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After Trump call to reopen churches, Catholic doctor says it can be done safely

Denver Newsroom, May 22, 2020 / 05:45 pm (CNA).- While President Donald Trump's May 22 call to reopen churches has become a source of national controversy, a group of Catholic doctors has offered a plan that could expedite that process.

“I think that if we just use common sense to compare apples to apples for metrics that we know matter - like density, for example - then there’s no real kind of objective scientific reason why Mass is any more dangerous than going to the grocery store. I think the difference here is a perceived risk,” said Dr. Andrew Wang, an immunobiologist at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Wang said that while it is impossible to eliminate all risk, there are steps that churches can take to prudently reopen for Mass and Confession.

“If we have best practice for the hospital, for Home Depot, for Chick-fil-A, then why not have best practices for Mass? It just seems like it would follow naturally,” he told CNA.

Wang is one of seven Catholic doctors who released a document entitled “Road Map to Re-Opening our Catholic Churches Safely.”

The road map says that the sacraments are essential for Catholics, and argues that “churches can operate as safely as other essential services,” as long as care is taken to form and follow careful plans.

Safety protocols should be created with the help of medical experts and may need to be adjusted over time, it says, to reflect the changing realities and medical recommendations in a given area.

The document calls for Mass to be held with social distancing and the use of masks and hand sanitizer. Singing should be avoided, and those who are ill or believe they may have been exposed to the virus should stay home, it says.

It calls for confessions to be held in outdoor or well-ventilated indoor areas, with the use of masks, an impermeable barrier between the priest and penitent, and frequent sanitization of surfaces.

As the novel coronavirus 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.

At a Friday press briefing, Trump said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would, at his direction, be issuing new guidance for churches to reopen. He said he was identifying houses of worship as “essential,” although a source familiar with the deliberations told CNA that the label is not an official designation by the administration.

Trump’s announcement comes after the CDC reportedly drafted guidance for reopening businesses, churches, and other places of public accommodation earlier this month. On May 7, however, the 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.

Critics of the decision have argued that church gatherings could result in additional outbreaks of the coronavirus, which has led to more than 93,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the CDC.

However, Wang said that he thinks careful guidelines can aid in efforts to prudently reopen churches. He told CNA that he finds Trump’s announcement “very encouraging.”

“I think those of us who are Catholic would probably view attending Mass as essential,” he commented.

The guidelines laid out in the “Road Map to Re-Opening our Catholic Churches Safely” are the fruit of careful consideration, he said. They address the major points that are currently known about the transmission of the coronavirus.

In implementing the guidelines, he said, parishes will need to take local context into account. For example, a large suburban church with a sizable parking lot may be able to hold an outdoor Mass, while an urban church may find it more difficult to do so.

He also noted that the road map is “a document made by doctors, not by liturgists, so the considerations are really purely medical” and may need to be adapted as deemed appropriate by Church authorities.

In developing the document, Wang said, “what we spent the lion share of our time on was the Eucharist, because that is a bit of special case that the grocery store or Walmart may not have.”

“The moment where you take the host, that presented really a special challenge…This was discussed at length, so that we all had a consensus on what would be safest practices for that particular moment.”

Ultimately, the group of doctors concluded that the safest recommendation is to receive communion in the hand rather than on the tongue.

Wang referenced a recent study showing it is much easier to pick up the virus from saliva than a nasal swab.

While full information about the risk remains unknown, he said, “receiving on the tongue in this case, with this particular virus, may present higher risk” than reception in the hand.

Although he acknowledged that some people may object to this, Wang said that in his perspective, “it boils down to, is it better to not have communion at all - and by extension not have Mass at all?”

He added that the document’s guidelines are recommendations, but that priests and bishops can do as they see fit.

Wang also addressed the concern that HVAC systems may contribute to the spread of the coronavirus, moving contaminated air particles around even if people are spaced out within a church.

Outdoor Mass would be ideal at addressing this particular concern, he said, but it may not be logistically feasible at all parishes.

Still, he said, after a lengthy discussion, “our assessment of the literature was that it was not entirely clear that the circulation of air was necessarily something that would be limiting.” He noted that grocery stories, research labs, and other indoor facilities would also be similarly problematic if HVAC systems played a significant role in spreading the virus.

Ultimately, Wang said, going to church at this time is not risk-free, just as any other public activity is not without risk during a pandemic. He noted that dioceses throughout the country have granted dispensations from the Sunday obligation for those who are unable to attend or are not comfortable with the risk involved.

However, he believes that if churches act prudently, they can implement guidelines to minimize risk, while making the sacraments available to the people of God.

“It just boils down to one of the oldest institutions on earth having some kind of best practices, guidelines, for how one might do this as safely as is possible, based on what we currently know about COVID,” he said.

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.

Valamoff 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.

Valamoff 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.

Varmaloff 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.
 

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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.

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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.”

 

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