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Italian priest recounts harrowing escape from Kabul

ROME (CNS) -- Although Barnabite Father Giovanni Scalese, head of the Catholic mission in Afghanistan, found himself back in his native Italy after the fall of the Afghan capital, his thoughts remained on the church he was forced to leave behind.

"We continue to pray for Afghanistan. We cannot abandon this country and its suffering people," Father Scalese said in an interview published Aug. 26 with SIR, the news agency of the Italian bishops' conference.

Father Scalese was among thousands of foreigners who had to flee the country after the Taliban, an extremist Islamic movement that ruled Afghanistan until ousted by a U.S.-led coalition nearly 20 years ago, took control of the country prior to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

He, along with five Missionaries of Charity nuns and 14 orphaned and disabled children and young adults in their care, landed safely at Rome's Fiumicino airport Aug. 25.

According to a report by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the orphans, many of whom are in wheelchairs, are between the ages of 6 and 20.

"Our center is no longer open, it is closed and we are destroyed," a Missionary of Charity nun from Madagascar told La Repubblica. "It is done, there is no hope in Kabul.”

"I said it and I have done it," Father Scalese told the Italian newspaper. "I would have never returned to Italy without these children. We couldn't leave them there.”

The Italian priest was appointed by Pope Francis in 2014 as the superior of the Catholic Church's mission in Afghanistan. St. John Paul II, as pope, established the mission "sui iuris" in Afghanistan in May 2002, led by the Clerics Regular of St. Paul, known as the Barnabites.

The pontifical mission is housed in the Italian embassy, which was the largest contributor to the U.S.-led international military coalition. The sole parish in Afghanistan, the Chapel of Our Lady of Divine Providence, is located at the embassy.

The mission's work is limited to charitable and humanitarian activities because the Islamic faith is recognized as the state religion in the country of 37 million people "and conversion to other religions is a crime of apostasy," Father Scalese explained.

"Since its inception, the Catholic mission has never baptized any Afghans because this is stipulated in the agreements from the beginning," he added. "Our presence is exclusively at the service of non-Afghan, foreign Catholics. The Missionaries of Charity work with the Afghans in a totally neutral way ... and do not proselytize.”

Father Scalese told SIR that although he "felt concerned" after the Taliban took over the capital, he felt safe being inside the embassy.

"Outside the gates of our embassy there were Taliban (fighters) who, if they had wanted to harm us, could have done so. But absolutely nothing happened," he recalled. "I was more worried about the (Missionaries) of Charity, who had remained in their homes and were therefore more exposed and afraid.”

Nevertheless, Father Scalese said that while waiting to board the next available flight, "we never felt alone," and both church and state authorities were in constant contact with them.

Pope Francis "was interested in the matter and followed it," he said.

The Barnabite priest said the group attempted to leave the country several days before their arrival in Rome, only to be forced to turn back from the airport "because the situation was deteriorating.”

"We only managed to get through the entrance the other night. It was not easy to pass through so many people and the enormous tension," he said.

"The Taliban, among other things, had issued a warning that they would close the roads to the airport to Afghans, allowing only foreigners to pass through," Father Scalese added. "As soon as we arrived, we were put on a military flight that, after a stopover in Kuwait, arrived in Rome.”

Father Scalese told SIR that in his seven years in Afghanistan, he did not expect "such a sudden and abrupt conclusion.”

While the threat of the Taliban regaining control of the country was known, "we all hoped for a more negotiated conclusion" aimed at finding a compromise that would lead to the formation of "a transitional government or one of national unity," the priest said.

Instead, "within a few days everything collapsed: government, army, police forces. The Taliban did not fight to seize power, they just took it over. It was a good thing in part because they avoided a huge bloodbath. There have been deaths, but it is not a civil war," he said.

Although the Taliban have promised no revenge or retaliation against Afghan citizens who collaborated with U.S. and NATO forces, Father Scalese said many of those who helped had already fled the country.

Furthermore, he said, "those who are leaving the country these days are well-educated, prepared people. Their departure is an impoverishment for Afghanistan. I hope that the new Taliban regime will respect what it has declared in these days: no revenge.”

Father Scalese told SIR that despite his abrupt departure, "if the conditions were right for a return, I would have no problem returning.”

"But it doesn't depend on me. If the Holy See believes that there are conditions to resume the mission, why not?" he said.

"We are not concerned with politics but in serving the Afghan people," Father Scalese added. "It is not up to us to decide who should govern this country.”

Catholic Medical Association joins lawsuit over HHS ‘transgender mandate’

PHILADELPHIA (CNS) -- The Philadelphia-based Catholic Medical Association Aug. 26 joined in a lawsuit challenging the Biden administration's mandate that doctors and hospitals perform gender-transition procedures on any patient despite any moral or medical objections of the doctor or health care facility.

