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Not me: The moral dilemma of seeking vaccine exemptions

VATICAN CITY (CNS) ─ Getting vaccinated is "an act of love," Pope Francis said in his latest urgent appeal, after more than a year of insisting COVID-19 vaccines be equitably available worldwide for everyone to get inoculated.

Nonetheless, some Catholics have been wondering if they should seek a religious exemption from an immunization requirement with vaccines tested or produced with cell lines originally derived from aborted fetuses more than 50 years ago.

 Individuals are free to make a decision on getting the vaccine. Some, like the Archdiocese of New York, have said for Catholics, refusing the vaccine would be based on a personal belief, not Catholic teaching, as the Vatican and pope have made it clear some vaccines for COVID-19 are permissible and it's a moral duty to get vaccinated.

Because there has been "overwhelming consensus within the Catholic magisterium" for years on the permissibility of using such vaccines in the absence of alternatives, "to counsel people that it is legitimate to refuse the vaccines on religious grounds -- and, in fact, to facilitate it -- is to actively assist people in mal-forming their consciences," said M. Therese Lysaught, a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

"In fact, in actively assisting people to put the lives of others at risk, such advocates assist them in being indifferent to and even assisting them in doing evil. This sins against charity. This is the Catholic definition of scandal," said the professor at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Healthcare Leadership of the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University in Chicago.

She and other experts in bioethics or moral theology responded by email Aug. 19 to a series of questions by Catholic News Service.

Vaccinations, like all medical interventions, are voluntary -- a right that is upheld by the church and democratic societies.

However, Lysaught said vaccinations are also "morally obligatory" when they are seen as an "ordinary means" of protecting human life.

According to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, "An ordinary or proportionate means is one that offers a reasonable hope of benefit and does not entail an excessive burden or impose excessive expense on the family or community," she said, saying that COVID-19 vaccines meet those requirements.

Lysaught said: "Vaccines are clearly 'ordinary means,' and ordinary means are morally obligatory" -- assuming, there are no associated medical or health risks for that individual. Catholic tradition teaches that "voluntarily protecting our own life and health and the life and health of others is an overriding theological and moral commitment," she said.

Many organizations and places of work or study have requirements that people are asked to voluntarily comply with, and if people don't, "then they must be willing to bear the costs of their conscience. That's how conscientious objection works," she said.

In the case of vaccine refusal, the doctrinal congregation said in its 2020 note on the morality of using some anti-COVID-19 vaccines that people "must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent."

That's because, while people have to be willing to bear the consequences of their objection, they cannot impose those consequences on others, Lysaught said.

"This is a crucial -- and unacceptable -- moral difference from a Catholic perspective. We are allowed to accept martyrdom for ourselves, if God so calls us; we are not allowed to martyr others," she said. If people's objection to vaccination "helps impede the achievement of herd immunity and helps to fuel the development of new variants, many others will bear the costs of their exemption as well."

Stefano Semplici, another corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said many of the reasons for vaccine refusal and hesitation "are in many cases the same as those put forward regardless of religious grounds," that is, they have little to do with a religion's teachings.

Reasons more often reflect: concerns about a vaccine's risks, which may be "magnified by the circulation of often-misleading news and information; an underestimation of those (risks) related to the disease, especially among young people; the idea of self-determination as inviolable when considering a health treatment; and the difficulty of communication between the scientific community and public opinion," said Semplici, a professor of social ethics and bioethics at Rome's Tor Vergata University.

This almost sacred sense of "self-determination" can be seen in the recent "My Body. My Choice" signs, protesting against mask mandates and vaccination requirements.

Vaccines, however, are "a fundamental question of public health," Semplici said, and limits on personal freedom have to be considered when they affect the welfare of others.

A democratic government allows exemptions to particular mandates out of respect for people's sincerely held beliefs and personal limitations or health risks.

So it is important people not be misled and become "sincerely convinced that the vaccines are somehow 'morally tainted' and that being vaccinated will somehow involve them in the evil of abortion," Lysaught said.

She said if too many people refuse to be vaccinated, "more people will get sick and die, especially the poor, the ill, the incarcerated, the elderly, pregnant women," essentially, "throwaway people," who are sacrificed not only to economics "but to the theoretical moral purity of pro-life individual consciences."

When there is no regard to how many people might be harmed or die "for their 'choice,' she said, "it is, ironically, a 'morality that kills.'"

Fr. Wieging ‘never left’ families of Flight 255 crash victims, even after 34 years

Priest who ministered to families after Michigan’s 1987 plane crash, dug for survivors in wake of 9/11 remembered for heroic compassion

ECORSE — As the news of Michigan’s worst air disaster in history began reaching the ears of area residents the evening of Aug. 16, 1987, Fr. James Wieging was already en route to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in River Rouge and chaplain of the Wayne County Sheriff’s department had heard about the deadly crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255, and he knew he was needed. 

When another chaplain phoned to ask for help at the scene, Fr. Wieging didn’t hesitate.

As the families of 156 people who perished desperately awaited word about their loved ones, Fr. Wieging comforted them, keeping vigil into the early morning hours the next day, holding candles, consoling grieving families, praying with those on the ground and listening and crying with friends and relatives.

“My parents actually met him the night of the plane crash,” recalled Tony Zanger, a member of St. Mary Parish in Monroe and the brother of Michael Zanger, who died in the Flight 255 crash along with Michael’s fiancée, Hollins Langton. “He said, ‘I’m here for you.’ And he was. He never left us.”

