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My First Year of Priesthood: Scandals, Viruses, and the Holy Spirit

One of the first items I purchased for my first parish office as a priest was a respectable piece of artwork. Truthfully, after living on a college budget for most of my years of seminary, receiving my first real paycheck was quite exhilarating. After doing a bit of “artio divina” on a few online art venues, one piece stood out: “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt. This, I thought, would make for a good image to have in my office for a person coming in to talk about any variety of issues. Admittedly, Rembrandt’s Christological window into the chaos of the storm also provided me a touch of humorous relief considering how often parish life can be a swirl of chaos. I, however, had no idea how profoundly the message—that Jesus truly is with you amidst any storm or trial—would resonate with my first year of priesthood.

Sex & ‘the Human Focus’

One of the first famous victims of COVID-19 was the prolific playwright Terrence McNally, who died in Florida at the age of eighty-one. The obituary headline in the New York Times described him as the “Tony-Winning Playwright of Gay Life.” His most successful plays included The Ritz, Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which was made into a movie starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. According to the Times, McNally’s plays “traced the same arc that many gay men were experiencing in their lives over the same period, from the closet to rebellion, and from disaster to marriage and parenting…. His gay stories never came across as a narrowing of theater’s human focus but as an expansion of it, and by inviting everyone into them he helped solidify the social change he was describing.”

Curiously, the Times obituary failed to mention Corpus Christi, the one play McNally is probably best known for outside of the theatergoing public. That play’s depiction of a Jesus-like character and his disciples as a sexually active group of contemporary gay men created a furor in 1998. Much of the opposition to the play was instigated by the ever-watchful William Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Donohue called Corpus Christi “blasphemy” and an attack on the church. Petitions, demonstrations, and boycotts were organized; there were threats of violence against the theater, the actors, and the playwright. At the time, it was something of a big deal, at least in New York. Initially, the Manhattan Theater Club capitulated, withdrawing the play from its fall season. When the theater and artistic community rightly rallied to McNally’s defense, the play went back on the boards, debuting in October 1998. Because of ongoing threats of violence, theatergoers had the somewhat novel experience of passing through metal detectors before being seated.

If you wrestle honestly with the demands as well as the possible errors of traditional Christian sexual morality, you cannot ignore the place of sexual renunciation in the life and teachings of Jesus.

I know something about this controversy because, after making my way safely past a phalanx of blue-wimpled nuns protesting outside the theater, I saw Corpus Christi and then reviewed it for Commonweal. I found the play by turns irritating, amusing, intriguing, but finally boring. As it turned out, I was not alone in that judgment. “The excitement,” wrote the Times theater critic Ben Brantley (who is still on the job), “stops right after the metal detectors.” Putting aside any potential religious or theological issues, Brantley concluded that Corpus Christi “is about as threatening, and stimulating, as a glass of chocolate milk.” Sometimes, the Times gets it right.

Of course, part of the reason Commonweal reviewed the play was to take up at least some of those religious and theological issues. On that score, I wrote, the play was “cloying and crude, but not I think malicious.” The action is set in Corpus Christi, Texas, in what is presumably the 1950s. That is where McNally spent his high-school years. One can sympathize with his indignant depictions of macho culture, but not with the caricature of Catholic life. “The satirical skits dramatizing Joshua’s coming-of-age, with their stock impersonations of sadistic nuns and sexually conflicted priests, are trite and old hat,” I wrote. “Abuse meekly endured, love wanly extended to all, exhaust Joshua’s spiritual vocabulary.” Judas is portrayed as a well-muscled Lothario, and his seduction of Joshua as a much-needed sexual awakening. “Worse,” I concluded, “the salvation Joshua offers is new-age fluff and tasteless therapeutic theologizing. ‘All men are divine—that’s the secret,’ he instructs those with ears otherwise deadened by disco. ‘I’m just a guy like you. We’re each special, we’re each ordinary, we’re each divine.’” One is tempted to think that if Corpus Christi hadn’t been a well-publicized skirmish in the culture wars, writing this bad would not have made it to the stage.

So I take issue with the NYT obituary writers on the question of whether McNally’s plays are a welcoming invitation to “everyone” or whether his work is always an “expansion” of the theater’s “human focus.” There is nothing magically divinizing about sex, although this is what the secular culture seems to believe with a kind of fundamentalist’s certitude. Nor does sex necessarily widen or deepen one’s own humanity or regard for others. That is a fact on which the New Testament is entirely reliable. The playwright’s thoroughly eroticized idealization of his Christ figure—and, in fact, of human nature itself—is actually a narrowing of human possibility. It has little or nothing to do with Christian belief. To borrow Evelyn Waugh’s quip, watching McNally struggle with theological questions is like the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee. Christianity has in fact placed the dignity and value of every human life, not sexual fulfillment, at the center of its and our concerns. If you wrestle honestly with the demands as well as the possible errors of traditional Christian sexual morality, you cannot ignore the place of sexual renunciation in the life and teachings of Jesus. Silence on that score is like failing to mention Corpus Christi in an otherwise duly laudatory tribute to Terrence McNally’s life and work.

