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Surgical masks, social distancing: Palm Sunday in Jerusalem's Old City

IMAGE: CNS photo/Debbie Hill

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Nadine Bitar wore a surgical mask and waited 109 yards from her home in the Old City -- as permitted by the Israeli Ministry of Health -- to receive a blessed olive branch from Franciscan Father Amjad Sabbara of St. Saviour Parish.

Father Sabbara wound his way around the narrowest of alleyways of his parish in the Old City Palm Sunday, April 5. When he and several assistants arrived to give Bitar the branch and pray with her, she took several branches and Mass booklets, then distributed them among her extended family and neighbors, some of whom are elderly and were unable to come down to receive the branches.

With the booklets, they were able to follow the Palm Sunday Mass celebrated by Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of Jerusalem, and livestreamed from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which has been closed since March 25.

For the Christian residents of the Old City, Holy Week and Easter are like a family celebration, said Bitar.

"It is heartbreaking we can't participate in the church service and the public Mass on Palm Sunday, but we have faith this pain we are living into Holy Week is also giving us hope of the resurrection," she said. "It is a lesson for us to take some time for God and actually know the word of God."

Due to the global pandemic of the COVID-19 virus, all religious gatherings have been prohibited, and all places of worship have been closed by both the Israeli and Palestinian ministries of health to prevent the further spreading of the disease. In his March 26 Pastoral Guidelines for Holy Week following the issuing of the restrictions, Archbishop Pizzaballa suggested priests distribute previously blessed olive branches and holy water to their parishioners in adherence with government directives.

"Usually we go to the priest for him to bless our olive branches; this time he came to us. It was a very heartwarming gesture. He did this so we could feel Palm Sunday, so we could have the blessed olive branch in our houses," she said.

Father Sabbara said it was the first time in the 28 years of his priesthood that he could not hold the traditional Palm Sunday celebration and Mass.

"It was sad but at the same time it was full of hope," he said. Though he celebrated Mass for the Franciscans at St. Saviour Church, he missed seeing the faces of the young children with their palm fronds, he said.

"When I got to the (Old City) quarters and I saw the little boys and girls taking the branches, I (felt like) crying. I understand more my vocation," he said.

Moses Soufan, 36, left his work as a hotel security guard briefly to come with his 1-year-old niece to receive the branches and readings for him and his parents, with whom he lives.

Although the hotel where he works is closed, he is part of the skeleton staff providing security for the building. The tourist sector in both the Palestinian territories -- whose economy depends largely on tourism -- and in Israel has been decimated as international travel has come to a halt because of COVID-19.

"Unfortunately, this year there are no pilgrims coming to the country to be able to celebrate (Easter) as usual," said Soufan.

Though they could follow the Palm Sunday Mass through the livestream, it is not the same as the shared experience of the festive gathering on the Mount of Olives and walking down in the procession to the Old City, he said.

"It is sad; since I was a little boy I have been going to the Mount of Olives, walking all the way down celebrating," he said. "It breaks my heart not to be able to be at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on this day or on Holy Saturday or on Easter. When I got the news I couldn't believe it. I have been (going) ... every year; I have never missed a year."

"My intentions with my prayers today, like everyone else, are for this to be over, and maybe on Holy Saturday it will be over," added Soufan.

In his Palm Sunday Message, Archbishop Pizzaballa reminded the faithful that, although in fearful and uncertain times, people want to have "faith in a God who gives us certainties and security. Christian faith is based on hope and love, not on certainty."

"(God) won't solve all our problems, he won't give us all the certainties that our human nature needs, but he won't leave us alone," said Archbishop Pizzaballa. "We know he loves us."

After the Mass, Bitar went out to the balcony of the home she shares with her two brothers and their families and her mother to look out at the view of the Mount of Olives. Usually, she said, on Palm Sunday she can see thousands of people coming down the hill.

"Now it is empty and that is heartbreaking," she said. "But that is OK. The stones of the Old City of Jerusalem are the witnesses of our voices and the voices of our ancestors. This is a message of hope for the whole world during this Easter season; we can come closer to God and see his glory as he is removing this virus from the world."

