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How do you foster Catholic community in quarantine?

Denver Newsroom, Jan 16, 2021 / 02:00 am (CNA).- Like many in 2020, Catholic author Leah Libresco Sargeant found much solace in the past year in spiritual reading— as well as in copious amounts of baking. 

“The big thing this year, especially with the new baby, is making large batches of cookies and then freezing a bunch of the dough so that there could always be fresh cookies, even if it's a very busy day and it's not plausible to make any. It's great,” she laughed. 

Leah is a convert from atheism, and writes and thinks a lot about ways to build up strong Christian communities. In fact, she wrote a book about it a couple of years ago, called “Building the Benedict Option,” in which she encourages Catholics to create opportunities in their lives to interact more with their faith community.

These additional, intentional interactions can include taking the initiative to host people more often for dinner or events at your home, especially on feast days. Her book offers tips on how to make these interactions more successful in building tight-knit Christian communities. 

Although many of the suggestions in Leah’s book are predicated on face-to-face interactions, she said she has found ways to adapt her community-building practices during coronavirus times. 

“I think one of the hard things is just having a routine shattered; some of the connections you have with other people vanishing. And it takes a bit of work, then, to build up from scratch what you otherwise could rely on from other people,” she noted. 

For example, she’s taken the initiative to maintain several penpals, keeping friendships alive by conversing via snail mail. A habit Leah practiced even before the pandemic was sending things to people that she found spiritually enriching— such as book passages, or information about interesting saints— in the hopes that they would find it spiritually enriching too. 

Most dioceses in the United States, save for a few in the West, have reopened almost all their churches for Mass with continued precautions such as social distancing and mask wearing. Catholic churches in Princeton, New Jersey where the Sargeants live have generally been accessible since the summer of 2020, but Leah says there have been times when the Sergeants have had to miss in-person Mass and instead participate from home via livestream. 

“We try and make that an opportunity to pray for people who are in more remote places, who have a traveling priest who doesn't come every week, even in normal times— or people who are living under persecution,” Leah told CNA. 

“To try and take this unexpected and unwanted fast from the Mass as an opportunity to pray for people for whom [access to the sacraments] is an ongoing struggle, pandemic or no.”

Part of the key to making it through “unexpected fasts” from the sacraments is to reach out to others and offer to walk through it with them, she said. 

“If you can't go to Mass, or can't go to Mass as often as you used to, part of the question might be: do you have a friend who is also in this position?” she said, adding that you could call that person on the phone and offer to pray with them. 

“Is there a way that this can become something you share with others, rather than just a time of isolation?

Adding that she does not want to “sugarcoat” the difficulties in keeping a sense of community alive during the pandemic, Sergeant said restrictions on public gatherings, including Mass, have made spontaneous, organic interactions with her neighbors more difficult. 

“I think in some ways what the pandemic has done is strengthened some of my ties with people who I've fallen out of touch with a little, and who don't live nearby, and weakened them a bit with my actual neighbors,” she said. 

On the other hand, Sergeant said she has found that the extra time spent at home during the pandemic has helped her and her family to pray more in their home. 

Leah and her husband Alexi welcomed their first child in January 2020, so a lot of their domestic church traditions in the past year have been shaped by that joyful fact. For example, the Sargeants decided against putting out a physical Advent wreath in 2020. 

“A lot of our traditions have to be things that are less tangible, because literally everything in the house goes into [the baby’s] mouth,” she laughed. 

One “intangible” habit that Leah and her husband have gotten into is doing spiritual reading every Sunday, out loud, to each other. They’ve made their way through works such as the biblical poetry of Gregory of Nazianzus and “The Day is Now Far Spent” by Robert Cardinal Sarah. 

Leah has also continued her habit of blogging, attracting several hundred followers to an email newsletter in which she writes on topics such as motherhood, the benefits she has found from working from home, and a variety of others from a Catholic feminist perspective. 

