Schools complete successful first quarter amid coronavirus

Mercedes Sandoval, a kindergarten student at St. John Vianney School in Gallatin, works on a computer during a recent school day. The Catholic schools in the Diocese of Nashville have finished the first quarter of the school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The schools have taken precautions against the spread of the coronavirus, such as wearing masks, so they can continue in-person learning. Photos by Andy Telli

Catholic schools in the Diocese of Nashville have successfully completed the first quarter of the school year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been a few bumps along the way, but schools have been able to continue to meet the goal of offering in-person learning.

“They’ve done a very good job,” diocesan Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Hammel said of the schools’ efforts in following the protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

There have been confirmed cases of the coronavirus among students, faculty and staff that have prompted some classrooms in diocesan schools to go to distance learning temporarily, but they’ve been able to return to in-person learning, Hammel said.

“Fortunately, we have not had to do that in many cases,” she said.

Two independent Catholic schools in Nashville briefly transitioned entirely to distance learning because of their local circumstances but have returned to in-person learning.

St. Bernard Academy moved to distance learning from Sept. 21 through Oct. 2, which led into fall break, Oct. 5-9, after the school had seven confirmed cases reported, said Head of School Chuck Sabo. Students and faculty were back at school on Monday, Oct. 12.

“There was a lot of smiles,” Sabo said of the return of students, faculty and staff to the school building. “I think most of them were from the parents. They appreciate everything the teachers were doing.”

Besides the seven confirmed cases, St. Bernard had 70 students and 20 faculty and staff in quarantine, Sabo said. “It was an asymptomatic person that managed to get it into the building. It kind of took off after that,” he said.

“Once we had that exposure, we felt it was best to shut down for two weeks and come back after fall break,” Sabo said.

St. Cecilia Academy had a similar experience. After about 20 students and faculty tested positive, school officials decided to close the school building and move to distance learning for the eight days leading into fall break, Oct. 5-9, said Principal Sister Anna Laura, O.P.

“It’s not a crisis. It’s something we anticipated and prepared for,” she said.

“Our priority is in-person learning,” Sister Ann Laura said. “We took this action just so we can get back to in-person learning as soon as possible.”

Like all the Catholic schools in the diocese, St. Bernard and St. Cecilia started the school year with plans to implement distance learning if needed and were able to move quickly once the number of cases began to grow.

“Our teachers were ready, and our students were ready so we could do a quick regroup … and come back strong again,” Sister Anna Laura said.

“We have a remote learning plan in place. The teachers all came in to teach during those two weeks. The kids were remote. That was very effective in getting instruction out,” Sabo said.

Kylee Bea Gullickson, an eighth grade student at St. John Vianney School in Gallatin, takes notes during a recent math class. St. John Vianney has had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its students, faculty and staff through the school year’s first quarter, which recently ended.

The switch to distance learning went more smoothly because of the lessons learned when all the schools made that move last spring, Sabo said. “We found a really effective method. The teachers hit a groove with it and things worked out really well.”

It was a similar experience at St. Cecilia. “Now everyone is ready,” Sister Anna Laura said. “Our teachers are ready, our students are ready, so there’s not that element of the unknown.”

The Catholic Schools Office worked with principals and teachers all summer to prepare for moving back to in-person learning this fall, Hammel said, including developing protocols such as mask wearing, hand sanitizing, temperature checks, and social distancing.

“We wanted to make sure teachers had all the personal protective equipment they needed, that they were well versed in our safety protocols and that they were trained to recognize the COVID-19 symptoms,” said Hammel, who was a member of a Davidson County task force that developed a plan for reopening schools.

The Catholic Schools Office and the schools also worked on meeting the emotional needs of students who hadn’t been in a classroom between March and August, Hammel said.

“We were attuned to those needs of the students so when they did return, we could maximize the learning experience,” she said.

Chiara Endeme-Gnono, a student in Rita Antone’s first grade class at St. John Vianney School in Gallatin, takes a moment to check her hands during a handwriting drill. St. John Vianney, like all the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Nashville, has adopted protocols, including wearing masks, to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The first quarter was “amazing,” said Natalie Eskert, principal of St. John Vianney School in Gallatin. “We’ve thankfully had zero cases to report. We’ve been good. We’ve been since day one following our reopening plan and procedures.

“Students and families have been so cooperative following the protocols and making sure that we’re operating as safely as possible,” she added.

“We were all pretty optimistic and excited to be back in school,” Eskert said of the start of the new school year in August. “There were so many new protocols and procedures in place to be open safely. The initial task was making sure we were able to implement everything we promised to do. There were a lot of new things we were not all used to in a regular school setting.

“Once we opened and got into the routine of things, everything has been flowing smoothly,” Eskert said.

It’s been a similar story at St. Ann School. “Overall, we seem to be doing really well,” said Principal Anna Rumfola.

No student or staff member has tested positive for the virus, though three families have held their children out of school because of a possible exposure, Rumfola said. “Parents have been great at communicating if they feel there’s been a possible exposure.”

“Most of them get a test and once they get a negative test, they come back to school,” she said. “We’ve been lucky. We haven’t had a direct exposure at school.”

“It’s a lot of work to make sure everyone stays on task with frequent hand washing and wearing the masks,” Sabo said. “But even our 3-year-olds are doing well with the masks.”

There was some concern that students might have fallen behind academically because they were out of the classroom for so long. All the diocesan elementary schools administered the Iowa Assessments early in the year to see if there were any gaps in academic achievement.

“Overall, our students performed very well. We didn’t see large gaps in learning,” Hammel said. She attributed the successful performance on the standardized tests to the work of the teachers last spring.

“I had faith in the teachers that they were meeting their standards even though they didn’t have the opportunity to do it in person,” said Eskert, who is in her first year at St. John Vianney.

Although all the schools opened with in-person learning, most were able to offer distance learning for families who felt more comfortable keeping their children at home.

At St. Bernard, the school year started with about 70 students opting for that choice, Sabo said. Since the start of the school year, that number has fallen to about 60 as families decided to send their children to school.

“It’s hard for the teachers,” Sabo said. “They’re basically working off two teaching plans.”

But it’s also prompted schools to use their online lessons and tools as part of their in-person instruction.

“We are definitely integrating technology more than ever,” said Eskert, where the number of students who chose distance learning has dropped from five or six at the beginning of the year to three now.

“We have adopted the entire Google for Education platform and we most definitely plan to use it going forward,” Eskert said. “They have a lot of innovative learning tools that can be used in the classroom.”

Several schools have seen an increase in enrollment since the start of the school after parents could assess whether the preventive measures the schools were taking were successful.

Since opening day, the total enrollment of students in diocesan schools has increased by 57, which is a 1.25 percent increase.

The Schools Office and the schools in the diocese continue to watch the number of coronavirus cases reported in their communities. “We know the virus is still present,” Hammel said. “We continue to be vigilant.”

Room In The Inn braces for ‘very different’ winter shelter season

Room In The Inn’s 35th winter shelter season “is going to be very different,” according to Executive Director Rachel Hester. “We have to be really creative and not allow COVID to give us an excuse not to serve.”

Hester

“We’ve always been on the front lines of service,” Hester said, “and we feel very strongly that this is where we’re supposed to be,” continuing to minister to the homeless during the coldest winter months while also dealing with a pandemic. 

Room In The Inn began in the winter of 1985, when the organization’s Founding Director Father Charles Strobel opened the doors of Holy Name Church to individuals seeking sanctuary in the church parking lot.

By the end of the 1987 winter, more than 30 congregations had joined. For the 2019-2020 winter season, nearly 200 congregations from a wide variety of faith traditions were committed to serving the winter shelter program, which runs Nov. 1 through March 31 each season, offering the homeless of Nashville a hot meal, a warm bed, and an evening of hospitality.

Many of those volunteers have stepped back for this winter because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “When I say stepped back, I mean three-fourths of our congregations” have said they will be unable to host this year, said Hester. That means instead of serving 250-300 guests per night, they may only be able to serve 50.

This winter, her 31st year with Room In The Inn, is “probably my hardest, there’s parts and pieces of this that I am holding together with Scotch tape and faith,” said Hester, a parishioner at Christ the King Church in Nashville.