 

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Copyright © 2020 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. 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]

U.S. seminarians from Rome have parish placements during pandemic

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy of the Pontifical North American College

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- The U.S. seminarians who were studying at Rome's Pontifical North American College have or are about to complete their 14-day quarantine at home and will be getting very unusual pastoral experience in U.S. parishes that are finding ways to minister to Catholics amid the restrictions imposed to slow the coronavirus pandemic.

Father Peter C. Harman, rector of the college, told Catholic News Service April 6 that 30 people -- mostly faculty and staff, but also some Australian seminarians -- remain at the seminary on Rome's Janiculum Hill and about 12 at the Casa Santa Maria, a residence for priests doing graduate studies at Rome's pontifical universities.

The North American College opened in 1859 at the Casa Santa Maria property, near the Trevi Fountain. According to a history posted on the college website, the seminary stayed open during World War I, even though enrollment dropped to 25 students. During World War II, though, the college closed completely.

Father Harman said that with the coronavirus, "we are not closed down, but operating a smaller house." Before the pandemic hit, the college seminary had 192 students; just over half of them were called home by their bishops or vocations directors in early March when schools and universities throughout Italy were closed and the country went on lockdown.

The college had announced March 23 that the rest of the students were to return home if possible.

"Most will be, or already are, in parishes after their 14-day quarantine has ended, so they will be in a parish experience for the time being," he said.

As for the rest of the academic year, no one really knows what will happen, the rector said.

"If it is possible that the restrictions are lessened here again in the near future, then they could return in May or June, but we are not sure where the U.S. will be in relation to Italy on the 'curve'" of new infections, he said, or "if there would be a quarantine for those coming back as there was for them when they left here."

Until the Holy Week start of spring break, the pontifical universities had been doing their classes online or with video conferences. "They will be flexible to make this semester's credits count if possible, so that could mean written examinations, examinations upon return in the fall -- nothing is decided yet," Father Harman said.

And the North American College staff is "checking in with the students by phone, FaceTime, etc., each week," he said, and "we have recorded some seminars and workshops which will be sent to various classes."

 

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Copyright © 2020 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. 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]

COVID-19 does what war couldn't: churches closed in Syria, nuncio says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Khalil Ashawi, Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Cardinal Mario Zenari, the nuncio to Syria, said he is raising special prayers these days to Sts. Cosmas and Damian, fourth-century physicians who offered free care for the sick in Syria.

As the Syrian civil war enters its 10th year, still sowing death and destruction, the danger is extremely high of the coronavirus pandemic spreading in a country devastated by war and where more than 6 million people are internally displaced.

In an interview April 4 with Vatican News, the cardinal said that despite the war, up to this point Christians in Syria celebrated Holy Week and Easter every year, "even under the risk of bombs and mortar attacks."

But the coronavirus pandemic has done what the war could not, he said. All the churches are closed for worship.

"It is a totally new, unimaginable, unexpected, difficult-to-describe time of preparation" for Holy Week and Easter, he said, which makes the situation in Syria similar to many places around the world.

"All humanity is living the mystery of the passion of the Lord at this moment," he said. "It will be a Resurrection to the sounds of church bells and the whine of ambulance sirens."

Among the Syrian population, he said, there is great fear. At the end of March, only a dozen cases of COVID-19 infection were reported, "but one must ask if this isn't just the tip of the iceberg. If the pandemic does spread, it would be an unimaginable catastrophe considering that more than half of the hospitals are not operative because of the damage done by the war."

In addition, he said, "hundreds of thousands of displaced people live in overcrowded camps" without sufficient hygiene and health care facilities. "How can they wash their hands frequently if they struggle just to find water to drink?"

But, Cardinal Zenari said, there are "thousands, millions of generous people who are moved and feel compassion for the needy," not just in Syria, but throughout the world.

"The long and bloody Syrian conflict has revealed many Veronicas, who dry many disfigured faces; Cyrenes, who help so many people carry their burdens; numerous good Samaritans, some of whom -- even volunteers -- have lost their lives bending down on the walkway" to help a person in need, he said.

