A Profile in True Social Justice — Birmingham’s Archbishop Joseph Raya

Father Raya knew that love was the most powerful tool for change.

Archbishop Joseph Raya
Archbishop Joseph Raya (photo: Courtesy of Joseph Pharo)

A great benefit of my parish’s centenary celebrations is learning more about the extraordinary life of our former pastor — Joseph M. Raya.

Father Raya became the pastor of St. George the Great Martyr Melkite Catholic Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1952. During his time in Birmingham, he was a controversial figure. He fought to maintain the custom of the Eastern Churches to have the Divine Liturgy served in the vernacular and he was active in the Civil Rights Movement. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and assisted him in organizing protests and marches across Alabama. Even amid threats of excommunication, he held fast to his conviction that fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised was his duty as a Christian and as a priest. Father Raya was a shining light of Catholic social teaching in action.

In every generation, the Church’s social and anthropological teaching must be clearly taught and articulated. More than that, the Church’s social and anthropological teaching must be paid for in blood, sweat and tears. This was Father Raya’s method, and indeed the method of the apostles, martyrs and confessors.

No less than three times, Father Raya was beaten for his defense of the dignity of all people. He would not cease his advocacy on account of the Klansmen who beat him, nor would he flinch at Mobile Bishop Thomas Toolen’s threat of excommunication. In a conversation with his bishop, Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh, he asked what he should do regarding his activism with Martin Luther King. The Patriarch replied, “Do what your conscience dictates you to do.” Father Raya replied, “My conscience was to follow the march … and I did.”

Not only did Father Raya receive beatings, but the KKK also threatened to burn down his church several times. When it became too dangerous for African-Americans to attend St. George, he founded the mission of St. Moses the Black — the first Byzantine Catholic mission for African-Americans in the United States.

It’s here where his story converges with the story of Rita Rizzo (Mother Angelica), who intended to found a monastery in the south to minister to the African-American population of Birmingham. The beauty of Catholicism lies in the Church’s ability to see Christ in all people. Both Father Raya and Mother Angelica were able to do that no matter the circumstance of ugliness that surrounded them. They exhibited a “missionary spirit” that compelled them to reach out to those whose dignity in Christ had been denied or taken away. 

As Mother Angelica and her nuns dodged bullets in Irondale, Father Raya was once dragged out of his rectory and severely beaten by three men. The men called Father Raya a “n*** lover” and Father Raya responded, “Yes, I am, and I love you too.” It was his witness of love toward all people that caused one of the men who beat him to call and beg his forgiveness 35 years later. Father Raya knew that love was the most powerful tool for change. Whereas our present culture stokes the destructive flames of hatred and racial division, he taught Catholics to witness to the transformative love of Christ made present in the world. 

Father Raya was named Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee in 1968 and advocated for peace between Arabs and Jews. His reputation as a peacemaker was recognized by his 2005 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. No matter where he ministered, the marginalized, the refugees and the outcast came to him and asked for his help. None were turned away. Father Raya exemplified the Catholic social teaching on the dignity of the human person. He writes:

“Man is more than microcosm, more than the sum total of the material universe. His dignity and worth flow from the fact that he has been made in the image and likeness of God. Only man has been made according to this image. Only in something free can God see himself. Freedom is the faculty of choice and the power of communion with God.”

The Catholic Church proclaims that every human person is called to communion with God. The Catholic Church also teaches that each one of us exists in some kind of brokenness. I think that our present culture has a very good sense of this and that sense is a positive thing. Our present troubles concerning race and personal identity do stem from a recognition of woundedness. However, most modern commentators place the blame on the recent past or on the unyielding limits of biology. The problem is that they don’t go far enough back. The protestors and the pundits never consider Eden. More than that, they never consider the Cross. 

Christ is the basis for the dignity and infinite value of every human person. Father Raya writes, “The Incarnation of God and the deification of man mutually imply one another. What Adam ought to have attained by obedience to God, God achieved through the obedience of Christ.” In Christ, we are given the opportunity to overcome our woundedness and to participate in the life of God in our souls.

Father Raya continues, “Christ, the Son of God, came to this world to give full meaning to man’s existence. Christ is the Way to the Father and in him only can man become deified. In this world, where there is so much sadness, suffering, and fatalism, man cannot know why he exists. But in Christ he clearly recognizes that his existence is of an unsurpassed grandeur and beauty.

Father Raya understood woundedness because he encountered it personally and through those he served. He also understood the infinite power of Christ’s grace to bring healing and to bring people to transformation beyond the limits of their imagination. 

We need examples of faithful Catholic social teaching in action. We need examples of fidelity to the truth even amid personal suffering. We need our Church to proclaim from the pulpit (and on the street) the dignity, meaning and value of the human person — this is the root of all true social justice! We need more Archbishop Rayas.

If this has been your first exposure to Archbishop Raya please use this as an opportunity to learn more. His courageous life and his spiritual and theological writings are worthy of recognition and engagement, and we ask for his prayers during our troubled times.

Works by Archbishop Joseph Raya include: