U.S. Church News

First U.S. clergy fatality from COVID-19 a deacon in Washington

By Rhina Guidos Catholic News Service

CNS photo/courtesy Greg Friedman, OFM

Franciscan Brother John-Sebastian Laird-Hammond, pictured in an undated photo, died from COVID-19 March 20, 2020. The 59-year-old friar from the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington was the first person to die in the District of Columbia from the disease caused by the coronavirus. He suffered from leukemia and had struggled with the virus for about a week. (CNS photo/courtesy Greg Friedman, OFM) See CORONAVIRUS-DEATH-FRIAR March 23, 2020.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A Franciscan friar who was on his way to join a new religious community in New York became Washington's first COVID-19 fatality March 20 and the first known U.S. Catholic cleric to die after contracting the coronavirus.

Brother John-Sebastian Laird-Hammond, 59, was soon to join the Franciscan friars of the Immaculate Conception Province in New York. Until last fall, he had served as the secretariat to the Commissariat of the Holy Land USA and Franciscan Monastery. He also was a permanent deacon who came into contact with lay Franciscans such as Michele Thiec of Washington.

"Such a kind soul and an amazing example of Franciscan joy," she said on Facebook after finding out about his death.  

In a March 23 message to Catholic News Service, Thiec said the friar, known to many as Brother Sebastian, served not only the visitors to the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, a facility that seeks to educate the public about the land of Christ, but he also was an advocate for lay employees.

"He advocated for them and always did his best for them as part of the Franciscan family," Thiec said to CNS. "He always did so with joy and a smile. You would never have known what personal struggles he was going through."

Some who knew him said he had received treatment for leukemia.

The Franciscan Monastery Garden Guild in a March 20 email to its members and volunteers recalled all he had done for the group.

"As a founder and chaplain of the all-volunteer Franciscan Monastery Garden Guild (FMGG) in 1998, (Brother) Sebastian was central (to) the development and growth of FMGG, which had started as an organization focused on the maintaining the Franciscan Monastery's rose gardens and other ornamental gardens, to adding the expansion of the urban farm in 2014 which has donated (20,000) lbs. of harvested vegetables to organizations in the metro D.C. area for those who need food," the email said.

"Brother Sebastian also lead the Franciscan Monastery's capital campaign which successfully restored the historic 1915 Metropolitan Greenhouse for year-round use of growing vegetables for distribution to those in need beyond the traditional outdoor growing season on the urban farm," it added.

Brother Sebastian had not lived on the grounds of monastery since last fall, explained Franciscan Father Greg Friedman in a Facebook message.

"He had moved from the monastery last October as part of the process of transition to his new community. Our benefactors and friars recall his kindness, especially to those who were ill and in need," he wrote in a post.

In its message, the garden guild said the friar would not be buried at the monastery.

"Per Brother Sebastian's wishes, the Franciscan Monastery has confirmed that there will be no service. Brother Sebastian's cremains will be interred in his home state of Indiana," the message said.

Though several priests in the U.S. have reported contracting the coronavirus, none have died. New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans announced March 23 that he tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus and is in quarantine.

Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, had been in self-imposed quarantine while he awaited his test results for the disease but he reported March 23 that medical authorities said he tested negative.

Archbishop Pilarczyk realized his ministry was to do the best he could do

By Russell Shaw Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, along with Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, celebrates Mass at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City in 2009. The retired archbishop of Cincinnati, who was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 1989-1992, died March 22, 2020, at age 85. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) See OBIT-PILARCZYK March 23, 2020.

For more than three decades Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, who died March 22 at age 85, was one of the most visible and influential members of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States.

Also one of the smartest and funniest.

His long career as archbishop of Cincinnati unquestionably had its ups and downs, including repercussions from the sex abuse cover-up that he, like many other bishops, practiced. But in the end he was what his successor in Cincinnati, Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr, called "one of the outstanding churchmen of his time."

I knew him mainly for his work on the national level close to the start of his career and mine.

In the early 1970s, a time of rapid change and no little confusion in both the church and society, the American bishops decided to prepare a collective pastoral letter on moral values. I was told to staff the drafting committee.

The president of the bishops' conference at the time, Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Cincinnati -- later to be the cardinal of Chicago -- knew very well this was a sensitive project and, knowing that, wanted me to get some firsthand advice from his new, hand-picked auxiliary bishop and trusted adviser, then-Bishop Pilarczyk.

I flew to Cincinnati to meet him. Before getting down to business, we chatted a while, and somehow the conversation turned to Johann Sebastian Bach, the great 18th-century composer. What, Bishop Pilarczyk inquired, did I think of the Bach's "Goldberg Variations?"

Shamefacedly, I admitted that I didn't know the piece. The bishop's look conveyed the only semi-humorous message that he couldn't imagine anyone reaching adulthood without being familiar with that music.

And so it went. High intelligence and dry wit. Both were on frequent display in 1986 to 1992 when he was vice president and then president of what was then a dual entity, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Both qualities also were evident when, as chairman of an ad hoc committee, he played a key role in the tortuous project of merging the two conferences into a single body, today's U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

After Archbishop Bernardin moved to Chicago in 1982, his auxiliary bishop was the natural choice to succeed him in Cincinnati. And there, as archbishop until his retirement in 2009, Daniel Pilarczyk experienced perhaps the most painful and humiliating episode of his career. Like many other bishops of that era, he covered up cases of sex abuse committed by some of his priests.

When the inevitable happened and the archdiocese ended up in court, the archbishop personally went before the judge to deliver its no contest plea. "He didn't have to do that," one of his associates remarked, pointing out that someone else could have represented the archdiocese. But Archbishop Pilarczyk chose not to shirk that unpleasant task.

"Before the Lord and his people, I want to say I regret what happened," he said in his retirement homily. "I made some inadequate decisions and people got hurt and I'm sorry."

In the long run he will be remembered for many things: his intelligence, his wit, his mistakes. And his grit.

"I don't think this has been the easiest time to be the archbishop of Cincinnati," he once said, "but I don't think my predecessors would say I really had it hard and they had it easy. You take what the Lord sends, and you do the best you can with it."

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Shaw is former secretary for public affairs of what was then the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference.


Catholic agencies seek stimulus funding to meet expected surge in clients

By Dennis Sadowski Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit

Mike Rogers, right, president of Risen Christ Catholic School in Minneapolis, helps with the distribution of school supplies and food in the school parking lot March 18, 2020. Several Catholic charitable agencies are among more than 200 nonprofits urging Congress to include $60 billion in aid to help them meet an expected surge in requests for services from unemployed people. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit) See CHARITIES-STIMULUS-BILL March 23, 2020.

CLEVELAND (CNS) -- Several Catholic charitable agencies are among more than 200 nonprofits urging Congress to include $60 billion in aid to help them meet an expected surge in requests for services from unemployed people.

The coming wave of clients seeking food assistance, housing, health care and clothing is expected as a result of massive layoffs across the U.S. economy and a corresponding dive in financial contributions as the new coronavirus sweeps through communities nationwide.

Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Medical Mission and St. Francis Ministries are among dozens of agencies asking Congress to bolster support for their services.

Debate on a $2 trillion stimulus package continued in the Senate March 23. Democrats have twice blocked passage to a bill since March 22, saying it too strongly favored corporations over health care workers and people who had lost their jobs. Exasperated Republicans contend Democrats are seeking unnecessary provisions at the behest of special interests and organized labor.

Anthony Granado, vice president of government relations at Catholic Charities USA, said the country's nonprofit sector will need federal assistance if the economy enters a deep recession because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"The demands are going to go up," he told Catholic News Service March 23. "State and federal officials are expecting hundreds of thousands of job losses. Those are the people who are going to be showing up at Catholic Charities agencies."

Catholic Charities USA and other agencies involved in providing affordable housing and helping households meet rent payments planned to expand the request for stimulus aid to include support for housing initiatives, Granado said.

In backing the request to Congress, Bill O'Keefe, vice president of government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, said emergency support is necessary for U.S. nonprofits.

"We are actively working with CCUSA to advance those provisions. We are also pushing separately for additional funds for the global response," he said in a March 23 email to CNS.

The letter from the nonprofits spells out a series of steps to help the sector respond to the increased need. Many agencies already are being pressed to respond with food and shelter as tens of thousands of people have begun seeking assistance.

Among the provisions sought by the charitable agencies are expanded tax credits and deductions for taxes nonprofits pay, such as payroll taxes, as well as expanding provisions that assist for-profit businesses to nonprofits for requirements such as unemployment insurance and employee retention.

They also are asking Congress to create greater incentives for people to contribute to charitable agencies by enacting a universal deduction for contributions through the end of 2021.

A third provision the agencies want is to expand a tax credit to any charitable agency, regardless of size, that provides paid family and medical leave.

Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, who is executive director of the Catholic social justice lobbying group Network, said guarantees are needed to ensure that any federal stimulus package precludes executive compensation and buying back stocks.

"Congress needs to hear this loud and clear: Big business bailouts must not be funneled to buy-backs or executive paychecks," Sister Campbell said in a statement released March 20 as Congress prepared to debate the latest stimulus bill. "We've seen this movie before, and if Congress doesn't put restrictions how the bailouts are used, workers and families will not be put first. Main Street needs these bailouts, not C-Suite."

In an earlier letter to House and Senate appropriations committee leaders of both parties, Catholic Charities USA asked that funding for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, called EFSP, be doubled to $250 million in fiscal year 2020 spending as the economy massively slows because of the rapid spread of the new coronavirus.

Dominican Sister Donna Markham, CCUSA's president and CEO, said in a March 17 letter that the request was being made before the financial crisis deepens.

"An increase in funding for EFSP during this time of national crisis will have a long-term impact helping communities and vulnerable people, and our local agencies servicing them, to receive the help they need now and in the long term," she wrote.

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski


It's Act II for reporter working from home

By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- This my second stint working from home for Catholic News Service.

The first was nine years ago, when I both broke and dislocated my left ankle slipping down the basement stairs.

The story: Despite being the owners of two cats, for some reason we were persuaded to dog-sit for five days. The last day of the dog's stay, it rained. As a dog owner previously, I knew to take a towel to Tango's wet fur once we got inside. As was our custom at the time, I tossed the wet towel down the basement steps.

Two days later, I trooped down the steps and noticed the towel still crumpled there -- and still wet. As the designated washing-machine user in the house, I don't like putting wet things in the washer. I was going to suspend it over a wicker basket in the basement when I heard a commotion upstairs.

It was Tango's owner, coming to thank us for our help while he was away. And he brought Tango. The pooch made a beeline to the basement steps where I saw him try to make his way down. Good grief, I didn't want that happening, so I got Tango to turn himself around -- no easy task. And in so doing, I dropped the towel where I had found it.

That Saturday morning, at 5:17 a.m. -- funny how you remember these things -- I made my way down the steps with the weekly laundry load, including my daughter's laundry bag. Three or four steps from the bottom, my legs went out from under me. My left foot hit an abutment and got turned at a most unpleasant angle and had to be reset at the hospital.

The emergency room team said it was rare to see both a break and a dislocation in the same ankle from a nonskier. Not much comfort there. The break was so low on the shin -- had it been the joint bone itself, the term would be "shattered ankle" and the like -- that the surgeon who put pins and rods in it the next day advised me to keep my weight off the ankle until I could see him in three weeks.

Three weeks turned into six weeks, and then into nine weeks. I was like Jimmy Stewart in the Hitchcock classic "Rear Window." I stayed upstairs all the time. I could sleep there, plus the "TV room" had a desktop computer. After a week and a half of recuperating, I reported back to work for CNS, only to find 1,000-plus emails waiting for me in my inbox.

I did my assignments. I remember one news briefing where I had asked a question using the home phone, but then I thought of a second question to ask, so I called in from my cellphone using an alias and asked that question, too.

Unlike reports of broadband and Wi-Fi networks struggling to keep up with the demands of the millions of people who now find themselves working from home under the coronavirus pandemic, I've found no glitches after a week-plus of this. However, back then, there were way too many times when I could not send a completed story using my work email, but -- for some mystifying reason -- could through my personal email instead.

Even though a second surgery was in the offing, I knew things were getting better when I could finally go to church again, just in time for my daughter's first Communion.

The differences between then and now?

Then, I had no clue that this would be happening. Now, we at least had an expectation that this might become the way CNS works, and not just me. In fact, we did a trial run one day with most our operations not encountering any problems. I also was able to fill up a bag with items from my cubicle that I could need for an extended stay away from the office.

The old desktop, despite its funky connectivity issues, at least responded to my version of touch typing. Today, my fingertips and the spongy keys of the work-issued laptop don't get along with each other. I make a lot more typos with it than I do using the keyboard connected to the monitor at my desk, and the laptop's cursor goes to places I never intended for it to go. Cursors, foiled again.

In my recuperative confinement, I got my work done, using a discarded chair from the office to roll primarily between the computer and the TV room's futon. Now, even though I can get around anywhere in the house that I want to, or could drive or take a walk, I'm fairly well planted in a dining-room chair, with two phones at the ready, and compared to the multitasking I'd do daily at the office, I feel strangely unproductive.

