This photo, provided by Father Charles Muorah, parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish, Trenton, shows residents living in the Diocese of Onitsha lining up for supplies at a food station during the COVID-19 pandemic. Father Muorah is among the local missionaries who participates in the annual Missionary Cooperation Plan; he travels to parishes in the Diocese each summer making mission appeals to benefit his home diocese in Nigeria.  Photo courtesy of Father Charles Muorah
This photo, provided by Father Charles Muorah, parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish, Trenton, shows residents living in the Diocese of Onitsha lining up for supplies at a food station during the COVID-19 pandemic. Father Muorah is among the local missionaries who participates in the annual Missionary Cooperation Plan; he travels to parishes in the Diocese each summer making mission appeals to benefit his home diocese in Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Father Charles Muorah
" The missionaries are doing the best they can in challenging circumstances. "
Out of concern for safety and in following protocols surrounding the coronavirus, the diocesan Missionary Cooperative Plan has been canceled this year.

And while the roster of missionaries will not be making their traditional weekend visits to the Diocese’s 98 parishes this summer and sharing with faithful about their experiences of service in other parts of the world, there are a number of missionaries local to the Diocese who offered perspective about the pandemic’s impact in the countries where they minister.

“It’s becoming more evident each day that we are all interrelated,” said Msgr. Vincent Gartland, a retired priest of the Diocese. “What affects people in one small part of the globe eventually affects people everywhere. It is in our own interest as a nation to do what we can to build up health care systems in developing countries and to provide incentives for governments to provide basic education and social services for their people.”

Speaking about Guatemala, specifically the Diocese of Quiché, where he has been involved with mission work for 30 years, Msgr. Gartland said the COVID-19 cases at first were concentrated more in the city. However, rural areas, including the Diocese of Quiché, are now seeing an increase of cases.

Though the country has been under a curfew for several months, travel is discouraged and public transportation is prohibited. He said the fragile social protection programs often neglect the indigenous communities – and the majority of people in that diocese, one of the poorest in Central America, are indigenous.

There, people suffer mostly from social inequality, racism and a weak public health system, he said. Under ordinary circumstances, health care, sanitary condition and clean water sources are very limited.

“The missionaries are doing the best they can in challenging circumstances to accompany their people,” Msgr. Gartland said.

Change of Plans

The MCP is coordinated by the diocesan Missions Office, which arranges for missionaries from around the globe to visit the Diocese’s parishes each summer. They share the challenges their brethren worldwide face and offer them the opportunity to provide financial and spiritual support. Mission appeal funds may be used for formation of seminarians, catechists, and children and youth, as well as for providing food, medicine and shelter for those in war-torn territories.

“It is unfortunate that we have to cancel MCP this year,” said Father Peter James Alindogan, diocesan missions director, and pastor of St. Veronica Parish, Howell, in extending appreciation to the clergy and faithful of the Diocese who have “always opened their homes and churches to our missionaries every summer.” 

“They feel connected with our needy brothers and sisters around the world, and the missionaries feel assured, comforted and encouraged by the help of our Diocese and parishes through the collection of funds,” he said. 

Father Alindogan said the assigned MCP missionaries for this year will have the same parish assignments next year. “The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath may have somehow slowed our missionary efforts,” he said, “but we need to look at the brighter side of things to come for our Church, when this is all over.”

Challenges in the Philippines

Prior to beginning his priestly ministry in the Trenton Diocese, Father Leandro Dela Cruz served for 20 years in the Diocese of Legazpi, which is “one of the poorest of the poor” in the Philippines. Father Dela Cruz is currently pastor of St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, and serves as the MCP’s U.S. contact person for the Legazpi Diocese.

Due to the community quarantine implemented by the government, businesses and offices in the Diocese of Legazpi were closed for more than three months, resulting in high unemployment. Life has been difficult, he said, and because this year’s MCP was canceled, the diocese looked for other ways to be of assistance including by cooperating with the local government units through the Social Action Center-Legazpi and the Veritas Legazpi, the social communication arm of the diocese.

Father Dela Cruz noted that through its media platforms, the Veritas Legazpi, he said, played a valuable role in disseminating crucial information regarding COVID-19 throughout the province/diocese. He noted that one program provided by Veritas Legazpi was counseling for people experiencing distress and depression. The Social Action Center-Legazpi greatly assisted people in the Province of Albay by working in partnership with the Parish Commission on Social Concerns of all parishes in the Diocese in distributing rice and manna packs to the poor. The Diocese of Legazpi, in partnership with the provincial government of Albay, distributed vegetable seeds to farmers and promoted the importance of improving the agriculture to sustain the province during the pandemic.

Father Dela Cruz noted that the suspension of public Masses not only disrupted the sacramental life in parishes but also affected them financially.

Although this year’s MCP was canceled, he said that the Diocese of Legazpi is “every grateful” to the dioceses in the United States and Canada that allow mission appeals, adding that funds raised from participating in the Missionary Cooperation Plan have been a great support and are allocated to ongoing formation programs for clergy, a disaster response program and a community-based rehabilitation program for substance abuse victims.

“This year is indeed challenging for the diocese. The pandemic brought us to unimaginable situations like closing the churches and suspending the public Masses to protect the health and lives of the faithful,” he said.

India and Beyond

Father Francis Cheruparampil, parochial vicar of Holy Family Parish, Hazlet, who serves as mission procurator in the United States for the Marymatha Province of the Vincentian Congregation in Kerala, India, and his provincial superior, Father James Kallumkal, addressed in general how members of their community are dealing with the coronavirus in areas where they serve. That includes several states in India as well as Lima, Peru, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.

Tangible outreach, the priests said, has included a portion of the community’s income being set apart for various humanitarian activities. Community members have also produced and distributed: face masks to the needy; personal protection equipment kits to health care units and hospitals; paid salaries to staff of institutions during the months of lockdown; distributed food to persons who had lost their jobs; maintained telephone contact with nearby people who were depressed, and provided maintenance and lodging to people helping in the community’s retreat centers who could not travel home because of the lockdown.

Because of the cancellation of the MCP appeals, Father Kallumkal said the community sought other resources by requesting support from friends, benefactors, faithful who frequently visit the community’s chapels, and from other secular agencies who are active in the field assisting people in crisis situations.

Father Kallumkal urged all to remember that “anyone can be infected by the virus, which means all are vulnerable, irrespective of age, color, caste, religion or country.

“The commitment and spirit service shown by health workers and police risking their lives is a source of encouragement and invitation for such a service,” he said, “and the information on the pathetic condition of people stranded in other countries deprived of work, money and care  from their own people and country ignited sympathy for them and an urge to help them in possible ways.”

Nigeria Battles Violence, Virus

Nigeria, meanwhile, has reported nearly 30,000 coronavirus cases, but Father Charles Muorah, who works with the Archdiocese of Onitsha, said that because of a lack of resources, it is very difficult to obtain a definitive number of cases in that archdiocese – one of the oldest in Nigeria and the one from which he hails and was ordained a priest.

The impact of the coronavirus is also compounded by the country’s religious unrest and surge of attacks on Christians.

Father Muorah expressed concern about the hospitals in the archdiocese not being sufficiently equipped to care for a large number of coronavirus cases. There are a small number of ventilators available, and preferential treatment would be given to those residents who can financially afford it. Because of businesses being closed and people not working, he said that poorer people often look to the Church to help with basic necessities, and that’s what MCP appeals help to fund.

Father Muorah – who arrived in the Trenton Diocese in 2001, was incardinated in 2011 and currently serves as parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish, Trenton – said he believes that a program like the MCP has helped to empower the Archdiocese of Onitsha to continue with its mission of defending the Christian faith and address the humanitarian crisis being generated by the “modern form of persecution of the Church and Christians.”

Up until now, “the people in America have done a great job in raising support for the people” of the Onitsha, especially the poor and those who need it, he said.

Precautions Prove Positive in Uganda

Father Evarist Kabagambe, parochial vicar of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Whiting, spoke on behalf of his native Archdiocese of Kasana-Luweero, Uganda, saying that the “mere fear” of the possibility of spreading infections had motivated the government to “go to extremes of prevention to the point of severe shutdowns, which are harshly enforced by security agencies.”

He noted that as of July 7, the government’s efforts have resulted in about 1,000 cases of infection being reported, but there have been zero deaths.

“One thing for sure is that it [the coronavirus] has shown us our limitations,” he said. “It's an equalizer to show us that deep down, we are all the same regardless of the add-ons that make us think that we are far different.

“The lesson to take from this is that we should never allow the economic, political, social, religious status be cause for disunity but rather to use those privileges to build each other up,” he said.

As a newcomer to the MCP, Sylvia Allen of Holmdel was looking forward to the opportunity to present mission appeals on behalf of “Sylvia’s Children,” an organization that provides funding to educate children in Masaka, a small Ugandan village approximately 140 miles southwest of the capital, where 95 percent of the homes have neither electricity nor running water; 51 percent of the population lives on $2 a day; the median age is 15, and the life expectancy is 52.

Echoing Father Kabagambe’s remarks, she said that in the midst of the meager statistics, the good news is that because Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had halted “everything” as of March 1, the country, with a population of more than 43,000,000, has had less than 1,000 coronavirus cases and zero deaths to date.

“Africans are amazing people,” Allen said, noting that they are a group of people who care about each other and take care of their neighbors.

“They work together and share together,” Allen said, adding that the lockdown has provided families with the opportunity to spend more time together.

The virus, she said, “is a leveler. No one is immune. It has brought home the point that money isn’t the most important thing, family and friends are.”