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Want safe church re-openings? Follow CDC guidelines, infectious disease expert says

Denver Newsroom, May 24, 2020 / 12:35 pm (CNA).- Timothy Flanigan, M.D., worked to combat the deadly Ebola outbreak of 2014.

If someone asks him, “Is it safe for me to go to Mass?” Flanigan has one answer: “Are they following the guidelines the CDC has provided us to decrease the risk of transmission?”

In his view, it is the wrong question to ask whether it is safer to go to Home Depot than to go to church.

Rather, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines for group gatherings are paramount.

“The question is: can I follow the CDC guidance just as carefully, in each setting, in order to decrease transmission of coronavirus? Can I maintain safe distancing? Can I maintain good hand hygiene? Can I ensure that I am not ill?” said Flanigan, a professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

“Following that guidance is so important for all of us to do,” he told CNA May 21. “Whether it’s in a mall, whether it’s in a supermarket, whether it’s in an office building, whether it’s in a meeting.”

The novel coronavirus, technically known as Covid-19, has killed over 94,000 Americans and infected more than 1.5 million since January, the CDC reports.

Flanigan is also a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. He is part of the Working Group on Infectious Disease Protocols for Sacramental and Pastoral Care, a project of the Thomistic Institute at the Pontifical Faculty of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. The group has put out guidelines on the sacraments pastoral care and the restoration of public Masses.

In 2014, Flanigan was in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. There, he helped Catholic clinics and the local Catholic hospital to increase safety amid the extremely deadly Ebola epidemic. His comments to CNA came before President Donald Trump’s May 22 announcement that he would direct the CDC to issue new guidance for churches to re-open.

The CDC has clearly said that the primary mode of transmission is through the aerosolization of droplets, Flanigan said.

“We know that these droplets occur certainly when people cough, when they sneeze, when they sing, when they talk in a loud voice. There is more projection of these aerosolized droplets,” he explained.

CDC guidance for people in groups is the same whether they are at a large store, a meeting, a workplace or at Mass.

“Their guidance says it is most important that we socially distance, that we’re six feet apart. That’s very important. That we don’t touch each other, because when we touch each other or when we share items,we come in contact with these droplets, and then when we touch our nose, our eyes, or our mouth, that gives the virus the ability to enter into those mucous membranes and cause infections.”

The CDC recommends that anybody with respiratory illness or an active cough should stay home.

“They recommend the use of masks in public spaces, and different states have different guidances,” said Flanigan. Wearing masks is helpful to decrease the spread of respiratory droplets and makes the wearer more aware.

“We generally don’t touch our nose and our mouth in the same way when we are wearing a mask,” he said. Flanigan also noted the importance of good hand hygiene, the use of different hand sanitizers, and guidance on cleaning services for venues.

“That guidance can help us significantly at decreasing the risk of transmission of coronavirus and other viruses associated with respiratory illnesses,” he said.

For Flanigan, the question is: “is the CDC guidance being followed when a group of people get together, for whatever those reasons are?”

“There is no reason to prohibit church services when you don’t prohibit other gatherings,” Flanigan added.

As states and localities gradually lift limits on economic and social life imposed to hinder the spread of the coronavirus, the courts are now considering the question of whether churches are being treated more strictly than similar venues.

A federal judge said the North Carolina governor failed to prove churches were more at risk and temporarily blocked restrictions For his part, Gov. Roy Cooper said different rules were justified because religious services posed greater dangers of spreading the novel coronavirus.


Coronavirus restrictions have tended to enjoy broad public support, though some churches, business owners and workers have protested.

On May 20, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota said they would allow parishes to resume public Masses, and to defy a statewide order prohibiting religious gatherings that exceed 10 people.

“An order that sweeps so broadly that it prohibits, for example, a gathering of 11 people in a Cathedral with a seating capacity of several thousand defies reason,” they said.

However, the Catholic bishops emphasized the need for parishes to follow strict requirements established by the Church. They must limit attendance to no more than one-third of church capacity, and must follow sanitation protocols. Catholics are still dispensed from their Sunday obligation to attend Mass.

Flanigan said safety precautions are vital for any such effort.

“When bishops do the careful work, as is done in many parts of the country like Minnesota, to recommend that their churches open following the guidance of the CDC, and the state has opened up similar gatherings in similar-type gatherings, then I’d certainly support the bishops in doing this,” he told CNA. “I support them for recommending an opening up, and the most important thing is doing what they are doing: following the CDC guidance.”

Churches have been the focus of concern during the epidemic because of the close proximity of church attendees, socialization before, during and after services, and practices like singing. Some churches have older congregations and so are believed to be more vulnerable to extreme consequences from coronavirus infection.

A May 22 article in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report considered a novel coronavirus outbreak at a rural Arkansas church from March 6-11. The report said that large gatherings pose a risk for Covid-19 transmission. Among the 92 attendees at the Arkansas church, 38% developed a laboratory-confirmed case of infection, and three died. Cases in the community linked to the church numbered 26, including one death.

The article said the case has the implication that faith-based groups “should work with local health officials” to determine how to implement U.S. guidelines for modifying their activities “to prevent transmission of the virus to their members and their communities.”

While not commenting on any specific incident, Flanigan said these incidents of contagion at churches “occurred prior to the use of those guidelines.”

“We know that one very significant outbreak occurred where there was a lot of contact with different church members, very close contact, a lot of physical contact, touching, different materials, passing things around,” he said. “Of course this was prior to our awareness of the spread of coronavirus and prior to an understanding of how important it is that we follow the CDC guidance.”

“The CDC has described outbreaks that have occurred in the setting of singing,” he said. “We know that different activities can cause more aerosolization of droplets, and that has let to very specific recommendations. Unfortunately, choirs are recommended not to practice and not to sing, and not to perform in all areas. Whether it is in Mass or other choral groups or performances, for example.”

He said outbreaks have been related to public gatherings, carnivals, celebrations, conferences, and public worship.

“I think it’s a mistake to say ‘is a conference safer or less safe than a house of worship?’ That’s the wrong question,” Flanigan told CNA. “The CDC gives us that guidance to decrease the rate of transmission. It’s just as important that guidance be followed at a house of worship, as at a conference, as at any other gathering.”

“If somebody makes an arbitrary judgment that a church is not going to follow that guidance, without any evidence, that is biased and there is no evidence for that,” he said.

Flanigan questioned the categories of some governors who classified religious gatherings as “non-essential,” compared to more “essential” activities like grocery stores.

“Being able to come together and pray together, being able to receive the sacraments, to encounter the Lord, right there in the sacraments, is so important,” Flanigan commented.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, just as important as spiritual health,” he said. “We are a whole self, which has a mind, a body, a heart a soul. To be able to pray together, to be able to support each other, to be able to worship together, to be able to receive the Lord in communion, is so important for us to be healthy and to thrive.”

“That is why our churches are essential,” he told CNA. “That is why this whole argument of essential vs. non-essential was a mistake, and not supported by anyone. Some governors just made assumptions that church is non-essential, and that is a grave error. It is an error from the public health point of view, and it is an error from the public health point of view.”

One hallmark of the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, is isolation.

“We are alone in the hospital, we are alone in our nursing homes, we are alone with our fear at two o’clock in the morning. The way we normally get our support is suddenly taken away from us,” he reflected. “That alone-ness is very very difficult. The evil one can attack us, gravely, during these times.”

Coronavirus restrictions have polarized some supporters and critics, and appears to have resulted in violence at times. Across the country, Several store clerks who have asked patrons to wear masks have been assaulted or killed. A Holly Springs, Mississippi Pentecostal church that filed a legal challenge against the city’s stay-at-home order was burned down in an apparent arson, with a note chalked nearby denouncing church members as hypocritical.

Even as some states open up, outbreaks continue. Five of seven Redemptorists at a Houston, Texas community went back into quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus, and after another priest died after possible exposure.

 

Pope Francis entrusts China to the Blessed Virgin Mary

Vatican City, May 24, 2020 / 05:45 am (CNA).- Pope Francis Sunday entrusted China to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and asked people to pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the most populated country in the world.

“Dear Catholic brothers and sisters in China, I wish to assure you that the universal Church, of which you are an integral part, shares your hopes and supports you in trials,” Pope Francis said May 24 after the Regina Caeli prayer.

“It accompanies you with prayer for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so that the light and beauty of the Gospel, the power of God for the salvation of whoever believes, can shine in you,” the pope said.

Pope Francis imparted a special Apostolic Blessing upon China for the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians. The Marian shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai, which is dedicated to Our Lady Help of Christians, remains closed on this feast after the Diocese of Shanghai suspended all pilgrimages for the month of May to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“We entrust the pastors and faithful of the Catholic Church in that great country to the guidance and protection of our Heavenly Mother, so that they may be strong in faith and firm in fraternal union, joyful witnesses and promoters of charity and fraternal hope, and good citizens,” Pope Francis said.

“May Our Lady always guard you!” he added.

In his Regina Caeli address, the pope reflected on the words of Jesus recorded in Gospel of Matthew for the feast of the Ascension of the Lord: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

China is home to more than 10 million Catholics, with six million registered as members of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, according to official statistics.

The Holy See and the Chinese government signed a provisional agreement in 2018 on the appointment of bishops in the state-sponsored Church, the terms of which have still not been publicly released. In the wake of the deal, previously excommunicated bishops of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is overseen by the Communist Party, were received into full communion with the Vatican.

A report published in 2020 by the U.S. China Commission found that Chinese Catholics suffered “increasing persecution” after the Vatican-China deal. It said the government was “demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy.” Priests and bishops have reportedly been detained or have gone into hiding.

Earlier this week, the Vatican revealed that Catholics in China were able to use the most popular Chinese state-monitored social media platform, WeChat, to livestream Pope Francis’ daily Mass during the coronavirus pandemic.

It is unclear whether Catholics in China were also able to watch the livestream of this Sunday Marian prayer for their country on WeChat due to the heavy censorship of all Chinese online media.

 

我们把在中国的弟兄姊妹託付于我们天上的母亲引领及庇佑,愿他们信德坚毅,巩固友爱团结,喜乐地见证并促进爱德与望德。

— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) May 24, 2020  

Pope Benedict XVI established the custom of praying for China on the Marian feast of Our Lady Help of Christians in 2007, and composed a prayer to Our Lady of Sheshan for the occasion.