The ‘Heart Work’

Fr. Hector Madrigal is the pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Amarillo, Texas, which has been featured in a USCCB study on best practices for shared parishes. For nearly two decades he has served as a trainer, facilitator, and speaker on building greater appreciation of culture in church settings. From 2013 to 2016, he was a consultant to the USCCB subcommittee for Hispanic/Latino Affairs, which developed the process for the V National Encuentro of Hispanic/ Latino Ministry, and since 2014, he has been a consultant to the National Leadership Roundtable. Commonweal editor Dominic Preziosi and audience development director Milton Javier Bravo spoke with him recently about “ecclesial integration”; the importance of welcoming, accompanying, and empowering different cultural groups; and how Hispanic ministry contributes to the good of the entire Catholic Church.


Commonweal: As the pastor of St. Joseph’s, you’ve spoken of wanting to increase the appreciation of all the cultures within the Amarillo diocese and develop a stronger sense of community among all of us. Can you talk about the variety of the cultures you see, not only in the diocese but at your parish specifically?

Fr. Hector Madrigal: I’ve been at St. Joseph’s for thirteen years, and it didn’t start off with all these different groups. We had a strong group that I would call Americans; sometimes, in this part of the country, we call them white people. But we also had a significant number of what I call “integrated-slash-assimilated” Mexican Americans. Now, thirteen years later, the parish consists not only of Americans and integrated Mexican Americans, but we have many Mexican immigrants, and they’re the largest group. We also have a significant number of families from South Sudan. We have Salvadorians, Bosnian refugees, and of course, Filipinos. And that’s very much reflective of our diocese.

In terms of “appreciation,” we’ve been very clear that we’re called to open the doors of our church and our hearts to all the people who come to St. Joseph’s. And so in order to do that—partly because of my background in sociology, and partly because I understand, being a Mexican American myself—I began to preach and teach about the importance of recognizing that culture is a gift, that our cultures all have something to contribute to the church. God has brought them into our midst, to our parish. And so we are to receive them as we receive Christ, including their ways of thinking and singing and eating and praying.

CW: What kinds of successes have you seen in terms of realizing this sense of communion in your parish? And what are some of the challenges or difficulties or surprises?

HM: At the very beginning in our parish, we went through a listening process, a planning process, and we very clearly felt called as part of our mission to welcome all God’s children. We didn’t fully understand what it meant at the time. But now I tell the community it was a very prophetic experience—because within two or three months of this whole planning process, we had several South Sudanese families literally come knocking on the door, saying we’re looking for a church. And so we began with this refugee community, and it was so surprising to me how the parish just embraced the community, embraced the South Sudanese in every way they could to help them feel at home in the church.

Now the challenge, which is sad, is that about two years later, the pastoral council came to me and said, “Father, it looks like we have a lot of Spanish-speaking people in our neighborhood. Why aren’t they in our parish? Why aren’t we having Mass?” So I went through a listening process with them and then we agreed to start a Spanish Mass. That was a challenge, because the assumption is that refugees are here legally, and the majority are. But people assume that Spanish-speaking people are here illegally or are undocumented. So we had to work through all of that and begin to challenge the community that we’re here to evangelize, not to Americanize.

Now there’s another serious issue that nationally, in our episcopal region, and in our parish, we have to do a lot of work on: in bringing in the new people, we haven’t done a good job of preparing what we could call the “host” community. And so I began to accompany and listen to a lot of the people who were uncomfortable with the changes, who might even have been angry. You know, there’s a sense of loss. There’s pain in making room for the new people. You know, they’re uncomfortable with a different language, a different culture. And so I have to learn to be intentional in creating space, so they can be honest about what they feel and so we begin to understand them as well. On both sides, it’s a challenge. I call it the “heart work.” T, not D. Yes, it’s also hard work, but it’s about the heart on both sides. And the bottom line is to not be afraid of it. Diversity is a gift. The only thing that we really should be afraid of and uncomfortable with is sin and the consequences of our sin.

CW: At St. Joseph’s you have an event called “Intercultural Disciple-Making Sunday.” Is this a regular effort or something relatively new, and what is the goal of it?

Younger generations are seeking authenticity, community, and purpose. So with that general idea, the most essential thing is that we’re not just going to talk about them. We’re going to talk with them.

HM: We’ve had it for over six years, and we try to understand what it means for us to be disciples, make disciples. I discovered that when you focus on that sense of mission, who we are as church, that makes it a lot easier. We had some difficulties throughout the years in trying to have, for example, a trilingual Christmas midnight Mass, or a trilingual Holy Saturday celebration, or to teach people at the English Mass to sing a bilingual hymn… But in focusing on how all of us are called disciples, it occurred to us, this is a wonderful opportunity for us to come together as church—not as the 10 o’clock Mass group, or the 12 noon Mass group, but together as one parish to learn what it means to be a disciple of Christ. So we separate in language groups to be able to do the catechesis. And then we come together to pray and give testimony, and then the final blessing. And then we have a reception and, you know, food brings us together—it doesn’t matter what food it is. So there are the different language groups, and the children running around, and we’re all together and just having a good time.

CW: Your parish has been identified by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as having achieved “a high level of ecclesial integration.” How is that determined? And what do you consider to be a high level of ecclesial integration?

HM: When I began to see that people across the board are not only supporting the parish in their own particular way, but they feel comfortable coming to the table and influencing decisions that are being made, that’s when I think that community is fully integrated.

So when you have, in our case, the three main groups—the South Sudanese, the Mexican immigrants, and the Euro-American-slash-Mexican-American—all sitting together on the financial council and the pastoral council, the two most influential bodies in the parish, they then get that place at the table to say, “Look, this is what’s going on with us.” And then they’re able to challenge each other, like, you know: “Why aren’t you coming to this event?” or “What does this word mean?” or “What is this, this ‘altar for the dead’?” And so they also kind of catechize each other, together.

[The USCCB study] began with the general understanding of what a shared parish is: one pastor serving several groups of people, people of different language groups, of different cultures. Somehow you’re having to negotiate working with each group and sharing the space in the process. So the USCCB identified twenty pastors doing this work, and began to see some things that we had in common.

The USCCB identifies nine steps to integration. There are three that I call giant steps. The first step is about welcoming, giving people a place to feel and call their home. The second, once they’ve been welcomed, is to let people feel they belong and can influence decisions. This leads to the third giant step, the commitment to stewardship and communion. There are also individual steps in between. So the USCCB looked at the twenty parishes they studied and were able to find evidence of all nine steps at St. Joseph.

[25 percent of U.S. parishes intentionally serve Hispanic/Latinx Catholics. See the data here.]

CW: Those who study shared parishes note that tension and conflict may be inevitable. What do you recommend to some of your colleagues in other communities in dealing with these challenges?

HM: One of the most important things I’m learning to do, and really, this is still a work in progress after thirteen years, is how to be a good pastor. And one of the most significant things I have to remember as a pastor is to give each group the opportunity to be themselves. That is key. Not just celebrating their feast days but acknowledging the way they socialize and study and learn. Sometimes, a group may need the opportunity to vent, to be angry, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Priests, pastoral leaders, the whole parish staff have to be willing to accompany all the different groups. It’s literally walking with them, listening, not telling them where they need to be or should be, but to acknowledge that where they’re at is okay as long as they keep moving toward that integration. They need to understand themselves in the process, and to know when they’re ready. And it’s not easy because you have to discern when people are ready to buy in. So it takes a lot of pastoral skill in listening and accompanying and taking time to be with them. I, and all of us, we have to learn to do that better.

I would say this is the most difficult thing for me to deal with: some choose not to participate in the process, and regrettably they leave the parish. And sometimes I personally struggle with this. Could I have done this better, or maybe I didn’t listen well enough? But people have to be free to choose whether they’re going to be a part of this integration or not.

But what excites me is when new people come to this parish and say, “We’re here because of what you’re working for at St. Joseph’s. You reflect what’s out there in society.” And so I tend to balance out the pain of letting go of those who choose not to stay by being grateful to God for those who say, okay, this is of value to me. It’s happening at work. It’s happening in school. When will it happen at church?

CW: The most recent National Hispanic Ministry Encuentro provided American Catholicism with a synodal type of process that called for a broad consultation among bishops, priests, lay ministers, and others. Could you describe how the Encuentro was seen in your parish, or in your diocese? Also, was this primarily Hispanic-led in your parish, given the fact that you do have so many different communities?

HM: It was a very positive, exciting experience for us, not only in my parish, but in the diocese. We didn’t have a large number of people participating, but those who did were instrumental because they then began to replicate some of the experiences that they had.

I was part of the national team from the beginning, so that helped me understand the process. What was really significant was the idea that it’s no longer just what the church in the United States can offer the Hispanic/Latino community, but what the Hispanic/Latino community can do to better serve the church. And so with that, I knew it wasn’t just for Hispanics. So I was able to introduce it to the parish and we ended up having two groups. Interestingly, the smaller one was in Spanish and mostly immigrant, and the larger group was in English and reflected all the other English-speaking groups.

