Atlanta Archbishop: ‘Everyone Has Role to Play’ in Racial Reconciliation


BALTIMORE — The Catholic Church in the United States has taken its first steps toward becoming a leading voice on the front lines of healing the underlying causes behind the racial tensions and violence that afflict the country.

A new special task force has been mandated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, to develop a plan of “best practices” and resources that will empower bishops and the local Church throughout the U.S. to take a leading role in building peace in communities and healing racial tensions.

The commission’s first step will be preparing the entire Church to unite in a day of prayer and fasting on the Sept. 9 memorial of St. Peter Claver, the “Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities.”

According to Archbishop Kurtz, it will also look at where the Church can play a leading role in “honest and civil dialogue on issues of race relations, restorative justice, mental health, economic opportunity and addressing the question of pervasive gun violence.”

In this July interview with Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, the chairman of the new task force and a former bishops’ conference president, talks about the commission’s first steps and the possibilities for the Church, in the context of the Year of Mercy.


Archbishop Gregory, the announcement of the new commission comes during the Year of Mercy, when we’ve seen increasing levels of violence reported by our media. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s almost ironic that Pope Francis has set us on this path of the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy when he did. I mean, in some respects, it appears to be almost an action of the Holy Spirit to put us in this moment at this time in our history.

That twofold direction of mercy, which is at the heart of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, is that we realize more effectively and personally the fact that the Father loves us so intensely and is so willing to forgive us, in spite of our foolishness, arrogance or our waywardness, that it results in our hopefully becoming aware that we have to be merciful towards others. Those two dynamics — the proliferation of violence on the international and certainly our national scene and this clarion call to become a more merciful people — intersect so appropriately that it’s almost an act of the Holy Spirit that we are in this Year of Mercy now, when we need mercy so desperately.


How was this special commission developed?

Well, first of all, it’s a follow-up to Archbishop Kurtz’s statement in which he simply said, quite bluntly, that we need to marshal our forces — especially we bishops, as pastors of local Churches that we’re called to serve, and as priests — to find out what we can do collaboratively and in an ecumenical and interreligious way about the sources of this violence. So what he is asking is for the small group of bishops that have been appointed, myself included, to work with others who have had to confront these matters directly in their own dioceses — including those bishops who had direct contact with acts of violence in their own local communities, as well as others, both clerical and lay, and our ecumenical and interreligious partners — to see what more we can do. And what more we must do — not merely in response to these acts of violence, but to find out what we can do to help prevent them.

We cannot be a society where those who are protected are afraid of those who are called to protect them. And, conversely, our public servants — police, firemen and first responders — must not be afraid to come into the communities where they are called to serve and secure peace. It works both ways, and we only become immobilized when we take the position “which has to come first.” [Regarding] the acts of justice that must undergird and support American society and the right respect of those who are entrusted with their safety — that movement has to be simultaneous, because if we don’t move forward simultaneously, we then are locked into a posture of immobility, because we are waiting for someone to do something first.


You’re looking to bring together a great cross-section of voices to collaborate with the committee. Why is that important?

The response of all of the players is to make sure that we are all in this together, with the uniqueness of our own perspectives. So we need to hear from police officials, from those in community organizations, from those who are pastors of those communities, and from those who are engaged in the academic concerns. Everyone has a role to play.


How does the commission plan to get all of the U.S. bishops and their flocks engaged and invested in this issue?  

I would say, first of all, that the commission is a first step. I think it’s an important first step to heighten the awareness that we really don’t know one another. We talk past each other. Whether we are African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian-Americans or white Americans, too often, we don’t have a good appreciation of the struggles that others have. There’s the Native-American axiom: “We don’t walk in each other’s moccasins.” We don’t understand the burdens that other people from other cultures, races and religious traditions experience.

There is, too often, a glib reassurance made that says, “Oh, I understand,” when we simply don’t understand. Social media has now made the acts of violence so omnipresent, right at this point, [that] it becomes absolutely clear that we need occasions, opportunities and incentives to listen to one another, and not simply to rely on old impressions or past attitudes. But to say there is something more here that I, as a Catholic — whether African-American, white or Hispanic — have to pursue [in terms of] the struggles my brothers and sisters are experiencing.

I think that’s one of the things that Pope Francis has really urged the Church to do: “Go out to the peripheries” — he uses that term. Go out to the margins and include people who may be my neighbors or live in another part of the city, or may live in another community that’s radically unlike my own. They may be in a life situation radically unlike my own, but they are my brothers. It’s a moment for the Parable of the Good Samaritan to be given flesh and blood in our own world.


Do you have your own experiences as an African-American of being treated differently in society on account of your race?

I don’t believe there’s an African-American living who hasn’t had some experience, whether it is a casual slight or some serious offensive experience, that says, “You know, if I weren’t black, this would not have happened.” Or “If I were not a person of color, this moment would not have taken place.” And so, we can all, every person of color, say, “I can remember on this occasion, at this time, when I was young, when I was applying for a job, or when I was in this situation, or a situation at hand …” So it’s a common experience. I have mine, but others have theirs, as well.

Many important and prominent African-Americans have already shared this: The senator from South Carolina gave his own explicit description of being followed in Washington. He’s a sitting senator, being followed by police, simply because he’s driving a nice car. It’s not something that just happens to black kids in the inner city. It happens to very prominent people in all walks of life.


When do you believe the commission will start to take its first steps?

I think what will happen is that the five designated members of the commission will probably have a conference call within the next couple of weeks and at that time lay out a schema of things that we need to do in anticipation of the day of prayer and fasting on the feast of St. Peter Claver, as well as looking at those collaborators that have been identified already, and come up with a game plan on what we will do.

So we’re going to look at what has been done, what should be done, what can be done, what ought to be done and then hand those things off to the existing [bishops’] committees.

 Will the new task force also be studying how we can rectify the Church’s own shortcomings in its relationship with African-Americans? What are we doing presently to help our African-American brothers and sisters recognize themselves in our Church?

The question opens up a whole horizon on the work of the evangelization of African-Americans that is going forward. It needs greater emphasis and greater attention. There are new initiatives that are playing out in the inner-city communities and new opportunities to serve the underserved. One of the things that I’m very, very enthusiastic about — and proud to say that we’ve taken this initiative here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta — are the Jesuits’ Cristo Rey schools that target the underserved financially and economically disadvantaged communities: black, brown and white. It’s a new paradigm of Catholic education, and it is intended to provide opportunities for kids who have wonderful potential but don’t have the familial or economic wherewithal to realize their potential. ... Christo Rey is just one, but I know that there are others.

If the question is: “Are we doing enough?” the answer is No. But if the question is: “Are we doing anything?” the answer is Yes. There are parishes in almost all of our major cities that are alive with an active and fruitful evangelization of African-Americans. I have several here in my archdiocese, communities that are multicultural, because what is happening — and this is a powerful sign — is that in those parishes that have made evangelization and welcome to African-Americans a primary source of their ministry, some of them have realized that what happens is that not only do you bring African-Americans more closely to the heart of Church, but an awful lot of white Catholics enjoy the liturgy, the music, the conviviality and the spirit of enthusiasm, and they come. They come because the Church is alive there. What a wonderful thing!

Can we do more? Certainly. Must we do more? Absolutely. Are we doing some things right? You bet.


Would not this be an opportune time for the entire Church to unite around promoting the sainthood causes of our own African-American holy men and women who are declared “Venerable” — Father Augustus Tolton, Pierre Touissant, Mother Henriette DeLille and Mother Mary Langand hold them up as witnesses to heal a racially divided society?

And they require a sense of having their stories told. To be perfectly honest, there are an awful lot of American Catholics who don’t know about Augustus Tolton and still don’t know about Mother Lang or Pierre Touissant. So we have to make the stories known, and that is our responsibility. That is the responsibility of the whole Church.


So how can Catholics in the pews help the work of this new commission?

First of all, you can pray for its success. Prayer works. Then what you can do is this: You can write to your bishop, write to your pastor, and tell him you want to know more as a parishioner, as an active participant in the local Church, about what is being done. You want to support that which is being done and that which is successful. Bishops respond to letters!

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Archdiocese of Atlanta