On ‘March on Washington’ Anniversary, DC Archbishop Calls for Beatitudes

Archbishop Gregory offered the Mass on the 57th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory speaks at a press conference in 2019.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory speaks at a press conference in 2019. (photo: CNA)

WASHINGTON — The Beatitudes provide a way forward in a time of suffering, the Archbishop of Washington, D.C. said at a Mass on Friday on the anniversary of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington.

“Matthew’s Beatitudes are a spiritual compendium for transforming society, and most importantly, for converting the human heart,” said Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., in his homily at Friday’s Mass for Peace and Justice at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

The Beatitudes, the archbishop said, “highlight the virtues and the spiritual vision that are necessary for society’s renewal.”

Archbishop Gregory offered the Mass on the 57th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. At the march, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” address.

Hearkening back to the 1963 march, the Archbishop said on Friday that the Beatitudes point to a “society of harmony and justice, which were the desired end of that march, 57 years ago.” Dr. King, he said, “no doubt had reflected often on these Beatitudes.”

Archbishop Gregory offered the Mass after a week of unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a turbulent summer of protests and riots against racism in cities across the U.S.

“We are at a pivotal juncture in our country’s struggle for racial justice and national harmony,” he said.

This past week, protests and riots erupted in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after police officers shot a 29 year-old Black man in the back on Sunday; the man, Jacob Blake, is paralyzed from the waist down, his family told reporters this week.

Kenosha is the latest hotspot for protests and riots in the U.S. as a response to the killings of African-Americans by police and citizens, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

In response, on Thursday Bishop Shelton Fabre, head of the U.S. bishops’ anti-racism task force, called for Catholics to fast and pray in reparation for sins of racism; he asked Catholics to attend Mass or pray either on Friday to commemorate the 1963 march, or on September 9, the feast of St. Peter Claver.

A rally for racial justice took place in Washington, D.C. on Friday, the 2020 Get Your Knee off Our Necks march. It was attended by tens of thousands.

Archbishop Gregory is the first African-American archbishop of Washington, and the former head of a special task force set up by the U.S. bishops in 2016 to promote peace and address racial tensions and policing.

At the beginning of Mass, the Archbishop called attention to the 1963 March on Washington. “May our faith, hope, and love of Christ compel us to work for a more just future,” he prayed.

He noted the current “suffering” in the U.S., citing “needless violence in our cities,” “numerous deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police,” “hate crimes and discrimination against immigrants and people of various religious traditions,” and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We place these concerns into Our Father’s hands,” he said in his opening prayer for peace and justice.

He also emphasized the religious nature of the 1963 march, recounting how, on the day of the march, then-Archbishop O’Boyle of Washington, D.C. invited participants to pray at the cathedral beforehand.

“Washington is a city accustomed to parades, marches, and demonstrations,” he said. “What took place in Washington, D.C. 57 years ago does not fit conveniently in any of those prior categories. It was a moral and religious event that confronted our nation in ways that defied simple categorizations.”

“The vast majority of the oratory of the day highlighted social and civic concerns, but always with an undeniable touch of religious faith, he said.

At the end of Mass, Archbishop Gregory accepted a decree from diocesan representatives, where he announced a new initiative of the archdiocese “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism.”

He said it would include prayer, listening sessions, faith formation, and social justice work.

Archbishop Gregory has been outspoken about racial tensions in recent months. On June 5, he took part in an online panel discussion on racism hosted by Georgetown University, amid widespread protests and riots following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

He also issued a sharply-worded statement just before President Trump’s June 2 visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine. On the previous evening, Trump had held up a bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal church in D.C. in an apparent photo-op, during protests against racism; participants in the protests were cleared away from the church by the National Guard shortly before Trump’s arrival.

Archbishop Gregory said the next morning of Trump’s visit to the shrine that it was “baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles.”