Prayer Service for Racial Justice
The following is the text of the homily given by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades in a livestreamed Prayer Service for Racial Justice at Bishop Luers High School on September 9, the Feast of St. Peter Claver
A few months ago, our nation witnessed the horrifying and inexcusable killing of George Floyd. In the succeeding weeks and months, there has been social unrest, peaceful protests against racism in our country as well as eruptions of violence and looting. There’s a lot of anger and division in our society. Two months ago, I met with Deacon Mel Tardy, whom I am so grateful is here with us today, and with the other members of our Diocesan Black Catholic Advisory Board. I wanted to hear how they were doing and their perspectives on the situation in our country and our response as Catholics in this situation. Their insights are always so helpful to me. I decided, after that meeting, that I wanted to pray with the youth of our diocese for an end to racial injustice. I have so much hope in you, our young people, and so we are here today at Bishop Luers and joined via livestream video with all the Catholic high school students and many junior high students throughout our diocese.
Why did I select today, Sept. 9, for this prayer service? Because today is the feast of the patron saint of race relations, St. Peter Claver. And because the bishops of the United States have designated this feast as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in our communities. We beg the Lord to strengthen our resolve and to bless our efforts to end racism and bring about greater peace in our communities and greater harmony among people of different races.
Peter Claver was a Spanish Jesuit missionary who came to America in the year 1610. He came to the city that was the chief African slave market in the world: Cartagena, Colombia. There he became known as “the apostle to the slaves” and “the slave of the slaves.” For 44 years, he served the physical and spiritual needs of the slaves, 1,000 of whom arrived every day from Africa. Upon their arrival, St. Peter Claver would board the ships to tend to the immediate medical needs of those held in bondage who had endured unimaginable emotional and physical suffering in the journey across the ocean. He would continue to minister to them after they disembarked and were moved to slave camps.
Besides caring for their physical and medical needs, he sought to meet their spiritual needs by teaching them about God and their dignity as human beings created in God’s image. It is reported that St. Peter Claver baptized over 300,000 slaves over the course of his many years of service in Cartagena. He also served as an advocate for the slaves before the slave traders. Because of his ministry and advocacy, Peter Claver was rejected and ostracized by many. Though of his own power he could not suppress the slave trade, he could alleviate some of its suffering. We ask St. Peter Claver to intercede for us and for our nation and our world that continues to be infected, not only by Covid-19, but by the deadly virus of racism.
Young brothers and sisters in Christ, you have learned in your Catholic education the two great commandments of Jesus that are at the heart of the Christian life: love of God and love of neighbor. These commandments are so inextricably connected, that, as St. John teaches, if one says he loves God, but hates his neighbor, he is a liar. Racism is a grievous sin against Jesus’ commandment of love. It is, as the bishops of the United States have taught, “an intrinsic evil,” that is, it is always and everywhere wrong. It is a grave violation of the most fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching: the sacred and inviolable dignity of every human person. Racist attitudes, holding that one’s own race or ethnicity is superior and judging others as inferior (for example, white supremacy) are evil. Racist attitudes often lead to racist acts: exclusion, mistreatment and unjust discrimination against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Such racist acts are sinful. They fail to acknowledge the dignity of others, to recognize others as the neighbors Jesus calls us to love. Racism is a radical evil, ignoring or rejecting the fundamental truth that all people are created in the image of God. The Catholic Church proclaims that the sin of racism defiles the image of God, that it “is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world” (Brothers and Sisters to Us).
Racism is a serious offense against God our Creator. It is a grave sin against love and against justice. In this service, we are praying for racial justice. Pope Benedict XVI taught that if we want to exercise Christian love toward others, we must first treat them with justice. If we do not treat others justly, we are not loving them, and, if we are not loving them, we are not loving God. In our nation, we cannot ignore the continuing inequalities in education, housing, employment, wealth and criminal justice, inequalities that are rooted in our country’s shameful history of slavery and, afterwards, the Jim Crow laws that sanctioned segregation. I encourage you to study and learn this history. We’ve seen wonderful advances in racial justice, to be sure.
I was seven years old when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965. I remember the civil rights movement. These were great legislative accomplishments, but these advances are incomplete. I encourage you to read the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, which we issued two years ago. It is titled “Open Wide our Hearts: the enduring call to love.” In that letter, we said the following: “Racism can only end if we contend with the policies and institutional barriers that perpetuate and preserve the inequality – economic and social – that we still see all around us. With renewed vigor, we call on members of the Body of Christ to join others in advocating and promoting policies at all levels that will combat racism and its effects in our civic and social institutions.”
Racism is a pro-life issue. Protecting human life also requires us to protect the dignity of each person. Notice how racism and attacks on human life are often manifested together. Think of abortion. Of course, abortion strikes at human life regardless of race, but African-Americans and Latinos are at an even greater risk since the racist abortion industry typically locates its clinics in neighborhoods with large racial minority populations. We all know that the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, had this racist motivation. In our pastoral letter, we bishops unequivocally state that racism is a life issue. “The injustice and harm racism causes are an attack on human life.” As Pope Francis recently said: “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.” The Holy Father also said regarding the violence that has erupted in many cities of the U.S. that “violence is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us the same message.
We heard in the reading today St. Paul’s description of the Body of Christ. He uses the image of the human body. Each part of the body has a distinct function and each part plays an essential role. The Church, the Body of Christ, is made up of diverse people and needs every one of its diverse members to be whole. In solidarity, we are called to share the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have been wounded by the evil of racism. Their wounds are the wounds of the whole Church. If any member of the Body of Christ is suffering, whether they’re white, black, or brown, we are all responsible for that member. As St. Paul wrote: “If one part (of the body) suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”
Our African-American, Latino, Asian, and native American brothers and sisters are vital members of the Body of Christ. Over 250 million members of the Catholic Church today are of African descent. That’s about a quarter of the over 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. The Church, the Body of Christ, is catholic, which means universal. We must appreciate this universality and celebrate our unity in diversity. One of my greatest joys as a priest was serving as pastor of a poor, beautifully diverse inner-city parish. In the neighborhood there were white churches, black churches and Hispanic churches. Our parish, St. Francis of Assisi was all three: 60% Latino, 20% black and 20% white. We were also blessed with a few Vietnamese families, recent refugees. The parish was a beacon of hope in the community. We prayed and worked together and fed over 200 poor and homeless every day in our soup kitchen. It was a blessing for me to learn from the various cultures that made up our community of faith. It was beautiful to see the parishioners united in faith and action and the bonds of friendship that grew among the diverse people of the parish. Developing relationships and friendships with people of different races and ethnicities really helps to break down prejudice and racism.
I want to mention two additional points for our parishes and schools: First, it’s important as Catholics that we honor all our saints: black, white and brown. At St. Francis, we had images in our church of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady, Mother of Africa. #2: We must know and learn the valiant history of African-American Catholics in the U.S. I pray that soon one of the many African-American Catholics who have proposed for sainthood will be canonized.
Young people, I have great hope in you as participants in the battle to overcome racism in our society. You are vital members of the Body of Christ and the Church needs your witness to the sanctity and dignity of life and to the equality of all people. The Church needs your witness to peace, justice, and solidarity! I pray that all our schools will be shining examples of unity in diversity, communities animated by the love of Christ. As we fight the coronavirus, let us also fight the virus of racism that can infect our hearts and communities and poison our souls and the soul of our nation. Let us walk in the light of Christ, the light of the Gospel, and work together to dispel the darkness of racism. May God bless us and St. Peter Claver intercede for us!