Bishop J. Mark Spalding, Chancellor Brian Cooper, and Ashley Linville, director of development for the Diocese of Nashville, toured Room In The Inn’s downtown Nashville campus in September and presented a check for $50,000 to support the nonprofit’s ministry to the homeless. During the visit, Bishop Spalding blessed the memorial wall in Room In The Inn’s lobby, and prayed for those who have died on the streets of Nashville. Many congregations are unable to host winter shelter guests this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the diocese is supporting Room In The Inn, St. Vincent de Paul Parish, and St. Mary Child Development Center to establish a central hosting site at St. Vincent. Photos by Rick Musacchio

‘What we should be doing’

Over the summer, Hester began hearing from more and more congregations who told her they would be unable to host homeless guests in their spaces as they had in the past.

Hester reached out to Brian Cooper, Chancellor and Chief Operations Officer of the Diocese of Nashville, for help.

Cooper reached out to St. Vincent de Paul Parish in North Nashville to see if they might be willing to serve as a central hub for Room In The Inn this winter, offering their under-utilized gym as winter shelter space where different congregations could volunteer during the week.

Deacon Guess

When St. Vincent pastor Father Francis Appreh presented the idea to the parish, “people reacted positively, we were on board right away,” said Deacon Harry Guess of St. Vincent. Since the gym space that Room in the Inn would be using is currently leased to St. Mary Villa Child Development Center, “they had to be on board too,” he said.

With the help of a $50,000 donation from the diocese to St. Vincent and St. Mary Villa, they will be able to make some needed upgrades to the space, including adding a small kitchen connected to the gym. “The key ingredient to make it work was to get the kitchen in place,” Deacon Guess said. The kitchen is still a work in progress, but will be finished by the deadline, he said.

Catholic Charities of Tennessee is also exploring ways they can assist with transportation for the winter shelter program.

This project, bringing together “a collection of Catholic institutions to take on another mission,” is “what we should be doing,” Deacon Guess said.

Volunteers from St. Vincent de Paul Parish have served in Room In The Inn’s winter shelter program for years, partnering with First Lutheran Church downtown. Previously, First Lutheran hosted, and St. Vincent volunteers served there every other week.

The Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver from St. Vincent have typically taken the lead on the Room In The Inn volunteer effort, but Deacon Guess is still not sure how things will look this year. Given the pandemic and the age of most of the Knights and the general St. Vincent congregation, “I won’t be surprised if we come up short with people willing to do the work,” this year Deacon Guess said. “We’ll have the facilities. I’m not sure we’ll have the manpower.”

The Knights, who have stayed overnight with the guests in the past may not be able to fulfill that role this year, he said, but the Ladies, who prepared the evening meal for the guests, still plan to do that.

Diocese’s support ‘means a lot’

Bishop J. Mark Spalding visited St. Vincent and Room In The Inn campuses last month to show support for their homeless outreach ministry.

The diocese also made a $50,000 donation to Room In The Inn, which “is going to allow us to exhale a little bit,” Hester said. “We were not expecting that.”

Alyssa Garnett-Arno, executive director of St. Mary Villa Child Development Center, left, shows Judy Orr, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, some of the changes that will be made in the gym on the St. Vincent campus to accommodate Room In The Inn winter shelter guests. St. Mary Villa currently leases the old St. Vincent school building. The diocese donated $50,000 to St. Vincent and St. Mary Villa so they can make needed upgrades to the space to prepare for the winter.

Bishop Spalding and Cooper personally visited the campuses to deliver the donation checks. “The bishop coming means a lot,” Hester said. “Nobody’s coming right now to visit,” she said.

“As Catholics, we are always committed to service, and we put ourselves in places where it may not be convenient,” Hester said.

The donation will help Room In The Inn respond to needs that have increased during COVID, Hester said. “We’re thankful,” she said. “Under his leadership we have felt more supported from the diocese than ever before,” she said of Bishop Spalding. 

‘Not by accident’

With so few congregations able to host guests this year, there may be some nights when St. Vincent is one of the few spaces in the city open for the winter shelter program, Hester said.

Another new space that will be used for the program this year is the recently purchased “Drexel House,” a  property adjacent to Room In The Inn’s campus, located at Seventh and Drexel Avenues downtown. The building is the former location of Immaculate Mother Academy, founded by St. Katharine Drexel to serve and educate Black children in Nashville. 

Rachel Hester, right, executive director of Room In The Inn, explains various parts of its campus, visible through the window, and the many services they provide to the homeless. At left, Room In The Inn Founding Director Father Charles Strobel listens.

According to research she’s done, Hester has confirmed that the building that Room In The Inn staff and volunteers are scrambling to prepare for the winter shelter program is the former rectory of the Josephite priests who served there.

“I don’t think it’s by accident that God has us sheltering people at both of those sites,” Hester said of the Drexel House and St. Vincent.

St. Katharine Drexel also founded St. Vincent de Paul Parish and school.

Following in the spirit of their foundress, Mother Katharine, and their patron, St. Vincent de Paul, “it was natural for us to say yes” to host Room in the Inn guests this winter, said Deacon Guess.

Being able to host homeless guests at St. Vincent and the Drexel House this winter season is crucial to her organization’s mission, Hester said. “If we did not have these central locations, Room In The Inn would not exist this year.”

Moving the needle

Room In The Inn may also utilize some of their classroom space on their main campus for the winter shelter program this year, which they have done in the past, Hester said. “We’re really trying to think outside the box,” she said.

She encourages volunteers who still want to serve, but whose congregations are unable to host this year, to serve at one of the new locations for this winter. “We can welcome in volunteers who have no place to serve,” Hester said.

“The ability to work together will make us stronger, and who knows on the other side of COVID what possibilities are going to be opened up,” she said.

Bishop J. Mark Spalding, left, greets a child in the St. Mary Villa Child Development Center while touring the facility in September. He presented a check to St. Mary’s and St. Vincent, where St. Mary’s is located, so they could make needed upgrades to the gym space and host winter shelter guests. The renovations will also provide a long-term benefit to the campus after the winter season.

In addition to working “all hands on deck” to make sure the Drexel House and St. Vincent spaces are ready to host for the winter shelter program, Hester is also keeping in close contact with other partners who have developed Nashville’s Cold Weather Community Response Plan. “It’s ever-changing,” Hester said.

Since the nightly capacity to shelter homeless guests this winter will be drastically lower than past years, “we have to look at the most vulnerable first,” Hester said.

They will have to turn people away, but that’s not the end of the story. “We still have to navigate them to a safe place,” Hester said.

She remains hopeful that Room In The Inn’s capacity will increase as the winter gets colder. “We hope to have more congregations on board by December. If we do it right in November, we’ll be able to revisit with some of the congregations who have said no right now,” Hester said. “I hope the no’s won’t stay no’s.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Room In The Inn has followed CDC guidelines, embraced mask-wearing, and “we have not closed down one day during COVID,” Hester said. “We’ve thought through some pretty complicated things, and we’ve been able to make it work.”

“We’re really trying to move the needle on volunteering,” and encourage people to volunteer in a different location than in the past or serve in a different way, Hester said. “There’s still a place for you to serve,” whether that is preparing and dropping off food, setting up bedding, or donating warm winter items like hats, gloves and socks.

“Some of the ways we love our neighbors right now looks very different,” said Hester. “There’s still ways to make people feel very welcome.”

For more information on Room In The Inn, visit www.roomintheinn.org. For information about volunteering this winter season, email shelter@roomintheinn.org.

Diocese lends kitchen to those feeding out-of-work touring professionals

The Diocese of Nashville is offering a helping hand to Musically Fed, World Central Kitchen and Dega Catering in an effort to provide meals, produce, and dry goods to entertainment touring professionals who have lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The diocese arranged for Dega chefs to use the commercial kitchen at the Catholic Pastoral Center. Dega chef Paul Turek prepares chicken for the 600 meals the team prepared. Photos by Andy Telli

The Diocese of Nashville has offered a helping hand to two organizations feeding the behind-the-scenes workers in the entertainment touring industry who have been out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dega Catering will be using the commercial kitchen at the Catholic Pastoral Center on Fridays every other week in October and November and every week in December to prepare 600 individual meals to be distributed to lighting technicians, stage hands, bus drivers and others who support entertainers on tour.