The same thing is being seen around the world with "the many people who have and heroically continue to risk their lives to assist those sick with the coronavirus."

 

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Catholic schools, Little Sisters among Supreme Court's postponed cases

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Supreme Court, much like the rest of the country, is putting some of its work on hold amid the restrictions of the COVID-19 health crisis.

The court, which had already postponed oral arguments from mid-March to mid-April, announced April 3 that it also was postponing the rest of the April argument session scheduled through April 29.

In announcing the decision, it did not say if or when it would resume scheduled arguments for this term but indicated in a short news release that the court will "consider rescheduling some cases from the March and April sessions before the end of the term, if circumstances permit in light of public health and safety guidance at that time."

The most recent announcement impacts a case the court was to hear April 29: Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The sisters, who have been before the nation's high court before, are back because of state challenges to the Trump administration's decision to allow religious employers to opt out of the Affordable Health Care's contraceptive mandate.

"In this trying time for our nation, the Little Sisters of the Poor are dedicated to protecting their elderly residents from the COVID-19 pandemic," said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket, representing the sisters, in a statement after the court's postponement was announced. "Now more than ever, the sisters need the freedom to focus solely on that mission," she added.

Becket, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm, also is representing Catholic schools in a case that was scheduled for April 1 and was part of the first group of cases the court postponed. The combined cases center on two California Catholic schools that were sued by the teachers they had fired who claimed they had been victims of job discrimination.

Also among the orders the Supreme Court announced April 6, it said it would not review a lower court's decision that the Washington Metro system's ban on religious advertising didn't violate the First Amendment. The transit system was sued by the Archdiocese of Washington in 2017 for not displaying the Christmas message "Find the Perfect Gift" on the sides of buses with a link to a website with information about Mass times, daily reflections on the Advent season or ways to help local Catholic programs serving those in need.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh had to recuse himself from the case because he was on the three-judge panel of the appeals court that heard arguments about the proposed advertisement in 2018.

In a separate opinion on the order, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the situation could have been different if Kavanaugh were included. "Because the full court is unable to hear this case, it makes a poor candidate for our review," Gorsuch wrote in a brief opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

In announcing the postponing of April's oral arguments, the court said it would "consider a range of scheduling options and other alternatives if arguments cannot be held in the courtroom before the end of the term."

Scotusblog, a website that covers the Supreme Court, said the court could either hear scheduled spring cases at the start of the next term, decide some cases without oral argument or even hold oral arguments remotely for some cases as the Texas Supreme Court plans to do in April.

The court also said it would proceed with the "resolution of all cases" already argued.

One case that it heard early in the term and that has been highlighted in the coronavirus outbreak is over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

A divided court heard arguments about the program in mid-November and is expected to issue its decision by the end of June. Some have raised the point during the pandemic that many of the current health care workers serving in hospitals and emergency rooms are DACA recipients: beneficiaries of the program that allows young adults who were brought into the United States illegally as children to work or study in the U.S., exempted from deportation, if they meet certain criteria.

Immigrant advocates and faith leaders, including many from Catholic organizations, have asked the court to delay its DACA decision or side with the recipients who are essential in fighting the current health crisis.

The court is examining if President Donald Trump had the authority to rescind DACA by executive order. The program was implemented in 2012 by President Barack Obama with an executive order.

Other previously argued cases that Catholic leaders are awaiting decisions on include an abortion case and scholarship aid to religious schools. In early March the court examined a Louisiana law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and in late January it looked at the constitutionality of excluding religious schools from a scholarship aid program in Montana.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

 

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Copyright © 2020 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. 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]

Photographing Palm Sunday where the pope usually celebrates funerals

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Paul Haring

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis celebrated a somber Palm Sunday Mass in a location he goes to most frequently for the funerals of deceased cardinals.

With a staggering coronavirus death toll in Italy, the normally joyous Palm Sunday liturgy was moved both physically and spiritually to another place. Instead of being celebrated under the open sky in St. Peter's Square, it was moved to the Altar of the Chair inside St. Peter's Basilica.

