ROME – During a virtual tea party honoring the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II held Monday, diplomats and representatives of various faith communities joined voices in recognizing the efforts made by the Catholic Church to assist the sick and needy during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
In a recorded address, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State of Britian’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, praised the “important role of the Catholic Church on the ground” during the pandemic.
Insisting that the Church and the government of the United Kingdom share similar priorities, he highlighted issues such as joint campaigns on human trafficking and modern slavery as well as ongoing conversations about freedom of religion and preventing sexual violence in conflict situations.
“We stand together on these important issues that confront the world today,” he said, noting that he recently hosted an interfaith roundtable on how to bring together faith communities and governments in tackling COVID-19.
Specifically, he praised the Catholic Church for “delivering upon the needs of the most vulnerable,” saying the Church plays an essential role “in assuring that those around us get the service and support that they need.”
“For me, as a person of faith, as a Muslim, as a person who believes in humanity, and as I know from my work with the Catholic Church, that whether we look out on our own lives, our families, our communities, our towns, our cities, our countries, or indeed internationally, [what’s important] is the interdependence of humanity,” Ahmad said, insisting that it’s what “defines people of all faiths, that’s what brings us together.”
Ahmad spoke at the June 16 virtual “tea” organized by the British Embassy to the Holy See to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday – her actual birthday, on which she turned 94 this year, is April 21 – and to recognize the Catholic Church’s global efforts in fighting the coronavirus.
Numerous journalists, Vatican officials and ambassadors to the Holy See were part of the call, which replaced the traditional party held on embassy grounds which was canceled this year due to the pandemic.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston was also on the call, as was the President of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorrondo, officials from the Vatican’s department for Integral Human Development, and representatives from the Lay Center in Rome and the Catholic charity organization Caritas International.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for Relations with States, was also present at the event. It was more or less de rigueur for Gallagher to participate, since he’s also the most senior Englishman in the Vatican.
Sister Jolanda Kafka, president of the Union of International Superiors General (UISG), and Jesuit Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, Father General of the Society of Jesus and president of the Union of Superiors General (USG), each spoke on the efforts that women and men religious are making worldwide to combat the virus, specifically through service to the poor and educational and information campaigns in developing countries.
Both Kafka and Sosa voiced their belief that the coronavirus crisis, despite its devastating effects, can lead to positive change, both for people and the environment, and to a deepening of faith.
In her remarks, British Ambassador to the Holy See Sally Axworthy noted that this year the Queen’s birthday falls on the feast of Saint Anthony of Padua, a follower of St. Francis of Assisi who cared for the poor.
She highlighted efforts being made by the British government to fight the coronavirus, including a June 4 vaccine summit, noting that scientists at both the Oxford and London universities have begun clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine.
The UK “is determined that when a vaccine comes, it should be available for everyone,” she said, explaining that money raised at the summit will go toward preparing the world’s poorest countries for the roll out of the vaccine and to immunize some 300 million children against infections diseases. She said her government has also pledged to offer up to 850 million euros to strengthen the healthcare and education systems in developing countries.
Yet while governments are doing their share, Axworthy said “the Church and other faiths make contributions in ways that we cannot match.”
Pointing to Pope Francis’s March 27 prayer event in an empty and rainy St. Peter’s Square, she said the pope “gave us hope in the darkness when the virus first struck.” She also voiced gratitude for his livestreamed daily Masses, during which he prayed for the “unsung heroes” of the pandemic.
She also praised the Catholic Church’s practical assistance to needy communities, saying the Church as the world’s largest non-state healthcare provider has been “on the front line of fighting the disease.”
“We know that the Catholic Church brings healthcare to some of the most deprived places in the world, and that its work has put the health of the local population often above their own,” she said, insisting that “The Church’s traditional role of caring for the poor is particularly important now).”
Axworthy also said the Church is at the forefront of the “Building Back Better” approach to the coronavirus, and highlighted several Vatican initiatives, including a special coronavirus task force and a new fund aimed to help Romans who lost jobs due to COVID-19 get back on their feet.
In his remarks, Gallagher praised the efforts made by Queen Elizabeth to comfort and console her people throughout the pandemic.
“We have been greatly blessed by her example of service and perseverance. For people of faith and for Christians in particular, she has been a source of encouragement and inspiration,” he said, adding that, “In the present global emergency, she has once again, as in so many moments of crisis, offered us resolve and comfort. Her empathy with those who are suffering is always has always been heartfelt.”
Speaking of Pope Francis, Gallagher said it was the pope’s desire from the beginning of the outbreak “that the Church roll out its field hospital and come to the aid of all who are threatened by COVID-19.”
“He has encouraged us all to step up to the mark in the greatest challenge of this generation,” he said, adding that “The shocking and frightening reality the whole world has been grappling with has shaken so much of what we took for granted.”
“In reflecting on this experience, we know there is an opportunity for conversion. Questions are inevitably raised about the most fundamental things, as false securities fall away in the earthquake of these times,” he said.
Gallagher also pointed to numerous initiatives being carried out by the Catholic Church, including by those working in the roughly 5,000 Catholic-inspired hospitals and 16,000 dispensaries worldwide, as well as Caritas International, whose efforts specifically benefit migrants, refugees and internally displaced people.
He noted that many bishops’ conferences and dioceses throughout the pandemic have urged both pastors and faithful to follow state regulations.
“Whatever criticisms there might have been in this regard are being resolved, and everyone is looking forward to progress in normalization of access to and celebrations in our places of worship,” he said, insisting that whatever efforts are made in fighting the coronavirus “must be done in a spirit of service to all, particularly those most in need at this time.”
Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome, also chimed in, insisting that the pandemic and its long-term effects are far from over, but said, “We are only at the beginning.”
“What has been done by the Catholic Church has been done by all denominations of Christian faith, Muslims and Jewish organizations,” he said, insisting that joint efforts to help those in need have fostered for himself “a new understanding of the world dialogue, the word to do good things (together).”
In a comment left in an on-line chatbox for the virtual event, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich thanked the Catholic Church for being “on the frontlines of helping people through” the pandemic, and she praised Pope Francis “for his many efforts,” including a new fund to help the unemployed in Rome.
Gingrich applauded the numerous faith-based organizations and religious communities “who have provided health care, spiritual care, and other essential needs,” insisting that her embassy “will continue to support and champion the work of faith communities to respond to and eradicate COVID-19.”
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