Dega normally provides catering services for entertainers on tour, and like the other touring professionals, has seen its business evaporate because of the coronavirus.

Musically Fed started the effort to feed the out-of-work touring professionals. Maria Brunner, the owner of Insight Mgt, which does marketing in the live entertainment field, started Musically Fed to help feed homeless veterans in the cities where participating entertainers stopped on tour.

Many of the entertainers Brunner’s company works with bring caterers along with them on tour to feed their crew. Musically Fed shares the leftover food with the homeless vets.

“Along came the COVID pandemic,” said Brunner, and she started getting calls from the backstage workers who knew about Musically Fed, asking for help.

Dega chefs Paul Turek, from left, Sandra Gajovsky and Lindy Howell prepare some of the 600 meals the team prepared for distribution.

So Musically Fed started organizing food distributions for out-of-work touring professionals. Since April, they’ve been distributing food every other week in Phoenix, and in Denver the distributions have taken place every week since May. There have also been distributions in San Diego and Minneapolis, and one in Nashville in July, when 22,000 meals were distributed, Brunner said.

Musically Fed and World Central Kitchen have partnered to distribute meals in Nashville on a regular basis through the rest of the year.

World Central Kitchen was established by Washington, D.C., chef José Andrés to organize restaurant chefs to respond to natural disasters by providing restaurant-quality meals to those in need.

With the pandemic, World Central Kitchen has turned its attention to the many restaurants who have struggled to survive, and to their workers who have been laid off, as well as the many people in other industries who have lost their jobs and are struggling to feed their families.

World Central Kitchen raises money to pay restaurants and catering companies to prepare meals that are distributed to those in need, allowing the restaurant and catering employees to stay on the job.

In Nashville, World Central Kitchen and Musically Fed are helping the many entertainment touring professionals based in the area.

“We have so many out of work musicians and touring professionals here in Nashville,” said Whitney Pastorek, the Nashville project lead for World Central Kitchen.

Pastorek had worked with Dega Catering before when she worked in the entertainment industry, and invited them to prepare the meals.

“Just like restaurants, we’re really struggling as well,” said Kris O’Connor, the chef from Dega Catering organizing the preparation of the meals.

Dega Catering needed a kitchen in Nashville large enough to prepare 600 meals at a time, so Pastorek turned to Judy Orr, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, for help. Catholic Charities had worked with World Central Kitchen before distributing meals prepared by participating restaurants to those in need.

Orr approached diocesan officials about offering the use of the kitchen at the Catholic Pastoral Center, and they quickly agreed.

Dega Catering staff started using the Catholic Pastoral Center kitchen on Friday, Oct. 9. “They’ve been fantastic helping us with the space,” O’Connor said of the diocese and Catholic Charities.

The chefs from Dega will prepare 600 individual meals for each distribution, which is being organized by Rhino Staging, another company in the entertainment touring industry. Musically Fed partnered with Rhino Staging since the beginning of the effort to organize the drive-through pick up of the meals, Brunner said.

“People in the touring industry are some of the best people at logistics,” Pastorek said.

Each recipient of the food will receive six individual meals, a box of produce, a box of dry goods, and a case of bottled water, which should be enough food for a family for a week, O’Connor said. Second Harvest Food Bank is providing the produce and dry goods, she added.

“There’s 12 million tour professionals out of work right now,” said Lindy Howell, a chef for Dega. “These people’s jobs aren’t coming back for a while.”

Organizers excited as ACE online fundraiser nears

When Jen and Brad Ambarian were looking for a new school for their daughter Emma that would be able to give her the attention she needs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they found St. Ann School.

“I loved that it was small and she could get that real focused attention that I think she needs,” Jen Ambarian said.

The move to St. Ann has been a great fit for her daughter, Ambarian said. “She loves it. … She seems to fit in very well.”

The Advancement of Catholic Education will host an online fundraising event on Tuesday, Oct. 27, to build its endowment to fund tuition assistance at the Diocese of Nashville’s 16 elementary and high schools so more families can have access to a Catholic school experience like the Ambarian family has had.

“We’re really building the endowment … that way it funds education in perpetuity,” said Ashley Linville, director of development for the diocese. “The goal is for every child who desires a Catholic education to be able to afford one.”

At the start of the school year, the Ambarian family, who are parishioners at Holy Family Church in Brentwood, were given the option by the Williamson County school system of choosing for their two daughters in-person learning or distance learning, Ambarian said. They chose distance learning for their daughters, one in the fourth grade and the other in the seventh.

Their younger daughter participated in her classes taught by her teacher, Ambarian said. But at the middle school level, the school system offered online instruction with only weekly meetings with the teacher, she added.

“It worked for some kids, it just didn’t work for her,” Ambarian said of her daughter. “It was bad enough we decided to make a change.”

Ambarian had attended Catholic schools growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., so she explored moving her older daughter to a Catholic school, including a visit at St. Ann.

“My daughter loved it,” Ambarian said. “From the moment she walked in, she felt that was it. She felt very comfortable at St. Ann.

Commuting from Brentwood, “it’s a significant commitment for me to get her there,” Ambarian said. “I told her if that’s the right place for her then we’ll do it.”

Her daughter started at St. Ann about halfway through the first quarter, which just ended. “Things are different,” Ambarian said. “I think the expectations are higher, and I think that’s a good thing.”

“Emma has always enjoyed going to religion class,” Ambarian said. “She was really excited about going to religion class every day” and attending Mass with the rest of the school.

Proceeds from the ACE endowment are used for tuition assistance and support for the diocesan Catholic schools so they can continue to provide an excellent academic and spiritual education for their students.

The goal of the online fundraising event is to raise $250,000. That amount would be doubled thanks to a gift from an anonymous donor to match the amount the event raises up to $250,000, Linville said.

“We’re excited,” Linville said. “I know our committee is excited.”

The online event, which will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27, will be hosted by ACE Board Member Marty Blair. The event will include presentations by Bishop J. Mark Spalding, ACE Board Chair Betty Lou Burnett, current students and Will Donnelly, a St. Henry School and Father Ryan High School graduate, all talking about the importance of supporting ACE and Catholic education.

Father Ryan teacher Randy Lancaster, the winner of this year’s Christ the Teacher Award that recognizes an outstanding teacher in a diocesan school, also will be introduced during the event.

For the first time, the event will also include an online auction, which will open at 8 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 22. Some of the auction items include:

  • A pig roast at Camp Marymount.
  • Bordeaux and Burgers with Bishop J. Mark Spalding, including a variety of Bordeaux wines.
  • A virtual fine wine tasting with Father Dexter Brewer, pastor of Christ the King Church in Nashville. The wines will be delivered to the homes of the winning bidders who will join an online call with a wine expert leading the tasting. Special foods also will be delivered for the tasting.
  • A bourbon tasting with Father Mark Simpson, the chaplain at Father Ryan High School, Father Anthony Stewart, associate pastor of Holy Family Church in Brentwood, and Father Javier Suarez, associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville.
  • A round of golf with Father Stewart.

Organizers also are offering virtual table sponsorships starting at $1,000 for 10 people. The people at the sponsored table will be invited to participate in an online happy hour from 5:15 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. the evening of the fundraiser to have a discussion with the principal of one of the diocesan schools.

Table sponsors who raise $2,500 will have the happy hour with diocesan Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Hammel.

Table sponsors also will be invited to participate in a table naming contest. The table that comes up with the most creative name will participate in an online meeting with Pete Weber, the radio voice of the Nashville Predators, and Dave McGinnis, a former Titans assistant coach, NFL head coach, and the color analyst for Titans Radio.

“We’ve had a lot of sponsorships come in,” and organizers are still accepting more sponsorships, Linville said.

The night of the event, several students from the two diocesan high schools, Father Ryan and Pope John Paul II High School, will be available to talk to people who call in to make their donation, Linville said.

People can join the event online, make an online donation, or participate in the online auction through the website www.dioceseofnashville.com/ace.

Those who make an online donation to support ACE will also have the opportunity to honor a teacher who has been special to them, Linville said. “They’ll be able to leave a message for that teacher” which will be delivered later, he said.

For more information about the event, the auction, sponsorships or to make a donation, visit www.dioceseofnashville.com/ace. People also can mail a donation to ACE, 2800 McGavock Pike, Nashville, TN, 37214. Others to contact are Linville at 615-645-9769 or Ashley.linville@dioceseofnashville.com, or Assistant Director of Development Anna Beth Godfrey at 615-645-9769 or Annabeth.godfrey@dioceseofnashville.com.

The pope’s new encyclical presents a formidable challenge

Free copies of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, with the front page about Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” are distributed by volunteers at the end of the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 4, 2020. The social encyclical extends a formidable challenge to us all, the challenge to create “a different culture.” CNS photo/ IPA/Sipa USA, Reuters

The social encyclical Pope Francis released in October extends a formidable challenge to us all, the challenge to create “a different culture.” What kind of culture? It is the kind where people who basically are indifferent toward each other and deeply divided resolve their conflicts and begin to “care for one another.”

His challenge is a tall order, to be sure. But he considers it an “urgent” need. The encyclical’s title, “Fratelli Tutti,” means “all brothers and sisters” or “all brothers” and refers to the brotherly or family-like relationships that he envisions as the standard for such a culture.

“In today’s world the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia,” the encyclical observes. “What reigns instead is a cool, comfortable and globalized indifference.” The temptation is to become isolated and to withdraw into our “own interests.”

But that is not the way to restore hope, Pope Francis makes clear. His encyclical exhorts readers, “Isolation, no; closeness, yes.”

Very early in the encyclical he explains that he is extending this challenge “in the hope that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words.”

As the encyclical concludes he prays that God will “inspire in us a dream of renewed encounter, dialogue, justice and peace.” The prayer continues, “May we recognize the goodness and beauty that you have sown in each of us.”

The “conviction that all human beings are brothers and sisters” is this encyclical’s foundation. Pope Francis cautions against allowing it to “remain an abstract idea,” divorced from life’s concrete realities. He insists that when this conviction finds “concrete embodiment” it forces “us to see things in a new light.”

The encyclical is a nearly 43,000-word text, with chapters devoted to many important concerns in 21st-century societies. But a common thread weaves together the encyclical’s numerous timely concerns related to political action, immigration, the death penalty or war, for example. It is a thread that signifies the world’s need today for a new culture of encounter.

I think that this common thread radiates as clearly as possible when the pope exclaims: “Let us arm our children with the weapons of dialogue! Let us teach them to fight the good fight of the culture of encounter!”

Such a culture necessarily encompasses encounters with others who are different from me or you, the pope acknowledges. This is not easy. Much easier, in the pope’s estimation, is to ignore the value of such encounters.

The “others” the pope has in mind include the poor, the stranger, the unemployed, migrants, victims of racism, members of other world religions, to mention a few. The pope is emphatic that “the dignity of others is to be respected in all circumstances.”

The 2,000-year-old parable of the good Samaritan is this encyclical’s anchor. In the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37), the Samaritan, at real expense to himself in terms of time and money, aided a stranger encountered along the road. The injured stranger had been attacked by thieves.

Pope Francis cautions that society today must not turn “its back on suffering.” He writes, “May we not sink to such depths!” The parable “summons us to rediscover our vocation as citizens of our respective nations and of the entire world, builders of a new social bond.”

But “social peace demands hard work, craftsmanship,” the pope affirms. “It would be easier to keep freedoms and differences in check with cleverness and a few resources.”

Nevertheless, “such a peace would be superficial and fragile, not the fruit of a culture of encounter that brings enduring stability.” The pope comments that “integrating differences is a much more difficult and slow process, yet it is the guarantee of a genuine and lasting peace.”

What is needed is “the ability to recognize other people’s right to be themselves and to be different,” he advises.

This, Pope Francis clarifies, does not imply renouncing one’s own identity. Openness to others need not imply spurning our “own richness.” For Christians, he explains, the Gospel remains essential.

He insists, “If the music of the Gospel ceases to sound in our homes, our public squares, our workplaces, our political and financial life, then we will no longer hear the strains that challenge us to defend the dignity of every man and woman.”

The parable of the good Samaritan “eloquently presents the basic decision we need to make in order to rebuild our wounded world,” says Pope Francis. But how?

The parable, he writes, “shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbors, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good.”

This commentary was written by David Gibson for Catholic News Service’s Faith Alive series.