Pope Francis entrusted to the intercession of Mary Help of Christians all Christian disciples and people of good will who are working for peace, dialogue between nations, service to the poor, and the custody of creation.

The pope also marked the fifth anniversary of publication of his environmental encyclical, Laudato si’. He said that he wrote Laudato si’ to “draw attention to the cry of the Earth and the poor.”

Pope Francis spoke during his Regina Caeli address via livestream video recorded in the library of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. However, for the first time in more than 10 weeks, people were allowed to be present in St. Peter’s Square when the pope appeared in the window to give a blessing.

Each person who entered the square was required to wear a face mask and security enforced social distancing for the people gathered outside of St. Peter’s Basilica, which reopened to the public on May 18.

After more than 5 million people around the world have been documented with COVID-19, the pope asked Our Lady Help of Christians to intercede “for the victory of humanity over every disease of the body, heart, and soul.”

“The feast of Ascension tells us that Jesus, although he ascended into Heaven to dwell gloriously on the right hand of the Father, is still and always among us for us to derive strength, perseverance, and our joy,” Pope Francis said.

Warning of global hunger crisis, CRS launches campaign to help

CNA Staff, May 23, 2020 / 03:59 pm (CNA).- As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to worsen an already tenuous food situation for millions across the globe, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has announced a campaign to help address global hunger.

“Now is the time for us to lead the way forward to ensure that these communities have the support they need to make it through this crisis and beyond,” said CRS president and CEO Sean Callahan this week.

“If we don’t provide adequate food to children now, it will impact them for the rest of their lives.”

Catholic Relief Services warned that a food crisis already existed in many countries before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, unemployment, lockdowns, heightened food prices, and supply disruptions have made it even more difficult for impoverished families in many areas to get food.

“The shadow pandemic of worsening hunger is playing out in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries,” said Callahan.

The World Food Program has warned that the pandemic could double the number of people facing acute hunger or starvation, which already stands at 135 million.

Pope Francis has highlighted food insecurity in his homilies and addresses. In his comments on the COVID pandemic earlier this month, the pope noted that more than 3.7 million people have died from hunger so far this year. He warned of a “pandemic of hunger” that is not receiving adequate attention.

In response to the global crisis, Catholic Relief Services has launched a “Lead the Way on Hunger” campaign, calling for greater awareness, advocacy and fundraising to address global hunger rates.

The relief agency is encouraging Catholics to educate themselves and become involved in the effort to fight global hunger. It is asking Americans to contact their representatives in support of specific legislation, such as the Global Thrive Act (H.R. 4864), which would integrate early childhood development efforts - including health and nutrition assistance - into already-established foreign aid programs.

The campaign also encourages Catholics to donate to relief efforts when possible as a sign of solidarity with those who are suffering, and to help spread awareness on social media with the hashtag #LeadNow.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has invited the faithful to offer a prayer at noon on May 24 as part of the campaign.

“At this critical time, CRS' ‘Lead the Way on Hunger’ campaign is an important expression of our Church's steadfast commitment to global solidarity, to working for the common good, and to the upholding of human dignity,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a member of the CRS board.

“We believe that each life, no matter how vulnerable, is precious.”

Catholic Relief Services is active in many countries to help alleviate food insecurity. In Guatemala, the agency is helping offer packages of rice, corn, beans and oil for children who are at risk of malnutrition and often receive their only meal of the day through distribution programs at their schools, which are now closed due to the pandemic. In the Philippines, CRS aided a home for people with disabilities to acquire a one-month supply of food and hygiene items.

Catholic Relief Services is also helping with instructions and supplies for hand-washing and sanitization, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Callahan urged Americans to be involved in efforts to alleviate acute hunger for the most vulnerable populations.

“The welfare of the next generation hangs in the balance,” he said.

 

Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopens with restrictions

CNA Staff, May 23, 2020 / 02:04 pm (CNA).- The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is reopening this weekend, after being closed in late March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A statement from the Custodians of the Holy Sepulchre announced that the site would be open to pilgrims beginning May 24.

“For safety reasons and in order to avoid the risk of a new spread of the COVID-19 infection, at the beginning the number will be limited (to 50 persons) and the Basilica will be accessible only to those who have no fever or symptoms of infection and are wearing suitable face coverings,” they said.

“It will also be necessary to keep a minimal distance of 2 meters between each person and to avoid any act of devotion that might include physical contact such as touching and kissing the stones, icons, vestments and the personnel in the Basilica; as well as abide always by the given instructions.”

The church building, which houses the tomb of Christ and the site of the crucifixion, was first closed to pilgrims and other visitors on Wednesday, March 25. Initially, the closure was only expected to last for one week, but religious and Israeli government officials agreed that due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the global pilgrimage destination should remain closed.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is unique among religious sites as it is partially controlled by several different Christian Churches. The Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, and Armenian Apostolic Church each share control of the building, and other Orthodox Churches also celebrate divine liturgy at the site.

The last time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed for an extended period due to disease was 1349, during an outbreak of the Black Death in Jerusalem.

The church, which was first consecrated in the year 335, has been closed for short periods of time in the subsequent millennia due to war or other disputes. In 2018, to protest a proposed tax increase on churches, the site was closed to the public for about three days before reopening.

Globally, there have been more than 5 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, with more than 340,000 recorded deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

 

After Minnesota bishops plan to defy Mass restrictions, governor eases rules

CNA Staff, May 23, 2020 / 01:46 pm (CNA).- The governor of Minnesota has issued an order allowing for the resumption of limited public worship gatherings, days after the bishops of the state said they would allow public Masses to resume in defiance of previous guidelines.

The bishops maintained that the original guidelines were unfairly restrictive toward religious services, as businesses and other entities in the state are slowly being allowed to reopen with new safety protocols in place to help guard against the novel coronavirus.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis said he welcomes the new executive order by Governor Tim Walz. In a May 23 letter to the members of the archdiocese, he thanked the governor and his team for their willingness to dialogue and arrive at a solution that respects both safety and freedom of religion.

“As you know, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota believe that the previous limitation on faith-based gatherings to ten people unreasonably burdened the Church’s ability to fully meet the sacramental needs of our faithful,” Hebda said in the letter.

“As allowances were made for other, less essential activities, it seemed to many that the life of faith was receiving unequal treatment,” he continued. “The new executive order removes that unreasonable burden on the Church and allows us to bring the Eucharist, the food of everlasting life, to our community.”

A May 13 executive order began Minnesota’s second stage of statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic. The order, issued by Governor Walz, reopens retail businesses and will gradually reopen restaurants and bars, but limits religious services to 10 people or fewer, with no timeline for loosening religious restrictions.

On May 20, the bishops of Minnesota said they would allow parishes to resume public Masses at one-third of church capacity on May 26, in defiance of the statewide order.

They bishops said the governor’s order was overly broad, to the point of defying reason, since significantly greater numbers of people were permitted to enter stores and shopping malls. They said they believed Masses could be resumed in a way that adhered to health and safety standards.

The bishops said they had attempted to work with state leaders, but had not received a concrete timeline or reasonable roadmap for resuming public Masses. Lutheran churches in the area also announced a plan to reopen without the governor’s permission.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which had worked alongside law firm Sidley Austin to raise the churches’ religious freedom concerns with the governor, said the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod worked with the governor’s office to develop a plan for houses of worship to open safely and responsibly on May 27.

While the Minnesota bishops had initially granted permission for public Masses to resume on May 26, Hebda explained that the additional day will allow parishes to have a chance to reconsider plans based on new protocols, which were developed with the help of public health officials.

These protocols include limiting attendance to 25% of church capacity, or 250 people, whichever is lower, rather than the one-third capacity the bishops had initially proposed.

“Even with these revisions, we hope that parishes already planning to come together on Sunday, May 31, for the celebration of Pentecost and the conclusion of the Easter season, should still be able to do that,” Hebda said.

The archbishop stressed that Governor Walz is trusting faith communities to make responsible decisions as they gather for public worship.

“The bishops of Minnesota have repeatedly told our pastors and parishes that they should only return to public Mass when they are able and willing to follow the many protocols that have been put in place – including sanitization and a few changes to the liturgy, particularly regarding the reception of Holy Communion [in the hand],” he said. “If a parish is not confident they are ready, they should not open. Period.”

Other changes to the liturgy will include a suspension of the Sign of Peace and the use of hand sanitizer by Eucharistic ministers before the distribution of communion.

Hebda recognized the sacrifice of the faithful in the archdiocese who have been unable to receive the Eucharist in recent weeks, while reiterating that the dispensation from the Sunday obligation to attend Mass remains in place, and those who are sick, vulnerable, or uncomfortable attending Mass at this time should remain at home.

He also thanked the priests who have ministered to their people and to the sick, recognizing the risk associated with doing so. He called the faithful to pray for the sick and dying, the first responders and health care workers treating them, and for an end to the pandemic.

Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said Minnesota should be a model for other states that have closed houses of worship.

“Governor Walz is to be commended for seeing the light,” he said. “Minnesota is setting an example by recognizing the importance of giving equal treatment to churches and other houses of worship, and that worship services can be conducted safely, cooperatively, and responsibly.”

 

Vatican Museums will reopen June 1 as Italy opens borders to tourists

Vatican City, May 23, 2020 / 08:35 am (CNA).- The Vatican Museums announced Saturday that it will reopen on June 1, two days before Italy opens its borders to European visitors after nearly three months of lockdown.

Entrance to the Vatican Museums will only be possible via prior reservation to limit the number of people in the museum and stagger entrance times. All visitors will be required to wear a mask, and mandatory temperature checks will be conducted at the entrance.

To prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, group visits to the museums will be capped at a maximum of 10 people.

The Vatican Museums will have been closed for 12 weeks since the Italian government announced the closure of all museums and archaeological sites throughout the country on March 8.

Throughout Italy’s lockdown, the Vatican Museums maintained only essential services requiring about 30 employees. The museums employ nearly 1,000 people, among them are administrators, restorers, art historians, and ticket agents.

The Italian government has announced that Italy will open its regional and international borders on June 3, allowing tourists from the European Union to visit Italy without being subjected to a quarantine requirement.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that this will create the conditions to help Italy’s tourism industry to recover.

The Vatican Museums receive millions of visitors each year, and generated around $87 million annually as of 2015, half of which was surplus revenue for Vatican City, according to the Economist. In the months that the museums have been closed due to the pandemic, Vatican City has likely lost millions of dollars in revenue.

Due to the travel restrictions, the first visitors to the reopened Vatican Museums on June 1 will likely be local Romans, rather than the usual tourists.

To accommodate local visitors, the museums have extended their hours to encourage afternoon and evening visits, especially over the weekend.

The museums will be open Monday through Saturday beginning at 10 a.m. each day. On Friday and Saturday the museums and gardens will stay open until 10 p.m. with an optional cocktail hour in the courtyard.

The Vatican Museums have also added an open-bus tour of the Vatican Gardens.

“I would like this moment of difficulty to turn into an opportunity,” Bishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga said in an interview published by L’Osservatore Romano.

The museum and gardens at the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo will also be reopening on June 6 with additional safety measures.

Vergez, the general secretary of Vatican City State, encouraged Italian families to visit the museums and the gardens.

“The weekend … could become an ideal opportunity to seize the extraordinary opportunity to visit the summer residence of the popes and the splendid Gardens of Villa Barberini. The hot and beautiful sun of these days seems to invite us to this!” Vergez said.

Pope Francis appoints new archbishop for Taiwan’s capital

Vatican City, May 23, 2020 / 07:05 am (CNA).- Pope Francis appointed Saturday Bishop Thomas An-Zu Chung as the next Metropolitan Archbishop of Taipei, Taiwan.

Chung, who currently serves as bishop of Chiayi, Taiwan, will replace Archbishop John Hung Shan-chuan, who has retired at the age of 76.

The Holy See is the only remaining country in Europe that recognizes Taiwan as a country. The Holy See and Taiwan have had formal diplomatic relations for 77 years. However, the nunciature in Taipei has not been led by a nuncio since Oct. 25, 1971, when the United Nations ceased to recognize the Taipei-based government as the government of China.

The pope also appointed Chung to serve as the apostolic administrator of the Matzu Islands, an archipelago of 36 islands in the East China Sea, and the Kinmen Islands, which are located under four miles from the mainland People’s Republic of China.

Chung, 67, was born in Yunlin, Taiwan, and ordained a priest in Tainan at the age of 29. Pope Benedict XVI first appointed him as a bishop in 2006. He served as an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Taipei from 2006 to 2008 before he was named Bishop of Chiayi.

As Metropolitan Archbishop of Taipei, Chung will oversee the largest city on the island of Taiwan with a population of 7.4 million people. The title of “metropolitan bishop” refers to the diocesan bishop or archbishop of a metropolis, namely, the primary city of an ecclesiastical province or regional capital.

The Holy See has recognized the Taiwanese government, officially known as the Republic of China, since 1942. The Vatican does not have formal diplomatic relations with the government of the People’s Republic of China, which consolidated control of the mainland at the conclusion of a civil war in 1949.

The split between China and Taiwan dates back to 1949, following the communist military success in China’s civil war that led Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist forces to retreat to the island.

The Holy See and the Chinese government signed a provisional agreement in 2018 on the appointment of bishops in the state-sponsored Church, the terms of which have still not been publicly released. In the wake of the deal, previously excommunicated bishops of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which is overseen by the Communist Party, were received into full communion with the Vatican.

In Taiwan’s recent bid to participate in World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, the Holy See was the only diplomatic ally of Taiwan which did not make an appeal to allow Taiwan to participate, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who told the Taipei Times on May 15 that the Vatican would voice its support for Taiwan through other methods.

The Embassy of Taiwan to the Holy See donated 280,000 surgical face masks to the Vatican and the bishops of Italy in April.

Pope Francis also appointed a new metropolitan archbishop of La Paz, Bolivia on May 23. The pope named Bishop Percy Lorenzo Galván Flores of Corocoro to follow Archbishop Edmundo Luis Flavio Abastoflor Montero.

There are more than 550 metropolitan archdioceses worldwide.

Catholics call for public inquiry into UK nursing home deaths

CNA Staff, May 23, 2020 / 02:00 am (CNA).- Catholics are calling for a public investigation into why so many elderly people have died in U.K. nursing homes during the coronavirus crisis.

More than 20,000 people have died in U.K. care facilities as a result of the pandemic, according to an analysis of official figures by Reuters. The U.K., which has a population of 67 million, has the second highest recorded coronavirus death toll in the world after the United States.

Fr. Patrick Pullicino, a neurologist who was ordained in 2019, and Lord Alton of Liverpool, a member of the upper house of the U.K. Parliament, have appealed separately for an inquiry into care home deaths.

Pullicino told CNA that an inquiry must be independent of the government, whose handling of the pandemic has been widely faulted.

He said: “If we really want to move ahead, it has to be independent and people have to ask: why were the elderly treated in this way? And we have to have a change. We have to have a complete new way of looking at the elderly and their potential in society.”

Pullicino underlined the elderly’s contribution to society, citing the example of Captain Tom Moore who raised more than $40 million for the NHS by walking laps of his garden ahead of his 100th birthday.

“There has to be an inquiry,” Pullicino said. “A fifth of the population has been basically denied reasonable healthcare and in an arbitrary fashion. Look at Captain Tom, what wonders he did. These are the people who are the backbone of the country. You can’t just say that they’re too expensive, they’re ‘bed-blockers.’ You have to set up new systems to deal with the elderly.”

Pullicino, a former chairman of the Department of Neurology and Neurosciences at the New Jersey Medical School now serving as a chaplain at a London hospital, criticized a set of guidelines for the National Health Service (NHS).

The document, headed “COVID-19 rapid guideline: critical care in adults”, presented a flowchart, updated March 27, helping doctors to decide whether adults admitted to hospitals with coronavirus symptoms qualified for critical care, which usually takes place in intensive care units.

Pullicino highlighted a path on the flowchart that concluded with “end-of-life care” if a patient’s condition worsened after they were determined to be “more frail” but not suitable for critical care.

He argued that this encouraged doctors to treat sick elderly people who fell into this category as if they were dying, rather than as if attempts should be made to treat them. 

Pullicino said: “A major problem with those guidelines was that they said that those people who were not appropriate for ventilators, if they were over 65 and if they deteriorated, there was a line going to ‘end-of-life care,’ which was really wrong.”

He continued: “When this whole COVID crisis started, people realized that there weren’t enough ventilators compared with other countries. We didn’t have a lot of NHS beds either because the number has been run down over the last number of years. So I think there was panic.”

“They decided to clear the hospitals to make a lot of space ready. The hospitals were cleared of the elderly and many of them were sent to nursing homes.”

Pullicino suggested that some of those moved to care homes could have had the coronavirus, which has an incubation period of up to 14 days during which carriers have no symptoms of the disease.

“Basically then in the nursing homes there was no testing available, no PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]. So the situation then became that if somebody got sick in the nursing home, there was nowhere for them to go. And I think this is what’s happened,” he said.

In a policy paper updated April 16, the government acknowledged care providers’ concerns about the difficulty of isolating COVID-positive residents.

“We can now confirm we will move to institute a policy of testing all residents prior to admission to care homes,” it said.

Pullicino himself contracted COVID-19 earlier this year. After recovering, he volunteered as a consultant at NHS Nightingale, London’s coronavirus field hospital.

But he noted that the Nightingale and other hospitals did not reach capacity even at the height of the pandemic, arguing that the free beds should have been opened to the elderly.

“It’s a terrible situation and there’s a total lack of humanity for the elderly -- and the disabled are included too in many cases in this thing,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lord Alton, a crossbench peer who has no party affiliation, said during a virtual House of Lords debate April 23 that an inquiry into nursing homes was “inevitable.

He called for the creation of a “national care service” to work alongside the NHS.

He said: “What the deaths in our care homes have made abundantly clear is that, alongside our National Health Service, we need a national care service. If a national care service emerged from the wreckage of COVID-19, it would represent a gain, among so much loss, comparable to the gain of the National Health Service post 1945.”

In 2012, Pullicino raised the alarm about the Liverpool Care Pathway, an end-of-life protocol that was abolished after a government-commissioned review. He told CNA that the treatment of the elderly had deteriorated within the healthcare system.

He said: “We’re building on a mindset within the NHS that has gone on for more than 10 years. It’s been built on the Liverpool Care Pathway and more recently you’ve had these end-of-life pathways which are still going on, still unchanged basically from the Liverpool Care Pathway. So the elderly, I’m afraid, have been devalued in the NHS.”

He said this was partly due to a lack of beds and partly to a lack of staff.

“I don’t think individuals are to blame,” he said. “The individuals work very hard. But the 65s and over represent almost a fifth of the population. You can’t shortchange them. These are the people that need medical care. They need it most. You can’t just say to the elderly, no more healthcare and that’s it.”
 
Dr Adrian Treloar, a consultant and former senior lecturer in geriatric psychiatry, told CNA that he shared some of Fr. Pullicino’s concerns.
 
Referring to official guidance on care of those dying at home, updated April 8, he said: “The guidance on ‘caring for someone who is dying at home from COVID-19 infection’ is in fact very carefully written and very compassionate. And only to be used when absolutely certain that the person is dying and does not want to go to hospital. It is basic palliative care. But if it is used inappropriately for someone who has COVID-19 (and respiratory depression) it may be rapidly lethal.”

He continued: “Care homes saw considerable efforts to  prepare for the pandemic by promoting end-of-life care planning, alongside a NICE guideline which denies critical care for people with mild to moderate dementia and which promotes end-of-life care as the alternative.”
 
“The promotion of end-of-life care and the high death toll in care homes sits worryingly alongside a system that simultaneously omitted to do even the minimum it should have done to protect the vulnerable from the virus.”
 
Pullicino added: “These end-of-life care practices that are going on in the NHS have to be looked into. We have to look into what’s happening, how the elderly are being treated and there has to be a change.”

“Because I do think it’s partly a question of how people view the elderly sick as a burden rather than as a challenge, and that we have to support them and look after them in the correct way if we’re a humane society.”