One of the keys to a healthy spiritual life is silence, and cultivating periods of silence every day for prayer and peacefulness. Leah says she’s been working on this for a while, and added that the birth of her first child has, perhaps paradoxically, helped her to find quieter moments than she had before. 

“For me, a baby is sometimes an excuse not to find those periods of silence. But...a baby forces you to be fully present in the moment, to put aside some of your own goals or own plans for the day,” she explained.  

“And if she falls asleep on top of you after what's been a rough afternoon, suddenly it is enforced silence...and if you weren't planning to have any silent prayer too bad, now is the time!”

The human toll of the pandemic has a lot of people thinking about death— not only the deaths of others, but their inevitable own. Leah says for Catholics, who believe in resurrection, thinking about death is not necessarily a bad thing. 

“The Church has always told us to meditate on our own death, and to make that part of our spiritual practice,” she pointed out.

“[God] defeated death and freed us from fear of it, but that doesn't make it easy. That's why we talk about this as a spiritual practice, something we have to do deliberately again and again, to build up that trust in God and that knowledge of who He is. And so I think the pandemic is really forcing that good spiritual practice on us in a much more stressful and frightening way than if we'd chosen it ourselves.”

This meditation on what it means to die, and for things to end, applies not just to individuals, but to the Church as a whole. Even in non-pandemic times, there are always going to be people at Mass who are journeying through grief and suffering, and pastors shouldn’t shy away from addressing that, Sergeant said, seeking to assure people that experiencing spiritual aridity and grief does not make them “bad Christians.”

“There's always someone in your neighborhood, in your parish, who's going through a time that's just as hard as it is now [in the pandemic], but it isn't shared,” she said.  

“So part of the question is: Whatever's going on now that's helping us take care of each other, how do we continue that when there isn't the shock of a pandemic to remind us that people around us are suffering?”

The pandemic hasn’t only brought challenges, however. There have also been some fun opportunities for enhancing the Sargeant’s family life— several of which involve baking. Leah recommends seeking out a sourdough starter, as it makes for a fun baking activity as well as a potential gift to pass on to others. 

“If you're only feeding one thing in your house, it should be the baby, not the sourdough starter,” she laughed. 

This interview originally aired on Catholic News Agency’s podcast, CNA Newsroom. It has been adapted for print. Listen to the interview below, beginning at 9:40. 



CNA Newsroom · Ep. 89: Taking Back the Year  

A lesson in waiting in a world that the virus will change significantly

Commentary: There is an invitation in the pandemic, even though unfortunately in limiting our exposure, we seniors put the squeeze on our lifeblood — social contact.

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: The vocation to love

Scripture for Life: Whether or not we think it through, whether or not we ever imagine Jesus asking us, everything we do responds to Jesus' question, "What do you seek?"

Book on Brooklyn's 'giglio' feast highlights Catholic male devotion

Book review: In Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada's Lifeblood of the Parish, we enter a community not just through a public-facing feast but also via planning meetings, church basements, money rooms, tattoos and male kinships.

The families against the death penalty, no matter their personal pain

It's Happening: With the outgoing administration supporting a surge in federal executions, our attention and gratitude goes to the stories of families who have lost loved ones to homicide but publicly lobby against governmental vengeance.

In this darkness is there also light?

Soul Seeing: Darkness is everywhere: the ever-growing pandemic, the depths of inequality, the effects of Earth's mistreatment; endless war. But in this darkness is there also light? Are they one?

US bishops applaud Supreme Court ruling in favor of FDA abortion pill regulations

CNA Staff, Jan 15, 2021 / 10:06 pm (CNA).- The U.S. bishops’ pro-life chair on Friday praised a Supreme Court decision allowing federal regulations of the abortion pill to stand during the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision reversed a federal judge’s injunction on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) safety regulations of the abortion pill.

The ruling allowed the FDA to use its authority as requested and continue to prohibit remote prescriptions and dispensing of the abortion pill during the pandemic.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the FDA’s ability to enforce important and long-standing health and safety requirements related to chemical abortion drugs,” stated Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, chair of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee.