So the bottom line for us, not only here in our parish and the diocese, but even regionally and nationally, is that the encuentro experience gave us an opportunity to reflect on who we are as People of God. Not just as Latinos, but as People of God, and how we’re called to become missionary disciples. And that experience is across the board. At St. Joseph’s, we’re trying to replicate that with all the groups.

CW: Given your experience in Hispanic ministry at the national, regional, and diocesan levels, what can be done to change the perception that it only serves Latinos or Hispanics?

HM: Hispanic ministry can provide something to the entire Catholic church. When we speak to families, when we speak to other people in ministry, we consistently need to be reminding them we’re here to serve the church. And I think we’re getting there. Language doesn’t have to be a barrier. We use it as an excuse, as a barrier all the time. But it’s really the way we greet people, the way we approach people, the way we accompany people. I think people around the country are beginning to understand that.

CW: Data shows that first-generation Hispanics make up 18 percent of U.S Catholics; the second generation, around 12 percent; and the third generation and higher, 9 percent. Given the cultural diversity in your parish, how are you seeing these generational differences play out, and how do they affect your ministry?

HM: We’ve been talking about this with the pastoral council in trying to understand how different generations seek God and how they’re trying to develop their own spirituality, different from what we’re accustomed to. We’ve been good about incorporating and integrating our different ethnic groups, but what about the younger people? And so we had some listening sessions where we evaluated our hospitality, our hymns, and our homilies. And there it surfaced very clearly that generational difference is a serious issue for us and we need to address it.

Younger generations are seeking authenticity, community, and purpose. So with that general idea, the most essential thing is that we’re not just going to talk about them. We’re going to talk with them. And it just so happens that today I had my last meeting with the pastoral council that doesn’t include any young people. We’ve come up with a new structure, and one of the requirements is that a third of the pastoral council must reflect this younger generation. We’re being as intentional about it as we were in including the South Sudanese in leadership, the Spanish-speaking, those who speak more English—now we’re saying we have to include the younger generation in the leadership of this parish.


Hear Fr. Madrigal discuss his work in greater depth on The Commonweal Podcast, available below. 

Recovering from coronavirus, Archbishop Aymond says ‘become part of the story’ in Holy Week

CNA Staff, Apr 7, 2020 / 01:01 am (CNA).- Recovering from coronavirus, Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans is encouraging Catholics in a message for Holy Week to “become part of the story.”

“My sisters and brothers...we can be assured that this Holy Week will be one like we have never celebrated before,” Aymond said in his video message, posted on Facebook.

“With the coronavirus and all the ramifications, and the crosses and the crisis and the challenges this has caused, it will be a very different Holy Week,” he said.

But one thing never changes, Aymond added - Holy Week is a time for Catholics to immerse themselves even more deeply in prayer and “being (not) a spectator watching Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection, but being a part of that story as it unfolds.”

Two weeks ago, on March 23, Aymond announced that he had tested positive for coronavirus and that he was in self-quarantine with mild symptoms. He was the first known U.S. bishop to test positive for the virus that has become a global pandemic.

On April 1, the archdiocese gave a brief update on its Facebook page, announcing that while the bishop remained self-quarantined at home he “continues to make good progress. He is feeling much better, and his fever is consistently reducing. His hope and prayer is to be able to celebrate the liturgies of the Holy Triduum and Easter,” services which will be televised and livestreamed.

“He thanks everyone for their prayers and assures all of his continued prayers for our community. In the midst of his recovery, he has not forgotten that the community is suffering and he remains close in prayer to all who are sick, those who care for the sick, those who are grieving, and those who are suffering with fear and anxiety,” the archdiocese’s update added.

The archbishop also continued to post video messages to his Facebook page during his recovery, updating Catholics on the latest coronavirus guidelines and encouraging them in prayer and faith. 

In his Holy Week message, he invited Catholics to become part of the story during Holy Week by choosing one of the Gospel narratives on Christ’s passion, death and resurrection prayerfully and slowly, and to immerse themselves in the story by choosing a character and looking at the scenes through their perspective.

“Perhaps sitting at the Last Supper, you can become one of the apostles,” Aymond said. “Perhaps you will be able to look at Peter as he is in the garden watching Jesus pray.”

“Perhaps we can become like Mary standing at the foot of the Cross, or like John standing next to her, or Veronica wiping his face as he is bleeding, or the women of Jerusalem as they are crying...or perhaps we can be Joseph of Arimathea, asking for the body of Jesus so that we can bury it in a very sacred way,” he added.

“If we do that, my sisters and brothers, we are not spectators of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, we become part of the story. And it is important that we always become part of the story to see God’s love and fidelity, but in a special way as we go through the coronavirus crisis,” he said.

The archbishop also encouraged Catholics to unite “our sufferings, our questions, our loneliness, our uncertainty about the future” to Christ’s sufferings this Holy Week.

In a previous video message, Aymond also asked that all churches in his dioceses ring their bells at 6 p.m. every day, as a reminder to Catholics to pray for healthcare workers on the front lines fighting the coronavirus.

“May the sound of the bells remind us to lift our prayers to God for many in this time of crisis, and in a special way for our health care workers who risk their lives for our protection. May our daily bells and prayer give worship to our God,” he said.

Federal courts uphold stay on Ohio elective abortion ban, block Oklahoma restrictions

CNA Staff, Apr 6, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday allowed some surgical abortions and medication abortions to continue during the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) crisis. The decision was made in relation to a state-ordered halt to elective abortion procedures in Ohio for the duration of the pandemic.

Ohio had ordered a halt on surgical abortions as “non-essential” medical procedures during the new coronavirus crisis, before a district court in Ohio on March 30 put a temporary restraining order on that policy.

The court allowed for surgical abortions to continue in the state, but on a case-by-case basis. If abortions could not be safely postponed or conducted via chemical prescription, then they could occur, the court said.

On Monday, the Sixth Circuit declined the state’s appeal of the decision, saying it lacked jurisdiction, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

As the district court’s restraining order allowed abortions on a case-by-case basis and did not allow for a wholesale continuation of all surgical abortions, a three-judge panel for the Sixth Circuit wrote that “we are not persuaded” that the court’s order “threatens to inflict irretrievable harms or consequences before it expires.”

Ohio’s health department had ordered a stop to elective abortions, among other non-essential medical procedures, during the new coronavirus pandemic in order to preserve health care personnel and resources to treat the growing pandemic.

“While all Ohioans are being asked to make sacrifices in order to preserve innocent lives, the larger medical community is sacrificing the most: not only their time, but their equipment, their private practices, and potentially their own lives,” stated Stephanie Ranade Krider, Vice President of Ohio Right to Life, on Monday.

Also on Monday, a federal judge in Oklahoma blocked that state’s restrictions on elective abortions during the coronavirus outbreak from going into effect, CBS News reported.

Judge Charles Goodwin of the Western District of Oklahoma issued a temporary restraining order on the state’s act to stop non-emergency abortions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the state can take lawful “emergency measures” during the new coronavirus crisis, Judge Goodwin wrote, such actions should not be “a plain, palpable invasion of rights,” including of “access to abortion.”

He concluded that the state “acted in an ‘unreasonable,’ ‘arbitrary,’ and ‘oppressive’ way—and imposed an ‘undue burden’ on abortion access—in imposing requirements that effectively deny a right of access to abortion.” Regarding its ban on medication abortions, Goodwin said its “minor” contribution to public health is “outweighed by the intrusion on Fourteenth Amendment rights.”

On March 31, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary stay on a district court ruling, regarding Texas’ act to stop abortions except in cases where the mother’s health or life was at stake.

A district court had enjoined the state’s order from going into effect, but the Fifth Circuit put a temporary stay on that ruling to have more time to consider the case. The Texas order is back in effect for now.

Landlord encouraged by prayer waives rent amid coronavirus

CNA Staff, Apr 6, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- A Catholic landlord made the decision March 30 to waive April’s rent for all of his 200 tenants, in the hopes of giving them one less thing to worry about amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"I told them not to worry, not to panic, we're going through some very tough times with this monster disease," Brooklyn landlord Mario Salerno told EWTN News Nightly.

"My Catholic faith brought it upon me to make this decision. I pray every day, and when I have extra time, when I'm in quarantine, I pray and I ask the good Lord to please conquer this vicious virus.”

Salerno, 59, owns a mechanic shop, gas station, and an auto body shop as well as 80 apartments in Brooklyn. Many of his tenants have lost their jobs, he said.

"I wanted them to have some peace of mind, not worrying about where their next dollar was. As a human, I felt a lot more comfortable making sure they had food on their table, which several of them didn't, and I felt very honored to tell them that."

Salerno said he’s not overly concerned about the loss of his income— and more concerned about the human lives residing under his roofs. The financial losses are irrelevant to the value of a human life, and “I value people's lives," he said.

“At the end of my journey, when I go and meet the dear Lord and the dear master, I want to ask Him before he could ask me: 'Was I good? How was my faith?'" he said.

Salerno posted notices on all his buildings that April’s rent would be waived. Since then, many of his tenants have approached him offering to help to pump gas at his station, mop his buildings, and offer other help.

Salerno said he has encouraged his tenants to take care of their neighbors first. He said some are still working, and are willing to pay him rent, and he has encouraged them to put their rent money toward food instead.

"We need the good Lord. He can conquer this; we need to pray,” Salerno said.

Almost ten million people in the U.S have filed for unemployment insurance in the last two weeks, a period representing the most catastrophic job loss since the Great Depression. Economists have estimated that national unemployment rate is now roughly 13%, higher than it has been since the 1930s.


Christmas lights for Easter? Kentucky diocese encourages 'Easter Lights'

CNA Staff, Apr 6, 2020 / 03:17 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Owensboro is encouraging Catholics to decorate their houses with “Easter lights” as a sign of solidarity and as a reminder that through Christ’s resurrection, “the light has come into our world and has conquered even death.”

“Though it is not possible for Catholics of our diocese to gather in our parish churches for the celebration of the Easter Vigil, we can still be united in our prayer,” an April 3 announcement from the diocese reads.

The Owensboro diocese suspended public Masses March 16 in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“Many across our state and nation are putting up ‘Easter lights’ as a sign of solidarity during this time, so we invite all Catholics of Western Kentucky to engage in this project meant to communicate faith and hope to our neighbors and be a sign of encouragement and support to all who are suffering.”

Catholics are encouraged to display some kind of light – whether strings of Christmas lights, a candle in the window, or something else – on their property beginning at 8:00 PM April 11, Holy Saturday, through May 31, Pentecost Sunday.

The diocese also suggested that each night when people turn on their Christmas-turned-Easter lights, they also could light a candle and say a prayer for an end to the pandemic, recalling that the risen Christ  is the one who, in the words of the Exsultet, “sheds his peaceful light on all humanity.”

The announcement also recalled that the newly baptized receive a lighted candle, and are asked to “keep its flame burning brightly.”

“Let’s unite with one another in prayer this Easter season and remind one another and our neighbors that we are never beyond the reach of God. Let’s light up the world!”

Federal coronavirus financial relief: What Catholic groups need to know

Washington D.C., Apr 6, 2020 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- After the federal government clarified Friday that religious non-profits are eligible for small business loans during the coronavirus pandemic, legal experts have said the news could prove welcome relief for cash-strapped Catholic dioceses and parishes.

“The bottom line is that Friday’s rule is very good news for religious organizations,” said Eric Kniffin, a partner in the religious institutions practice group at Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie law firm, about new federal guidance on coronavirus relief for religious non-profits.

“Parishes should coordinate with their dioceses before moving forward, but this is a huge relief to religious organizations as they seek to support their employees in the midst of this pandemic,” he said.

On March 27, Congress passed, and President Trump signed into law, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act which provided relief for businesses, non-profits and workers affected by the new coronavirus pandemic.

The law allows eligible non-profits to apply for small business loans. One of the requirements for loan applicants is that they have 500 or fewer employees, which made Planned Parenthood ineligible for the relief.

As some Catholic parishes and institutions have already begun cutting or furloughing employees during the economic downturn from the pandemic, the new federal relief was seen as a possible solution to help Catholic non-profits keep employees on payroll, but many groups had questions about their eligibility under the law’s provisions.

If the Small Business Administration considered Catholic dioceses along with all their related entities—such as parishes, schools, and charities—as one large non-profit entity governed by bishop, then many, if not all, dioceses would exceed the 500-employee limit to apply for relief.

However, if each Catholic parish, school, and charity were eligible to apply for a small business loan under the CARES Act, then it could be a significant boost to their ability to keep employees on payroll as donations dried up.

Over the weekend, the SBA published a document clarifying its new rule on the eligibility of religious groups for paycheck protection and economic injury loans during the pandemic.

While not all questions have been answered, ultimately the updated rule summary is “deferential toward religious groups,” Kniffin said, as “government is prohibited from second-guessing church’s interpretation of their own doctrine or ecclesiology.”

New affiliation rules for the SBA Paycheck Protection Program issued by the Treasury Department clarify that if a smaller entity—such as a parish—and a larger one—a diocese—are tied together on religious grounds, they do not have to be considered as one large entity.

"If the tie between your local entity and a larger entity is the result of your religious beliefs, then you do not have to count that tie when you are counting up your employees,” Kniffin said.

The SBA’s updated guidance is “a grace” for Catholic institutions, said Jeremy Reidy, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg, LLP who is also a member of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocesan review board.

Before the new rule was issued, “I don’t think any diocese across the country would have qualified [for small business loans],” Reidy said. The bishop “has ultimate control over everything” in a diocese including smaller entities such as parishes and Catholic charities, he said, and each diocese could have been considered by the government to be one big organization.

Yet the government now treats the smaller entities as separate from dioceses “so long as they’re tied together for religious purposes,” he said.

Not all dioceses are structured the same, Reidy cautioned. While in “the vast majority” of U.S. dioceses, the parishes and schools are separate non-profit corporations, in some other cases the diocese is the only incorporated entity.

In these select cases, Reidy said, a “potential obstacle” to a parish or school still receiving federal relief might be that they do not file payroll taxes and tax returns separately from the diocese, and thus would be aggregated into the diocese.

A tie between a parish and diocese that is “practical” and not just religious in nature might also pose an obstacle to their obtaining relief, Kniffin said.

Yet, both Kniffin and Reidy said, Catholic institutions should consider applying for the loans under a “good-faith interpretation” of eligibility.

As the rules are “deferential” to the eligibility of religious organizations, Kniffin said, lenders are also being directed “to accept applicants’ good-faith representations at face value.”

As long as Catholic groups have their own employer identification number and 500 or fewer employees, they could apply on their own.

“I think all dioceses, with this new regulation, can make that good-faith certification,” Reidy said.

In its guidance, SBA emphasized that non-profit loan recipients can have a religious mission, and will not be penalized for employing only people who abide by the religious mission of the organization.

Each recipient “will retain its independence, autonomy, right of expression, religious character, and authority over its governance,” SBA said. Loans can be used to pay the salaries of ministers and staff.

The new rules do require that loan recipients do not discriminate when they provide goods and accommodations to the public. Depending on the interpretation of existing civil rights protections, some charities might be ruled ineligible for loans because they do not provide services in certain cases.

Examples of this might include a religious adoption agency refusing to place children with a same-sex couple, or a homeless shelter refusing to house a man identifying as a woman with other women.

The SBA says it “will not apply its nondiscrimination regulations in a way that imposes substantial burdens on the religious exercise of faith-based loan recipients, such as by applying those regulations to the performance of church ordinances, sacraments, or religious practices, unless such application is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.”

This question of compliance with nondiscrimination provisions is one that religious groups are still asking about, Kniffin said.

Yet with a Catholic group providing social services, such as a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, they most probably have received government funding and would thus would already be in compliance with federal regulations.

The ultimate goal of providing the loans, SBA added, is to ensure quick relief for many small businesses and non-profits which have been severely impacted by the recent coronavirus crisis.

The SBA loan is a “forgivable loan” that “can become basically a stimulus check” if non-profits abide by certain provisions such as keeping the same number of employees on payroll, Reidy said.

“It’s a great deal,” he said. “I encourage every organization to do it.”

Holy Week Musings on a Fallen Tiger King

As of this writing, the most popular Netflix streaming choice in the United States is Tiger King, a seven-episode series about the eccentric Oklahoma zookeeper, Joseph Maldonado-Passage (né Schreibvogel aka Joe Exotic), and Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist who tries to bring him down. It is riveting, grotesque entertainment that you could not make up if it weren’t real. Tiger King is a sensation, and it more than scratches our itch for addictive real-life drama while we are cooped up at home. But it does much more. If we let it, the series can provoke theological reflection about our need for redemption through several particularly extreme test cases of human brokenness. In a year effectively without Holy Week and Easter, Tiger King should have Christians aching for the cross and the empty tomb, and perhaps spur non-Christians to seek their true selves in Christ and the Church. To literary…

‘Without Compassion, I Fear We Are Complicit’

Sr. Donna Markham, OP, PhD, is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. The first woman to lead the organization, which was founded in 1910, Markham was formerly the president of the Behavioral Health Institute for Mercy Health. She is an Adrian Dominican sister and a board-certified clinical psychologist. Catholic Charities USA is a membership organization representing more than 160 diocesan Catholic Charities member agencies, which operate more than 2,600 service locations across the country. Last year, the organization served more than 12 million people in need. Commonweal contributor John Gehring interviewed Sr. Donna Markham about how the organization is responding to increased need during the coronavirus crisis.


John Gehring: How are you holding up and keeping hope during these difficult times?

Sr. Donna Markham: We are doing as well as possible at Catholic Charities USA, working remotely from our homes and continuing to try our best to assist our agencies, most especially those workers on the front lines of direct service. These are the people who are present to so many people on the streets in very dire straits, lacking shelter and food. You’re absolutely correct that we must look for signs of hope in the midst of this crisis. Our hope is buoyed each day by wonderful people and groups who have reached out to help us: corporations, private philanthropy, other nonprofits, and ordinary people who simply want to help.