After Trump call to reopen churches, Catholic doctor says it can be done safely

Denver Newsroom, May 22, 2020 / 05:45 pm (CNA).- While President Donald Trump's May 22 call to reopen churches has become a source of national controversy, a group of Catholic doctors has offered a plan that could expedite that process.

“I think that if we just use common sense to compare apples to apples for metrics that we know matter - like density, for example - then there’s no real kind of objective scientific reason why Mass is any more dangerous than going to the grocery store. I think the difference here is a perceived risk,” said Dr. Andrew Wang, an immunobiologist at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Wang said that while it is impossible to eliminate all risk, there are steps that churches can take to prudently reopen for Mass and Confession.

“If we have best practice for the hospital, for Home Depot, for Chick-fil-A, then why not have best practices for Mass? It just seems like it would follow naturally,” he told CNA.

Wang is one of seven Catholic doctors who released a document entitled “Road Map to Re-Opening our Catholic Churches Safely.”

The road map says that the sacraments are essential for Catholics, and argues that “churches can operate as safely as other essential services,” as long as care is taken to form and follow careful plans.

Safety protocols should be created with the help of medical experts and may need to be adjusted over time, it says, to reflect the changing realities and medical recommendations in a given area.

The document calls for Mass to be held with social distancing and the use of masks and hand sanitizer. Singing should be avoided, and those who are ill or believe they may have been exposed to the virus should stay home, it says.

It calls for confessions to be held in outdoor or well-ventilated indoor areas, with the use of masks, an impermeable barrier between the priest and penitent, and frequent sanitization of surfaces.

As the novel coronavirus spread in March, all U.S. Catholic dioceses curtailed public Masses to prevent the spread of the disease. However, beginning in mid-April, dioceses have begun resuming the offering of public Masses.

At a Friday press briefing, Trump said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would, at his direction, be issuing new guidance for churches to reopen. He said he was identifying houses of worship as “essential,” although a source familiar with the deliberations told CNA that the label is not an official designation by the administration.

Trump’s announcement comes after the CDC reportedly drafted guidance for reopening businesses, churches, and other places of public accommodation earlier this month. On May 7, however, the AP reported that the Trump administration had shelved a 17-page CDC report that included an “Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith.”

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the White House pushed against the CDC issuing guidance for churches, with the concern that it did not want to unnecessarily limit the freedom of churches.

Critics of the decision have argued that church gatherings could result in additional outbreaks of the coronavirus, which has led to more than 93,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the CDC.

However, Wang said that he thinks careful guidelines can aid in efforts to prudently reopen churches. He told CNA that he finds Trump’s announcement “very encouraging.”

“I think those of us who are Catholic would probably view attending Mass as essential,” he commented.

The guidelines laid out in the “Road Map to Re-Opening our Catholic Churches Safely” are the fruit of careful consideration, he said. They address the major points that are currently known about the transmission of the coronavirus.

In implementing the guidelines, he said, parishes will need to take local context into account. For example, a large suburban church with a sizable parking lot may be able to hold an outdoor Mass, while an urban church may find it more difficult to do so.

He also noted that the road map is “a document made by doctors, not by liturgists, so the considerations are really purely medical” and may need to be adapted as deemed appropriate by Church authorities.

In developing the document, Wang said, “what we spent the lion share of our time on was the Eucharist, because that is a bit of special case that the grocery store or Walmart may not have.”

“The moment where you take the host, that presented really a special challenge…This was discussed at length, so that we all had a consensus on what would be safest practices for that particular moment.”

Ultimately, the group of doctors concluded that the safest recommendation is to receive communion in the hand rather than on the tongue.

Wang referenced a recent study showing it is much easier to pick up the virus from saliva than a nasal swab.

While full information about the risk remains unknown, he said, “receiving on the tongue in this case, with this particular virus, may present higher risk” than reception in the hand.

Although he acknowledged that some people may object to this, Wang said that in his perspective, “it boils down to, is it better to not have communion at all - and by extension not have Mass at all?”

He added that the document’s guidelines are recommendations, but that priests and bishops can do as they see fit.

Wang also addressed the concern that HVAC systems may contribute to the spread of the coronavirus, moving contaminated air particles around even if people are spaced out within a church.

Outdoor Mass would be ideal at addressing this particular concern, he said, but it may not be logistically feasible at all parishes.

Still, he said, after a lengthy discussion, “our assessment of the literature was that it was not entirely clear that the circulation of air was necessarily something that would be limiting.” He noted that grocery stories, research labs, and other indoor facilities would also be similarly problematic if HVAC systems played a significant role in spreading the virus.

Ultimately, Wang said, going to church at this time is not risk-free, just as any other public activity is not without risk during a pandemic. He noted that dioceses throughout the country have granted dispensations from the Sunday obligation for those who are unable to attend or are not comfortable with the risk involved.

However, he believes that if churches act prudently, they can implement guidelines to minimize risk, while making the sacraments available to the people of God.

“It just boils down to one of the oldest institutions on earth having some kind of best practices, guidelines, for how one might do this as safely as is possible, based on what we currently know about COVID,” he said.

Livestream of Mass with Pope Francis on Chinese social media raises censorship questions

Rome Newsroom, May 22, 2020 / 05:34 pm (CNA).- The Vatican revealed this week that Catholics in China were able to use the most popular Chinese state-monitored social media platform, WeChat, to livestream Pope Francis’ daily Mass during the coronavirus pandemic.

An expert on Chinese media has cautioned that the Chinese regime may have had something to gain in granting Chinese Catholics this limited access to the pope.

WeChat is known for its censorship of its more than 1 billion monthly active users. The Chinese government is able to monitor all discussion, content, and user data on the app.

Vatican News released a video on May 20 showing Catholics in China gathered around smartphones and computer monitors placed on home altars or inside of churches praying with Pope Francis’ livestreamed liturgies, which could be accessed via WhatsApp via simultaneous translation into Chinese.

By the time that the video was published, the limited 52-day period in which the livestream was available to Chinese viewers, March 27 to May 18, had already come to an end.

A Chinese Catholic living in Jilin Province confirmed to CNA that the Vatican News website is now available in China both on WeChat and Weibo, often called the Chinese Twitter.

“I have found that social media like Weibo has been very friendly to the Church since the beginning of this year,” she said.

The Holy See and the Chinese government signed a provisional agreement in 2018 on the appointment of bishops in the state-sponsored Church, the terms of which have still not been publicly released. In the wake of the deal, previously excommunicated bishops of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which is overseen by the Communist Party, were received into full communion with the Vatican.

Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst who monitors media censorship and religious freedom in China for Freedom House, explained to CNA that the livestream of the pope’s Mass in China could have been the fruit of the ongoing dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinese government.

“This type of engagement for the pope with Chinese believers directly is exactly what the Vatican was hoping to achieve through its rapprochement with the Chinese government,” she said.

“By allowing it, it may be giving Beijing more leverage to obtain what it wants in the future, such as approval of certain bishops or reduced Vatican criticism of ongoing persecution of Catholics in China. So there are good reasons why allowing this kind of relatively innocuous and temporary gesture would be in Beijing's interests,” Cook told CNA.

Vatican News reported that the number of viewers of Pope Francis’ Mass in China increased daily, reaching more than 10,000 viewers on WeChat before the Vatican stopped livestreaming the Mass.

“If this was something temporary then that might have made it easier for the Chinese government to accept,” Cook said. “Scale may also have been a factor.”

“Ten thousand is still fairly low by Chinese standards,” she added.

China is home to more than 10 million Catholics, with six million registered as members of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, according to official statistics.

“Often the sensitivities surrounding officially recognized religions and even other groups in China are triggered by growing popularity,” Cook said. “My sense is that if the broadcasts had continued and began reaching an even bigger audience, say hundreds of thousands or a million people, then it would have been shut down at some point.”

“Crackdowns on other religious groups and even information sharing or online preaching have continued amid the pandemic,” she added, particularly for Protestants and other persecuted religious groups in China, such as the Falun Gong.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the human rights group Voice of the Martyrs reported that government officials in Shandong Province banned online preaching amid the outbreak, and the Christian non-profit ChinaAid shared a video March 15 of a Protestant church in Jiangsu Province that had been demolished by Chinese authorities.

The Chinese government has also used social media platforms to help monitor and detain Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Data showing which WhatsApp users followed the pope’s livestream Mass could be accessed by the Chinese government in the future, Cook acknowledged, while noting that “Catholicism is an approved religion in China and most people don't run into trouble for attending Mass at a state-sanctioned church.”

“With improving relations between the Chinese government and Vatican, I imagine that the pope is not as sensitive a figure as he previously was. So I don't imagine people would get in trouble just for watching this,” she said.

Among the government regulations of the state-sanctioned Catholic churches in China is a prohibition on minors under the age of 18 from entering church property.

Cook noted that while children could be seen praying in the Vatican News video, this is “one part of religious regulations that has often slipped through the cracks in the past in terms of enforcement, so that may be the case now.”

A report by the U.S. China Commission in January found that Chinese Catholics suffered “increasing persecution” after the Vatican-China deal. It said the government was “demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy.” Priests and bishops have reportedly been detained or have gone into hiding.

In February, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, met with the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. The Holy See press office reported that the meeting was an occasion for “renewing the willingness to continue the institutional dialogue” between the Holy See and the Chinese Communist Party.

The Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica announced in April that it was launching a version in simplified Chinese.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, praised the decision to launch the Chinese edition in a letter to La Civiltà Cattolica.

“I can only express from the depths of my heart my warmest best wishes and the fervent hope that your Chinese language edition might become a solid instrument of mutual cultural and scientific enrichment, among all people in search of beauty and truth,” Parolin said.

The first papal liturgy to be viewed over WeChat in China was Pope Francis’ extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27 for the world suffering from the coronavirus pandemic.

Vatican News reported that in China the news that the live broadcast of the pope’s Mass would end on May 18 was “greeted with some suffering and also with some tears.”

While some Catholics in China are sad to lose access to the livestream Mass, the greater problem for most Chinese Catholics is that Catholic churches, seminaries, and all pilgrimage activities in China remain suspended.

China closed churches beginning in January, as the coronavirus outbreak spread throughout the country. But after the nationwide quarantine was eased in March and epicenter Wuhan’s lockdown was lifted on April 8, Asia News reports that Catholic churches were told to remain closed through the end of May by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.