As one of four news photographers allowed to photograph the Mass April 5, I witnessed the stark change. Instead of a square filled with faithful from all over the world, this year's Palm Sunday congregation consisted of 13 people, carefully spaced. There were four nuns, one cardinal, a bishop and the rest were laymen, mostly young.

As I looked at the unusual congregation, I thought of the funerals I have photographed in the same place. Some cardinals die and their funerals draw big crowds, but others die and few turn out for their funeral.

While it was not clear how the congregation was chosen for Palm Sunday, it reminded me of funerals where those in attendance come out of a sense of duty or because they are committed to praying for the souls of the dead.

The entry and exit point for the funerals in the basilica is the Door of the Dead, which is nearly a straight shot from Pope Francis' residence in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. The door is also the normal entry point for the photographers.

As my colleagues and I arrived through the door on Palm Sunday, we immediately encountered a large hand sanitizer dispenser suitable for a public bathroom. I took some gel to clean my hands and spaced myself from my colleagues as I walked into the basilica. Later I thought of the irony of having sanitizing gel at the entrance instead of holy water.

Before entering the basilica, our Vatican handler had explained that with a nearly empty basilica and live television coverage, everyone needed to shoot with their cameras in the "silenzioso" mode, meaning quiet, single-shot mode. He also explained that we shouldn't shoot too many frames. The goal was to avoid attention and be invited back for more coverage during Holy Week.

We took our place in the basilica in the usual shooting position for funerals. Only this time instead of being tightly packed in the choir area, we were spaced apart.

All of us had brought masks, but no one chose to wear one. I was about four feet from one colleague and about six feet from another. My closest colleague was coughing and looked unwell. I half-jokingly asked her if she had the coronavirus. She replied that she had allergies that had been going on for a couple months. I was satisfied by her answer and chose to not put on my mask.

Shortly before the Mass began, Vatican workers wearing masks distributed large palm fronds to members of the miniature congregation.

The pope then arrived in a very small procession for the blessing of palms behind the basilica's main altar. Instead of being ringed by cardinals and bishops as usual for the blessing, only a handful of papal liturgical aides and an otherwise empty basilica encircled the pope.

After sprinkling holy water, the pope was given a braided palm frond that looked as tall as him. Carrying the frond, he walked up the aisle toward the Holy Spirit window, passing the 13 faithful holding equally tall palm fronds.

He arrived in front of the Altar of the Chair, where he normally goes to bless the caskets of deceased cardinals.

Standing behind the altar was the large wooden cross of St. Marcellus, which was carried in Rome in the 1500s during the "Great Plague." The cross had featured prominently at Pope Francis' special prayer service and blessing March 27 when he prayed for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

The presence of the cross evoked a feeling of the Good Friday service in St. Peter's Basilica.

It was as if Holy Week had been advanced, skipping the "Hosanna" of Palm Sunday to move directly into the suffering of Jesus.

The pope's Palm Sunday celebration was a Mass that reminded one of the funerals, of caskets being carried through the Door of Death and of those dying alone of the coronavirus.

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Paul Haring is senior photographer in the CNS Rome Bureau.

 

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Pope establishes coronavirus emergency fund for mission territories

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis established an emergency fund to help communities in the Catholic Church's mission territories affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The pope has given an initial contribution of $750,000 and asked church organizations to contribute to the fund, which will be managed by the pontifical mission societies, according to a statement published April 6 by Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

"In her task of evangelization, the church is often on the front lines of major threats to human well-being," said Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the congregation. "The Holy Father is calling upon the church's entire vast network to face the challenges ahead."

The pontifical mission societies, which are under the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, include the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Missionary Childhood Association, the Society of St. Peter Apostle and the Missionary Union of Priests and Religious.

The societies support more than 9,000 health clinics, 10,000 orphanages, 1,200 schools, 80,000 seminarians and 9,000 religious sisters and brothers in more than 1,150 mission dioceses -- mostly in Africa and Asia.

Archbishop Giovanni Pietro Dal Toso, president of the pontifical mission societies, said the church's charitable institutions will play a key role in supporting mission territories that are suffering due to the pandemic.