JG: Outside of the federal government, Catholic Charities is the largest social-safety-net provider in the country. What specific increase in needs are you seeing now with so many people losing jobs and struggling with the broader economic impacts of this pandemic?

DM: There is a great need for food. With more people losing their jobs, this has created a groundswell of need at our food pantries across the country. Many have stepped up to help us and we are incredibly grateful. For example, we have received a large donation of food from the Church of Latter Day Saints and that will enable us to help stock seventy-five food pantries. Many companies, like Kraft/Heinz, Walmart, dairy farmers, the Dairy Board, and others, have provided direly needed food products. These needs are ongoing, however, and we will certainly need more help as these weeks unfold. Another significant need is to protect our caseworkers and frontline staff from getting sick. Until now, they have been interacting with people in our shelters and kitchens without any type of protective gear. Fortunately, we have been able to contract with a company that is manufacturing non-medical grade masks that we will distribute this week to the Catholic Charities agencies working in the “hot spots.” Another company, Gorilla Marketing, with their partner company HIT, are donating a portion of proceeds from t-shirts they are manufacturing to assist us.

Another serious need is for Catholic Charities to continue to provide counseling to people who are increasingly anxious and depressed. We are managing this through telehealth sites that are HIPAA compliant, but this is difficult in some of the more rural areas where electronic support is not available. To put this simply, we are accustomed to mobilizing the entire Catholic Charities network in natural-disaster situations where staff are deployed to an area that has been hit by a storm or a fire or an earthquake. Now, the entire country is experiencing disaster and no one is really able to be deployed elsewhere. 

JG: Congress recently passed a $2 trillion stimulus package in an effort to respond to the fallout from the crisis. What kind of help did that provide for Catholic charity organizations and was it adequate funding?

If no assistance is provided to someone who is sick, the spread of the virus will continue.

DM: At this point, we haven’t seen any of this rescue package. Our agencies with fewer than five hundred employees will be able to apply for the small-business loan to assist with payroll, but my fear is they will be faced with layoffs before any of the money becomes available. The banks many have contacted this week indicate that they are not prepared to handle these loans yet. Most worrisome is that our larger agencies are currently ineligible for any assistance from this package. That means places like Chicago, New York, Brooklyn and Queens, Los Angeles, and others with over five hundred employees are in a very precarious situation in areas that have been hit hard by COVID-19. We’re hoping that there will be a fourth bill that might assist nonprofits like these.

JG: The homeless are particularly vulnerable right now. How has advocacy and service changed with this population?

DM: I’m amazed at the tenacity and creativity of our agencies that provide shelter for homeless individuals and families. Given the need for social distancing, some shelters have had to decrease the number of people they can accommodate; others are constructing secure tent villages that are situated with appropriate space between them and common bathroom spaces and showers. Hygiene products and safety are at the top of the list in operating these facilities. We await the distribution of funds from the Emergency Food and Shelter board that will provide help for the homeless population. Our advocacy team at CCUSA is actively engaged in the determination of the distribution of these funds.

JG: Given the public-health requirements to social distance, what creative measures have local Catholic-charity offices taken in order to serve people in this unprecedented environment?

DM: Our agencies are adapting practices in every dimension of their usual work to keep social distance. A concrete example is the transition from serving kitchens to take-away meals for people who need food. This alleviates large groups gathering in our dining places. 

JG: Volunteers are a critical part of your national network. Can people still volunteer or is that on hold for now?

DM: My best advice for people who may want to volunteer is to contact your local agency and find out how you can help. Needs differ across the country, so it would be best to connect with the local Catholic Charities and see what you might do.

JG: In a letter to the Trump administration, Catholic Charities USA recently joined the US bishops’ conference migration committee, the Catholic Health Association, and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network to urge the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to remove barriers to healthcare access for immigrants, and requested that DHS review all immigration-enforcement activities and operations. Why is this so critical right now?

DM: This is a matter of public safety as much as it is a moral issue. If no assistance is provided to someone who is sick, the spread of the virus will continue. This is simply a matter of common sense. More than that, however, is it is a means of protecting human life.  Without compassion and medical help for others, regardless of their status, I fear we are complicit in people’s deaths. 

JG: If people want to help Catholic Charities right now what is the most important thing they can do?

DM: First of all, I would humbly ask that you pray for our workers on the streets who are tending to millions of suffering people at great personal risk. I know how appreciative they are for your prayers. Also, we know this is a time of great financial strain but should you have the means to assist your local Catholic Charities agency or wish to help us at a national level, we are deeply grateful.  We also appreciate bringing to the attention of our legislators the plight of our large Catholic Charities agencies that are ineligible for any government help at this time. Ironically, these are located in the large urban areas that are now the “hot spots” and they are faced with huge needs.