In Tuesday’s 6-3 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the federal district court did not have sufficient authority to mandate regulatory changes to the FDA’s public health standards, due to the pandemic.

Since 2000, the FDA had placed the abortion pill regimen on its REMS list, reserved for higher-risk drugs and procedures. This listing meant that the abortion pill could only be prescribed in a health clinic setting, in-person, by a certified prescriber.

Pro-abortion groups sued, however, claiming that the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic warranted that women be able to obtain the abortion pill via mail without having to make a visit in-person to a health clinic. Judge Theodore Chuang of the Maryland district in July ruled in their favor and placed an injunction on the FDA regulations during the pandemic.

Roberts on Tuesday wrote that “courts owe significant deference to the politically accountable entities with the ‘background, competence, and expertise to assess public health.’”

“In light of those considerations, I do not see a sufficient basis here for the District Court to compel the FDA to alter the regimen for medical abortion,” he wrote.

On Friday, Archbishop Naumann said that the FDA is right to regulate chemical abortions, which if prescribed and dispensed remotely could carry special health risks for women.

“Mail order mifepristone compounds the risks and trauma of abortion by encouraging women to end the lives of their children in their own bathrooms, often without any medical attention or follow-up care,” he said.

“This dangerous, painful, and emotionally bleak process results in the death of innocent unborn lives and often has lasting negative impacts on women,” he said. “The inalienable dignity of women and their unborn children deserves so much more.”

After Chuang’s initial decision, Justice Department attorneys appealed the case to the Supreme Court; the court sent the case back for reconsideration, instructing that the administration be able to present new evidence.

In a Dec. 9 decision, Chuang did not lift the injunction, saying that the challenges of the pandemic had not changed. The administration then appealed its case again to the Supreme Court.

 

Becerra, Biden’s HHS pick, has shown ‘hostility to nonprofit institutions’, scholars argue

CNA Staff, Jan 15, 2021 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- Conservative scholars argued this week that Xavier Becerra, president-elect Joe Biden’s pick for HHS secretary, has a history of “hostility to nonprofit institutions and the donors who support them,” particularly religious nonprofits.

In a Jan. 13 opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote that Becerra, currently serving as California’s attorney general, has a history of supporting initiatives aiming to “use the tax code to redirect charitable giving toward causes [he] finds worthwhile.”

Notably, they say, Becerra has taken steps to attempt to force organizations such as pro-life pregnancy centers and religious foster-care agencies to violate their principles.

“Religious organizations run many of America’s hospitals, nursing homes, senior centers, foster and adoption agencies, after-school programs and hospices. Mr. Becerra seems to want the power to cast their principles aside in favor of his own ideological mission,” the authors assert.

“He holds many views of this kind, well outside the American mainstream, and would have broad discretion to act on them as health and human services secretary.”

As California attorney general, Becerra has frequently taken legal action against pro-life organizations and other religous groups. The authors of the op-ed expressed worry that in his likely new position as head of HHS, Becerra will use his influence to pressure such groups.

The HHS has authority over a broad range of concerns, including federally-funded adoption agencies, regulation of the abortion pill, refugee resettlement, anti-human trafficking efforts, global health, and family planning. HHS works with many nonprofit organizations, the authors asserted.

Becerra has said in the past that tax exemptions for charitable foundations lead to “disproportionate giving...skewed against people of color,” and that the government has an obligation to ensure that the tax exemptions enjoyed by charities serve a public good.

The IRS lists 29 types of organizations that qualify as tax-exempt charitable organizations. These include 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes most religious nonprofits and churches.

“Many foundations fund medical research, schools and religious organizations that benefit people of all races...Foundation money is private money and foundation leaders have a moral and even legal obligation to disperse it in the way donors have directed,” the authors asserted.

Becerra’s predecessor as California attorney general, Kamala Harris, prosecuted journalist David Daleiden for his undercover videos claiming that Planned Parenthood unlawfully profited from the trade in fetal tissue of aborted babies. Becerra continued that fight in court.

