U.S. Church News

Update: Pope names North Dakota priest to head Diocese of Helena, Montana

By Catholic News Service

CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Bismarck

Pope Francis has appointed Father Austin A. Vetter, a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck, N.D., to be the bishop of the Diocese of Helena, Mont. The appointment was announced in Washington Oct. 8, 2019, by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States. Bishop-designate Vetter is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Bismarck) See APPOINTMENT-HELENA-VETTER Oct. 8, 2019.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Pope Francis has appointed Father Austin A. Vetter, a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, to be the bishop of the Diocese of Helena, Montana.

The appointment was announced in Washington Oct. 8 by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

Bishop-designate Vetter, 52, succeeds Bishop George L. Thomas, who was named in February 2018 to head the Diocese of Las Vegas, after 14 years as Helena's bishop. Msgr. Kevin O'Neill was elected Helena's diocesan administrator by the College of Consultors May 17, 2018, two days after Bishop Thomas was installed in Las Vegas.

Bishop-designate Vetter's episcopal ordination Mass and installation will be celebrated Nov. 20 at the Cathedral of St. Helena.

The newly named bishop has been rector-pastor of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck since 2018. He also is a vice chairman of the board of directors of Light of Christ Catholic Schools in Bismarck. From 2012 to 2018, he was director of spiritual formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

Austin Anthony Vetter was born in Linton, North Dakota, Sept. 13, 1967, to August and Loretta Vetter. The youngest of 12 children, he was raised on a farm and educated in the Linton Public School System. After graduation, he attended North Dakota State University and Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo, North Dakota.

After receiving his bachelor of arts degree in philosophy, he studied in Rome at the Pontifical North American College and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Bismarck by Bishop John F. Kinney at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck June 29, 1993.

Then-Father Vetter's first assignment was as parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. He was a religion instructor at St. Mary's Central High School in Bismarck from 1994 to 1999. In North Dakota, he was pastor of St. Martin's Church in Center, St. Patrick's Church in Dickinson and St. Leo the Great Church in Minot.

From 2004 to 2007, Father Vetter was an adjunct faculty member for the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where he taught courses on "The Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest."

Bishop-designate Vetter has held various roles in the Diocese of Bismarck, including serving on the presbyteral council and priest personnel board. He has been vicar for the permanent diaconate, has served as master of ceremonies to the bishop and also has been director of continuing education of the clergy.

The Helena Diocese covers almost 52,000 square miles of western Montana. Out of a total population of 612,419, there are 45,400 Catholics.

Caritas works to help Syrians displaced by Turkish bombings

By Dale Gavlak Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Rodi Said, Reuters

A man sprays water at the site of a car bomb blast in Qamishli, Syria, Oct. 11, 2019. Church bells have been ringing in Qamishli and elsewhere in northeastern Syria, signaling the alarm to Christians and others of the ongoing Turkish military operation having a devastating humanitarian impact on civilians. (CNS photo/Rodi Said, Reuters) See SYRIA-DISPLACED-CARITAS Oct. 15, 2019. 

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) -- Church bells have been ringing in Qamishli and elsewhere in northeastern Syria, signaling the alarm to Christians and others of the ongoing Turkish military operation that is having a devastating humanitarian impact on civilians.

"Hundreds of thousands of people have escaped," said Yerado Krikorian, communications assistant for the Catholic aid agency Caritas Syria, which is working around the clock to aid those displaced by Turkish bombing and shelling.

"They need water where they have fled, and so Caritas is distributing badly needed water bottles and other essentials to those displaced in shelters throughout the Hassakeh region," Krikorian told Catholic News Service by telephone from Damascus.

Caritas Syria is the country's branch of Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic Church's international network of charitable agencies.

The A'louk water station, supplying water to nearly 400,000 people in Hassakeh, is out of service, according to UNICEF. The organization and Syrian government are is trying to get it fixed.

Meanwhile, UNICEF warns that some 70,000 children have been displaced since hostilities escalated Oct. 7, but it expected that number to more than double as a result of ongoing violence. As of Oct. 15, the United Nations estimates that at least 160,000 people have been displaced, but 400,000 are in need of humanitarian aid as the Turkish military and its allied Syrian rebels, including Islamic State and al-Qaida militants, press deeper into northeastern Syria, battling Kurdish and Syriac Christian forces.

Christians and other religious minorities said they feel particularly vulnerable as Turkish artillery targeted a predominantly Christian neighborhood in Qamishli, the largest city in northeastern Syria. News reports said Christians, Ayeda Habsono and her husband, Fadi, were severely wounded in the attack that hit their house. Several other residents also were injured. Christians and Yazidis have been victimized by Islamic State militants in recent times.

Humanitarians complain that they are being denied safe and unimpeded access to civilians due to Turkish shelling and airstrikes as well as uncertainty as to who is in control over certain areas, forcing many aid organizations to relocate to northern Iraq. Hospitals, schools and churches have been bombed. They have also decried targeted killings of civilians, including that of a Kurdish female politician, by Syrian militants working with the Turks.

Observers point to the danger of NATO member Turkey using proxy forces to carry out atrocities, deemed as war crimes.

David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, condemned Turkey's offensive, designed to clear out the native population of Kurds, Christians and Yazidis to put 2 million Syrian refugees from other regions and now sheltering in Turkey into a so-called "safe zone."

"The so-called safe zone is becoming a death trap," Miliband warned. "And the winners of this are Islamic State and the Assad government.

"The northeast was one of the most stable parts of Syria," he said, before U.S. President Donald Trump announced in early October that he was withdrawing U.S. troops.

Trump has since called for an immediate end to Turkey's moves against the Kurds in Syria and has sent Vice President Mike Pence to the Middle East. The U.S. is "simply not going to tolerate Turkey's invasion of Syria any longer," said Pence.

Alarmed by the military onslaught on "beloved and martyred" Syria, Pope Francis called on "all the actors involved and the international community" to commit themselves "sincerely to the path of dialogue to seek effective solutions" to the crisis.

The pope said Oct. 13 that dramatic news was emerging about the fate of the populations forced to abandon their homes because of military actions. "Among these populations there are also many Christian families," he said.

El Paso bishop calls out racism but urges accused shooter's life be spared

By Rhina Guidos Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters

Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, shares a smile with a Honduran girl named Cesia as he walks and prays with a group of migrants at the Lerdo International Bridge in El Paso June 27, 2019. Bishop Seitz has released a pastoral letter on racism which strongly condemns the "xenophobia ravaging the United States" and describes the border wall as a "monument to hate." (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)See PASTORAL-LETTER-BORDER-RACISM Oct. 14, 2019.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- It's a pastoral letter that pulls no punches, goes far into the past and continues up to the recent present of racism at the U.S.-Mexico border.  

Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, released a pastoral letter Oct. 13, on the eve of the controversial holiday that Columbus Day has become, pointing to the church's role in racism at the border, particularly among indigenous communities, describes the pain of Latinos in the El Paso area following a mass shooting in August, but also calls on authorities to spare the life of the accused perpetrator.  

Invoking martyrs who include St. Oscar Romero, Blessed Stanley Rother and four Maryknoll women missionaries killed in El Salvador, Bishop Seitz said he wishes that, like them, "I may speak without fear when it is called for and help to give voice to those who have not been heard."

The letter titled "Night Will Be No More" was unveiled at the end of a social justice gathering of Catholic Latino organizers, labor leaders, scholars and activists in El Paso Oct.11-13. It begins and ends with the specter of the Aug. 3 shooting at a Walmart in the city, a violent and bloody event that authorities believe targeted Latinos.

"Hate visited our community and Latino blood was spilled in sacrifice to the false god of white supremacy," wrote the bishop.

That event led him to write the letter, he explained, "after prayer and speaking with the people of God in the church of El Paso" to "reflect together on the evil that robbed us of 22 lives."

Among some of what he has heard: "Latinos now tell me that for the first time in their lives they feel unsafe, even in El Paso. They feel that they have targets on their backs because of their skin color and language. They feel that they are being made to live in their own home as a 'stranger in a foreign land.'"

The killing, he said, was an example of the racism toward Latinos that has reached "a dangerous fever pitch" in the nation.  

"Our highest elected officials have used the word 'invasion' and 'killer' over 500 times to refer to migrants, treated migrant children as pawns on a crass political chessboard, insinuated that judges and legislators of color are un-American, and have made wall-building a core political project," he said. "In Pope Francis' words, these 'signs of meanness we see around us heighten our fear of the other.'

"The same deadly pool of sin that motivates the attack on migrants seeking safety and refuge in our border community motivated the killing of our neighbors on August 3rd," he continued. "Sin unites people around fear and hate. We must name and oppose the racism that has reared its head at the center of our public life and emboldened forces of darkness."

Even as he repudiated the fear and destruction the massacre caused, Bishop Seitz made a plea to authorities to spare the life of accused shooter Patrick Crusius, the 21-year-old who is said to have left messages on social media saying he was carrying out the shooting because of the "Hispanic invasion of Texas." Texas prosecutors have said they will ask for the death penalty if he's convicted.

"Justice is certainly required. But the cycle of hate, blood and vengeance on the border must meet its end," he wrote. "While the scales of justice may seem to tilt in favor of the necessity of lethal retribution, God offers us yet another chance to choose life. Choose in a manner worthy of your humanity."

He laid out how racism can make a "home in our hearts, distort our imagination and will, and express itself in individual actions of hatred and discrimination."

"This mystery of evil also includes the base belief that some of us are more important, deserving and worthy than others. It includes the ugly conviction that this country and its history and opportunities and resources as well as our economic and political life belong more properly to 'white' people than to people of color," he wrote. "This is a perverse way of thinking that divides people based on heritage and tone of skin into 'us' and 'them', 'worthy' and 'unworthy', paving the way to dehumanization."

Dark-skinned people are subject to different standards and treatment and the Catholic Church is not without fault in this, he said, adding that "even some of our seminarians have talked about experiences in seminaries in different parts of the country where it was presumed that their academic preparation was inferior and when they were the butt of jokes suggesting that their families must know something about drug trafficking."

He wrote that the proposed border wall is a symbol of this type of exclusion.

"The wall deepens racially charged perceptions of how we understand the border as well as Mexicans and migrants. It extends racist talk of an 'invasion'. It perpetuates the racist myth that the area south of the border is dangerous and foreign and that we are merely passive observers in the growth of narco-violence and the trafficking of human beings and drugs," he wrote. "The wall is a physical reminder of the failure of two friendly nations to resolve their internal and binational issues in just and peaceful way."

But just as the letter offered criticism, it offered solutions.

"We must work to ensure all our children have access to quality educational opportunities, eliminate inequality in the colonias, pass immigration reform, eradicate discrimination, guarantee universal access to health care, ensure the protection of all human life, end the scourge of gun violence, improve wages on both sides of the border, offer just and sustainable development opportunities, defend the environment and honor the dignity of every person," he wrote.

"This is how we write a new chapter in our history of solidarity and friendship that future generations can remember with pride," he added. "This work of undoing racism and building a just society is holy, for it 'contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family.'"

During Mass, pastors can lead people "to a deeper consciousness of the weight of communal and historical sin that we bring to the table of the Lord in the penitential rite," he wrote. "We should ask ourselves carefully who is yet not present, and whose cultures are not yet reflected at the banquet of the Lord that we celebrate at the altar?"

At its end, the letter made a plea to President Donald Trump, Congress and the Supreme Court.

"I beg you to listen to the voice of conscience and halt the deportation of all those who are not a danger to our communities, to stop the separation of families, and to end once and for all the turning back of refugees and death at the border," he wrote.

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Editor's Note: The full text of the letter can be found at www.hopeborder.org/nightwillbenomore.


Update: Oakland pastor, visiting Indian archbishop die in car accident

By Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Diocese of Oakland

Father Mathew Vellankal, pastor of St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Concord, Calif., was killed Oct. 10, 2019, in a car crash in Colusa County, along with Archbishop Dominic Jala of the Archdiocese of Shillong, India, who also was apostolic administrator of Nongstoin. Father Vellankal is pictured in an Oct. 20, 2011, photo. (CNS photo/Diocese of Oakland) See TRAFFIC-FATALITIES Oct. 14, 2019.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CNS) -- A pastor in the Diocese of Oakland and a visiting archbishop from India were killed Oct. 10 in a traffic accident in California. Another priest traveling in the car with them was injured in the crash.

The dead clergy are Archbishop Dominic Jala, 68, of the Archdiocese of Shillong, India, who also was apostolic administrator of Nongstoin, India, and Salesian Father Mathew Vellankal, 58, pastor of St. Bonaventure Parish in Concord. Injured in the accident was Father Joseph Parekkatt, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Walnut Creek. He was reported in stable condition at Santa Rosa Hospital. All three clergy were born in India.

