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US Bishops Release Road Map to Improve Race Relations
A new report, released this month, comes in response to racial tensions that the country faced throughout 2016.
By Peter Jesserer Smith
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On a Wednesday morning in September, more than 500 people packed the pews of Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church to grieve the death of Justin Carr, a young black man they would bury at 26 years old.
Just a week before his Sept. 28 funeral, Justin “Jroc” Carr, a Catholic and expectant new father, while standing between two ministers at a protest over police brutality in front of Charlotte’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, was shot by a young black man whose motives are still not clear. He died after receiving last rites from his pastor, Father Carl Del Giudice.
His mother, Vivian, told the Register that her son came downtown to protest peacefully with one goal in mind: He wanted to draw attention to society’s treatment of African-Americans in Charlotte and the rest of the United States — just as his grandmother had done during the 1960s’ civil-rights movement.
“He was fighting for a cause and for what he believed in,” Vivian told the Register.
The aftermath of Carr’s death and others like it showed many Catholics, particularly minorities, looking toward the institutional Church for leadership on issues of race. The Diocese of Charlotte became one of many dioceses in 2016 that came face-to-face with the realization that the Church needed to do more to actively help society heal its racial wounds and address the root causes of violence in communities.
Thanks to the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Special Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities, U.S. bishops and the faithful in parishes have a blueprint, with the January release of a 29-page report.
The 20-member task force was led by Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who presented the task force’s findings to the bishops at last November’s general assembly in Baltimore. Archbishop Gregory is one of eight black prelates in the Church in the United States.
In his presentation, Archbishop Gregory explained that while the USCCB’s past statements on race were an important foundation, the special task force found they were “not sufficient” for the Church, which was being called upon to actively involve itself in communities with its “bold prophetic voice.”
Special Task Force Report
The task force report made general recommendations for both dioceses and the USCCB that outlined how they could make a long-term commitment to addressing the root problems of race relations, systemic racism and violence in communities. Archbishop Gregory stressed to bishops in November that the task force’s recommendations were “ongoing” and not intended to provide “one-time solutions.”
The report outlined how dioceses and the bishops’ conference could take effective action. Among its recommendations were prayer throughout the year, including Masses, Rosaries, ecumenical and interfaith services, and having bishops convene and host local dialogues that could bring together disparate community members, religious representatives, youth and members of law enforcement. It recommended parish-based and diocesan-based initiatives to educate the faithful, clergy and church staff on race relations and related issues, and foster opportunities for them to see firsthand the challenges in their own and others’ communities and understand how the Church can act.
The task force also encouraged both the USCCB and diocesan bishops to identify ways the Catholic Campaign for Human Development could be used to support their efforts.
It also recommended the USCCB expedite a statement on racism in society from the full body of bishops; develop closer collaboration on civil rights between various USCCB offices and key groups, such as the National Black Catholic Congress; and make the National Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities an annual event.
As well, the report conveyed the views of law enforcement representatives, who said the Church could provide a forum for police and community members to talk, encourage police departments to become more transparent, use its voice to hold public servants accountable, and work with law enforcement to care for the neighborhoods surrounding their churches.
The task force report also noted the Church must examine its own actions, including its hiring practices and the impact on the communities of the closing of parishes and schools.
The report was greeted by bishops at the bishops’ fall general assembly in Baltimore, particularly by bishops who have been already engaged in healing race relations and violence in communities.
“I welcome it. It’s exactly what we should be doing as bishops,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore told the Register. Baltimore was struck by civil unrest after the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man killed while in police custody. Archbishop Lori explained that “deep and systemic problems” were afflicting the city, and the protests following Gray’s death heightened his awareness that the Church needs to re-engage, listen and work closely with the community to solve these issues. The “pool of resources and wisdom” in the task force report, he said, would aid their own ongoing efforts in Baltimore and help them evaluate where they are going.
Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, also told the Register that the report’s “objectives are on target.”
In March 2016, Bishop Baker’s diocese co-hosted a major ecumenical and interfaith discussion on racial reconciliation with Samford University. Bishop Baker said that conference helped him understand “the divide is deeper than we thought,” but also showed they could begin to bridge the divide by praying together, developing the art of listening, and having discussion, not debate. He praised Bishop Edward K. Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, who “vocalized major flaws in our culture and in our Catholic response,” as well as Archbishop Anthony Obinna of Owerri, Nigeria, who presented how to reconcile black and white Americans as sons and daughters of the same God, with a theology he called “reconfiliation.”
Bishop Baker explained his own listening sessions between black Catholics and white Catholics showed him how the “white flight” from the city centers harmed racial integration to the point that “we’re really still segregated in many ways by where we live.” Changes in the law, he said, did not mean hearts had changed. He has been encouraging parish partnerships to host events together in order to build relationships that can bridge the divide between black and white.
“My only concern is how slow we are to move on things,” he said.
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago told the Register the task force helped convince bishops that the Church “is a respected convener … in the midst of trauma, tragedy, even violence, to sponsor a sense of calm and bring people to their senses again.”
The bishop said the Church has to strengthen its efforts to catechize and raise up the family, while recognizing that it may not get “much cooperation from the larger society.”
However, Bishop Perry, who is the postulator for the cause of Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, the first black Catholic priest in the U.S., also added that those efforts could have a powerful boost if the Church canonized its first African-American saint from the six men and women already under consideration.
“If we had an African-American saint, it would message to African-Americans that we have finally arrived in the Church, that we finally have something to offer, that holiness is possible from amongst those of our ethnic stripe, that the contribution we have been making to the Church for several hundred years is finally recognized,” he said.
Parishes: A Powerful Force
Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell of Los Angeles, a consultant on the task force, told the Register that the local Church should not be afraid to get involved in these issues. Parishes in particular, he said, can be a “powerful force” to transform people’s lives and heal communities.
“The Church and pastors are trusted in neighborhoods to bring together different constituencies,” he said. Bishop O’Connell, who has worked with gang members and sheriffs in the Los Angeles area to build relationships, said the parish can likewise provide similar opportunities to build bridges. Above all, he said, it was vital to bring people in the community together to pray.
“We did the work of evangelization by bringing people closer to Jesus,” he said, “bringing them together as sons and daughters of God.”
The bishop said Pope Francis has been calling parishioners to get more involved in their neighborhoods and become more present in the lives of their neighbors, many of whom are experiencing brokenness and a lack of love in their own families. This lack of love, he said, can put an 11-year-old down a path of drugs, gangs and “looking for love in the wrong places to heal pain.”
But the local Church, he said, through its parishes and schools, can really transform a community by helping people to become good husbands and fathers and wives and mothers, heal family ties, and teach them to pray — particularly as a family. A Catholic community that is engaged with a pregnant single mother from the beginning of her “wonderful pregnancy” — because the life inside her is precious in the eyes of God — can create a completely different narrative for a child’s life, as well.
People in their communities, Bishop O’Connell said, need the local Church to take up that challenge.
“They need the love of Jesus and the love of Mary.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
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