Over the next 34 years, Fr. Wieging refused to leave, helping organize and ministering to a support group of families that formed shortly after the crash.

A copy of The Michigan Catholic newspaper from Aug. 21, 1987, features coverage of Fr. Wieging’s ministry to families in the wake of the Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crash. (Detroit Catholic archives)

It wasn’t until his death on Aug. 11 that Fr. Wieging, 79, ended his decades-long service as a chaplain and friend to those whose lives were irreversibly changed that day.

“He gave us hope,” Zanger said. “That’s what he did. He gave us hope when we felt very hopeless.” 

“I feel today a sense of great loss; it’s like another pall of sadness has overcome our family members,” Zanger added. “Our family and my brother’s fiancée’s family seemed to connect extra specially with him.”

Fr. Wieging was a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit for 54 years, ordained June 3, 1967, at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. 

After brief assignments as associate pastor of St. Lawrence Parish in Utica (1967-71) and St. David of Wales in Detroit (1971-73), Fr. Wieging became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in River Rouge, where he remained for the next four decades until the parish merged with St. Francis Xavier in Ecorse to form St. Andre Bessette Parish in 2012.

In addition to his parish work, Fr. Wieging served as a chaplain of the Detroit Police Department and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department — where he was serving at the time of the plane crash — and later became a chaplain at the airport itself.

Because of his experience ministering to Flight 255 families, Fr. Wieging was asked by the FBI to counsel first responders at Ground Zero in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He remained there for two weeks — including over his 60th birthday — searching for survivors, comforting families and praying with first responders.

“The compassion this man had for everybody was just impeccable,” Zanger said. “He was cleared by the FBI to go to Ground Zero on 9/11, and he grabbed a shovel and helped dig for survivors. When he found human remains, he blessed every one of them.”

Mourners place flowers and American flags at the names of victims at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City Sept. 11, 2020. (Carlo Allegri, Reuters | CNS photo) 

Even at his parish, Fr. Wieging’s penchant for saying the right thing at the right time helped Sharon Resst and her daughter cope with the grief of losing her daughter’s father unexpectedly.

“When my daughter’s father passed away, I couldn’t think of a better priest to help us through that,” said Resst, bookkeeper at St. Andre Bessette Parish in Ecorse who worked with Fr. Wieging for two years from 2010-12 at St. Francis Xavier in Ecorse. “The words he used stuck with you.”

Fr. Wieging wasn’t the timid type, those who knew him admit. 

His matter-of-fact, pull-no-punches personality allowed him to cut to the chase, both in his personal life and his parish work — a trait those around him appreciated, even if they didn’t always like what he had to say.

“He was a very strong, independent individual,” Zanger said. “He never beat around the bush. If you had a question, he would answer it. You didn’t always get the answer you wanted, but he gave you an answer.”

Despite that, Fr. Wieging had a soft side, Resst said. For instance, he loved to collect teddy bears and figurines, which he kept catalogued in the parish rectory.

“He loved children,” Resst said. “When he first was appointed pastor (at St. Francis Xavier in 2011), he wanted to have a social gathering, but not anything fancy. He wanted animal crackers, fruit punch and a balloon release for the kids. He was very, very simple.”

Born Sept. 27, 1941, in Monroe, Fr. Wieging lived in Ohio as his father served in World War II. Returning to Michigan after the war, the family settled in Ecorse, where the young James Wieging attended St. Francis Xavier Parish and school — the same parish he would return to lead half a century later.

After graduating from Sacred Heart Seminary High School and College and St. John’s Provincial Seminary, he was ordained a priest in 1967.

Fr. Wieging was appointed pastor of nearby Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in 1973, at the time the youngest pastor in the archdiocese at age 31. He remained at Our Lady of Lourdes for 39 years, guiding the parish through the difficult process of closing its school, demolishing its old church and the construction of a new church.

In 2011, he took over responsibility for St. Francis Xavier as the two parishes began the process of merging. Over the years, Fr. Wieging also served as temporary administrator of St. Timothy in Trenton, Our Lady of the Woods in Woodhaven and St. Elizabeth in Wyandotte.

In addition to his parish and chaplaincy work, Fr. Wieging taught in the religious studies department at Madonna University in Livonia for 26 years, and was the state chaplain of the Daughters of Isabella. He served for 46 years as a member of the International Conference of Police Chaplains, including as its vice president in 1981 and president in 1983.

He was a member of the archdiocesan Presbyteral Council (1999-2003) and vicar of the Downriver Vicariate (1980-82).

Fr. Wieging is survived by his sisters Lucille (Dave) Pohlman of Delphos, Ohio, and Barbara (Mike) Meachum of Conifer, Colo. He is also survived by his honorary son Nick (Nikki) Zajas of Howell; nephews and nieces. He was preceded in death by his parents Albert and Mildred (Hoersten) Wieging, his sister Janice (Robert) Conrad and her daughter-in-law Darlene Conrad.

His funeral Mass was celebrated Aug. 17 at St. Andre Bessette Parish in Ecorse. Burial is in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Wyandotte.

Zanger said the families of Flight 255 have braced for the day when Fr. Wieging would no longer be around — but that doesn’t make the loss any easier.

“I just feel very lost without him,” Zanger said. “He even said to me once, ‘You know, there's going to come a time when I'm not going to be here,’ with his big burly voice that he had. And I said, ‘Father, what are we supposed to do?’ And he said, ‘You family members will figure it out, and I expect that you will carry on.’ And that's what we're going to do.”

German bishops concerned prenatal Down syndrome test will become routine

BERLIN (CNS) ─ German bishops are concerned that a decision guaranteeing German health insurers will pay for pregnant women's blood tests to detect Down syndrome will lead to abortion.

Matthias Kopp, spokesman for the German bishops, said that already about 90% of cases in which an embryo has an extra chromosome result in termination of pregnancy, reported the German church news agency KNA. He expressed concern that the prenatal test eventually would be applied on a routine basis.

"We as a church are observing with concern that the new, noninvasive prenatal diagnostical test procedure very often does not follow therapeutic aims," Kopp said. "On the contrary, in the view of the church, these tests promote an alarming trend in the direction of a regular selection."

What was needed was early information, counseling and support in which the issue of termination of pregnancy was not the focal point, he said.

A joint federal parliamentary committee gave the approval for the change, which is expected to take effect in the spring of 2022, KNA reported.

Criticism of the decision has not just come from the Catholic Church, KNA reported.

Peer Brocke, spokesman for Bundesvereinigung Lebenshilfe, a national association involved in supporting people with disabilities, expressed his concern about an increasing discrimination against people with impairments. He said that the new regulation contradicted the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Caritas Pakistan plans for humanitarian crisis at Afghanistan border

LAHORE, Pakistan (CNS) -- Caritas Pakistan has alerted its diocesan units bordering neighboring Afghanistan to help refugees fleeing the Taliban's takeover of the country, reported ucanews.com.

Thousands of Afghans have entered Pakistan via the Chaman border crossing, one of the most active trade and travel routes between the countries, according to media reports.

However, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad claimed Aug. 18 there were no refugees entering the country, nor has Pakistan made preparation for Afghans seeking refuge.

Amjad Gulzar, executive director of Caritas Pakistan, told ucanews.com more than 200 families have already arrived in urban areas of Quetta.

Caritas Pakistan staffers in Quetta and Islamabad-Rawalpindi "have positioned themselves so that we can respond to the emerging humanitarian crisis," he told ucanews.com.

"Pashto-speaking staff may be engaged in both field offices. Refugee crises are often protracted and require strategies that reflect both short-term needs -- water, first aid, immunization -- and mid- to long-term challenges such as mental health, trauma, chronic diseases and education. Staff have been alerted to avoid any controversial social media posts about the Taliban," Gulzar said.

Caritas Pakistan has had a meeting with the Afghan Refugees Commissioner Office in Peshawar to pledge its cooperation.

In a statement issued Aug. 17, Aurat (women) March urged Pakistan to open its borders.

"Pakistan has a moral obligation to open its borders to our neighbors in need and to ensure the rights of refugees as per its international law obligations. We must agitate to reform our policies toward existing and new refugees," it stated.

Pakistan is not a party to the 1951 Geneva Convention, nor the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. However, Caritas Pakistan worked with Afghan refugees in the '70s, '90s and early 21st century.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, 1.4 million Afghan refugees still live in Pakistan, with more than 300,000 in the southern sea port of Karachi. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the north has 43 refugee camps for Afghans.

Catholic New Yorker continues quest for accountability 20 years after 9/11

After seeing the Taliban's sweep through Afghanistan to retake governing control, Colleen Kelly wonders if accountability for the death of her brother in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York 20 years ago and the subsequent war in Afghanistan will ever be achieved.

"This is really a hard week. It just feels like nothing has really changed," Kelly told Catholic News Service Aug. 17, her voice cracking.

She has found herself repeatedly returning to thoughts of her brother, Bill, and the pain inflicted on him and nearly 3,000 others who died in the collapse of the towers, at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania. There's also the emotional pain of surviving family and friends who experienced loss.

Just the same, Kelly has been reflecting on the anguish and loss experienced by Afghan families, particularly during the presence of the U.S.-led coalition forces between 2001 and their recent withdrawal. She wonders how they'll fare under the resurgent Taliban.

"In between these two endpoints (9/11 and the Taliban's return), there's been so much unnecessary suffering and loss. It really puts me back into those feelings of 20 years ago, of a loss that was very, very personal," said Kelly, a member of Fordham University Church in New York.

For nearly two decades, Kelly has worked to address her concerns about the use of violence -- whether it is initiated or in response to a violent act. She considers any form of violence of a violation of human rights.

She has carried out her efforts through September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization she co-founded in the weeks after her brother's death as coalition forces mounted a military response in Afghanistan to the airliner attacks.

Kelly is troubled "that our loss was being invoked to ultimately cause so much suffering in others elsewhere."

When Kelly met others who had a friend or family member who was a 9/11 victim and who were just as concerned about the escalation of violence in response to terrorism, the organization was born. The founders, she said, wanted a new way forward.

"My focus is outward. It has been for a long time," Kelly explained. "Yes, it (the organization) was grounded in our personal loss, but it looked outward and it looked forward. That's one of the great strengths."

Yet the events of recent weeks are causing Kelly to "look backwards" and confront her pain anew.

Kelly's Catholic faith has sustained her work for justice; prayer grounds her within God.

"Prayer is also kind of connecting us to the suffering of others. My belief is, in some small ways I don't understand, certainly to alleviate the suffering of others," Kelly said.

Being grounded in God keeps her focused, moving ahead on the work of promoting peace while seeking accountability from all parties -- for those who committed the crime of taking down the buildings and those who carried out war in response.

Kelly's work these days includes focusing on the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where dozens of men, some with suspected ties to terrorist organizations, remain held, some since 2002.

She works alongside organizations such as Witness Against Torture to get the detainees released. About 39 men remain detained, The New York Times reported July 19. The tally reveals seven have been charged within the military commission system, three have been proposed for charges and two more have been convicted. Ten detainees are awaiting release and 17 others have been recommended not to be released.

Overall, about 780 people have passed through the prison.

Kelly said she has visited Guantanamo 13 times. She wants to see as many detainees released as possible, particular those not facing military charges.

That "the work isn't over" motivates Kelly.

"The work is really about the United States response to 9/11 and that work certainly is not ended with the withdrawal of troops (from Afghanistan), the military commissions (tribunals at Guantanamo) -- that work is not over," she told CNS.

Neither is her quest for accountability.

"No one has ever been tried and prosecuted for the events of 9/11. Not a single person. (Al-Qaida leader Osama) bin Laden was killed extrajudicially. We know very, very, very little about how 9/11 happened," Kelly said.

"It sounds odd to say that because for most people it's kind of a closed chapter. But we know almost nothing about the nitty-gritty inner working of how 9/11 happened. There's never been a trial or evidence presented in court," Kelly continued.

Kelly also called for the full 2014 report of the U.S. Senate select committee that investigated the Central Intelligence Agency's detention and interrogation program to be released -- without the redactions.

Such steps would promote "collective healing," for the country, Kelly explained.

"Until there's accountability to what happened and the aftermath of what had happened, there's a gaping wound in the nation. Then the notion of restorative justice can begin. There has to be accountability for the harm committed. We've never had that personally nor collectively," she said.

"Whether it's my brother's life, whether it's the life of an Afghan citizen or an Iraqi or one of the 9/11 accused, the value and dignity of every person, we have to uphold that."

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski

Indiana Catholic hospitals set timelines for worker-required vaccinations

INDIANAPOLIS (CNS) ─ Two major Catholic health care systems with hospitals in the Indianapolis Archdiocese and throughout Indiana are among a growing number of Catholic health care providers across the nation requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Both Ascension and Franciscan Alliance issued statements this summer about vaccine requirements that impact its hospital employees and the people they serve.

Ascension has set a timeline of Nov. 21 for its employees to be vaccinated. Franciscan Alliance's timeline for "all co-workers and medical staff members" to be vaccinated is Aug. 31.

In announcing its requirement, Ascension released a statement noting that its decision is "rooted in our mission commitment to leading with quality and safety. As a health care provider and as a Catholic ministry, ensuring we have a culture of safety for our associates, patients and communities is foundational to our work."

The vaccine requirement extends to all employees "whether or not they provide direct patient care, and whether they work in our sites of care or remotely," the statement noted.

It also said the policy includes "associates employed by subsidiaries and partners; physicians and advanced practice providers, whether employed or independent; and volunteers and vendors entering Ascension facilities."

Ascension said the timing of its Nov. 21 requirement aligns with its annual flu vaccination requirement.

"In those instances when someone may not be able to get vaccinated due to a medical condition or strongly held religious belief, Ascension will provide a process for requesting an exemption similar to the process we use for the annual influenza vaccine."

Ascension emphasized that its COVID-19 vaccine requirement is being made with one goal in mind: "Together, we will put this pandemic behind us so that we can continue to focus on meeting the needs of those who come to us for care."

That's also the goal of Franciscan Alliance.

Its vaccine requirement is in response to how the delta variant of COVID-19 has led to a dramatic surge in infections across the country, according to a statement from the health care provider.

"Franciscan Alliance's leadership believes it is in the best interest of our patients, visitors and staff to take the next step to promote and facilitate health and safety," the group's statement said.

It said that by Aug. 31, "all co-workers and medical staff members will be required to submit a copy of their state-issued proof of vaccination or a Franciscan laboratory test result for a test performed in August affirming that they have a sufficient level of immunity to the COVID-19 virus."

The leadership of Franciscan's health care system also said that in the near future "we anticipate the need for all co-workers, medical staff members, volunteers, students and contracted workers to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus."

The timing of that target date will be made once the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the COVID-19 vaccine, the statement noted.

"We are convinced this decision aligns with our mission and is supported by overwhelming medical evidence," it added.

The statement also thanked employees who have made "many personal sacrifices to provide safe, reliable and effective care during the pandemic."

"As we continue together on this most challenging journey," it said, "we have an obligation to those we are privileged to serve and protect them and ourselves from the spread of this debilitating and deadly disease."

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Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Courage needed to place needs of others first, Cardinal Parolin says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The sense of shared responsibility for the common good requires the courage to place the needs of others before one's own, a Vatican official wrote on behalf of Pope Francis.

In a message sent Aug. 19 to the 42th Meeting in Rimini, an annual event sponsored by the Communion and Liberation movement, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said the pandemic has reawakened "fundamental questions about the meaning of existence and the utility of living that had been dormant or, worse still, censored for too long.”

"Society has a vital need for people who are responsible," the cardinal said. "Without a person there is no society, but a random aggregation of beings who do not know why they are together. The only glue left would be the selfishness of calculation and self-interest that makes us indifferent to everything and everyone.”

The theme of the Aug. 20-25 meeting -- "The courage to say 'I'" -- was inspired by a quote from the diary of 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

The event's theme, Cardinal Parolin said, was "extremely significant" at a time when the world needs "to start off again on the right foot, so as not to waste the opportunity provided by the crisis of the pandemic.”

For many, he continued, the pandemic has inspired a sense of personal responsibility in those who, "faced with sickness and pain, faced with the emergence of a need, many people unflinchingly said, 'Here I am.'”

Drawing once again from the meeting's theme, Cardinal Parolin said that for others, the idolatry of power and money often places individual needs over the collective good, "with an 'I' focused on its own needs and subjective rights rather than an 'I' open to others, striving to form the 'we' of fraternity and social friendship.”

"The Holy Father tirelessly warns those with public responsibilities against the temptation to use people and discard them when they are no longer needed, instead of serving them," he said.

In today's world, he added, there is a need for people to say "'I' with responsibility and not with selfishness, communicating with his or her own life that the day can begin with reliable hope.”

"Where, then, can the courage to say 'I' come from?" the cardinal asked. "It comes from that phenomenon called encounter. Only in the phenomenon of encounter is the possibility given to the self to decide, to make itself capable of welcoming, of recognizing and welcoming.”

By encountering Christ, he added, Christians can find the courage to hope because it is "the risen Lord who is our security, who makes us experience profound peace, even in the midst of life's storms.”

Cardinal Parolin conveyed Pope Francis' hope that the participants of the Meeting in Rimini may give a "living witness" to the Gospel, especially for those who "are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition.”

"This is the contribution that the Holy Father expects the meeting to give to restarting, in the awareness that 'the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all,' where no one is excluded, because the horizon of faith in Christ is the entire world," he said.

A stranger and you welcomed me: Center for Works of Mercy dispenses Christ’s love

From food aid to accessible dental services, Catholic Charities’ newest outreach a beacon of hope to Detroit families, individuals in greatest need

DETROIT — Burt Tyler, a disabled veteran, found out about Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Center for the Works of Mercy through a friend from the veterans association. 

Randall Morgan discovered it when his parole officer referred him to the center’s food pantry and case management services.

Jeff Smith needed new teeth, and heard the center’s free dental clinic might be able to help.  

At 8642 Woodward Ave., the corporal works of mercy aren’t just a theory. 

Once the location of the Detroit Central City Clubhouse, the building now houses Catholic Charities’ newest ministry in Midtown Detroit — a one-stop shop for those in need to find critical services and a Christian face who cares. As its name suggests, the newly dedicated center’s goal is to be Christ’s hands and feet in the community, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked and visiting those in prison.  

Most clients who come in are looking for more than one service and will leave with a box of food and clothing as well as an appointment at the dental clinic for a later date, said Adam Perry, the center’s director. (Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

Along with multiple community partners, the Center for the Works of Mercy serves as a one-stop shop to meet the needs of underprivileged families of southeast Michigan, particularly in Detroit, said Adam Perry, the center’s director. 

“The center is designed around the corporal works of mercy, so our biggest goal is to serve individuals in a very dignified way,” Perry said. 

Since opening in January, the Center for the Works of Mercy hosts a clothing closet, food pantry, the Malta Dental and Medical Clinic, a case manager to help clients navigate through social service systems, the pro-life Project Hope ministry for mothers in need, the Wayne County Jail and Outreach Ministry, Catholic Charities’ Retired Senior Volunteer Program and a community space for the neighborhood.

Perry said the center is continuing to add partners, and recently hired a clinical therapy director in order to offer mental health and substance abuse services, which could include space for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Since opening in January 2021, the Center for the Works of Mercy has been home to a clothing closet, food pantry, case management and a host of other programs and services for the local neighborhood. (Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

Thanks to the dedication of a few staff members and volunteers, the center has become a place where the needs of the local neighborhood can be addressed, all in one place and accessible via public transportation with a bus stop right out front. 

“A lot of times, clients come in needing food and clothing — which they need because they don’t have a job even though they want one — but they can’t get a job because they don’t have a driver’s license or birth certificate or even stable housing,” said Nick Herman, a case manager at the center. “As people come into the food and clothing pantry, we try to learn a little bit more about their situation and then recommend them to a case manager.” 

Randall Morgan discovered the center after first being referred by his parole officer to the Wayne County Jail and Outreach Ministry. Now 61, Morgan was incarcerated for 26 years, and needs help adjusting to the technological and social changes of the past two decades — including how to use his phone and email. 

In addition to food and clothing, Herman was able to help Morgan get his driver’s license. 

“At first I thought, ‘I can’t go in there, I’m not Catholic.’ But I have never been more pleased with an organization,” Morgan said. “They do stuff from counseling me and my girl, providing food … When I got here, I needed my license. I needed some practice driving, and (Herman) said, ‘Come practice by driving my car.’”

Randall Morgan discovered the center after first being referred by his parole officer to the jail outreach ministry. While the jail ministry was able to help with some of his immediate needs, Morgan needed more than just job training and clothing. Those at the center can help him get his driver’s license and business cards. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)

Herman also accompanies Morgan as he tries to use his experience in prison to give back to the community –– Morgan is specifically passionate about getting his poetry published and helping keep young men and women out of trouble. 

“He is really passionate about helping young people in the community, and he comes in with big ideas often,” Herman said. “He goes, ‘Nick, I need your help getting a business card; my girl is going to pay for it.’ So we went on Vistaprint and we set him up with a business card and he has a GoFundMe, and he goes out and just talks to people. He tries to help as many young people as he can.”

Like Morgan, Herman said most of his clients are referrals or walk-ins. They see the signs on Woodward that list the services offered inside, and peek in out of curiosity. 

Visiting the center for the first time on Aug. 17, Burt Tyler told Detroit Catholic he was picking up food and clothing and had scheduled a dental appointment for later in the month. 

“It helps because I am on a fixed income. I am a disabled veteran, and I don’t get much money to pay rent, utilities and food. When I run short on food, this place will help,” Tyler said.

A dentist and dental students from the University of Detroit Mercy work on a client at Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Center for the Works of Mercy. Located at 8642 Woodward Ave., the center and its multiple partners serve the community with dignity as a one-stop shop for the many needs of the underprivileged in southeast Michigan. (Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

The center’s dental clinic, medical clinic and medicine dispensary, sponsored by the Order of Malta, see patients by appointment each week. The dispensary is stocked with supplies donated after people pass away, leaving unexpired medication, said Nancy Harmon, dental director for Malta Dental and Medical Clinic. As long as they aren’t Schedule 2 controlled substances, the clinic can use them, she said. 

“The people we see can’t afford the copays or have lost their medications on the street,” Harmon said.

One of the most needed services the clinic provides is denture fittings, Harmon said, adding clients “bound out of the clinic, ecstatic to have a smile again.”

Jeff Smith, who was getting his last denture fitting before he gets them placed at the end of August, has been hoping for new dentures for over a year and a half after losing his former set. He told Detroit Catholic getting his new teeth is like Christmas, his eyes welling with tears. 

“It will make me feel better, more confident,” Smith said. “It gives me more self-esteem. I am a little anxious to see it.”

Case manager Nick Herman said most of his clients are referrals or walk-ins. They will see the signs out on Woodward that list the services offered inside, and peek in out of curiosity. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)

Teeth make a big difference, Smith said, adding he believes his new smile will help him get better jobs and promotions. 

Dr. Shanelle Pearce, DDS, began volunteering at the clinic eight years ago, first as a master’s student and then as a University of Detroit Mercy dental student. She tries to volunteer her time at least once a month. 

Dr. Pearce said by the time people find the Center for the Works of Mercy, they are past preventive care and upkeep –– often clients come in with jaw issues or are already in need of dentures. 

“We see so many unique cases because you are seeing the full population,” Dr. Pearce said. “You aren’t just seeing a subsect of people who have a thousand dollars to throw around –– you really are seeing the world as it is.”

Dr. Pearce said offering her services as a dentist is a small way she can give back to the community, just as all the Center for the Works of Mercy’s volunteers and case workers do. 

“I love it here, and it helps me find purpose and passion,” Pearce said. “I always knew I wanted to be a dentist, and it is wonderful to help the people here. A lot of people, when they go on mission, will go overseas, but there are a lot of people who need our help right here. They are just looking for a smile, for a chance to get their dignity back.”

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. 

Catholic Charities honors Deacon Chesley, two others for service to community

Jail ministry director, St. Christine’s Christian Services and Most Holy Redeemer Parish to receive awards during Annual Celebration Sept. 11 

DETROIT — Deacon Mike Chesley has a heart for ministering to those in prison.

The chaplain of the Wayne County Jail and director of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s prison and jail ministry cherishes the time he spends meeting with incarcerated individuals, accompanying them in the Scriptures, offering Communion and being a listening ear.

So Deacon Chesley’s heart was broken when pandemic restrictions prohibited him from being able to visit and accompany those behind bars for the better part of the past year and a half.

Still, he found other ways to serve — helping parolees and those recently released find housing, employment and other services to help them adjust to life on the outside.

“I have so much love for them because especially when they come out of the jails and prisons, the world treats them as lepers,” Deacon Chesley told Detroit Catholic. “In Luke's Gospel, the lepers are outside the village, and society doesn't want anything to do with them. They have to fend for their own food, basically ostracized from their whole community. There’s very little opportunity for them to succeed.”

Deacon Mike Chesley meets with an officer from the Wayne County Jail in his office at Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Center for the Works of Mercy. (Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

Deacon Chesley and his team of five volunteers devote themselves day and in and day out to following Christ’s example — unafraid to approach those whom society views as unapproachable.

For his dedication to the corporal works of mercy, Deacon Chesley will be honored with the Leonard R. Jagels Leadership Award on Sept. 11 during Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Annual Celebration.

The honor is one of three awards to be given during the gala — held in person this year at the Basilica of Ste. Anne in Detroit as well as virtually — which serves as the largest fundraiser of the year for the charitable service arm of the Archdiocese of Detroit. The event helps fund more than 14 offices and ministries across Metro Detroit that serve an estimated 20,000 individuals each year.

Also honored during the evening will be St. Christine’s Christian Services in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood and Most Holy Redeemer Parish in southwest Detroit, who will receive Catholic Charities’ Outstanding Organization and Outstanding Parish awards, respectively, for 2021.

“I’m very humbled because there's so many deserving people and ministries, but I was absolutely thrilled because it reflects the all the work that our volunteers are doing,” Deacon Chesley said of the award, which is named after the late Catholic Services director Leonard R. Jagels.

In the past six months, Deacon Chesley said, restrictions have begun to ease to the point where he’s able to visit the jail once or twice a month — although he’s not allowed to bring other volunteers with him.

After being barred from visiting jails and prisons during the worst days of the pandemic, Deacon Mike Chesley now visits inmates once or twice a month, in addition to his work helping parolees and individuals in the Wayne County Jail’s “tether unit.” (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Northwest Indiana Catholic)

“It’s mainly one on ones,” Deacon Chesley said. “I’ll have the Eucharist with me for any Catholics who want it, but I offer to pray with the men whether they’re Catholic or not.”

Deacon Chesley said larger gatherings such as a Liturgy of the Word services or even Masses are on the horizon, but “we’re not quite there yet.”

In the meantime, Deacon Chesley and his volunteers continue to work with parolees and individuals in the jail’s “tether unit,” an electronic monitorings unit for individuals being released while awaiting sentencing.

“Everyone at Catholic Charities has been super supportive,” said Deacon Chesley, who maintains an office at the newly opened Center for the Works of Mercy in Midtown Detroit. “We couldn’t do it without them, and we couldn’t do it without our great volunteers.”

Outstanding Organization: St. Christine’s Christian Services

The soup kitchen at St. Christine’s Christian Services in northwest Detroit serves about 500 meals per month — currently boxed, to-go meals — but that’s just a fraction of the service the nonprofit provides for its neighbors in the Brightmoor district.

Since 2005, the ministry that began as an outreach of the now-shuttered St. Christine Parish has continued to support those most in need though meals, person-to-person accompaniment, a food pantry and service center that links clients with community resources such as transportation, job training and emergency utility assistance.

Maureen Northrup, director of St. Christine’s Christian Services, center, chats with clients at the nonprofit’s soup kitchen in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood in 2019. (Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

Now sponsored by Christ the King Parish, St. Christine’s was one of the few soup kitchens to remain open during the worst days of the pandemic, said Maureen Northrup, St. Christine’s director for the past 10 years.

“When it seemed like every other agency closed, we were there for everybody,” Northrup said. “We stayed open during all the drama of the pandemic.”

In addition to passing out boxed meals on Tuesdays, St. Christine’s volunteers offer to bring groceries to those who are homebound. With the help of partnering parishes and businesses, the nonprofit also distributes necessities such as pillows, blankets, clothing, first-aid kits and personal hygiene items.

Northrup said Catholic Charities’ Outstanding Organization award “means everything” to the volunteers and staff at St. Christine’s.

Northrup said when the announcement was made that St. Christine’s had been named Catholic Charities’ “Outstanding Organization” honoree for 2021, “everyone started crying.” (Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

“When I made the announcement last week, everyone was crying,” Northrup said.

“It was never about that, but it really validates for me all the hard work that the volunteers do behind the scenes every, every week, to make sure that everyone in our community has ample food or whatever services they need,” Northrup said, adding the organization benefits from more than 700 volunteer hours each month.

“We live by the Beatitudes and by the corporal works of mercy as our guideline,” Northrup said. “We want to make sure we are providing dignity and service to everyone who comes to our door.”

Outstanding Parish: Most Holy Redeemer, Detroit

Nestled in the heart of southwest Detroit just a stone’s throw from Mexicantown, Most Holy Redeemer Parish once was among the nation’s largest Catholic parishes.

While the parish community has evolved over the years — in recent decades, it’s become a bastion of faith for hundreds of Mexican and Spanish-speaking families — it’s never lost its larger-than-life spirit, said Fr. Dennis Walsh, SOLT, the parish’s pastor.

A parishioner at Most Holy Redeemer Parish in southwest Detroit dresses as Our Lady of Guadalupe, with her son dressed as St. Juan Diego during a celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day in 2018. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Today, the parish boasts a robust multicultural community, with more than 30 ministries, daily Masses, service outreaches, adoration and confessions and five weekend liturgies in both English and Spanish.

But what makes Most Holy Redeemer an “outstanding parish” is the evangelizing spirit of its people, Fr. Walsh told Detroit Catholic.

“We have some very strong Catholics who are genuinely concerned about other parishioners and people who aren't coming to Mass or haven't had an encounter with Christ,” Fr. Walsh said. “They're just really concerned about bringing people in to have that encounter.”

In a normal year, Most Holy Redeemer’s religious education program boasts about 550 students, in addition to the nearly 200 students who attend the parish’s namesake grade school.

Fr. Dennis Walsh, SOLT, pastor of Most Holy Redeemer Parish, waits to hear confessions at the southwest Detroit parish. Fr. Walsh said he’s constantly amazed at the strong faith of the parish community. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Fr. Walsh said Catholic Charities’ Outstanding Parish award came as “quite a surprise,” but added the parish community certainly lives up to the “outstanding” description.

“It’s just a beautiful community here. We have a lot of parishioners who have a heart for evangelizing, and they're good workers,” Fr. Walsh said, adding parishioners aren’t afraid to try new things, such as a Spanish-speaking young adult community or pregnancy center on Holy Redeemer’s campus.

Most Holy Redeemer’s outreach also includes an active food pantry and Rachel’s Vineyard ministry for those grieving abortions, as well as support for women who’ve suffered emotional or sexual abuse.

Sr. Mary Solanus Casey, Sr. Kateri Marie and Sr. Mary Agnus Dei, members of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, are pictured at Detroit’s Most Holy Redeemer Parish in 2017, joining a team of SOLT brothers, priests and seminarians serving in the community. (Courtesy of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity)

Fr. Walsh’s religious community, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), includes three priests, four brothers, three seminarians and five sisters who serve the parish and grade school after arriving at Most Holy Redeemer in 2011.

Each is blessed to serve the community and is humbled by the faith of the parish’s families, Fr. Walsh added.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “The way they ask for the sacraments like confession, it’s like you know you really belong to them. You become a member of their family. And so it's just beautiful the way they take us in and make us a part of their lives.”

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. 

To learn more about this year’s award nominees, lend support or to volunteer, visit:

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life

On Sunday, Aug. 22, the Gospel reading is the last of the five excerpts taken from St. John’s account of the good news, interrupting the flow of the Gospel of St. Mark in Cycle B. For the past month, the readings at each Sunday Mass have focused on Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse.

To summarize, the first excerpt showed on how Jesus fed 5,000 men (the number not including any women or children present) with five small barley loaves and two fishes. This was certainly the dried fish, salted for preservation, commonly eaten in Galilee.

The next segment describes what happened the following day. Confronted by the crowd looking for more free food, as Moses had fed their ancestors with manna, “bread from heaven,” Jesus corrects them, explaining that God, his Father, had sent the manna. Even so, the manna is not the real bread from heaven. He is the Bread of Life come down from heaven.

In the reading for the following Sunday, Jesus throws his audience a curveball. Specifically declaring himself to be the Living Bread come down from heaven, Jesus says, “Whoever eats this bread shall live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh for the life of the world.”

The Solemnity of the Assumption supplanted the usual Sunday reading wherein Jesus, quite graphically, tells the crowd that, to gain eternal life, they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. This causes a great deal of consternation.

On the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Gospel reveals the upshot of this teaching: many of Jesus’ disciples find this “a hard saying” and leave his company.

Aware of its connection, John takes pains to tell his readers that it was near Passover when Jesus taught this in the synagogue at Capharnaum (6:4, 59). Remember, John’s description of the teachings of Jesus appeared at the end of the first century. Internal evidence shows that John had the other three gospels in front of him. To them he adds some events, while elaborating on others already described. One of his goals is to make sure there’s no confusion in doctrine.

It is possible, reading the first three Gospels and 1 Corinthians, to understand Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “This is My body; this is My blood,” in a symbolic manner. In chapter 6, John removes that possibility. St. John shows that Christ’s teaching was a thunderclap to His first listeners.

Because of the prevalence of their living in the midst of Gentile nations, not to mention the caravans and other forms of commerce, trade and travel surrounding them, Galileans spoke Koine (common) Greek almost as often as they spoke Aramaic. St. John, some 60 years later, writing for Greek readers in Ephesus, makes sure they understand the literalness of Jesus’ statements as much as the Jews who first heard him.

Instead of the Greek word, phagos, a genteel word describing polite dining, Christ shockingly used the word trogos: “munch, chew, gnaw.” Ordinarily, the word described animals ripping apart their prey.

The disciples did not misunderstand the words of Jesus.

The Greek, skleros, so often interpreted into English as “hard saying,” in reality means something far worse. Skleros describes something “disagreeable, offensive, even disgusting.” 

You might want to take the time to reread John 6. Try, if you would, to hear Jesus as his opponents first heard him, asking each other in shocked astonishment, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Many of them found this teaching revoltingly vile.

Given the chance to backtrack, Jesus only becomes more graphic. Neither his followers nor his opponents understand Jesus to speak in some airy, nebulous, vague metaphysical way.

Think about these first disciples.

They’ve followed Jesus for a year or two, having heard his stories describing God’s love. They had seen him cure the blind and lame, drive a legion of demons into a herd of swine, and especially, witnessed him create food enough to feed thousands.

Jesus knew the roots of their faith did not go deeply enough to comprehend the spirituality he would later explain. He gave them no symbolic imagery. He gave no explanation. He gave them no out. They didn’t trust him, so he simply gave them leave to go. And some of these followers abandoned him. Their departure unquestionably saddened and dismayed Jesus.

It is one of the most poignant moments of his life. One can feel the sorrow and apprehension as Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks, “Do you also want to leave?”

He’s giving them a chance to avoid heartache and persecution, flogging, beheading, and crucifixion. He gives them the chance to go back to their families, their nets and all the joys of ordinary life.

There is a moment of silence. Then, as he would do again in a few months at Caesarea Philippi, Simon Peter boldly steps forward, putting into words what the others, perhaps, only thought: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God.”

This idea has to be first and foremost in our thoughts when walking up the aisle to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Holy Communion: “You are the Holy One of God.” Without it, our communion is earthbound and meaningless. 

When attending Mass this Sunday, recall the words of St. Paul in Ephesians 5:2, “Christ loved us and handed Himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God.” We, therefore, with a loving heart should confess, as did St Thomas, that the Eucharistic Jesus is “My Lord and My God.”

Sean M. Wright, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA. He responds to comments sent him at [email protected]