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Combating Racism in Parish Life

How parishes can be attentive to the sufferings of Black members of the community

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On May 25, 2020, a man who was created in the image of God, George Floyd, was killed by a police officer on camera. His death garnered international attention. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, I watched the gruesome and brutal death of an American citizen, embodied as yet another defenseless Black man.

Witnessing his death was traumatizing. It is not healthy to watch someone die in real life on television. Filled with anxiety, I ran to the Blessed Sacrament chapel in my rectory and grieved in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. As I mourned the loss of George Floyd in the days that followed, I learned that the police officer who killed him had been reprimanded over a dozen times for inappropriate behavior, but was still allowed to work in the streets of the community.

I experienced a profound ache in my heart when I noticed that a number of very vocal prominent Catholic clergy, religious, lay evangelists and influencers were silent about the events surrounding Geoge Floyd’s death. Frustrated with the lack of condolences for him and his family, I immersed myself deeper in prayer with Our Lord. The Rosary was the only prayer that helped me remain attentive to the face of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Prayer to Overcome Racism
 
Mary, friend and mother to all,
through your Son, God has found a way
to unite himself to every human being,
called to be one people,
sisters and brothers to each other.

We ask for your help in calling on your Son,
seeking forgiveness for the times when
we have failed to love and respect one another.

We ask for your help in obtaining from your Son
the grace we need to overcome the evil of racism
and to build a just society.

We ask for your help in following your Son,
so that prejudice and animosity
will no longer infect our minds or hearts
but will be replaced with a love that respects
the dignity of each person.

Mother of the Church,
the Spirit of your Son Jesus
warms our hearts:
pray for us.

Amen.

One morning, while reciting the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, I was drawn to accompany Jesus in the Agony of the Garden. As I leaned into this scene, I couldn’t help but notice that as the sweat of Jesus became like great drops of blood falling to the ground, his disciples were asleep. Jesus was suffering, and the disciples were oblivious. Jesus invited them to be with him as he experienced his agony, and they heard him cry but did not attentively listen. They were in the presence of the body and blood of Christ, but they were not present to the body and blood of Christ.

I began to pray to God during Eucharist Adoration, saying, “Jesus, there are so many people of color in the Body of Christ who are suffering and have been suffering for so many years, and it seems like so many of my white brothers and sisters are not listening to the cry of the Black and brown members of the Body of Christ!”

I paused to listen in silence after sharing my thoughts, feelings and desires with Jesus. In my prayer, I experienced a sense of consolation with the response of Jesus toward his seemingly clueless apostles. Jesus did not reject them because of their choice to ignore his pain. Jesus did not revolt against them because of their lack of empathy. Jesus did not walk away from them because they decided to choose the comfort of their sleep over the work of solidarity with the suffering Christ.

Instead, Jesus prayed for those who abandoned, betrayed and denied him: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). After his passion, death and resurrection, Jesus appeared to his remaining apostles and said, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:21).

Kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament with the rosary clenched in my hands, I began to pray for all the white leaders in the Catholic Church who were not attentive to the sufferings of the Black members in the Body of Christ in America. I asked the Holy Spirit to bless them and give them the graces they would need to fulfill the demands of discipleship and listen to, learn from and work with the people of color in their communities who are actively trying to break down systems of racism and build up a civilization of love.

Little did I know, God would answer my prayer much sooner than I could have ever expected.

Not too long after this prayer experience, I received a phone call from my friend and colleague, Father Mike Schmitz. He invited me to participate in a dialogue on race with him through Ascension Presents (a YouTube channel). After consulting Our Lord in prayer about his invitation, I agreed to sit down with him to discuss our Catholic faith’s perspective on race and reconciliation. Our conversation went on to garner more than 92,000 views.

Apparently, a lot of our listeners were white Catholic clergy, consecrated religious, missionaries and lay leaders in parish and school settings. One of the fruits of our dialogue was that the veil was being lifted for so many leaders in the American Catholic Church. I received phone calls, emails and letters from white Catholic leaders all across the nation sharing with me that their eyes had been opened through our conversation. They expressed a desire to actively be a part of the solution to heal the racial divide in our country and our Church.

One of the constant themes I heard over and over again was a sense of empowerment from diocesan and parish leaders in our nation. It seems that many of them were inspired to participate in works of racial harmony through reformation and collaboration, because they invested in listening, learning and praying with the material we discussed in our conversation.

I think this method of listening, learning, praying and taking action is a model every parish in our nation can implement in their efforts to combat the sins of racism that may have been committed on their land and potentially are being perpetuated in their geographical boundaries.

Listen and Learn

To listen well, I always recommend the ascetical practice of fasting. I encourage disciples to not only fast from food but to also fast from speaking. God created most of us with two ears and one mouth. To me, this means that we ought to listen a lot more than we speak. I encourage parish leaders to prioritize fasting consistently so that they can foster a disposition of listening well to other people who are made in the image of God in their communities.

RELIGIOUS LEADERS SPEAK RACISM BRUTALITY
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell and a woman religious walk with others toward the National Museum of African American History and Culture during a peaceful protest June 8, 2020, following the death of George Floyd. CNS photo/Bob Roller

To listen well to other people, we ought to try and first listen well to God in prayer through our time in silence with the sacred Scriptures. An approach the Church highlights in our efforts to grow in our relationship with God is the ancient practice of lectio divina. Lectio divina traditionally has four parts: reading, meditating, praying and contemplating.

Read: What does the text say in and of itself?

Meditate: What does the text say to me?

Pray: Speak with God about what the text is saying to me.

Contemplate: Sit in silence as God looks at me and as I look at God.

I encourage pastors, consecrated religious brothers and sisters, missionaries and lay leaders in the Church parish to examine who is sitting at the table in small group Bible studies, Rosary prayer groups, parish missions, youth retreats, adoration chapels, ministries geared toward the poorest of the poor, RCIA and, most importantly, the holy sacrifice of the Mass. If everyone sitting at the table in these settings is of the same race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, then I would encourage the leaders to examine what other racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups of people live and work in the geographical boundaries of the parish.

Once the diverse groups are identified, it is imperative that the parish leaders become proximate to these people and invite them to participate in the Church life through parish missions, retreats, small group studies and service opportunities geared toward the poorest of the poor.

When parish leaders begin to abide in relationships with people of different backgrounds, the ministers need to fast from speaking and listen well to the racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse groups of people who may want to share their witness.

As parish leaders listen to the testimonies of the people in their community, there is a good chance they might hear stories of the negative effects of generational racism and the enduring realities of systemic racism.

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Pope Francis speaks of George Floyd, social unrest

Offering special greetings at the June 3, 2020, General Audience, Pope Francis spoke of the death of George Floyd and social unrest:

“Dear brothers and sisters in the United States, I have witnessed with great concern the disturbing social unrest in your nation in these past days, following the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd. My friends, we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life. At the same time, we have to recognize that ‘the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost.’ Today I join the Church in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and in the entire United States, in praying for the repose of the soul of George Floyd and of all those others who have lost their lives as a result of the sin of racism. Let us pray for the consolation of their grieving families and friends and let us implore the national reconciliation and peace for which we yearn. May Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of America, intercede for all those who work for peace and justice in your land and throughout the world.

“May God bless all of you and your families.”

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Racism has been described by many of our nation’s bishops as America’s original sin. Biblically, racism can be defined as a sin of partiality. James describes this sin in the New Testament: “Show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. However, if you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it” (Jas 2:1, 8-10).

This sin of partiality has historically been rooted in direct institutional policies, which are codified laws and practices that are unwritten rules that accommodate and give access to white people in America and alienate and discriminate against Black people for no other reason than because of the color of their skin.

It is a historical fact that our nation was founded on the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous peoples. Before the British settled on the land we now know as Jamestown, the Native Americans were already occupying the land. The Euro-American slave trade provided free labor from kidnapped Africans who were sold to Europeans and brought to America. During the years where slavery was the law of the land, Black families were separated from one another, tortured, raped and killed by white Americans, including many white Catholic Americans. In addition to the Catholic laity participating in this mortal sin of slavery, which was the codified law of the land, many bishops, priests and consecrated religious brothers and sisters also owned and abused slaves. In fact, our country’s first Catholic bishop, John Carroll, is guilty of participating in the evil institution of slavery.

For hundreds of years, slavery was the law of this land. This written rule gave access to and accommodated white people and oppressed Black people. After the South lost the Civil War, the institution of slavery was no longer the law of this land.

In the years that followed, Reconstruction began. During this period, racial terrorism continued to happen against Black people by white Americans and, unfortunately, white Catholic Americans. Many Black people were arrested and sentenced to prison for crimes they did not commit. Some received prison sentences because new laws were written that only applied to Black men and women. In addition to being imprisoned, racial lynchings increased during this period and lasted well into the 1900s.

What followed Reconstruction was the Jim Crow laws, which were codified policies that made it illegal for Blacks to live, work, play and study in the same places as white people. Unfortunately, these laws were historically supported by many Catholic leaders and laity who enforced these rules in their parishes and schools.

Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these sins are no longer able to be legally enforced, but indirect practices and policies in our nation’s institutions, organizations and businesses continue to negatively affect people of color. When gone unchecked, these racist practices and policies have the potential to corrupt the minds and hearts of people who benefit from them. This is one of the reasons why racial stereotypes, prejudices and acts of discrimination continue to be manifested by people in our community, including Catholics.