Becerra also defended a 2014 state mandate that employers cover abortions in health plans, despite religious communities such as the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit not being exempted from the mandate.

Becerra had defended the state’s Reproductive FACT Act, a law passed in 2015 before his tenure as attorney general, which required pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise for abortions. Pro-life groups claimed the state actively worked with the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) to craft the legislation.

During January 2020, the HHS Office for Civil Rights concluded that California had violated the Weldon Amendment—which bars federal funding of health care groups that force the provision or coverage of abortions— and gave the state 30 days to comply with the law. Becerra refused to comply with the HHS demand, saying that the state “has the sovereign right to protect women’s reproductive rights.”

Pope Francis prays for Indonesia after deadly earthquake

Vatican City, Jan 15, 2021 / 06:19 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis sent a telegram Friday with his condolences for Indonesia, after a strong earthquake killed at least 67 people on the island of Sulawesi.

Hundreds of people were also injured in the 6.2-magnitude quake, according to Jan Gelfand, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in Indonesia.

Pope Francis was “saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life and the destruction of property caused by the violent earthquake in Indonesia.”

In a telegram to the apostolic nuncio in Indonesia, signed by Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope expressed his “heartfelt solidarity with all those affected by this natural disaster.”

Francis “prays for the repose of the deceased, the healing of the injured and the consolation of all who grieve. In a particular way, he offers encouragement to the civil authorities and those involved in the continuing search and rescue efforts,” the letter stated.

The death toll is expected to rise, according to local search and rescue teams, who say that many people are still trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings, CNN reported.

The telegram concluded with the pope’s invocation of “divine blessings of strength and hope.”

Sulawesi, governed by Indonesia, is one of the four Greater Sunda Islands. The western side was struck by the 6.2-magnitude quake at 1:28 a.m. local time about 3.7 miles northeast of the city of Majene.

Eight people died and at least 637 people were injured in Majene. Three hundred houses were damaged and 15,000 residents displaced, according to Indonesia’s National Board for Disaster Management.

The affected area is also a COVID-19 red zone, provoking concerns about spreading the coronavirus amid the disaster.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a message of faith, hope and love, niece tells EWTN

Washington D.C., Jan 15, 2021 / 05:23 pm (CNA).- In an interview with EWTN News Nightly (ENN), the niece of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Alveda King, highlighted that her famous uncle was a man of faith, who always looked for "nonviolent and Bible-based" solutions to the challenges of his time.  

ENN's host Tracy Sabol opened the interview, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Jan. 15, highlighting that "honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still give us as a nation an opportunity to pay tribute to his enduring legacy," before asking King, director of Civil Rights for the Unborn for Priests for Life, about the civil rights icon's place in history.

"When I remember my uncle during the Martin Luther King holiday week, I think about his messages of faith, hope and love,” she said, adding that in "all of his life, he exemplified solutions that were nonviolent and Bible-based.”

King remembered that her uncle used to say that faith is "like climbing a staircase; you take one step at a time and the faith builds. And so he was very sure that if he continued to trust in the Lord and to have faith and hope and love, then he could carry a message that God had given him to carry."

"My uncle was a nonviolent man. He believed that we were one human race … God made all people to live together on the face of the earth. And as one human race, we really could learn to live together as brothers and sisters and not perish together as fools. All of his sermons and his messages led us to understand that our answers would come from God and that we must unite and learn to get along,” King also said.

She also recalled that Martin Luther King Jr. "decided to stick with love." 

"Hate is too difficult a burden to bear. And then we bear each other's burdens and concerns, seeing each other as human beings, regardless of skin color. We could see skin color, of course, we really are not colorblind. We could see, but we should see ethnicity as something to be celebrated, not to be fought over,” she said.

"Martin Luther King Jr. lived a life of service and love," said his niece in closing. 

"If he were here today, he would be praying for us and with us and encouraging us to set aside strife and to come together in love. And as we do that, we can surely be blessed, and 2021 will be a very different year than 2020 turned out to be."

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed on the third Monday of January each year. The holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 but was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.