A Toyota Prius with the three clergy was hit at about 2:30 p.m. (local time) by a tractor-trailer truck on California Route 20 near Wilbur Springs, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Father Vellankal, 58, was ordained for the Salesians of Don Bosco in 1987. Born in Ayavana in Kerala state, he ministered in parishes and schools in India before coming to the Diocese of Oakland in 2001. His parish assignments included Queen of All Saints in Concord, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Fremont and Holy Spirit in Fremont.

"Father Vellankal's joyous spirit and faith will be deeply missed," said a statement by Bishop Michael C. Barber of Oakland. "May his soul and the soul of Archbishop Jala rest in the peace of Christ."

Father Vellankal was known for his skills as a magician, which he used in parish fundraising. He wrote the book "From Humor to Inspiration: Jokes, Reflections and Quotes to Enliven Your Day," published in 2005.

A statement on the St. Bonaventure parish website said it was "great shock and sadness" members of the parish community were informed about their pastor's death. "Let perpetual light shine upon him," it said, adding that all were invited to participate in rosary novenas in his memory through Oct. 20.

"Please join us for one night, or every night, as we continue to pray and mourn as one community," it said.

Archbishop Jala was born July 12, 1951, and himself ordained a priest of the Salesians of Don Bosco in 1977. He was ordained as archbishop of Shillong in 2000.

Both he and Father Vellankal had studied for the priesthood at Salesian College in Sonada, India, and at Kristu Jytoti College in Bangalore, India.

Archbishop Jala served as chairman of the Liturgy Commission of the North East India Regional Bishops' Council and was author of the book "Liturgy and Mission."

Funeral arrangements for the two clergymen were pending.

In an Oct. 14 release circulated in the Archdiocese of Shillong, Father John Madur, administrator, said all parishes, schools, colleges and institutions would observe a period of mourning until his funeral takes place to "mark our deepest respect" to Archbishop Jala.

The archbishop had left Shillong for Rome Sept. 17 for the "ad limina" visit to the Vatican by bishops of his region. He then went to the United States to attend a meeting of the International Commission for English Liturgy, known as ICEL, and "to meet some of his priest friends," the archdiocese said.

Archbishop Jala is not the first bishop from India to die in a car crash away from his native land. Archbishop Alan de Lastic of Delhi was killed in a wreck in Poland in 2000 at age 70. Archbishop de Lastic had been archbishop since 1991, and in 1998 was chosen to head the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.


U.N. nuncio praises nations for recognizing rights of indigenous peoples

By Catholic News Service

CNS Photo/Paul Jeffrey

Augusto Miranha, a leader of the "Indigenous Nations" neighborhood in Manaus, Brazil, is pictured in an March 30, 2019, photo. In remarks made Oct. 11, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican's permanent observer to the United Nations, called it welcome news that several nations around the world "have taken active steps to recognize the right to autonomy or self-government of indigenous peoples." (CNS Photo/Paul Jeffrey) See AUZA-IDIGENOUS-PEOPLES Oct. 14, 2019.

UNITED NATIONS (CNS) -- The Vatican's nuncio to the United Nations called it welcome news that several nations around the world "have taken active steps to recognize the right to autonomy or self-government of indigenous peoples."

Such "concrete actions provide a mutually beneficial framework for the engagement between the state government and the indigenous people," said Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican's permanent observer to the United Nations, in remarks Oct. 11.

"They also contribute to the recognition and realization of the rights of indigenous peoples, their extraordinary cultural and spiritual patrimony, and their valuable contribution to broader society and the common good," he added.

His statement was issued in reaction to a recent report from the "special rapporteur" on the rights of indigenous peoples. His remarks were addressed to the Third Committee of the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly for its agenda item on the "Rights of Indigenous Peoples." They were delivered by Msgr. Fredrik Hansen, first secretary at the Vatican's U.N. permanent observer mission.

Quoting Pope Francis, the archbishop said: "It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed."

Indigenous peoples are the ones who can "care best for their own patrimonial land and living traditions," Archbishop Auza said, but in some places they "are under tremendous pressures to sell their ancestral land."

"Or, in some cases," he continued, "they are forced by outside interests to abandon their homes without their 'free, prior and informed consent,' as called for in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

Formal recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to autonomy or self-government "greatly contributes to promoting and pursuing" objectives of this U.N. declaration, Archbishop Auza said.

This includes the right of indigenous peoples "to maintain and strengthen" their "distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions," he said, as well as the right "to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the state."

Noting that 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the archbishop also said the preservation of these languages is important not only for the indigenous peoples but also for the cultural heritage of the whole human family.

In declaring the yearlong observance, the U.N. General Assembly resolution called "on the international community to advance efforts 'to preserve, promote and revitalize' indigenous languages, so often in danger of extinction," Archbishop Auza said.

The U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples acknowledged, he stated, that "indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures."

Experts offer advice to help people confront anxiety over gun violence

By Patricia Montana Catholic News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) -- Firearm attacks have changed society in the United States as mass shootings have become more frequent and the public is forced to face the psychological consequences, often silently.

More than half of American adults consider mass shootings a latent threat, a Reuters/Ipsos survey in August discovered. Many respondents reported experiencing a sense of insecurity with increased levels of anxiety.

"This situation puts you on alert because you never know when or where the next massacre will happen. There is an imitation effect and it is happening very frequently," one respondent said.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said recent mass shootings reveal a terrible truth.

"We can never again believe that mass shootings are an isolated exception," they said in a statement after a pair of early August attacks in Texas and Ohio. "They are an epidemic against life that we must, in justice, face."

Statistics from the Gun Violence Archive website show that as of Oct. 10 in the United States there have been 326 mass shootings in which four or more people were killed or injured. The shootings accounted for 363 deaths and 1,329 wounded, leaving countless families mired in pain.

After a white supremacist shooter in El Paso, Texas, sought to "kill as many Mexicans as possible" Aug. 3, fear is especially strong among Hispanic families. Mental health hangs in the balance, experts said.

"I feel that the focus of the attacks and racism is directly against us," said Edith Castillo, executive director of the Catholic Charities program El Programa Hispano in Gresham, Oregon.

Castillo, a mental health counselor, does not mince words in blaming President Donald Trump's rhetoric and federal immigration policy for some of the violence, especially against Latino people.

It's not a stretch to say that terms such as "invaders" can spark criminal actions against Hispanics, Castillo said.

"Many people have been fleeing places with a lot of violence in search of a place that gives them peace and quiet, but people are afraid of the current situation," said Elsa Tzintzun, a mental health counselor at El Programa Hispano. "This causes immigrants to feel isolated and marginalized."

Even those who were not present during an attack are affected by news reports, she said, explaining that trauma becomes an invisible and silent companion.

In 2014, after a shooting at Reynolds High School in suburban Portland, which left two students dead and a teacher wounded, El Programa Hispano offered psychological support. It was then that staff began to wonder how young people were affected by such incidents.

Tzintzun explained that after violent events it is normal for people to feel anxious and afraid; children may begin to behave differently and the changes can dampen their performance in school. The counselor listed irritability, nightmares, insomnia, tremors, sadness, apathy and lack of concentration as symptoms of fear.

Post-trauma symptoms do not necessarily mean people will develop a chronic problem, she said.

In Hispanic culture, many people think psychologists serve only those with severe mental illness or the rich, Tzintzun said. Mental health professionals who speak Spanish are also difficult to find, she said.

The professionals at El Programa Hispano offered several strategies to help manage stress and anxiety caused by violent events:

-- Physical and emotional care by eating well and on time, exercising and adequate and restful sleep.

-- Take time to pray or meditate together as a family and strengthen religious traditions.

-- Create support groups with family and friends or with community or church groups.

-- Have an action plan to increase the feeling of security, organize personal documents, have a power of attorney for your children and designate a trusted person to take charge if necessary.

-- Strengthen cultural identity by embracing one's origin, customs, traditions and values.

-- Seek counseling assistance from mental health professionals.

Tzintzun also offered suggestions on how parents can help their children:

-- Dialogue is essential, so devote time to talk -- such as during a daily meal -- to allow family members to share concerns, ask questions and discuss emotions.

-- Reaffirm safety by allowing children and young people to express their fears and concerns and help them to feel well and safe; a good way to combat fear is by providing information and cautioning children against becoming consumers of political rhetoric.

-- Limit television, internet and cellphone time in order to reduce exposure to violence and death, which can cause anxiety and distress.

-- Observe changes in behavior: Tell children that after events such as shootings it is normal to feel different; let them know that such feelings can cause misunderstandings or create tensions among family or friends. Establish guidelines that help promote respect and tolerance in the family.

-- Strengthen training in values because continuing a faith tradition can help in mental health crises.

"I think that the family is the first school of life and if a child has a solid formation in faith and values, that helps them develop a stable base for managing their emotions and facing life," Castillo said.

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Montana is editor of El Centinela, the Spanish-language newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

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