept. 8 of next year will be daunting. But by the end of the Mass, the archbishop seemed ready to take Father Molyneux at his word.

"We are going to celebrate the 250th anniversary next year -- for sure," Archbishop Gomez told parishioners, who responded with cheers. "And this is the beginning of the next 250 years."

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Editor's Note: The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has created the San Gabriel Mission Restoration Fund:

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Kay is the editor-in-chief of Angelus, the online news platform of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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Update: Navy revises policy on service members attending services off base

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

By Julie Asher

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A prohibition by some U.S. Navy commands against active service members participating in off-base indoor religious services over coronavirus fears has now been revised, allowing attendance at places of worship where congregants can maintain social distance and wear face coverings.

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, head of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, called the change "most welcome" and said it "recognizes that worship is a part of the exercise of religious liberty and helps to ensure the readiness of the forces who defend us."

"It is clear that the Catholic Church has taken to heart the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) measures and organized the celebration of the sacraments in ways that ensure the safety of participants, good order, and the dignity of the rites," he said in a statement sent to Catholic News Service July 10. "I am sure that other religious groups will do the same."

He added, "I am grateful to the Department of the Navy and everyone else who contributed to this timely revision."

Acting Undersecretary of the Navy Gregory J. Slavonic issued a memo July 8 saying that none of the priorities set by the Department of Defense for protecting service members from the spread of COVID-19 including "measured activities" that commanders must consider "should be construed to restrict attendance at places of worship where attendees are able to appropriately apply (coronavirus) transmission mitigation measures, specifically social distancing and use of face covering."

When Archbishop Broglio first learned of the policy, he called it "particularly odious to Catholics."

"Frequently there is no longer a Catholic program on naval installations due to budgetary constraints or many installation chapels are still closed -- even though many of them could well ensure appropriate social distancing" to protect worshippers from the coronavirus, he said in a July 5 statement.

"Participation in the Sunday Eucharist is life blood for Catholics," he said. "It is the source and summit of our lives and allows us to receive the body and blood of the Lord."

He said the policy was brought to his attention by some of the faithful in the archdiocese and he "immediately contacted the Navy Chief of Chaplains' Office, which was unable "to offer any relief from these provisions." "My attempt to contact the chief of naval operations has not even been acknowledged," he added.

On July 9, the First Liberty Institute announced the Navy had revised the policy, pointing to the Slavonic memo issued a day earlier.

The Texas-based nonprofit legal organization that handles religious liberty cases said the change came a few days after it sent a letter on behalf of Air Force Maj. Daniel Schultz, currently assigned to a Navy command, asking the U.S. Navy to grant an accommodation so he could attend the church where he leads worship.

In his July 5 statement, Archbishop Broglio noted that Catholic churches -- "and I presume others" -- have gone to great lengths to ensure social distancing in seating and receiving holy Communion and have even adjusted the liturgy "to avoid any contagion."

He also pointed out that during this pandemic, President Donald Trump, as commander in chief, has said houses of worship provide "an essential service" and should be allowed to be open while taking the proper protective measures against the virus.

"I want to assure the Navy Catholic faithful of my prayerful solidarity, invite them to continue to participate in Masses that are broadcast or livestreamed, and to be fervent in their faith," he said, and rightly predicted "this situation will pass."

"As Pope Francis reminded us, Christ is in the boat with us," Archbishop Broglio added.

In a statement reacting to the change in the Navy policy, First Liberty Institute general counsel Mike Berry said: "We are grateful to and Navy leadership for righting this ship, and to Commander-in-Chief Trump for making religious liberty a priority. This is a major victory for the Constitution and for religious freedom within our military."

Berry added that Slavonic's memo "means tens of thousands of our brave service members will be able to safely and freely exercise their religious beliefs."

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Follow Asher on Twitter: @jlasher

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July 16 virtual pilgrimage to Lourdes to affirm prayer against COVID-19

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Jonathan Luxmoore

OXFORD, England (CNS) -- An international virtual pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Lourdes, France, will "affirm the power of prayer" against COVID-19, said the shrine's vice rector.

"Lourdes is all about spiritual and physical healing, and we've received 15,000 prayer petitions daily throughout the lockdown from around the world -- for people about to die or fearing infection," said Father Xavier d'Arodes de Peyriague, vice rector and head of international pastoral ministry.

"We quickly realized we weren't just praying for people in Lourdes, but for those in need worldwide -- and this e-pilgrimage will honor their presence in a great affirmation of the power of prayer."

The priest spoke amid preparations for the July 16 event, marking the French site's official reopening after four months' closure.

In a July 10 interview with Catholic News Service, he said the 15-hour multigenerational and multicultural e-pilgrimage would include rosary recitals, lectures, music and archival videos in 10 languages illustrating the center's mission, as well as three consecutive international Masses for Asia and Oceania, Europe and Africa, and the Americas.

"This shrine has never closed previously -- not even during two world wars and other major traumas, and it's been extraordinary to stand alone at its normally crowded grotto," Father d'Arodes said.

"We've had to adjust our prayers from a focus on individual healing to the challenges of a pandemic. But five times the normal numbers are now following us on social networks, while we're broadcast on Catholic channels worldwide."

Lourdes, close to the southern Pyrenees Mountains, annually attracts up to 5 million visitors and has been a place of pilgrimage since 1858, when St. Bernardette Soubirous, 14, experienced the first of 18 visions of the Virgin Mary while gathering firewood.

A website statement said the sanctuary faced a "historic loss" of 8 million euros ($9.06 million) from its enforced shutdown and would be appealing for funds during the virtual pilgrimage.

In his interview, Father d'Arodes said Lourdes depended heavily on the knowledge and talents of 320 full-time employees, as well as up to 100,000 volunteers who came each year, and had done its best to retain them.

However, he cautioned it was still unclear when medical conditions and travel possibilities would allow sick pilgrims to return.

"For now, it's recommended the fragile and vulnerable remain at home -- though some handicapped people have come, we've had to change the way things are done here, closing the sanctuary's baths, suspending processions and restricting torchlight rosaries," he said. "But people are in need of faith and hope, and we've instead been animating the digital community, which is building amazingly all the time."


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