"Through the church's activity of preaching the Gospel and of practical aid through our vast network, we can show that no one is alone in this crisis," Archbishop Dal Toso said.  

"This is the Holy Father's intention in establishing this fund," he said. "While so many are suffering, we remember and reach out to those who may have no one to care for them, thus showing forth the love of God the Father."

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju

 

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Pope prays for solution to overcrowded prisons during pandemic

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- While countries have enforced social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Pope Francis warned of serious consequences if the same measures aren't applied to overcrowded prisons.

During the live broadcast of his morning Mass April 6, the pope said that unless authorities make efforts to solve the problem of overcrowded prisons, "there is a danger that this pandemic will end in a serious calamity."

"Let us pray for those responsible, for those who have to make decisions at this time, so that they may find just and creative ways to solve this problem," he said at the start of the Mass.

In his homily, the pope reflected on the day's Gospel reading from St. John in which Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anoints Jesus' feet with a costly perfume. Judas Iscariot, the Gospel recounted, detests the use of such a perfume and argued that it would have been better to sell the perfume and give the money to the poor.

"There are always people" like Judas who value wealth under the guise of charity, the pope said.

"Let us think of some charitable or humanitarian organizations that have so many employees, that have a very structure full of people and in the end, the poor receive 40% because 60% goes to pay the salary of so many people. It's a way of taking money from the poor," he said.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells Judas that "you always have the poor with you." That response, the pope said, highlights the fact that while there are many poor people in public who are forgotten, there are many more who remain unseen "in this culture of indifference."

The pope recalled visiting a group of families in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who took shelter in an abandoned factory because they couldn't afford to pay rent in their apartments due "to the injustice of economic or financial organizations."

In the end, he said, people "will not be judged by our luxury or the trips we make or the social importance we have; we will be judged or our relationship with the poor."

"If I ignore the poor today, leave them aside and think they are not there, the Lord will ignore me on Judgment Day," Pope Francis said.

"When Jesus says, 'You have the poor always with you,' he means, 'I will always be with you in the poor; I will be present there,'" the pope said. "And this is not being a communist. This is the center of the Gospel; we will be judged on this."

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju

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Introduction to the Journey of Faith | Seeking God: A Jesuit Retreat

Join us for our online preached retreat, based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Brian Strassburger, SJ, will guide us through themes of the exercises and offer resources for prayer and reflection. This is the first of six talks that will be released daily from April 6-11. Join us to listen, reflect, […]

Is God Punishing Us?

“I can’t but help think God is punishing us,” my 87-year old great aunt from Rhode Island recently said to me over the phone. I was listening to her thick New England accent as we discussed a world shaken and upended by the Coronavirus. She then reminded me that in 10 minutes we would need […]

Archdiocese to livestream display Shroud of Turin on Holy Saturday

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With people forced to stay home, even during Holy Week, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the archbishop of Turin has announced a special online exposition of the Shroud of Turin, which many believe is the burial cloth of Jesus.

On Holy Saturday, April 11, as Christians contemplate Jesus lying in the tomb, Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia will lead a liturgy of prayer and contemplation before the shroud at 5 p.m. local time (11 a.m. EDT).

The prayer service will be live-streamed along with live images of the 14-foot-by-4-foot shroud, which has a full-length photonegative image of a man, front and back, bearing signs of wounds that correspond to the Gospel accounts of the torture Jesus endured in his passion and death.

As of April 5, the Archdiocese of Turin said it was finalizing the plans and would publish a list of participating television stations and links to the livestream later in the week.

Announcing the special display, Archbishop Nosiglia said April 4 that he had received "thousands and thousands" of messages "asking me if, in this time of grave difficulty we are going through, it would be possible to pray this Holy Week before the shroud" and ask God for "the grace to defeat evil as he did, trusting in the goodness and mercy of God."

The archbishop told Vatican News that the online viewing of the shroud could be "much better" than seeing it in person because the cameras will allow viewers to see it up close and to remain at length with the image.

The image of the crucified man on the shroud, he said, "will go to the heart and the sadness of many people who will follow us. It will be like staying with the Lord on the day we await his resurrection."

 

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Copyright © 2020 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. 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]