Maybe I need to get out more while I still can.


Coronavirus restrictions throw weddings, funeral plans in disarray

By Tim Swift Catholic News Service

CNS photo/courtesy courtesy Lauren Fischetti

Lauren Fischetti and Bobby Jones get married at St. Francis of Assis Church in Fulton Md., March 20, 2020. (CNS photo/courtesy Lauren Fischetti) See WEDDINGS-FUNERALS-DISARRAY-VIRUS March 23, 2020.

FULTON, Md. (CNS) -- As events large and small have been canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland bride-to-be Lauren Fischetti had to make a decision. She was not waiting until mid-April. She was getting married right now.

"We didn't want to risk there being a mandatory lockdown for everyone in Maryland or everywhere. So, we just wanted to go ahead and get married," said Fischetti, a high school teacher who wed her fiance Bobby Jones March 20.

Granted, it was a small ceremony. In keeping with the orders from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, the ceremony was just 10 people, including Father Peter Gevera, the associate pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fulton. The ring bearer and the flower girl had to watch the livestream, Fischetti said.

"The most important thing to us wasn't the reception. It wasn't the party, the pictures or anything like that. It was just the sacrament," Fischetti told the Catholic Review, the media outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

From weddings to baptisms to funerals, the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing precautions that go with it have thrown solemn and celebratory Catholic services into disarray.

Following the advice of Maryland's governor and health experts, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori decided March 14 the archdiocese would no longer celebrate Masses in the physical presence of the faithful. Instead, the archdiocese is broadcasting Masses through a variety of media.

Other services such as weddings and funerals may be held with strict limitations, in keeping with the latest guidance from the governor, Archbishop Lori said.

Church, government and health officials hope that these measures, known as social distancing, will help to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. Officials worry that without social distancing, the number of cases could overwhelm the U.S. health system, causing the death rate to surge.

At Baltimore's St. Bernardine Parish, Msgr. Richard Bozzelli has been in constant contact with grieving families as public guidelines shifted while they planned funerals for their loved ones.

A funeral held March 17 was originally planned to be no more than 250 people, but that changed when the state-mandated number was lowered to 50 just two days ahead of the planned service. Msgr. Bozzelli had to tell some mourners they couldn't attend the funeral and prayed with them outside the church. The parish also offered a livestream of the services.

"It's the first time I've ever had to do something like that. And, you know, it was very important for me to remain calm, to allow people to get upset," he said.

The pastor said an upcoming funeral will have even greater restrictions with only 10 people in attendance, which in some cases wouldn't allow for all of the immediate family. The family decided to go ahead with the funeral Mass, he said, despite the restrictions. The service will be livestreamed.

He said arrangements will probably be made to have larger memorial services at later dates. In the meantime, he is trying to be as available as possible during this difficult time, made all the more difficult by a death in the family.

"I would not typically be in contact with a family every day," the priest said. "But I do want to make sure that I'm in touch with them. Part of it is to make sure if there's any pastoral care that needs to be done."

Back in Fulton, Fischetti said she originally planned a wedding for 150 guests, but she's not sweating the details, she's just grateful.

"It definitely feels very surreal at this moment," Fischetti said, adding that she felt more at peace after meeting with the priest.

She said her reception can wait until her first anniversary, March 20, 2021. Because her fiance is in the process of getting a new job, the couple hadn't planned a honeymoon.

"I've been praying and doing the rosary every night in hopes that Mother Mary would watch out for us. And I know she's answering our prayers here," Fischetti said. "Everyone (could) watch us online and still keep safe. And that's really what's important, that everyone stays safe."

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Swift is the social media coordinator for the Catholic Review and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.


New Orleans archbishop tests positive, asks prayers for all amid pandemic

By Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans celebrates Mass March 19, 2020, in an empty St. Louis Cathedral. He announced March 23 that he has tested positive for coronavirus. (CNS photo/Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald) See AYMOND-POSITIVE-COVID-19 March 23, 2020.

NEW ORLEANS (CNS) -- New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond announced midday March 23 he has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

"Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, I have been feeling fine. Recently, I had very mild symptoms, which included fever only. Out of an abundance of caution, I took the coronavirus test which came back positive," the archbishop said in a statement.

"I have notified those with whom I have been in close proximity. Needless to say, I have self-quarantined in order to be responsible and not affect others," he said.