"Biological identity must remain the basis for treating patients," said Dr. Michael Parker, president of the association, a national, physician-led community of more than 2,300 health care professionals in 114 local guilds.

The suit was filed Aug. 26 in U.S. District Court by Alliance Defending Freedom, a national faith-based nonprofit in Arizona that focuses on legal advocacy.

Other joining the suit are Dr. Jeanie Dassow, a Tennessee OB-GYN doctor who specializes in caring for adolescents, and the American College of Pediatricians, made up of more than 600 physicians and other health care professionals in 47 states who treat children.

A news release said the association and the college joined the suit on behalf of their members. It was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee in Chattanooga.

The suit over what it opponents call a "transgender mandate" names as defendants Secretary Xavier Becerra, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Robinsue Frohboese, acting director and principal deputy of the HHS Office for Civil Rights.

Alliance Defending Freedom's attorneys argue in the filing that HHS has reinterpreted Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits sex discrimination, "to include gender identity and thus require gender-transition interventions, services, surgeries, and drugs on demand, even for children, no matter a doctor’s medical judgment, religious beliefs or conscientious objection." If doctors and hospitals do not comply, they will be held liable for discrimination.

"This mandate not only puts the health and safety of our patients in jeopardy, but it in effect also mandates that health care providers give up their fundamental right to conscience," Parker added in a statement. "This sets a dangerous precedent with incalculable implications for the ethical practice of medicine.”

Ryan Bangert, the alliance's senior counsel, said in a statement: "The laws of our land and the medical profession have long respected the biological differences between boys and girls and the unique needs they each present in health care.”

"Forcing doctors to prescribe transition hormones for 13-year-olds or perform life altering surgeries on adolescents is unlawful, unethical and dangerous," he said.

On Aug. 9, a U.S. District Court judge ruled to block the so-called "transgender mandate" in its current form as proscribed by the Biden administration.

Judge Reed O'Connor of the District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Wichita Falls ruled in Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra.

Franciscan Alliance, based in Mishawaka, Indiana, is a Catholic health care system now known as Franciscan Health that operates hospitals serving Indiana and one hospital in Illinois and employs over 18,000 full- and part-time employees.

"The Christian plaintiffs contend that violation of their statutory rights under RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) is an irreparable harm," O'Connor said in his ruling.

"The court agrees," he said, "and concludes that enforcement of the 2021 interpretation (of Section 1557) forces Christian plaintiffs to face civil penalties or to perform gender-transition procedures and abortions contrary to their religious beliefs -- a quintessential irreparable injury.”

"The court grants plaintiffs' request for a permanent injunction and permanently enjoins" HHS, Becerra and all HHS-related divisions, agencies and employees "from interpreting or enforcing Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act.”

In 2020, the Trump administration put in place a final rule that eliminated the general prohibition on discrimination based on gender identity and also adopted abortion and religious freedom exemptions for health care providers. But the courts blocked this rule change.

In 2021, shortly after he was inaugurated, President Joe Biden issued an executive order declaring his administration would apply in all areas -- including the ACA -- the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Bostock in 2020 that discrimination based on sex outlawed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers people who are gay or transgender.

O'Connor's ruling is "a victory for common sense, conscience and sound medicine," said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, based in Washington. He is the lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Franciscan Alliance case.

On Jan. 19, the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota in Fargo blocked the mandate in ruling in in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Franciscan Alliance/Franciscan Health, and the Christian Medical and Dental Associations. The states of Texas, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska and Wisconsin also joined in the suit.

The Biden administration filed an appeal of that ruling April 20 with the U.S Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis.

Pope meets with genocide survivor who inspired his Iraq trip

VATICAN CITY (CNS) ─ Pope Francis held a private audience with Nadia Murad, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and survivor of the Islamic State-led genocide in Iraq, Aug. 26 at the Vatican.

While the Vatican did not release any details about the visit, Murad tweeted Aug. 27, "We discussed the importance of support for #Yazidis & other minority communities in Iraq. In light of the heart-wrenching events in #Afghanistan, we exchanged ideas on championing women & survivors of sexual violence."

"I thank @Pontifex for welcoming me to the Vatican once again," she tweeted, along with a photo of the pope looking through a book and Murad holding a copy of the document on "Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together," which Pope Francis and Egyptian Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, signed in 2019.

The pope had met Murad previously at the Vatican at the end of a general audience in St. Peter's Square in May 2017 and privately in December 2018, after she and Denis Mukwege were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for "their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict."

She is the first Iraqi and Yazidi to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

She survived a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis by Islamic State militants in Iraq in 2014. The militants kidnapped her, and she escaped captivity after three months.

In an Aug. 16 tweet commenting on recent events in Afghanistan, she wrote: "My heart breaks for the next generation of girls & women whose nation has been overtaken by the Taliban. Kabul fell on the same day my village fell to ISIS 7 years ago. The international community must address the repercussions before tragedy is repeated."

Murad has been leading efforts to raise awareness about the plight of the Yazidi people, the need to hold ISIS accountable and to advocate for women in areas of conflict and survivors of sexual violence. She is the U.N. goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking.

She founded Nadia's Initiative and seeks to meet with world leaders to convince "governments and international organizations to support sustainable redevelopment of the Yazidi homeland," according to the initiative's website.

Pope Francis told reporters flying back to Rome from Iraq March 8, 2021, that one of the reasons he became convinced he had to visit the nation was after reading Murad's memoir, "Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State."

A reporter had given him a copy of the book, he said, and "that book affected me."

He said when he met Murad, she told him "terrible" things and "then, with the book, all these things together, led to the decision, thinking about all of them, all those problems."

"At certain points, since it is biographical, it might seem rather depressing, but for me this was the real reason behind my decision," he said.

Mercy on Woodward: How Catholic Charities is making a real difference (VIDEO)

DETROIT — At the Center for the Works of Mercy, kind-hearted volunteers are making a tangible difference every day.

Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s newest service location on Woodward Avenue in Midtown Detroit includes a food pantry, clothing closet, dental and medical clinic, and a host of services to those down on their luck, seeking help or simply in need of a listening ear.

Detroit Catholic’s video crew spoke to volunteers, clients and guests during a recent visit to learn why these services are so needed in Detroit — and how the center is making Christ’s love the center of everything it does. 

Video by Andrew Kleczek

Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Annual Celebration

In-person registration for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Annual Celebration on Sept. 11 at the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Detroit is sold out, but registration for the virtual livestream is still available for $25. 

This event will include a performance by Catholic singer, storyteller, and inspirational speaker ValLimar Jansen. Proceeds from the event support Catholic Charities’ offices and ministries throughout Metro Detroit, which serve an estimated 20,000 individuals each year. 

As Afghanistan convulses, Catholic organizations help refugees in U.S.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- An already tense situation in Afghanistan took a turn for the worse early Aug. 26 when two explosions near the Kabul airport led to casualties and injuries still being calculated.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said in an Aug. 26 video news conference that 12 U.S. service members were killed and 15 were wounded in the attack.  

"While we're saddened by the loss of life, both U.S. and Afghan, we're continuing to execute the mission," said McKenzie, adding that an extremist Islamic State group was behind the attack involving suicide bombers.

Afghans, U.S. citizens and others eager to leave the country had been flocking to Kabul's international airport after a Taliban takeover in the capital in mid-August when the Afghan military collapsed following withdrawal of U.S. troops and contractors.

On the other side of the world, the Catholic Church, particularly in the U.S., has been "involved in the reception and establishment" of those seeking safe haven, participating in the effort with other faith-based aid groups and organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, said Bill Canny, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While some of those fleeing are U.S. citizens, many are refugees who don't have family members in the country nor have been in the U.S. before and left their lives behind at a moment's notice with little beyond what they could carry.

"These are people who have been persecuted in their countries and they need new homes, their kids need to get into schools, they need to find work," said Canny in a Aug. 25 telephone interview with Catholic News Service, speaking about the dire situation unfolding by the minute in Afghanistan.

Faith-based groups, including Catholic organizations, also have been calling on the Biden administration to speed up the evacuations.

"Our government owes a debt of service to the Afghan people, not to mention the moral responsibility it has to help the women and children of Afghanistan who are now in imminent danger. The National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd calls on President Biden to immediately not just to welcome but to fervently work to get out those in danger," said Fran Eskin-Royer, the organization's executive director, in an Aug. 26 statement.

Anna Gallagher, executive director for Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., said Aug. 24 on Twitter that Afghans had "risked their lives for us, and we must now make every effort to protect theirs."  

The George W. Bush administration sent troops to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, trying to pin down al-Qaida militants who planned the attack, including Osama bin Laden, who was believed to be in and out of Afghanistan hiding with help from the Taliban.

U.S. troops remained there under previous administrations from both political parties and in October 2020, President Donald Trump tweeted that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Christmas. Biden continued with the plan but with a different timeline. However, analysts have blamed all previous administrations-- from George W. Bush to Biden -- with the unfolding drama.

Some Catholics say what is important is to help those affected by it.  

"All politics must remain out of this decision. These are our brothers and sisters, and we must receive them with great dignity and respect," Gallagher said.

President Joe Biden said Aug. 22 that the military had evacuated 28,000 people since Aug. 14 from the Kabul airport and seemed set on an Aug. 31 full withdrawal of troops in what analysts said was to prevent precisely the kind of attack that took place Aug. 26.

McKenzie said at least 1,000 Americans were still in Afghanistan and the U.S. would do everything possible to get them out, "but not everybody wants to leave," he said.

For its part, the church has been helping Afghans as best as it can, given that certain systems to move refugees along, in the U.S., are "still slow and recovering from the previous administration," said Canny.

"Over the last month, we've begun to rebuild the system in preparation of more arrivals ... since those arrivals haven't been able to get started, it's a good moment to welcome those families being resettled," Canny said.  

The U.S. has been using domestic military bases to process and house Afghan refugees, including at El Paso's Fort Bliss in Texas, Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, Fort Lee in Virginia, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.

The challenge is that facilities at those military installations have only been put up recently, Canny said.

"We have staff in each one with exception of Fort Lee. ... We want to make sure we do a review of their legal status. They would only be in the installation for a week and are given assistance with mental health and wellness, if they need it, make sure they're OK, make sure the kids are OK," said Canny.

Local news reports out of New Mexico also said Holloman Air Force Base was waiting for indications it would be a place to welcome refugees.

Parishes and Catholic laypeople around the country who want to help can do so in a variety of ways, said Canny.

"The best thing for parishes to do is get in in touch with local Catholic Charities who are involved in the national effort," Canny said. "Call their dioceses and find out what's going on (locally). Also, look at what other churches are doing in an ecumenical (effort) to provide refugees, people who are here out of fear for their lives, the best welcome, because they aided our government.”

People can also donate to Catholic Charities as well as to organizations listed in the MRS resources page at www.justiceforimmigrants.org/afghanistan. There also may be opportunities for people to open up their homes to refugees in the short-term as they move into some cities where the housing markets are expensive, Canny said.

"We're grateful for the opportunity to help," Canny said. "We don't consider 'we're saving these people,' who are in effect saving us by giving us the opportunity to help. ... This is what our church does and it's founded on the Gospel and it includes the life of Jesus and Mary and Joseph as they fled for safety.”

May They Rest in Peace: Sr. Mary Nugent, OP

Sr. Mary Nugent, OP, formerly known as Sister Clare Patrick, died on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, at the Dominican Life Center in Adrian. She was 92 years of age and in the 69th year of her religious profession in the Adrian Dominican Congregation.

Sister Mary was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Patrick and Margaret (McKeigue) Nugent. She graduated from St. Albans Girls High School in St. Albans Herts, England, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech from Siena Heights (College) University in Adrian, and a Master of Arts degree in English from DePaul University in Chicago.

A Memorial Mass will be Friday, Aug. 27, at 10:30 a.m. in St. Catherine’s Chapel in Adrian.
Sr. Mary Nugent, OP

Sister spent 39 years ministering in education in Adrian, Ruth, Utica and Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan; Swanton, Ohio; Wilmette, Oak Park and Hinsdale, Illinois, and West Palm Beach, Florida. Sister ministered in several Congregational institutions; she taught for nine years at Regina High School in Wilmette, Illinois; she was principal for eight years at Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida; she was teacher and secretary for two years at St. Joseph Academy and served one year on the faculty at Siena Heights College (University), both in Adrian. She ministered for three years as academic dean at Marymount International School in Surrey, England. Sister also served for eleven years in secretarial work in Chicago, Brookfield, Oak Park, Riverside and Downers Grove, Illinois. She became a resident of the Dominican Life Center in Adrian, Michigan, in 2004.

Sister Mary was preceded in death by her parents and four sisters: Margaret Nugent, Eleanor Siedmon, Betty Page and Patricia Digenan. She is survived by a sister, Clare Halpin, loving nieces and nephews and her Adrian Dominican Sisters.

Due to COVID-19 mitigation protocols, the Dominican Life Center is closed to all guests or visitors until further notice. All are welcome to participate in Sister’s wake and mass via live stream at http://www.adriandominicans.org/LiveStream.aspx 

Rite of Committal (burial) for Sister Mary was held Sunday, 8/22/21, in the Congregation Cemetery.  A Memorial Mass will be Friday, Aug. 27, at 10:30 a.m. in St. Catherine’s Chapel. The Ritual of Remembering will be held Friday, 8/27/21, at 1:30 p.m. in the Rose Room at the Dominican Life Center. Memorial gifts may be made to Adrian Dominican Sisters, 1257 East Siena Heights Drive, Adrian, Michigan, 49221.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Anderson-Marry Funeral Home, Adrian.

Sister ministered in Michigan over 8 years:

  • St. Joseph Academy, Adrian (1953-55): Kindergarten Teacher/Secretary
  • Saints Peter & Paul High School, Ruth (1961-62): High School Teacher
  • St. Lawrence High School, Utica (1962-65): High School Teacher
  • St. Paul High School, Grosse Pointe Farms (1965-66): High School Teacher
  • Siena Heights College (University), Adrian (1969-70): College Teacher

Obituaries for clergy and religious who have lived or served in the Archdiocese of Detroit may be emailed to [email protected] Obituaries are printed as they are submitted, but may be edited for grammar and style. Detroit Catholic reserves the right to refuse or edit any submissions.

May They Rest in Peace: Sr. Anne Elizabeth Monahan, OP

Sr. Anne Elizabeth Monahan, OP, formerly known as Sister Margaret George, died on Aug. 20, 2021, at the Dominican Life Center in Adrian, Michigan. She was 86 years of age and in the 71st year of her religious profession in the Adrian Dominican Congregation.

Sister Anne Elizabeth was born in Clinton, Massachusetts, to George and Mary (Langen) Monahan. She graduated from St. Joseph Academy in Adrian and received a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in History from Siena Heights College (University) in Adrian and a Master of Science degree in Guidance from Barry College (University) in Miami, Florida.

A Mass of Christian Burial was offered in St. Catherine Chapel in Adrian on Thursday, Aug. 26.
Sr. Anne Elizabeth Monahan, OP

Sister Anne Elizabeth ministered for 50 years in education in Chicago, Illinois; Detroit and Adrian, Michigan; Melbourne, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce, Riviera Beach, and West Palm Beach, Florida; including 13 years as principal at St. Anastasia School in Fort Pierce and nine years as principal at St. Ann School in West Palm Beach. She ministered as the director of religious education for 14 years and as a volunteer tutor for six years, both in West Palm Beach. Sister became a resident of the Dominican Life Center in 2021.

Sister was preceded in death by her parents. She is survived by two sisters: Mary Wiggs and Faye Monahan; loving nieces and nephews and her Adrian Dominican Sisters.

Due to COVID-19 mitigation protocols, the Dominican Life Center is closed to all guests or visitors until further notice. All are welcome to participate in Sister’s wake and funeral via live stream at http://www.adriandominicans.org/LiveStream.aspx 

The Vigil Prayer will be held at 7:00 pm, Wednesday, 8/25/21, in St. Catherine Chapel. A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered in St. Catherine Chapel at 10:30 am, Thursday, 8/26/21. Prayers of Committal will be held in the Congregation Cemetery. Memorial gifts may be made to Adrian Dominican Sisters, 1257 East Siena Heights Drive, Adrian, Michigan, 49221.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Anderson-Marry Funeral Home, Adrian.

Sister ministered in Michigan 10 years:

  • Precious Blood School, Detroit (1953-58): Elementary Teacher
  • St. Mary School, Adrian (1958-59): Elementary Teacher
  • St. Suzanne School, Detroit (1959-63): Elementary Teacher

Obituaries for clergy and religious who have lived or served in the Archdiocese of Detroit may be emailed to [email protected] Obituaries are printed as they are submitted, but may be edited for grammar and style. Detroit Catholic reserves the right to refuse or edit any submissions.

Diaspora and disease: Pope will face pressing issues on next trip abroad

VATICAN CITY (CNS) ─ Pope Francis' upcoming trip to Hungary and Slovakia, while seemingly standard as papal visits go, could prove to be among his most challenging visits at a time when distrust in government authorities and the looming threat of the delta variant are leading the headlines.

When he visits Slovakia Sept. 12-15, Pope Francis, who throughout his pontificate has strongly denounced corruption and organized crime, will be seen as an important advocate after several tumultuous years that saw massive protests in the country and a series of changes of governments. Since 2018, two governments were ousted because of corruption.

Most recently, "at the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic, the government in Slovakia changed," said Jesuit Father Vlastimil Dufka, who will direct the choir at the pope's Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows in Sastin Sept. 15.

"The previous government was marked by many corruption cases, and the arrival of a new government brought new hope to our country," he told Catholic News Service.

But recent legislation requiring vaccinations sparked protests in the country, causing divisions and tensions, including within the Catholic Church.

"Without any preparation, from one day to the next, the bishops' conference ordered the receiving (of) Communion by hand, not by mouth, which was unusual in our country," Father Dufka told CNS. "With the third wave of the pandemic coming, all who wish to attend the meeting with Pope Francis will have to be vaccinated, which is unacceptable to many."

Father Martin Kramara, spokesman for the Slovak bishops' conference, told Catholic News Service Aug. 20 that the government's mandate for all participants of papal events to be vaccinated "is no small challenge to organize."

"People will have to be divided in sectors and not allowed to change them. We must keep their phone numbers and emails to be able to trace contacts" in case someone in the sector later tests positive for COVID-19, Father Kramara explained.

"We already see it is discouraging many from participation. But we live in conditions of the pandemic, and we have to adjust to the measures in order to protect lives," he said.

Despite the challenges, Father Kramara said the pope's visit to the country, especially to a homeless shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity and to Slovakia's Roma community, are a much-needed reminder of the church's primary mission.

The pope, he said, wants to show the local church and religious communities' "sacrificial activities for the benefit of the poor and needy, those who are on the periphery of society, and he reminds us of the important truth that living faith must always be connected with active love in deeds."

Father Kramara told CNS that since St. John Paul II visited in 2003, "Slovakia has changed both religiously, culturally and politically."

"It is surely more secularized," he said. "We are aware of these changes and strive to find correct answers to them, in faithfulness to God's word. In spirit of everything, I hope that the reverential respect and love for the bishop of Rome will continue to be very visible, and with God's help we will experience it even now."

Long mired by accusations of corruption, the government of former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico came to an end after the murder of Ján Kuciak, an investigative journalist, and his fiancee, Martina Kusnírová, in 2018.

Massive protests engulfed the country after the double homicide, with many believing that the young couple were murdered due to Kuciak's reporting of government corruption and connections between members of the ruling Direction-Social Democracy party and the Italian organized crime syndicate, 'ndrangheta.

Fico resigned that same year and his deputy prime minister, Peter Pellegrini, was appointed his successor. However, Pellegrini was ousted in the 2020 elections in which the Ordinary People party, an anti-corruption movement, won a majority of parliamentary seats.

For Father Dufka, Pope Francis' presence at the Marian basilica in Sastin, an important place of pilgrimage for Catholics in the country, will help "strengthen our own spiritual identity."

"I believe that the visit of the Holy Father to Slovakia will be a new impetus for strengthening the unity of the ecclesial community," Father Dufka told CNS. "I hope that this visit will strengthen the sensitivity to important accents of the pontificate of Pope Francis presented in his encyclicals, especially the sensitivity to the poor and to issues of ecology."

The pope's trip begins in Budapest, Hungary, where he will preside over the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress Sept. 12.

While the main purpose of the pope's trip to Hungary is to celebrate the closing Mass, the pope will meet with Hungarian President János Áder and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, before flying out the same day to Bratislava, Slovakia.

That meeting with Orbán, as well as the brevity of his visit -- a mere seven hours -- was the subject of much speculation.

The Hungarian prime minister, who often has portrayed himself as the standard bearer for European Christianity, finds himself at odds with Pope Francis, particularly when it comes to immigration.

According to the Financial Times, during a 2017 speech to European center-right leaders, Orbán said "migration turned out to be the Trojan horse of terrorism" that threatened Europe's "Christian identity."

His views stand in stark contrast to those of Pope Francis, who has denounced growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and abroad and said the exclusion of migrants was the result of the "privileges of the few, who, in order to preserve their status, act to the detriment of the many."

"This is a painful truth; our world is daily more and more elitist, more cruel toward the excluded," the pope said in 2019 during a Mass commemorating the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.

After meeting the two leaders in Budapest's Museum of Fine Arts, the pope will meet with the country's bishops, representatives of other Christians churches and Jewish communities in Hungary.

According to statistics published in the CIA's World Factbook, in Hungary, Catholics make up 37.2% of the population while 11.6% are Calvinist, 2.2% are Lutheran and 1.8% are Eastern Catholic.

The World Jewish Congress stated on its website that between 75,000 and 100,000 Hungarian Jews live in the country, making it the largest Jewish community in Central Europe.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju

Roots of Peace founder fears for her nearly 400 employees in Afghanistan

SAN FRANCISCO (CNS) ─ Roots of Peace founder Heidi Kuhn is on a deadline-driven, life-or-death mission to get her nearly 400 employees out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31.

The Taliban took over the organization's compound in Kabul Aug. 15.

President Joe Biden vowed Aug. 24 in a statement with G7 leaders to stick to the end-of-the-month deadline he set to complete evacuation of "Americans, third-country nationals and Afghans who were allies in the war."

In an Aug. 25 news conference, the Taliban announced that Afghans will no longer be able to leave the country.

Kuhn, a Catholic mother of four from San Rafael, California, launched rootsofpeace.org in 1997 to clear war-scarred fields in Afghanistan and other countries of land mines and convert them into life-sustaining farmland.

In Afghanistan alone, Roots of Peace has helped plant over 5 million trees, created over 100,000 full-time jobs and facilitated exports of fruits, nuts and spices to new markets that by 2020 valued $1.4 billion.

The Taliban's attack on the Roots of Peace compound in mid-August occurred as local workers began the year's harvest of grapes and other fruits of the vine.

In addition to working to secure the safety of her Afghan workers in Kabul, Kuhn and her organization are helping rural farmers throughout the country bring the harvest to market without interruption. The loss of the ready crops and resulting income would further devastate the country and its people, Kuhn said.

"This is a heartfelt reconnaissance mission," Kuhn said in an Aug. 24 call to Catholic San Francisco, news outlet of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. She was calling from an undisclosed location in the Middle East where she traveled with her husband, Gary.

In an Aug. 22 Facebook post, Kuhn reported chaos at the airport serving Kabul.

"It has been a heartbreaking week to see Afghan mothers hand their babies over razor wire fences into the arms of unknown soldiers, as they seek safety among the masses trampling in fear at the airport," she said.

Kuhn said she and her organization pose a triple threat to the Taliban: She is American, she is female and she is Catholic. She fears for her staff, especially the women.

"We have just six more days," she said. "I haven't been able to get one person out. It's a sinking feeling to think I might not be able to do that."

Kuhn said she has a "sacred obligation" to help Afghans forced to flee their homeland. She is looking to lawmakers, religious leaders and the global Catholic community for decisive action, financial assistance and prayers.

In an Aug. 14 letter to Biden, Kuhn implored him to help Afghan civilians working for U.S. nongovernmental organizations escape the country.

"Mr. President, please act now to protect these most endangered individuals, especially our female staff members, who have bravely implemented American development goals," she wrote.

 Roots of Peace also is providing direct aid to over 500,000 internally displaced people in Afghanistan who are refugees in their own country.

Donations received at rootsofpeace.org are being used to buy food, clothing, tents and blankets for families displaced from their homes in the Taliban takeover.

"We really need donations," she said when asked how Catholic San Francisco readers can help. "I've never asked for that before, but I'm asking now for the sake of thousands of frightened families suddenly on the streets in Afghanistan."

"I'm asking for backup from the Catholic community," she said.

In an Aug. 25 statement, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone said he would "ask all of our national political leaders to do whatever they can." He noted he has made a personal donation to Roots of Peace and urged others do the same.

"The crisis unfolding in Afghanistan as we speak is unspeakably sad and horrifying," the archbishop said. "It is also unspeakably urgent that we call in solidarity for action by the U.S. government to protect these people."

"For all Catholics," he added, "I am requesting your urgent prayers to Our Lady of Sorrows on behalf of these workers (with Roots of Peace). This is just one tragedy of many that will unfold as Christians along with Muslim Afghans who worked with Americans are targeted by the Taliban."

He also called for prayers for school students from the Cajon Valley School District in Southern California "who traveled for a summer experience in Afghanistan, relying, one supposes, on the well-meaning reassurances that all would be well. They are now trapped according to reports in the media."

The Los Angeles Times and other media outlets are reporting that more than 20 students and 16 parents and chaperons from the district in El Cajon, California are among the thousands of people who are waiting to leave the country amid a chaotic U.S. withdrawal and political unrest.

"Personally, this starts to hit close to home for me as I have four cousins who attended schools in the Cajon Valley School District years ago," Archbishop Cordileone said.

"I ask for your prayers that these American children will be rescued from grave danger, along with their parents and chaperons. In dark and dangerous times, Christ Jesus gives us the courage to hope," he added.

On Aug. 26, at the Kabul, Afghanistan, airport, where the U.S. military members and others continued to evacuated people amid ongoing chaos, two explosions ripped through the crowd gathered just outside the airport.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby announced at 1 p.m. (EDT) that were dozens of fatalities but he did not give a number. Early news reports said that among those killed were four U.S. Marines, but later reports put the number at 12 U.S. service members -- 11 Marines and one Navy medic. There were no details about how many Afghans and other civilians were killed.

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Gray is associate editor of Catholic San Francisco, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Contributing to this story was Julie Asher in Washington.

Despite shifting protocols, Catholic schools cautiously optimistic as year begins

Archdiocese leaves flexibility for local schools to decide what’s best; Oakland County becomes first to mandate masks for students, staff

DETROIT — As Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit begin the 2021-22 academic year, the first days are marked with more than just the regular excitement of students being reunited with friends and beloved teachers in the hallways, the thrill of new school supplies and the anticipation of beloved events like school plays and homecoming dances. 

This year, the theme is one of hope and cautious optimism. 

“The kids were excited to be here and back to what they considered normal. It was an exciting, great day,” David Evans, principal of Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School in Marine City, said of the first day back Monday, Aug. 23. “I pray nightly that we don’t have to return to the way things were, but we are ready to pivot if we need to.”

Across the Archdiocese of Detroit, principals and educators are expressing a similar sentiment, one of hopeful enthusiasm, even as the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant threatens to upend life once again. 

As it did last year, the Archdiocese of Detroit issued a health and safety guide for archdiocesan schools, encouraging in-person education even as schools continue to keep extra sanitizing measures in place such as state-of-the-art air filtration systems, hand sanitizer stations and outdoor activities as much as possible. 

Fr. Bob McCabe, pastor of Divine Child Parish in Dearborn, gives a socially distanced “fist bump” to a student returning for her first day of class on Aug. 23. (Courtesy of Divine Child Catholic Schools’ Facebook page)

The archdiocese’s guidelines, recommended by a school-based task force led by Vic Michaels, assistant superintendent of student services and athletics, recommends indoor masking for all students, faculty, staff and visitors — while leaving decisions up to each school’s discretion. 

Vaccines also aren’t mandated, though strongly encouraged as “an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good.”

While the archdiocese itself isn’t issuing mandates, Michaels emphasized that schools are required to follow local and state ordinances — which, he admitted, are changing by the day. 

On Aug. 24, Oakland County became the first county in the Archdiocese of Detroit to mandate mask-wearing for K-12 schools — a decision that will impact private schools as well as public schools. Catholic schools in Oakland County are legally required to comply with the order. 

“The return-to-school task force felt that because of the wide range of school communities in the Archdiocese of Detroit and wide range of enrollment numbers and locations with various community positivity rates and vaccine rates, we didn’t feel that we could mandate that all of them mask,” Michaels told Detroit Catholic, while emphasizing that Oakland County’s mandate still legally applies to Catholic schools.

A student chats with principal Bro. Ken Kalinowski, FSC, at De La Salle Collegiate High School in Warren on the first day of school. (Courtesy of De La Salle High School)

“We felt the best thing we could do is require that they encourage masks but not mandate,” Michaels added. “There is just such a variance in our school communities. For example, our high schools have the ability to be vaccinated, where our K through sixth schools don’t have that opportunity.”

Prior to Oakland County’s mandate on Aug. 24, Michaels said 14 elementary schools and two high schools within the archdiocese had decided to be fully masked. 

At St. Patrick School in White Lake, principal Jeremy Clark said when students return to class on Aug. 30, they’ll be met with some changes and adjustments. 

“We go by what the Oakland County Health Department and the Archdiocese of Detroit says, and I think there’s already been some changes as far as dividers and spacing,” Clark said. “We’ve learned a lot over the past year and a half about how this spreads and the measures we can take to be preventative.”

Clark, who spoke with Detroit Catholic before Oakland County’s mask mandate went into effect, originally said the school was planning to make masks optional. 

While that may change now, Clark said a big emphasis will be on working with parents to ensure kids practice good hygiene, stay home when they’re sick, and take care of themselves.

The Archdiocese of Detroit is recommending indoor masking and vaccines for all students, faculty, staff and visitors, but decisions are left up to each individual school. However, county health department mandates, such as Oakland County’s mask mandate, are legally binding upon all schools, public and private. (Photo courtesy of Austin Catholic High School) 

“We’re going to put a lot back on the parents, making sure we’re not sending kids to school sick,” Clark said. “Making sure they’re partnering with us on proper hand-washing, proper hygiene, making sure they’re taking their vitamins and getting exercise, because Vitamin D and exercise are a great way to fight off illness as well.”

Clark added the school has purchased H13 medical-grade air filters for every classroom, and is taking other measures to ensure kids and teachers stay healthy.

“For the warmer months, we’ll open windows. We have tents we purchased last year for outdoor classes, and a lot of teachers made use of that last year,” Clark said. “I think there’s a lot of different measures you can take.”

“Our teachers are taking it seriously,” Clark added. 

The school is planning on bringing back some traditions, he said, such as an inter-grade “buddy” system, in which older students work with their younger counterparts, including “church buddies” and “prayer buddies.”

“Last year, we couldn’t have ‘buddies.’ We usually have our eighth-graders and first graders partner up,” Clark said. “We would like to be able to bring that back.”

For Cardinal Mooney, a return to normal means Masses will once again be held in the church next door and not in the gym. Sporting events will also now allow for more spectators. 

Students at Cardinal Mooney High School in Marine City attend their first all-school Mass of the year at Holy Cross Catholic Church, a return to normal after Masse last year were held in the school gym. (Courtesy of Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School)

For now, while sanitizing stations are still in place, students are no longer greeted by temperature check kiosks and divided hallways when they walk into the school, Evans said.

“All of that has been stored because we are going to be optimistic that we don’t have to have it although it is readily available,” Evans said.

At Austin Catholic High School in Chesterfield Township, principal Janel Coppens said while the school is facing challenges because of a statewide teacher shortage, they are excited to be able to maintain some sense of normalcy for their students. 

“We are looking forward to getting back to as normal as possible, and hopefully the return of some of (the students’) favorite events,” Coppens said. “One of the core values of our small school is unity. We do a lot of community-building events, and we are looking forward to having some of that stuff back that makes us who we are.”

Detroit Catholic Schools

To learn more about COVID-19 protocols in the Archdiocese of Detroit, or to contact individual schools, visit DetroitCatholicSchools.com. Follow Detroit Catholic Schools on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram