Vatican News


Update: Maryland governor overturns directive delaying school opening

By Richard Szczepanowski Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan removes his face mask as he begins a July 22, 2020, news conference at the Maryland State Capitol in Annapolis, Md., with updates about the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Hogan overturned a Montgomery County health director's order to keep private schools closed for in-person learning Aug. 3, 2020. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters) See SCHOOLS-PLAN Aug. 4, 2020.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Archdiocese of Washington and its Catholic Schools Office hailed the Aug. 3 emergency order by Maryland's governor to override a Montgomery County Health Department blanket directive that would have kept nonpublic schools from reopening for in-person instruction through at least Oct. 1.

The archdiocese said it was grateful for Gov. Larry Hogan's action "that allows private and parochial schools the autonomy and flexibility to make reopening decisions in line with public health guidelines."

"The recovery plan for Maryland public schools stresses local flexibility within the parameters set by state officials," Hogan said in a statement after signing the order. "Private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility (as public schools) to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines."

Hogan issued the emergency order after Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County's health officer, directed July 31 that private and parochial schools and schools affiliated with religious institutions in that county could not offer in-person instruction at least through Oct. 1 as "necessary to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents."

Gayles cited the need to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents, parents, students, teachers and staff from the spread of COVID-19.

He said he would "reevaluate the order before Oct. 1 to determine if it should be extended, terminated or amended in any way." He noted that a violation of his directive could be punishable by up to one year in jail, a $5,000 fine or both.

The Archdiocese of Washington was quick to react to that directive. In an Aug 1 statement, the archdiocese said it would review the order and "decide how best to proceed for students and the entire community."

"The Archdiocese of Washington continues to have the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and parents uppermost in mind and heart as we make our decisions regarding the reopening of our Catholic schools," Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said Aug. 1. "We will continue to strive to be both good citizens as well as to be faithful to our religious principles, pastoral mission and our obligations to our families."

The Montgomery County directive also was assailed by the Maryland Catholic Conference, which issued a call Aug. 3, before Hogan's action, for Catholics in Montgomery County to contact their county lawmakers and ask them to oppose the directive.

"There is deep concern with Montgomery County summarily announcing private, parochial schools are barred from opening even though they have met health and safety standards," the Catholic conference said in its "action alert" to Montgomery County Catholics. "If you are concerned about the county's action, please urge your County Council member to oppose the order and support the safe reopening of Montgomery County's private, parochial and independent schools."

The conference, which is the public policy arm of the Maryland's Catholic bishops, stressed in its action alert that "many of the county's Catholic and nonpublic schools have developed detailed plans for a safe, full in-person reopening or hybrid (in-person/online) opening These schools have carefully followed guidelines regarding health and safety, consulted with health experts, communicated with parents and developed detailed plans."

It said that "at the forefront of planning has been the health and safety of the students and teachers."

In mid-July, Karen Salmon, Maryland's superintendent of schools, said the state is "firmly in recovery" and therefore "local (school) systems will have the flexibility to determine, in consultation with their local health officers, how they will open, and which groups of students and staff will be able to reenter buildings."

Hogan noted Aug. 3 that "over the last several weeks, school boards and superintendents made their own decisions about how and when to reopen public schools, after consultation with state and local health officials. ... The blanket closure mandate imposed by Montgomery County was overly broad and inconsistent with the powers intended to be delegated to the county health officer."

He also thanked "all the parents, students, and school administrators who have spoken out in recent days about this important issue."

Gayles' directive also was criticized by lawmakers and others who complained that while public schools had the opportunity to devise their own reopening plans, such an opportunity was not being afforded to religiously affiliated and private schools.

The Archdiocese of Washington's Catholic Schools Office created a task force that spent most of the spring and summer formulating a plan for opening the schools. It was being finalized when the Montgomery County directive was issued.

"To be clear, Maryland's recovery continues to be based on a flexible, community-based approach that follows science, not politics," Hogan said. "As long as schools develop safe and detailed plans that follow CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what's best for their community."

An Aug. 1 statement from the archdiocesan Catholic Schools Office pointed out that it and Archbishop Gregory "have been working with school pastors and principals to finalize and approve individual Catholic school reopening plans."

"These models (of reopening archdiocesan Catholic schools) include virtual at-home academic instruction, in-person academic instruction and a blended model that includes both virtual and in-person instruction for our students," that statement said. "Great care has been taken by our school leaders to create reopening plans that follow all current state and national guidelines for reopening schools."

In an earlier interview with the archdiocese's Catholic Standard newspaper, Kelly Branaman, interim superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese, said "reopening our schools in a manner that is safe for our students and faculty is our priority. Health and safety protocols are being established based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, local health departments, and local jurisdictions."

She said the task force was devising "habits and routines that promote safety and good health throughout our schools."

In its statement welcoming Hogan's emergency order, the archdiocese said, "We will continue to work with our educators and communities to ensure the safe reopening of the schools of the Archdiocese of Washington and continue to place the health and well-being of our children at the forefront of our efforts."

Even with Hogan's order, the Maryland Catholic Conference urged Montgomery County "parents and parishioners to let their council members know their concern about this issue to ensure they are taken into account now and going forward."

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Szczepanowski is managing editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.


Saintly caution: Church's reputation on the line when judging sanctity

By Junno Arocho Esteves Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Paul Haring

Priests arrive in procession for a canonization Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 13, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See VATICAN-LETTER-SAINTHOOD-BECCIU July 22, 2020.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In the Catholic Church, a person's canonization is almost always preceded by decades of meticulous investigation into the minute details of the candidate's life.

Thousands of saints have been raised to the altars after these thorough investigations, while the causes of many other candidates are usually suspended or closed when there is insufficient evidence of one's sanctity or the lack of miracle.

Yet, there are also causes that have been closed or delayed due to doubts or, worse, due to proverbial "skeletons in the closet" uncovered during the investigation into their lives.

The delay in the sainthood cause of Father Joseph Kentenich, founder of the Schonstatt movement, was the most recent example of that last scenario, after allegations of abuse uncovered during an apostolic visitation in the early 1950s were made public July 2.

His cause was opened in 1975 in the Diocese of Trier, Germany, and was in the diocesan phase, which is the first step in a candidate's cause before it is sent to Rome for further investigation.

German scholar Alexandra von Teuffenbach, a former professor of church history at Rome's Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University, discovered documents in the recently opened archives of the pontificate of Pope Pius XII that revealed allegations of sexual abuse and abuse of power against Father Kentenich.

The revelations led German Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier to announce July 7 the formation of a historical commission charged with collecting and studying the new evidence found in the Vatican Apostolic Archives concerning Father Kentenich, to determine whether to proceed with his cause.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, said although Father Kentenich's cause was not yet in the hands of the congregation, his office received several negative reports regarding the priest's cause and immediately informed Bishop Ackermann "so he could proceed with the necessary verifications."

"Certainly, if the accusations that have come to the forefront were to be considered well-founded, there would be no hesitation in shelving the case," Cardinal Becciu said in an email to Catholic News Service July 21.

It "may come as a surprise to learn that causes are stopped quite often in the congregation," he said. In most cases, "it is a temporary halt, but it always has the aim of arriving at an objective judgment on the sanctity of the candidates. If the gaps or doubts are not removed, we do not proceed."

Cardinal Becciu stressed that every sainthood cause is taken seriously, and should "an allegation, or even a simple report, emerge when the cause is at an advanced stage, it is immediately examined, evaluating every aspect of the matter scrupulously and seriously."

"New witnesses will be heard, new archival research will be carried out and the diocesan tribunals and the apostolic nunciatures -- when it comes to countries other than Italy -- will be involved," he told CNS. "In short, nothing is left unturned."

Among the causes that were halted in recent memory, he noted, was that of Father Leon Dehon, a French priest whose beatification was suspended in 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI to investigate "alleged anti-Jewish expressions" in his writings.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was another well-known cause that was postponed.

In December, the Diocese of Rochester, New York, said it had "expressed concern about advancing the cause for the beatification of Archbishop Sheen at this time without a further review of his role in priests' assignments." The diocese also said "there are no complaints against Archbishop Sheen engaging in any personal inappropriate conduct, nor were any insinuations made in this regard."

Cardinal Becciu told CNS that Archbishop Sheen's cause was suspended "out of respect for the U.S. civil authorities, who must express their views on cases of sexual abuse that indirectly affect the period" when he led the Diocese of Rochester.

The cardinal also said the congregation recently intervened in the sainthood cause of an unnamed group of martyrs who were recently beatified.

"It was necessary to intervene to remove the names of two people from the list who were suspected of sexual abuse and for which there was no possibility of clarification. The group of martyrs were declared blessed, minus those two," he said.

However, the cause of Father Kentenich stands out in that, despite the fact his cause opened decades ago, the allegations against him were discovered in documents only recently made public.

Such circumstances raised several questions, particularly whether there should be a longer waiting period before a candidate's cause is opened.

Cardinal Becciu told CNS he believed the church must always "maintain a healthy balance" when opening a sainthood cause.

"A cause should not start too late in order not to lose the wealth of data that can come to us from eyewitnesses," he explained. "On the other hand, archival research -- which is now required for every cause of beatification -- must be serious and carried out by experts in the field."

Another question was whether the church follows any specific protocol if a credible allegation of abuse is discovered after a person is beatified or canonized.

"That's a good question and, hopefully, something like that will never happen," Cardinal Becciu told CNS. "The Catholic Church does not recognize the institution of 'de-canonization,' that is, the procedure of the deprivation of the title" of saint or blessed.

Cardinal Becciu said that while there is always room for improvement in the sainthood process, the current procedure is "quite serious" and have "so far proved reliable in its various passages of judgment."

"According to a wise practice of the church, after a thorough and articulate human judgment on the life of a candidate to the altars, the approval of a miracle is required as divine confirmation of the conclusions reached by men and women."

Father Kentenich's case also raised concerns regarding the cult of personality often yielded by founders of religious congregations and movements, as well as the possibility that followers may seek to protect their founder's legacy by hiding allegations.

A similar case was that of German Doig, co-founder of Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, whose sainthood cause was opened after his death in 2001 and who was promoted as a model of holiness by the group's members.

His cause was closed a decade later after credible accusations of sexual abuse surfaced against him and the founder of the movement, Luis Fernando Figari.

Cardinal Becciu told CNS that while the Catholic Church takes a cautious approach to all sainthood causes, it "pays careful attention" to causes involving the founders of movements and religious institutes "precisely because of the role they play and their ascendancy among their followers."

Canonical legislation, he said, dictates that those who testify during the investigations should not belong to the same movement or congregation as the candidate, thus allowing witnesses to voice their opposition to a person's canonization.

"As an example, I can say that this was the case in the causes of St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer (founder of Opus Dei), the Servant of God Chiara Lubich (founder of the Focolare movement) and others," Cardinal Becciu said.

Nevertheless, Cardinal Becciu told CNS that clarity and transparency were necessary elements of the sainthood process and that "any negative elements that emerge must be investigated with meticulous diligence."

"Not only is the judgment on a person's holiness at stake here, but the credibility of the church itself," he said.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju


Times of trauma: Old Testament is a go-to guide for coping

By Carol Glatz Catholic News Service

CNS photo/National Gallery of Art

This 18th-century painting by British artist William Blake is titled "Moses Staying the Plague." (CNS photo/courtesy National Gallery of Art) See VATICAN-LETTER-BIBLE-RESILIENCE July 16, 2020.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When the difficulties and uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic were at their height in Italy this past spring, one Vatican cardinal defined the snowballing crisis as a form of "trauma."

When asked by the reporter what was needed to confront this challenge, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture and a renowned biblical scholar, said he was finding some important insight in a book by a highly respected U.S. scholar, David M. Carr, titled "Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins."

In his 2014 book, Carr -- a professor of the Old Testament at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, a Protestant and part of the editorial board of the Catholic Biblical Association's quarterly publication -- looks at how trauma gave birth to the Bible and how its texts reveal the strength and resiliency of individuals and communities in enduring suffering and disaster.

Cardinal Ravasi said in that April interview with La Repubblica that this concept of seeing the Bible through this lens of resilience "may now have significance for us, too."

"The Bible as a whole is, in many ways, a product of dealing with collective catastrophes," everything from pandemics to forced migrations, said Jesuit Father Dominik Markl, a scholar at Rome's Pontifical Biblical Institute.

Instead of one simple message, the Bible is "a library produced over a millennium with multiple and often diverging responses to very difficult situations," he told Catholic News Service.

He and another biblical scholar, who both spoke to CNS via Skype in mid-July, said this moment of great upheaval should serve as a strong impetus for people to pick up and read the Old Testament, which most Catholics are not always deeply familiar with.

The Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, can also be difficult to decipher and digest, said Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

She said normally, many of her students have great difficulty trying to find anything to like or appreciate about the darker texts, particularly Ecclesiastes, which -- if read superficially -- seems to be saying, "there is no point to life."

So while most students just "hate this book," she said, "something completely flipped" with her spring semester students who, like everyone, suddenly found themselves in the maelstrom of a pandemic.

Now facing radically different and uncertain circumstances, they said they loved the text, "it spoke to them, it was just real and this was exactly what they were feeling," she said.

"That was a really remarkable testament to how much the Hebrew Bible can really speak to us in times like this," she said.

For example, she said the vast majority of the Book of Job "is just simply Job crying out in pain."

His friends urge him "to come to grips" with what is happening, but there is no real reason for his suffering and "no proper human response to his suffering" either, she said.

What finally soothes him, she said, is God telling him, "Reorient your perspective so that you are not at the center, but ... I am at the center, so that the vastness of the universe is at the center, put your suffering in the midst of that."

God never explains or gives Job answers, but Job "seems like he is calmed by simply experiencing God," she said.

The complexity and lack of clear answers in the Old Testament is "not always helpful, but I think right now, where we are, it is," Leonard-Fleckman said.

It is not a call for being passive, she added, it shows people it's alright to let themselves feel what is happening, "to grapple with it and to let them know" horrible, inexplicable things happen.

Father Markl said the biblical authors offer "a voice to those who suffer," using strong language to express hardship, not repress it.

And experiencing great trauma and catastrophe can also open the door to real conversion, he added.

For example, he said it became clear during the Babylonian exile that "everything has broken down that had been our identity" and there was a feeling "that we cannot, there is no way of going ahead as we have been used to."

Conversion becomes that moment when "we absolutely understand we need to change and that this is a painful and difficult process" because it demands being willing to "question one's own concepts or concepts we take for granted," including "what we consider to be our identity."

Knowing what this change entails -- such as fighting and resisting or surrendering and letting go, for example -- requires prayer, Father Markl said.

Dialogue with God is "multifaceted," he said, and a person can be in "fighting mode," confused or feeling abandoned, but, in the Old Testament, they always remain in dialogue with God; even Jesus, who gives up his spirit on the cross, "he gives it up in dialogue."

Only the individual in prayerful dialogue can discern what is being asked of them, he said, but it must be an honest dialogue that takes into account "what is important to God," not just oneself.

This moment of great crisis "forces us to think more deeply about what society is about, about how we can help each other."

All Christians should be examples of people who are aware and advocate "not for ourselves, but really for the good of humanity."


Sacred silence: Pandemic spurs innovation, appreciation for sacred music

By Junno Arocho Esteves Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Paul Haring

A file photo shows some members of the Sistine Chapel Choir singing while maintaining social distancing as Pope Francis celebrates Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. The Mass was celebrated without the presence of the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See VATICAN-LETTER-COVID-MUSIC June 25, 2020.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- From priests donning face masks and gloves while distributing Communion to exchanging nods with socially distant parishioners during the sign of peace, the coronavirus pandemic has changed how Catholics celebrate the liturgy.

But on the register of what is most noticeable, singing tops the list.

In St. Peter's Basilica, where the Sistine Chapel Choir once accompanied papal liturgies and a separate choir led congregational singing, the pandemic practice is to have an organist, a cantor and a few choir members -- all standing a safe distance from one another.

In a phone interview with Catholic News Service June 23, Msgr. Vincenzo De Gregorio, president of the Pontifical Academy for Sacred Music, said that while social distancing measures for church choirs "are obviously indispensable, the liturgy may seem to 'suffer.'"

What is important, he said, is that there is some music.

"Thank God, the situation is also very flexible from the point of view of the regulations so we can celebrate solemnly, even simply, with an organist playing and a cantor singing," he said.

After 52 members of a church choir were infected with COVID-19 during a practice in Washington state in March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that singing, especially when people are close to each other, heightens the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.

But sacred music has a fundamental role in Catholic spiritual life. "Through this form, prayer is expressed in a more attractive way" and "minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rite," said the Vatican's 1967 instruction on music in the liturgy.

"Catholic worship is rooted in a community of believers who come together to express their faith through ritual word and song," Dan Schutte, composer and member of the St. Louis Jesuits, told CNS June 24.

"Yet in most parts of the world, we can't gather in community yet to worship safely. We've been uprooted from the very sacramentality -- music being one of those 'sacraments' -- through which we experience the presence of God in our midst," he said.

Not only does sacred music play an important role in the life of prayer for the faithful, but also for religious communities and congregations, especially the Benedictines.

Abbot Gregory Polan, abbot primate of the worldwide Benedictine Confederation, told CNS June 18 that although the Benedictine community of St. Anselm in Rome has continued to sing during their liturgies and daily prayers, social distancing measures have prevented them from welcoming guests to join them.

"We have really felt the absence of people being able to come to pray with us regularly because even though we are not a parish church, we have a good size group of oblates and friends on the Aventine (Hill) who regularly come to worship with us. So, from that point of view, it's difficult," he said.

However, he also admitted that the new measures have been "kind of a blessing" that have not only led to an increase in prayer but also inspired "creative aspects of enlivening the prayer within the community."

Abbot Polan told CNS that during Lent the Benedictine community not only added a one-hour period of adoration every Thursday, but also found a new way to pray the Stations of the Cross.

"We're blessed with four very fine organists, and also a monk who plays the oboe and another who plays the flute and so we did the stations by means of a musical rendering which was really very inspiring. And the only words that were really spoken were a prayer to accompany the music," he said.

Schutte told CNS that while lockdown measures have prevented him from traveling across the United States to lead parish missions, retreats, evenings of music and workshops, it has led him, like many others, to seek ways "to minister virtually."

"It's forcing me, as it has many of us, to become more adept with the technology that allows us to do things a few months ago we might never have imagined," he said. "Music has not lost its power to capture our minds and hearts, to express our hunger for God. It's just that now we have to explore new ways to deliver that music."

Msgr. De Gregorio told CNS that not only have the pandemic regulations affected how choirs and the faithful sing, but they have also greatly impacted the way sacred music is taught and studied.

While video-chat platforms have made it possible to continue classes, "conducting lessons from a distance and exams from a distance" is a whole new territory for the pontifical academy, he said.

"Our way of teaching has been completely transformed," Msgr. De Gregorio said. "Obviously, as you can imagine, it's one thing to listen to the tone, the timbre of a voice, a piano or an organ live and another thing to listen from a distance."

For Abbot Polan, singing remains a fundamental aspect of sacred music that he hopes will return once COVID-19 vaccines are available.

"I'd like to think that when we get the vaccine and people will be able to be closer to one another and we will pick up singing again, that it will pick up with a renewed spirit of joy to be able to lift our voices in communion with one another for the liturgy," he told CNS.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju


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