Archbishop Aymond said he will use "this quiet time for additional prayer and sacrifice for all those seriously affected by the virus."

"I pray to get well soon and continue ministry. In the meantime, I will be present through Facebook and the archdiocesan website with reflection on this crisis and God's healing power," said Archbishop Aymond, who has headed the archdiocese since 2009. The archdiocesan website is https://arch-no.org.

He ended his statement with this: "Our Lady of Prompt Succor, hasten to help us! Blessed Francis Seelos, pray for us!"

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, a Redemptorist priest from Germany, worked as a missionary in the United States frontier. Toward the end of his life, he went to New Orleans to minister to victims of yellow fever. He then died after contracting the disease.

Due to the coronavirus, all archdiocesan offices will be closed for 10 days, from March 17-27. This is to be reevaluated after 10 days. This includes the office of the Clarion Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper.

St. Vincent de Paul launches initiative to help returning citizens

By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Society of St. Vincent de Paul expects to spread throughout the country a nationwide initiative it calls Immersion, which helps recently released prisoners reenter society.

The idea has been percolating since 2007, when the society received a grant from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to explore the issue, according to Barbara McPherson, director of prison reentry services for the National Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul USA.

"We have an anonymous donor who has funded us for three years just as a startup," McPherson said.

The immersion initiative has a pilot program in which hundreds of released prisoners -- often known as "returning citizens" -- are seen and given some aid by society representatives.

The St. Vincent de Paul of Southwest Idaho Council in the state's Treasure Valley region is made up of 12 different conferences. It has had a particular interest in reentry services, as there are eight prisons in the valley area next to Boise, said Mark Renick, who heads up the immersion effort there.

Rather than create an undue burden on any one of the 12 conferences, they created a "Reentry Conference" specifically to run the immersion program, Renick told Catholic News Service.

It turned out that of the first 20 released prisoners who took advantage of immersion, he added, 16 of them were Catholic.

Renick himself is a returned citizen, after having served seven years for a felony conviction. "There's nothing weird about me. I don't have tattoos. And the person I'm talking to most likely has a brother, sister, father or crazy uncle," he said, adding that in the past, he never talked about his crime or his time, but "now we talk about it all the time. There are 7 million people in the U.S.A. with a felony conviction, so we talk about it all the time."

Immersion has been active for three years in southwest Idaho. "We estimate for the last year 1,000 people were paroled to my parole region; of those 1,000 people, this conference saw 665. We have a large impact," Renick said.

Vincentians, he added, are growing more aware that "of the population they serve -- the poor -- many, many more people than they imagine are poor due to incarceration, either themselves or a family member."

Renick said he "fell in love with" the Vincentian approach to someone in need: "Send two people who are trained Vincentians to sit with them. And we help them. ... We offer the support that we can. We pray with them, and then we go on our way."

Vincentians meet with returning citizens who are often assigned to a halfway house or some other form of transitional housing. "We listen to what they are looking for in terms of traditional support," Renick said. It's "mostly some help with rent. We officer them a bicycle, potentially a bus pass, some other things. We've developed a resource guide for them to go to for support after that."

McPherson said the immersion initiative is now at the implementation stage. "We found you need to have a hard-data collection system to show results. The narrative doesn't work anymore," she added. The Vincentians have opted for data from the National Institute of Justice. "Without the hard data," McPherson said, "no one's going to fund this for us. This is a grant-funded program."

St. Vincent de Paul representatives also have had conversations with members of Congress on funding returning-citizen efforts -- which could come more to the fore as prisons and jails are seeking to release those awaiting trial for minor offenses and those convicted of nonviolent offenses to keep a COVID-19 pandemic from plaguing a prison population.

There are several components to immersion, but McPherson said "the accompaniment part is really important. We work with people who were previously incarcerated. They understand the specific needs of this poverty population. There' s lot of trauma that took place ahead of time; 70 to 80% of them probably have addiction issues."

Moreover, "60% of those we visited have barriers related to incarceration. It's not just a person who may have been incarcerated, but the separation from family," McPherson said.

"Every time we get into an issue, we find a deeper issue." McPherson said "generational incarceration is such an issue. "In a family who's had a person incarcerated, there's still a good chance that someone from the next generation will be incarcerated," she noted, recalling a returning citizen in Iowa who represented the sixth generation of incarceration.

In Idaho, "98% percent of the people in prisons are going to get out. So they're going to be your neighbors," Renick said. "We should make it a little bit easier to transition."

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