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Archbishop Fulton Sheen was more than the man on television, 92-year-old niece says

Denver, Colo., Apr 5, 2020 / 12:35 pm (CNA).- Archbishop Fulton Sheen's niece has recounted her view of the famous Catholic television personality and author in a new book that aims to show his Christian devotion and his deep concern for the poor, even as he engaged with Hollywood celebrities, American leaders, and an audience of millions.

“I hope that you learn he was not just the man in the red robe on TV. He was a very humble man, and very religious,” Joan Sheen Cunningham, co-author of the book “My Uncle Fulton Sheen,” told CNA March 31. “His whole life was working for the Church. That was the most important thing about him. I certainly think he did his job well!”

Cunningham’s book, published by Ignatius Press, is co-authored by Janel Rodriguez, author of the 2006 book “Meet Fulton Sheen.”

Sheen was the oldest of four brothers. Cunningham was the eldest daughter of Sheen’s brother, a lawyer and father of eight, who was the second oldest to Sheen.

“It’s a history of my life, in a way,” she said. “I’m 92, so that was a long time ago!”

At the suggestion of Sheen, Cunningham left Illinois at a young age to enroll in a private school in New York City, where she lived with friends of Sheen.

This allowed her to take part in weekend outings with her uncle for Mass, confession, and dinners with Hollywood stars and influential politicians.

Venerable Fulton Sheen was born in 1895 in Illinois and was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Peoria at the age of 24. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of New York in 1951, and remained there until he was named Bishop of Rochester in 1966. After he retired in 1969 at the age of 74, he was named titular Archbishop of Newport, Wales. He died at the age of 84, and was declared venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

Cunningham’s book puts Sheen's life in a new perspective. She recounts his family’s devout Catholicism, his excellent academics and talent for public speaking, but also his deep distaste for farm life. He showed great fondness for France and the French language, but was sometimes hospitalized due to overwork.

The clergyman showed a great love for Christmas and for dogs. He famously clashed with the deeply powerful Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York.

Sheen is perhaps most famous for his roles as host of the “Catholic Hour” radio show, which he started in 1930, and the television shows “Life is Worth Living” and “The Fulton Sheen Program,” which ran in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively. For a time, his television show was among the most popular on the airwaves.

Cunningham reflected on his influence.

“He wasn’t teaching the rules of the Church. He was just teaching them how they should be,” she said. “He wanted to follow the teachings of the Church and teach others about that. He was just following what his faith told him to do.”

Cunningham couldn’t think of anyone with as much influence as Sheen, saying this was because “he appealed to all kinds of people.”

“Often the cardinals and the popes can write wonderful things about how one should behave and what you should do and the rules of the Church, but I think he went beyond the rules of the Church. He saw people as people. That was his universal appeal.”

Sheen authored many books explaining Christianity and discussing Christian devotion. Proceeds from the book sales supported foreign missions. He headed the Society for the Propagation of the Faith for years.

Cunningham said this position was his favorite role. He proved to be capable at raising awareness of the Catholic missions in other countries and in fundraising for them. He would visit the missions in Africa and other parts of the world.

Sheen was also a man of deep Christian devotion.

“I think he prayed every day that he'd do whatever God wanted him to do,” she said.

His life showed a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary and he would speak of her in many of his sermons. He helped popularize the Mary Dixon Thayer poem “Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue.”

“I don't know how many statutes of the Blessed Mother I have, because every time he would see one he'd have to buy it,” Cunningham told CNA. “His chapel in his apartment was all done in blue for the Blessed Mother.”

He went to confession weekly, engaged in frequent self-examination, and often prayed before the Blessed Sacrament.

She also recalled his kindness, sympathy, and his ability to listen and to understand people's difficulties.

“We would walk down the street in New York and there would be someone there begging. He couldn’t help but stop and talk to them and give them some money,” Cunningham said. “That was his way. He felt very badly to see so many poor people. He tried to tell people they should have a little sympathy for them and help them out.”

Being in such close contact with her uncle taught her “great faith,” she said.

“I certainly learned not to judge people by their religion or their race or anything like that. He was very open. He taught me that it doesn't matter if someone is important or just a regular person. You should treat them all the same.”

“That I remember very well, growing up. I would meet people and he would never tell me if they were very important. I just had to be gracious and talk to them like anyone else. Then later I would find out they were somebody,” she said.

Cunningham's book recounts meeting various famous people in Sheen's social circles: New York’s Gov. Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for president; the actress and philanthropist Irene Dunne; the famous journalist, radio broadcaster and gossip columnist Walter Winchell; actress Loretta Young; and the former child star Shirley Temple.

Converts aided by Sheen included prominent people like writer and politico Clare Booth Luce, but also ordinary people, like a homeless leper named Victor. Sheen’s work in engaging communists and communist polemics led to conversions of communist activists like Bella Dodd.

Another communist, Louis Budenz, personally attacked Sheen in his paper, and Sheen replied in a pamphlet. A personal encounter with Sheen deeply affected Budenz, Cunningham said, and seven years later he converted.

Cunningham’s account tells of going with her uncle to see the movie “Snow White,” to visit the ice skating rink, and to taste sweets at cafes. She recounts her memories of his vocation story, and how he integrated his work as a broadcaster, professor and author with his priesthood.

“He had a wonderful, wonderful sense of humor. He was very kind and thoughtful about everything,” she said. “I had an awful lot of fun with him, to be sure, from the time I was young to the time I had children. He was always fun.”

In some ways, Sheen was like a second father to Cunningham. He showed an ability to understand her and help her talk over questions and quandaries, even from a young age.

“if you had a quandary, he could help you find an answer to it,” she said. “He was understanding, and I think he wanted everyone to have a great faith in God and rely on God. He led me down the right path, when I would wonder about school, and of course my faith.”

His engagement with people on the street, whether admirers, critics, self-proclaimed relatives, or fallen away Catholics, also touched Cunningham. Sheen was not universally popular. Sometimes he was the subject of an angry confrontation on the street.

“He would just pretend that they were being nice to him. He would overlook it,” Cunningham said. “He always hoped that they would change their mind about it. A lot of people didn't like him, I’m sure, because of what he was teaching.”

For Cunningham, more Catholics need to continue his legacy.

“It's too bad there aren’t more people like him to carry on in the Church like he did. I think the world needs somebody like that,” said Cunningham. “If there were more people who would approach others like he did, maybe things could be turned around.”

She suspected her uncle would have this advice: “Pray to God to turn the world around. My uncle would say ‘just pray pray pray’.”

Cunningham recounts her family life and her marriage to a Georgetown Law student. Sheen gave them a copy of his book on marriage, “Three To Get Married” and helped the newlyweds find and set up their new apartment—drawing on his clergy friends to help furnish the place.

Her book has won praise from Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois, Fulton Sheen’s hometown.

“This book should be essential reading for anyone interested in the life and heroic Christian witness of Fulton Sheen,” Jenky said in a foreword to the book. “Reading Joan’s fascinating account of her beloved uncle’s story gives a richly human context to the inspiring life of this good, gifted and holy man.”

The Peoria diocese opened the cause for Sheen’s canonization in 2002, after the Archdiocese of New York said it would not explore the case. Jenky had suspended the beatification cause in September 2014 on the grounds that the Holy See expected Sheen’s remains to be in the Peoria diocese. A lengthy legal battle followed, in which Cunningham sided with Peoria and Bishop Jenky due to the work they had put into the cause of beatification.

His beatification had been scheduled for Dec. 21, 2019, but it was postponed only weeks prior at the request of Bishop Salvatore Matano of Rochester, N.Y. The bishop was concerned that Sheen could be cited in investigations into handling of sexually abusive priests and alleged cover-ups during his three years as head of the diocese. Catholic News Agency reported in December that the concern focused on Sheen’s handling of a priest who allegedly committed abuse or misconduct with adults in West Virginia, then returned to New York.

Cunningham hoped the conflict with the New York archdiocese could fade with time. She voiced disappointment with the last-minute cancellation and voiced sympathy with Sheen admirers who lost money on hotel and plane reservations.

She also acknowledged she did not understand the concerns that halted the beatification..

“My uncle had been investigated many times before Rome would even look at him as a possible candidate (for beatification),” said Cunningham.

Pope Francis on Palm Sunday: Let us stand before the crucifix in our homes

Vatican City, Apr 5, 2020 / 05:00 am (CNA).- On Palm Sunday, Pope Francis offered Mass in a nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica and urged Catholics quarantined at home to remember "what really matters" in life: loving God and serving others.

“The tragedy we are experiencing summons us to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others. For life is measured by love,” Pope Francis said April 5 in his Palm Sunday homily.

Holy Week liturgies at the Vatican are taking without the presence of the public this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

During the Palm Sunday broadcast, the pope said that Catholics can look to the suffering Christ as an example of a life lived completely in the service of others.

“In these holy days, in our homes, let us stand before the Crucified One -- look, look at the crucifix, the fullest measure of God’s love for us, and before the God who serves us to the point of giving his life, and let us ask for the grace to live in order to serve,” he said.

Pope Francis said that the coronavirus pandemic has allowed people to see that “the real heroes” are not the “famous, rich and successful people,” but are those who “are giving themselves in order to serve others.”

“May we reach out to those who are suffering and those most in need. May we not be concerned about what we lack, but what good we can do for others,” he said.

Pope Francis offered Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica with the miraculous crucifix of San Marcello and the Byzantine icon of Mary, Salus Populi Romani, near the altar. Both icons were present in St. Peter’s Square during the pope’s extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27.

“Jesus ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a servant’ ... His love for us led him to sacrifice himself and to take upon himself our sins. This astonishes us: God saved us by taking upon himself all the punishment of our sins. Without complaining, but with the humility, patience and obedience of a servant, and purely out of love,” he said.

The pope asked: “What can we do in comparison with God, who served us even to the point of being betrayed and abandoned?”

“We can refuse to betray him for whom we were created, and not abandon what really matters in our lives. We were put in this world to love him and our neighbors. Everything else passes away, only this remains,” he said.

Pope Francis said that just as God the Father sustained Jesus in the suffering in his Passion, the Lord also supports each person whose love and service of others is a via crucis in itself.

“Today, in the tragedy of a pandemic, in the face of the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the face of so many hopes betrayed, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts, Jesus says to each one of us: ‘Courage, open your heart to my love. You will feel the consolation of God who sustains you,’” Pope Francis said. 

The pope led the Angelus prayer following the Palm Sunday Mass. He urged Catholics to learn from the Blessed Virgin Mary, who gazed upon her crucified son with inner silence and “the gaze of the heart.”

“Beloved, let us set out with faith this Holy Week, in which Jesus suffers, dies and rises again. People and families who cannot participate in liturgical celebrations are invited to gather in prayer at home, also helped by technological means,” he said.

“Let us cling spiritually to the sick, to their families and to those who treat them with self-sacrifice; let us pray for the dead, in the light of paschal faith,” Pope Francis said.

US bishops: Jesus' Sacred Heart is open for you, despite 'bitter affliction' of coronavirus

Washington D.C., Apr 4, 2020 / 01:22 pm (CNA).- The novel coronavirus pandemic's effects on victims and the closure of churches have deeply pained the Catholic faithful and clergy, but Holy Week is a time to join together to seek God's mercy and love in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has said.

“In the heart of Jesus, pierced as he hung on the cross on Good Friday, we see the love of God for humanity, his love for each one of us,” Gomez said in an April 3 message for Holy Week.

“This Holy Week will be different. Our churches may be closed, but Christ is not quarantined and his Gospel is not in chains,” he said. “Our Lord’s heart remains open to every man and woman. Even though we cannot worship together, each of us can seek him in the tabernacles of our own hearts.”

“Because he loves us, and because his love can never change, we should not be afraid, even in this time of trial and testing,” said Gomez. “In these mysteries that we remember this week, let us renew our faith in his love.”

Gomez said he will pray the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Good Friday, April 10, for an end to the coronavirus pandemic. He asked Catholics to join him via internet livestream at 9 a.m. Pacific Time / noontime Eastern Time. The livestream will be hosted at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles website and the U.S. bishops' conference Facebook page.

“Let us join as one family of God here in the United States in asking our Lord for his mercy,” said Gomez, who added that Pope Francis has granted a special plenary indulgence to those who pray the litany for an end to the pandemic.

The novel coronavirus has created a situation “almost without precedent” in the Church, he said.

The virus, formally known as COVID-19, has infected over 1.1 million people and killed 63,800 worldwide as of Saturday afternoon, according to figures from the John Hopkins University COVID-19 Map. In the U.S., about 274,000 have tested positive, 36,000 have been hospitalized, and 7,000 have died since the epidemic began, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

More contagious and deadly than influenza, the virus has strained the resources of hospitals in the U.S. and worldwide. The virus has ravaged Italy and Italy's Catholics, whose dead include dozens of priests. It is especially deadly for the elderly and those with health conditions.

Many businesses and social activities deemed non-essential have been ordered closed by government authorities. Catholic churches closed, sometimes in advance of government orders, for fear of spreading the disease. The closures have caused major economic and social disruption, putting millions of people out of work.

The closure of churches and restrictions on the administration of the sacraments have been especially painful for some Catholics, a situation Gomez acknowledged.

“My brother bishops and I are painfully aware that many of our Catholic people are troubled and hurt by the loss of the Eucharist and the consolation of the sacraments,” he said. “This is a bitter affliction that we all feel deeply. We ache with our people and we long for the day when we can be reunited around the altar of the Lord to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”

“In this difficult moment, we ask God for his grace, that we might bear this burden together with patience and charity, united as one family of God in his universal Church,” he said.  

The Litany to the Sacred Heart of Jesus draws on centuries-old Christian devotions. It asks mercy from the Heart of Jesus, describing it as the “glowing furnace of charity,” “rich to all who invoke thee,” “desire of the everlasting hills,” “source of all consolation,” “our life and resurrection,” “victim for our sins,” “salvation of those who hope in thee,” and “hope of those who die in thee.”

The indulgence applies to those who pray the Litany of the Sacred Heart on Good Friday, pray for the intentions of the pope, are “truly sorry for their sins,” and desire to go to confession as soon as possible. In Catholic teaching, which recognizes that every sin must be purified on earth or in Purgatory, an indulgence remits “the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.”

Gomez said we should ask the Virgin Mary to intercede for us, that God “might deliver us from every evil and grant us peace in our day.”

His April 3 message further reflected on the situation.

“Future generations will look back on this as the long Lent of 2020, a time when disease and death suddenly darkened the whole earth,” he said. “As we enter into Holy Week, these most sacred days of the year, Catholics across the United States and the world are living under quarantine, our societies shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.”

“But we know that our Redeemer lives. Even in this extraordinary and challenging moment, we give thanks for what Jesus Christ has done for us by his life, death, and resurrection,” said Gomez. “Even now, we marvel at the beautiful mystery of our salvation, how precious each one of us is in the eyes of God.”

The Los Angeles archdiocese website has dedicated a web page to the Good Friday Sacred Heart litany and livestream.

Monks offer free caskets amid coronavirus

Denver, Colo., Apr 4, 2020 / 12:30 pm (CNA).- An Iowa monastery of Trappist monks is offering an unusual but necessary act of charity amid the global pandemic - free caskets to financially struggling families who have lost a loved one.

New Melleray Abbey has been making caskets for the public and offering prayers for the deceased since 1999. The monastery announced last week its new initiative to support families affected by COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 virus will visit many families that are financially vulnerable and unprepared. In addition to their grief, they will wonder, ; ‘Where will we lay’ our loved one who has been unexpectedly taken from us,” Father Mark Scott, the order’s abbot, wrote in an announcement of the policy.

“To financially stressed families directly impacted by the COVID-19 virus, the monks of New Melleray offer free of charge pine caskets made from trees from the abbey forest,” he added.
 
New Melleray Abbey supports itself by building solid wood caskets made from fully matured trees harvested at the order’s acreage in Dubuque County, Iowa.

All of the donated caskets will be blessed and, as the order continues to pray for the deceased, the monks will send a card of remembrance to families on the first anniversary of the person’s death. The order also plants a tree for each casket made, as a living memorial.

Marjorie Lehmann, director of administration for New Melleray Abbey, told CNA that the order has already received a few requests for free caskets since the initiative was announced March 25.

“The free casket offer is a temporary measure designed to provide some financial relief to families who are undergoing financial distress because of COVID-19,” she said.

While the monks live a hidden life of prayer, she said, they are keenly aware of the current events. She said the order has provided this service to be close to the pandemic victims, and provide a service to those families facing financial difficulties as well.

“In the crisis of COVID-19, [they] make the offer of the casket as an expression of their solidarity with all those who are suffering because of the virus,” Lehmann said.

“They believe that it's a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead and … since they are a cloistered group of monks, this is how they can reach out to the world and help in a time of need.”

More than one million people have been infected with the novel coronavirus and more 50,000 have died. More than 10 million people in the U.S. have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks, as mandatory lockdowns have forced numerous businesses and organizations to close their doors.  

Lehmann said the virus is a potential danger for anyone, noting that the full ramifications of the pandemic have yet to be seen.

“[It] could really be anyone who might be out of a job because their workplaces needed to close down because of this pandemic. It really could be anyone finding themselves in financial stress or needing that comfort of burying their loved one and a small part of relief in their life from a donated casket,” she said.

“[It’s] honoring someone's life, respecting the person that passes away is honoring that person's life and validating that person's life,” Lehmann added.

“People need people to show compassion. This is a very small gesture of something that a lot of people would need in this pandemic. So to be compassionate and know that people are not alone, that we're thinking of them, we're praying for them, and we're here to help in this manner. There's no reason not to do it.”

 

How the Phoenix diocese is helping families celebrate Holy Week at home

Phoenix, Ariz., Apr 4, 2020 / 12:01 pm (CNA).- Holy Week this year is going to look different for almost every Catholic in the United States.

On Palm Sunday, people will wave last year’s palms, or this year’s pine branches, or, if they’re lucky, palms from their parish, from the confines of their home instead of the pews of their parish. On Holy Thursday, feet will be washed by a family member, or not at all. For the veneration of the Cross, Catholics will kiss their personal crucifixes instead of lining up to kiss the crucifix at their parish. Candle-lit Easter Vigils will be celebrated by solitary priests livestreaming Mass from empty chapels.

It’s going to be different, and it’s going to be hard. That’s why a group of priests and laypeople at the Diocese of Phoenix compiled “A Journey Through Holy Week for Families”, an online flipbook resource to guide Catholic families through celebrating Holy Week from their homes.

“We had a meeting last week...specifically about Holy Week and how to enter into Holy Week knowing that we couldn't have public Masses at this time,” Fr. John Parks, the Vicar for Evangelization for the Diocese of Phoenix, told CNA. “We just thought - what are ways that we could really strengthen the family and invite the family to pray as the domestic Church?” he said.

“You're not going to be able to see the washing of the feet at Mass. So can we include a little rite from home that a family could do the washing the feet of their family members?” Parks said.

“Or on good Friday, again, you can't see or experience the veneration of the Cross at Mass, could we equip a family to do a little veneration of the Cross from home?”

After the brainstorming session, Parks’ colleague compiled all the readings, prayers and resources into a 150 page online “flipbook” for families. The books covers the Mass readings as well as prayers and other liturgically-themed activities from Palm Sunday through the Triduum and Easter Sunday, as well as the readings and resources for Divine Mercy Sunday, which comes eight days after Easter.

The online book includes links to videos that include everything from livestream Masses from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Phoenix to talks by Bishop Robert Barron to recordings of songs to sing during prayer time at home.

It also includes links to recipes, virtual pilgrimages, coloring pages for kids, a guide to cut out palms from green construction paper, and a Holy Thursday puppet show script.

“There is so much...there's all these different activities and songs you can play. So my only fear that it'd be a little overwhelming. But we’re trying to tell parents, just pick two or three things and have a little game plan for the day,” he said.

“So it’s like reading a playbook for sports - they don't run every play, you just pick the play that you think will help your team, so that's what we're thinking of.”

Parks said while he understands that this Holy Week will be different than what families are used to experiencing, he thinks that this is a special time of grace for families, who are acting as the domestic Church.

“I really believe that God is pouring out a grace now to strengthen the domestic Church in the family. And that there's a great thing poured out specifically for parents, to live deeper in their natural authority that they have over their children, to make them saints and to help them,” he said.

“This little book, it's like ‘ut vadat tecum’, in Latin, ‘to go with’ you. It goes with you. It's a tool that we hope to put in the hands of parents and pastors to help them equip families to walk through this week,” he said.

“That would be my desire, is that even though people can't participate in public liturgies, there's still a way to participate, to a lesser degree of course, but from the home. And I think for some families that might be unique. They've never done a washing of the feet. They've venerated the Cross. They've never prayed the Stations of the Cross in their own home. It can be a really beautiful moment of experiencing holy things in the home.”

Sin starts with giving in to small temptations, Pope Francis warns

Vatican City, Apr 4, 2020 / 03:51 am (CNA).- Before we commit a sin, there were usually small temptations which we let grow in our soul, eventually making excuses for ourselves and our fall, Pope Francis said during Mass Saturday.

“That process which makes us change our hearts from good to bad, which takes us downhill,” he said April 4, is “something which grows, slowly grows, then infects others and ultimately excuses itself.”

Speaking from the chapel of his Vatican residence, the Casa Santa Marta, the pope advised first seeking forgiveness, and then reflecting on the temptations which preceded your fall into sin, considering also whether you have led others to sin.

“When we find ourselves in a sin, in a fall, yes, we must go to ask the Lord for forgiveness, it is the first [step] that we must take,” he urged.

But then ask yourselves, he said: “How did I come to fall there? How did this process start in my soul? How did it grow? Who have I infected? And how in the end did I justify myself for falling?”

Francis argued that “the devil is cunning” and usually tempts people to sin gradually: “it starts with a little thing, with a desire, an idea grows, infects others and ultimately, justifies itself.”

This process of temptation is illustrated in the day’s Gospel from St. John, he said.

In the Gospel, the chief priests and the Pharisees have met to discuss Jesus, who is causing them anxiety because through his signs, many Jews have begun to believe in him, and they feel they must do something.

The high priest Caiphas said Jesus should be killed, defending the decision with his prophecy, saying “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people.”

Quoting the Gospel, Francis said “from that day therefore they decided to kill him.”

He explained that the Pharisees and chief priests justified killing Jesus to themselves, because if they did not, the occupying Romans “will destroy our temple and our nation,” but what brought them to this decision was a gradual process that “began with small concerns in the time of John the Baptist and then ended in this assembly.”

After this meeting, “everyone went home quietly,” the pope noted. They felt this was the decision they had to make.

This, the pope said, is “a figure of how temptation operates in us.”

Before Mass, Francis had noted that in difficult times, such as the present coronavirus pandemic, people are given the opportunity to do good.

But there are also plenty of people, he said, who take advantage of the moment for their own profit.

“Let us pray today that the Lord give us all a righteous conscience, a transparent conscience, which can be seen by God without being ashamed,” he urged.

In his homily, the pope recalled once again that behind every sin there is temptation, “which started small, which has grown.”

“All of us, when we are overcome by temptation, end up calm, because we have found a justification for this sin, for this sinful attitude, for this life not according to the law of God. We should have the habit of seeing this process of temptation in us,” he advised, adding that “the Holy Spirit enlightens us in this inner knowledge.”

 

Palm supplier sees business halved by coronavirus cancelations

Denver, Colo., Apr 3, 2020 / 11:55 pm (CNA).- Thomas Sowell and his wife own Southeast Palm and Foliage in Astor, Florida, in the middle of the state, about 40 miles west of Daytona Beach.

“It's in the middle of nowhere, actually,” Sowell told CNA in January.

Sowell isn’t Catholic, but his business supplies palms to hundreds of Catholic parishes across the country— in every state, as well as in Canada— not to mention the many Episcopal, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran communities that also use palms.

Last year, the Sowells’ farm shipped over four million palm leaves.

“There's not many of us that do this. There's not many people, not many companies do what we do,” Sowell told CNA.

“I know that there have been, over the past, say, 50 years, quite a few other companies embark upon this, but for whatever reason they couldn't hang in there with it. It's really difficult.”

Sowell never imagined how difficult this year’s harvest would turn out to be.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, and with Mass suspended through Holy Week in every Catholic diocese in the United States, the Sowell’s business is taking a hit.

“We had an incredible number of cancellations up until two weeks ago,” he told CNA April 2.

Most of his orders for Palm Sunday come in during January, he said. This gives the palm suppliers the chance to harvest the palms, package them, and refrigerate them so they stay fresh before they’re shipped.

Normally, some of the biggest challenges to Tom’s business are natural, such as hurricanes and flooding. In terms of the weather, this was a great harvest year, he said, and they were able to gather all the necessary palms to fulfil the Palm Sunday orders they originally had. The process of cutting, cleaning and preparing the strips of palm is incredibly labor intensive.

But then, as the coronavirus pandemic took a hold in the US, parishes started canceling those orders.

“So here we are with an incredible amount of palms left over that were scheduled to be prepared and shipped...we just lost that,” Sowell said.

Altogether, Sowell said his family will likely ship fewer than half the palms they did last year.

“It's unbelievable. It's hard to grasp what's going on globally,” he said.

Though Sowell also uses leftover palms to create ashes for Ash Wednesday, he has such a large enough stockpile of ash— eight to ten years worth, in fact— that he said it doesn’t make sense to burn any more palms, especially since ash doesn’t go bad.

All the extra palms are currently in a dumpster on his property. The only thing he can really do with them, he said, is use them as fertilizer for next year’s crop.

“So we'll just take them out, spend a few days to drive through the areas where they came from and just scatter them back out again,” he said.

Kate Olivera contributed to this report.

US religious freedom ambassador calls for release of prisoners of conscience

Washington D.C., Apr 3, 2020 / 07:00 pm (CNA).- The U.S. religious freedom ambassador on Thursday called on governments to release prisoners of conscience during the new coronavirus pandemic.

“In this time of pandemic, religious prisoners should be released.  We call on all governments around the world to do so,” Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, said on April 2 during a conference call with reporters.

He said that the “very crowded, unsanitary conditions” faced by some prisoners is a nightmare scenario during a pandemic.

“These are people that should not be in jail in the first place,” he said. “They are simply in jail for peacefully practicing their faith, and yet various regimes put these peaceful prisoners in jail.”

An official U.S. list of global prisoners of conscience was mandated under the 2016 Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan federal commission that makes policy recommendations to the State Department, is charged with creating the list. USCIRF says the list is “in formation.”

Brownback did note specific areas of concern for prisoners of conscience, however, he praised Iran’s furloughing of 100,000 prisoners of conscience, but added that some “high-profile religious prisoners” are still detained there.

In China, as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities are detained in camps in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province (XUAR) in the country’s northwest.

Although the country has officially reported only 76 COVID-19 cases in the region, diaspora groups are concerned that the actual number of cases is much higher—and of the potential for the disease to spread in the mass internment camps where hunger and torture have been reported.  

Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong members have also been imprisoned for their faith in China, and should be released, Brownback said.

He also called on the government of Vietnam to release 128 prisoners of conscience, for Russia to release “nearly around 240 prisoners of conscience,” Eritrea to release 40 prisoners, and for Indonesia to release more than 150 people detained for violating the country’s blasphemy laws.

When asked by reporters if he was concerned about any countries in particular, Brownback responded “Iran, simply because it’s got hit big early and you’ve got a number of notorious prisons that are there that are quite overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.”

“North Korea has a very high number [of prisoners],” Brownback said, who “would be under exceeding exposure to COVID.”

Vulnerable religious populations elsewhere could also be at risk of the pandemic, he said, including Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh. “When we talk about a crowded place,” he said, “if COVID got going there it would just spread like wildfire.”

A Nigerian cardinal, he said, also commented that the country would not have the resources necessary to deal with a serious outbreak.

USCIRF has also voiced concerns that governments could use the pandemic to crack down on religious minorities, or violate freedom of religion.

The commission issued a fact-sheet on March 16 outlining some of its concerns, including Muslim Uyghurs being forced to work on factories around China despite health concerns, churches in South Korea subject to harassment for their alleged role in spreading the virus, and Saudi Arabia issuing a travel ban on a predominantly Shi’a Muslim province.

But on Thursday, Brownback said that, according to “anecdotal information,” governments around the world were not citing the pandemic to crack down on religious minorities.

He said that “fortunately the reporting that we are seeing is that governments are, by and large, not doing that and in some cases being more lenient towards religious minorities.”

He also called on churches and religions around the world to practice “social distancing” to slow the spread of the virus.

“I haven’t been to mass myself in several weeks, and it’s the longest period I’ve gone without going to mass, and I think people should be doing this to stop the spread of the virus,” Brownback said.

Filipino seminary shelters tourists trapped on holiday

CNA Staff, Apr 3, 2020 / 06:19 pm (CNA).- A Filipino seminary has opened its doors to over a dozen trapped tourists, who have been stranded since a mandatory lockdown was extended last month.

Saint Joseph Seminary in Puerto Princesa is providing shelter to 18 people now stranded in Palawan province following a forced extension to their holiday.

The tourists began their vacation March 11, but government orders placed Palawan on a more enhanced lockdown, canceling all domestic and international flights March 17-April 12.

Instead of returning home, the travelers were staying at guest houses until they ran out of money for food and lodging. Local officials then asked help from the Vicariate Apostolic of Puerto Princesa.

“I told them that we are ready to help and they can stay as long as they need shelter. The seminary will be open to cater to the needs of people in a similar situation, especially in this time of crisis,” said Father Roy Vasquez, the seminary rector, according to the UCA News.

While resources are limited, the priest expressed hope for future donations and gratitude for those who have been kind enough to share already.

“Of course, our resources are limited. So, eventually when they run out, we will ask for help or donations. But so far people are sharing their blessings, so we are really very thankful,” he said.

NY Catholic nursing homes in 'desperate need' of supplies to fight coronavirus

New York City, N.Y., Apr 3, 2020 / 05:30 pm (CNA).- The threat of the coronavirus has hit nursing homes of the Archdiocese of New York especially hard, with families now being advised to bring their loved ones home if possible.

Fr. John Anderson, vice president for mission integration at ArchCare, a “post-acute delivery system” of the Archdiocese of New York, told CNA on Friday that the system’s CEO has advised families with loved ones in ArchCare nursing homes to bring them home if they can be cared for there.

NBC News reported on Thursday that ArchCare’s nursing homes have been especially hard-hit by the crisis, with more than 200 COVID-19 cases among residents.

“Our nursing homes are desperately in need of PPE [personal protective equipment],” Fr. John Anderson told CNA.

As to whether families are starting to bring their loved ones home, “I have not seen a lot of that going on,” Fr. Anderson told CNA on Friday.

ArchCare serves 9,000 people each day in nursing homes, a long-term care program, and a specialty hospital.

New York City has become the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic, with the number of confirmed cases skyrocketing from more than 5,700 cases on March 20 to more than 57,000 confirmed cases and 1,584 deaths as of April 3.

Yet a lack of PPE—particularly in nursing homes—poses a critical problem for chaplains. The shortage is so acute in the region that health care staff have been asked to use one mask all week long when they would previously have changed it between patients.

The health department “asked us to not only use it [the mask] all week, but to do whatever we can to use it the week after,” Fr. Anderson said.

Availability of PPE makes the difference between chaplains’ ability to have a face-to-face visit with a sick patient, or to stand in the doorway a safe distance away, he said. Without PPE, priests cannot administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick which requires the direct anointing of the patient with blessed oil.

“Chaplains are there to pray,” he said, but “can only spend so much time with a patient” during the crisis.

Two ArchCare chaplains have tested positive for COVID-19, he said, but other archdiocesan priests have volunteered their services, “very willing to help.” The archdiocese is also monitoring the situation for elderly nuns in convents, who are more susceptible to the virus.

Another difficulty is families of sick patients not being able to visit them in the hospital or nursing home—“hard to see,” Fr. Anderson said.

There are also no funerals, but simply burials with up to 10 people who can attend, spaced apart.

With Easter approaching, nursing home residents and hospital patients may not be able to attend Mass in person but are still ministering to patients as best they can.

“We have gotten palms” for nursing home residents, Fr. Anderson said ahead of Palm Sunday, with accompanying prayer cards in English and Spanish. Priests will also offer Holy Week Masses in a chapel to be filmed and projected onto living room TVs for the elderly patients.

The Order of Malta is making Easter cards for residents in one program, Fr. Andreson said, while the Knights of Columbus are also making Easter cards for patients.

“Folks have been very generous and have really come forward,” he said.