For example, in the 21st century, there are still segregated country clubs, Mardi Gras balls, fraternities, sororities and swimming pools. These organizations can get away with their racist practices because the rules are not codified, even though the practice is enforced. Some of these organizations were founded by white Catholics and are financially supported by white Catholics. If the leaders in a Church parish find out that these institutions are operating within their geographical boundaries, then they have an obligation to preach about these sinful organizations from the pulpit and teach their parishioners why it is unacceptable for a Catholic to belong to a group that excludes members from the Body of Christ for no other reason than the color of their skin.

VIRGINIA BLACK CATHOLIC
In this 2011 file photo, Black Catholics sing during Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia. CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec

Pray and Fast

In addition to listening and learning, every registered parishioner should also be encouraged to pray and fast for the sins of racism that have been committed on our American soil and for the sins of racism that are still being committed in this land. This was one of the main themes from my conversation with Father Schmitz that resonated with many of our listeners.

Many of our listeners were not aware that acts of reparation for our sins and the sins of our ancestors were biblical and in line with Catholic teaching. The word reparation means to “make it right.” In the New Testament, Zacchaeus was invited by Jesus to be reconciled with God after years of committing sins against people in the community. However, he was not reconciled to the people in his community until he made it right by paying back what he took from them four times over. In the Old Testament, the prophets Daniel and Ezra also tried to make it right, not only for their sins but also for the sins that were committed by other people in their land.

Bishop Fabre
Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, played a key role in drafting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” CNS photo/Bob Roller

Quite often, many Catholics will acknowledge that they never personally owned slaves, upheld Jim Crow laws, currently support institutions that have racist practices and policies or used racial slurs when talking about people of color. Nonetheless, as members of the Body of Christ, we are all responsible for making acts of reparations for people in our community who have committed these sins.

We are Christians, and Christians are called to imitate Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sins even though he never personally committed sin. Likewise, every time a priest hears a confession in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we not only give the sinner a penance, but we also commit to doing penances for the person as well. We believe that God uses our acts of prayer and fasting to heal hearts, transform minds and draw our ancestors out of purgatory and into the beatific vision in heaven! As we learn about sins of racism, our parish community can invite members to pray the Rosary, recite the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, offer Masses and Eucharistic Holy Hours of reparation and participate in days of fasting for the healing of the racial divide.

Act

In addition to listening, learning, praying and fasting, our parishes are also invited to commit to taking concrete actions. Clergy are encouraged to preach about the racial history of the country, the Church and the local parish from the pulpit. These homilies can be based on the lives of the six African Americans on the path to becoming saints: Father Augustus Tolton, Mother Henriette Delille, Mother Mary Lange, Sister Thea Bowman, Pierre Toussaint and Julia Greely. In addition to the homilies at Mass, the priest can include prayers against racism that are affecting his local community during the intercessions.

It is also important for the parish to purchase diverse images of holiness for their church and school campuses. All people in the geographical boundaries of the parish must be able to see themselves represented in the saints and angels in stained-glass windows, statues and paintings in our Catholic institutions. Portraying depictions of holiness that reflect the race and ethnicities of the people in the geographical boundaries of the community can be a bridge for many nonregistered parishioners to find a home in the parish community.

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RESPECT FOR THE HUMAN PERSON

“Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that ‘everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as “another self,” above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.’ No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a ‘neighbor,’ a brother.”

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1931

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As people in the community are invited to small group Bible studies, ministries to the poor, missions, retreats, RCIA and Mass, the pastor must encourage new members from diverse backgrounds to sit at the leadership tables in the parish — namely, pastoral council and finance council.

Even if diverse members in the geographical boundaries of the community don’t volunteer to sit in these places, it is important to personally invite them to a seat at the leadership tables in the community. Working and praying with people from different backgrounds will help the priest and his staff at the parish level know how they can best accompany all people in the discipleship of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

If our parish has written policies that unintentionally discriminate against Black and indigenous people of color, the members who are sitting at the table of leadership can inform the pastor on what he may not be aware of. Their wisdom can help him to rewrite the rules so that all people are accommodated by the Church in their walk toward eternity. If Bible studies, adult education classes and youth programs are only using sources from white Catholics, then the diverse leadership teams can assist the directors of religious education and adult faith formation to find and use curriculums that cover Black Catholic history and present speakers of color in their programs.

Listening well, praying and taking concrete actions will not address every evil of racism in our geographical boundaries. However, these steps can help to heal some of the wounds that have been caused by sins of racism. In addition to healing wounds, these steps can also inspire disciples of Jesus Christ to do something in their community for the transformation of broken institutions that intentionally or unintentionally block people of all nations, races, tribes and tongues from dwelling together in the secular world and the Church.

FATHER JOSHUA JOHNSON is director of vocations for the Diocese of Baton Rouge and the pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in St. Amant, Louisiana. He is a published author with Ascension Press, a national speaker and the podcast host of “Ask Fr. Josh.” You can keep in touch with Father Josh on Instagram and Twitter — @frjoshjohnson.

 
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