Creating Welcoming Campus Cultures During a Pandemic

Millennial writer Marcus Mescher writes:

Competing for our attention amid concerns about student retention, revenue loss and pedagogical efficiency is a mental health crisis that has been simmering for years and is now threatening to boil over.

In her book iGen, psychologist Jean Twenge describes a “sudden, cataclysmic shift downward in life satisfaction” among young people. She warns this is “only the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to a mental health crisis made worse by screens that leave many young adults feeling more anxious, depressed and lonely.

As studies continue to show causative links between time spent using social media and higher rates of mental distress and social isolation, we have to find a way to interrupt the cycle of dependence on digital tools, which is especially challenging during stay-at-home orders and remote learning….

I am not arguing for in-person education in the fall. In the absence of a vaccine and without guarantees about universal compliance to wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing and other safety measures, students, staff, faculty, administrators and our friends and family will be at risk not only of contracting the virus, but also long-term health effects including damage to the lungs, heart, brain and immune system.

The essential question we need to ask ourselves as educators and members of Catholic institutions is how can we best encounter, accompany and empower our students in the midst of this crisis….

Formation happens more through relationships than individual dispositions or actions; we are what we repeatedly do together. For this reason, we have to be intentional about integrating self-care and mental health into our relationships as families, friends and communities for work, school or worship.

By leveraging existing networks as communities of practice, we can show that mental health is a priority by how we talk about mental health (as essential to everyone’s health and wellbeing, not just an issue for those with a mental health condition), how we order our day (making time for prayer, reflection or meditation) and how we check in with each other (beyond “How are you?” and the trite “busy” or “fine” responses).

These are first steps toward building a culture of holistic health and well-being.

Pope: The Pandemic Has Exposed How Much Damage is Caused by Extreme Economic Inequality

via the Vatican:

In this time of uncertainty and anguish, I invite everyone to welcome the gift of hope that comes from Christ. It is He who helps us navigate the tumultuous waters of sickness, death and injustice, which do not have the last word over our final destination.

The pandemic has exposed and aggravated social problems, above all that of inequality. Some people can work from home, while this is impossible for many others. Certain children, notwithstanding the difficulties involved, can continue to receive an academic education, while this has been abruptly interrupted for many, many others. Some powerful nations can issue money to deal with the crisis, while this would mean mortgaging the future for others.

These symptoms of inequality reveal a social illness; it is a virus that comes from a sick economy. And we must say it simply: the economy is sick. It has become ill. It is the fruit of unequal economic growth — this is the illness: the fruit of unequal economic growth — that disregards fundamental human values. In today’s world, a few wealthy people possess more than all the rest of humanity…..This is an injustice that cries out to heaven! At the same time, this economic model is indifferent to the damage inflicted on our common home. Care is not being taken of our common home. We are close to exceeding many limits of our wonderful planet, with serious and irreversible consequences: from the loss of biodiversity and climate change to rising sea levels and the destruction of the tropical forests. Social inequality and environmental degradation go together and have the same root (cf. Encyclical, Laudato Si’, 101): the sin of wanting to possess and wanting to dominate over one’s brothers and sisters, of wanting to possess and dominate nature and God himself. But this is not the design for creation….

We forget that, being created in the image and likeness of God, we are social, creative and solidary beings with an immense capacity to love. We often forget this. In fact, from among all the species, we are the beings who are the most cooperative and we flourish in community, as is seen well in the experience of the saints….

When the obsession to possess and dominate excludes millions of persons from having primary goods; when economic and technological inequality are such that the social fabric is torn; and when dependence on unlimited material progress threatens our common home, then we cannot stand by and watch. No, this is distressing. We cannot stand by and watch! With our gaze fixed on Jesus (cf. Heb 12:2) and with the certainty that His love is operative through the community of His disciples, we must act all together, in the hope of generating something different and better. Christian hope, rooted in God, is our anchor….

May the Christian communities of the 21st century recuperate this reality — care for creation and social justice: they go together —, thus bearing witness to the Lord’s Resurrection. If we take care of the goods that the Creator gives us, if we put what we possess in common in such a way that no one would be lacking, then we would truly inspire hope to regenerate a more healthy and equal world.

And in conclusion, let us think about the children. Read the statistics: how many children today are dying of hunger because of a non good distribution of riches, because of the economic system as I said above; and how many children today do not have the right to education for the same reason. May this image of children in want due to hunger and the lack of education help us understand that after this crisis we must come out of it better.

Reopening Schools is Immoral and Undermines Educational Values

I have spent most of my life in school. From preschool, elementary, middle, high school, and college to high school once again (this time as a teacher) to full-time graduate school where I now live in a first-year residence, nearly every waking year of my life has been spent in a school building. Despite my comfort and familiarity with being in school, I believe returning to in-person learning at this time is immoral.

In March, when schools closed, there were only a few thousand reported cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States. Now, months later, just as some schools have begun welcoming students back into their buildings, the United States still reports over 50,000 new cases on some days. If it was not safe with a few thousand total cases, how is it safe with a few million total cases?

In the past few months, we have seen how quickly COVID-19 can spread, especially in places like nursing homes and prisons, where people live in close quarters and frequently congregate for meals and social gatherings. Living on a college campus is not much different in this sense. Students live in small shared rooms, share common restrooms and showers, have limited and crowded dining facilities, and attend regular gatherings (classes, clubs, bars, parties, etc.). If the virus can spread quickly in nursing homes and prisons where mobility and activities are limited, imagine how quickly the virus might spread where people are less restricted in their actions and encountering more people in outside communities.

I understand the desire to return to school. The transition to online education is a difficult one, and it is not comparable to in-person learning. Yet, online school is working, it is effective, and people are adapting. (See: Sharon Jeffcoat Bartley, and Jennifer H. Golek. “Evaluating the Cost Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Instruction.” Journal of Educational Technology & Society 7, no. 4 (2004): 167-75. and Ni, Anna Ya. “Comparing the Effectiveness of Classroom and Online Learning: Teaching Research Methods.” Journal of Public Affairs Education 19, no. 2 (2013): 199-215.

Schools are much more than learning institutions. Schools are capable of teaching civility; instilling values; establishing community bonds and fostering friendships; and providing a safe environment for those who might not always have one. The value that schools provide would be hard to overstate.  Schools must continue to be mission-driven institutions that create welcoming environments for all people to grow, develop lasting relationships, and have a passion for learning.

By opening schools during a global pandemic, institutions are unraveling the fabric of schools. It is clear that some figures in our society, including those who run schools, are placing profits over people. By opening schools in areas where there is a clear risk to public health, institutions are contradicting their own values. By opening schools, institutions are creating unsafe working, learning, and living conditions. By opening schools, institutions are undermining their mission-driven charisms. And this includes Catholic schools.

Institutions of learning that pride themselves on “caring for the whole person” are failing to consider the safety of the whole person over the safety of their endowments. Institutions that believe in an option for the poor and vulnerable are jeopardizing the lives of the vulnerable in their communities.

For institutions that pride themselves on the quality of their liberal arts education, what philosophical or ethical system is being used to determine the decision to reopen? The greatest good for the greatest number of people? Nope, not utilitarian ethics. Is there a categorical imperative for reopening everything? Nope, not deontological ethics. If these schools cannot justify the greatest good, nor recognize a categorical imperative, how can they justify reopening schools?

For institutions that pride themselves on “community first,” what does one say when their school opens before others in the area, jeopardizing members of the school community and the local community?

For Catholic institutions that pride themselves on human dignity and respect for life, how does risking the health and safety of the students, faculty, and staff align with their understanding of Catholic Social Teaching?

As both a teacher and student, the idea of returning to on-campus learning is, in short, terrifying. For far too long, education has been placed on the national backburner. For far too long, schools have received limited resources: education budgets have been cut for other projects, teachers have worked exceptionally long hours with little compensation, and students have paid exorbitant tuition costs that never seem to stop rising. To expect students and teachers to be guinea pigs in uncharted and unsafe territory is reckless, craven, and asinine. And it shows a lack of respect for the dignity and worth of the human beings who are likely to suffer as a result.

Other options exist that do not involve bringing the entire student body to campus. Those options require creative and potentially uncomfortable solutions. However, by welcoming back the entire student body to campuses mid-pandemic, schools are clearly revealing that the only solutions they are willing to find are those that immorally put profits above people.

Bobby Nichols is a former high school theology teacher and campus minister from Louisville, Kentucky, currently pursuing a full-time Masters of Ministry and Theology from Villanova University. 

Fr. James Martin: Know the Gospels and Church Teaching, Vote Your Conscience

Partisan priests and even bishops have begun campaigning for their preferred party and pressuring Catholic voters to follow their lead, causing unrest among quite a few American Catholics. Fr. James Martin, SJ. offers some simple advice to those hearing such messages:

Neither a bishop, nor a priest, nor a sister, nor anyone, can or should tell you how to vote. They can point out important issues, but how to vote is up to your conscience. Know the Gospels and church teaching, and then vote as your own conscience demands.

As Pope Francis said, the church is supposed to “form consciences, not replace them.”

I’m writing this now because I’m being deluged with questions like this and Catholics telling me that their bishop or pastor is telling them they’ll be “going to hell,” or they can only vote for one party. That’s false. You’re an adult with a conscience. Use it and be at peace.

Even During a Pandemic, We Can Serve Others in Our Communities

When the threat of COVID is behind us and we’re allowed to meet new people again, I know one of the first topics of conversations will be: “What happened to you during the pandemic?”  So far, I have heard a range of life experiences, from the challenging to the traumatic, everything from getting laid off from work to having a loved one die from the virus.  No one has escaped the impacts of this pandemic.  It has been a solidarity-building experience for people everywhere, while also challenging our faith in ourselves and the direction to which God leads us. It has illuminated the greater need for collective responses to threats that transcend any divisions in our society. It has also called us all to service.

As a city councilmember of Burien, WA, about 15 minutes south of Seattle, I have seen how the public health crisis has directly impacted our local government and social service network.  Within the city government, we have lost out on expected annual revenue due to the decrease in economic activity, we have had to lay off employees, and we worry that the federal government will not supply us with the additional monies needed to fill the gap.  Additionally, the social service networks that provide the majority of the community work within localities have a shortage of volunteers and donations. Usually, the majority of volunteers for these kinds of programs (like St. Vincent de Paul or Salvation Army) are of the vulnerable age for exposure to the virus. No one was prepared for this kind of impact.

Marginalized communities are being hit the hardest, having trouble paying rent, not knowing where their next bag of groceries will come from, and worrying about getting COVID while at work.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11.1% of the American population was food insecure prior to COVID, which is close to 38 million people.  Feeding America projects that the number could rise to 54 million, or 1 in 6 Americans, by the end of 2020.  We know these problems will continue throughout the period of the pandemic.

I struggled at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, feeling powerless to make change in my community at a time when I knew people needed support the most. How are Catholics able to serve the margins during a pandemic? Where can Catholics find outlets to support and encounter neighbors in need? Scripture calls us to provide this support and encounter in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” As Catholics, as millennials, and as community-minded individuals, it is our Christ-inspired duty to serve.  I grow more and more irritable with every news story of millennials seeking the beach or going to parties instead of working toward eradicating the social and economic inequalities exacerbated by COVID.

My personal saving grace from the feeling of powerlessness came in the form of a volunteer opportunity through AmeriCorps VISTA, delivering meals to families and youth who are food insecure. Every day, I took meals directly to the door of families so that their kids could eat breakfast and lunch and so they had access to fresh groceries.  Every delivery I made, I knew I was working to feed the hungry who are made in the image and likeness of God.  Whenever there were days where I didn’t want to leave the house, it didn’t matter.  Someone else’s hunger outweighed my disinterest in leaving my own comfort. As a Catholic called intto the service of my community, there is never an excuse to not help others who are less fortunate.

Catholic Social Teaching is not only a driving force for me as an elected official, but it challenges me to serve others in every element of my life.  It calls us to live out our values in the world, on the streets, in the lives of others; to live in radical solidarity with them.  You can’t live in solidarity with others if you’re choosing to not wear masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines. You can’t respect life and creation if you don’t work to ensure its protection.  And you can’t heed the call to service if you don’t listen to what God is asking you to do through prayer and reflection.  This service during COVID can renew a relationship with God through the charitable fruit of the Holy Spirit.  That spiritual connection creates a sense of purpose for us in our community, making new connections with those less fortunate.

Responding to the impacts of COVID reminded me of Christ’s goodness by working alongside partners at public housing authorities and nonprofits serving communities, but more importantly, through the people I served.  I struggled with the feeling of being unhelpful, locked in my apartment for months.  But through this response experience, I’m encouraging you to take actions that further your faith in Christ, further your faith in your community, and reestablish a hope in humanity—that we will get through this if we all act collectively with charity to be kind, overflowing with love to support our  neighbors.  At a time when many of us feel isolated and powerless, we should navigate our way through this imperfect time with the God-given abilities we have to make a difference.

Kevin Schilling is a millennial city councilmember of Burien, WA.

Conspiracy Theorist Bishop from Texas Endorses Bizarre Right-Wing Video

Christopher White reports:

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, has endorsed a video that includes anti-immigrant remarks and homophobic slurs by a priest of Wisconsin in which the priest claims, “You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat.”

The video was released Aug. 30 by Fr. James Altman, pastor of St. James the Less Catholic Church in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and has since received more than 298,000 views.

In the 10-minute video, set to ominous music and dark lighting, the priest slams Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington D.C., for his criticism of President Donald Trump’s photo-op and appearance at the St. John Paul II National Shrine earlier this summer. He also criticizes Jesuit Fr. James Martin and his closing prayer at the Democratic National Convention; refers to participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects immigrants who entered the United States as minors from deportation, as “criminal illegal aliens”; and calls climate change a hoax….

On Sept. 5, however, Strickland took to Twitter to share the video and thank Altman for his “courage.”

“If you love Jesus & His Church & this nation…pleases [sic] HEED THIS MESSAGE,” wrote Strickland….

As for Strickland, who in recent years has emerged as one of the most partisan members of the U.S. hierarchy, endorsement of Altman’s video does not mark his first foray into promoting fringe or extremist clerics.

In 2018, when a former papal nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, issued a letter against Pope Francis charging that he mishandled clergy abuse claims and called for the pope’s resignation, Strickland issued his own letter saying he found Viganò to be credible and asked his priests to read his letter in all Sunday Masses that week in August 2018.