By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — As the congressional stalemate over the federal government’s shutdown continued, not only were an estimated 800,000 federal employees temporarily jobless, but other functions and services typically provided by the government without a second thought being given to them were no longer being taken for granted.
The Archdiocese for the Military Services said that its use of "contract priests" to celebrate Mass at a number of military installations where no active-duty chaplain is on-site would have to be canceled in most circumstances.
"With the government shutdown, GS (general services) and contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide are not permitted to work — not even to volunteer," said an Oct. 3 op-ed essay written by John Schlageter, general counsel for the military archdiocese. "During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so."
Scores of Masses had to be canceled as a result. One exception was the Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia where, the archdiocese pointed out Oct. 4, the priest could perform pastoral duties because of the way "the contract is funded."
"At a time when the military is considering alternative sources of funding for sporting events at the service academies, no one seems to be looking for funding to ensure the free exercise rights of Catholics in uniform. Why not?" Schlageter said. He was referring to a scheduled Oct. 5 football game between Navy and Air Force that had been under threat of cancellation, but would be permitted to be played.
The House Oct. 5 in a 400-1 vote passed a concurrent resolution "expressing the sense of Congress regarding the need for the continued availability of religious services to members of the Armed Forces and their families during a lapse in appropriations." The bill was sent to the Senate for further action.
The same day, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced he would reinstate almost all of the 350,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department, a decision that was expected to resolve the situation with contract priests and allow them to say Mass.
With national parks closed as a result of the shutdown, tourism is off.
In Utah, Father Bill Wheaton, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Moab, said a number of his parishioners work for the National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management, and "they’re all at this point out of work."
Other parishioners work in the area’s tourism industry, and with the closure of the nearby national parks, tourists are staying away, meaning business is down.
"The other thing that’s very sad is that I have had several Catholics who came to Mass in the last day or so, and because they have barricades up at both Canyonlands and Arches (national parks), these people were very disappointed. They talked about spending a year planning their vacations" and now they can’t visit world-famous sights like Delicate Arch or the petroglyphs in Horseshoe Canyon, Father Wheaton said.
The ripple effect of the shutdown could affect even Father Wheaton’s parish budget, he told the Intermountain Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. "Tourists this time of year contribute a hefty chunk of the budget," he said. "They tend to be very generous. Most of the support throughout the year comes from local parishioners, though, and with the shutdown, their paychecks are affected, too."
In Ogden, Utah, the shutdown’s impact so far was minimal at the Joyce Hansen Hall Food Bank in Ogden, "but we do expect that to increase," said Marcie Valdez, director of Catholic Community Services Northern Utah. The food bank is the largest in the area, and Weber County is home to many federal employees who work at the regional IRS center and Hill Air Force Base.
Elsewhere, Catholic families whose livelihood is tied to the military were already dealing with the fallout.
Kelly Corbett’s husband, John, is retired from the Air Force and is a civilian employee at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. He received notification Sept. 25 that his job was furloughed.
"John has no working income at all," Kelly Corbett told The Colorado Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Colorado Springs. "There is no option to use vacation time or sick days in order to collect a paycheck. He has applied for unemployment for the first time in his life, after working for 30 years."
Sue Reininger said she and her husband, Bob, another retired serviceman working as a civilian employee at Peterson, have been trying to tighten their belts since Bob’s paycheck was cut by 20 percent due to budget sequestration earlier this year.
"After the sequestration this summer, we understood that we would be affected if the government shut down," Sue Reininger said. "We’ve already said that we’re not going to go out for coffee and we’ve made an effort not to eat out."
Catholic schools already were beginning to think about what consequences the government closures could have on students and their families.
At St. William of York School in Stafford, Va., in the Diocese of Arlington, principal Frank Nicely estimated a third of the school’s families would be affected in some way. This was made clear when more parents than usual showed up to drop their students off at school on the first morning of the shutdown.
"The parents have been very positive," he told the Arlington Catholic Herald, diocesan newspaper. "I’ve seen a lot of moms and dads say, ‘Hi, Mr. Nicely, I know we don’t usually see you.’ They’ve been very upbeat, but at the same time, they don’t know how long this is going to go on."
Nicely knows the shutdown could put some families in a difficult financial situation. On Oct. 3, the school used its Facebook page to ask parents how they were affected by the shutdown.
One mother posted that she might lose her veterans benefits, which have helped her stay home and pursue a master’s degree while paying for her children’s tuition. A mother in the military wrote that the closure of the commissary will cost her family an extra $400 a month in groceries. And a single mother wrote that she already had received a 20 percent pay cut for six weeks and will now be without pay until the shutdown is over. "I don’t know how long I can continue to pay tuition," the mother said.
In Washington, many restaurants and bars were offering free or reduced-price items to furloughed government workers.
Jesuit-run Georgetown University got in on the act, offering six free classes to workers affected by the shutdown. Each class was to be offered at the university’s downtown campus, closer to where the federal workers had their government jobs.
The courses, offered by Georgetown’s School for Continuing Studies, last from just one to four days. Georgetown had up to 100 slots available for each class.
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Contributing to this story was Veronica Ambuul in Colorado Springs, Katie Bahr in Arlington and Marie Mischel in Salt Lake City.
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