Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
A long time ago (in COVID quarantine I cannot pinpoint if it was a matter of a few months, or a year, or more), I expressed in a homily the fact that there is no Biblical justification for the separation of immigrant children from their parents. I stand by those words today. After Mass, a man approached me and politely took me to task for “getting political.” I do not know if he disagreed with my factual assertion, but I know he understood what I said to be overtly political and that he felt the church is no place for politics. That encounter came to mind as news broke of the violent deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and the subsequent protests that have occurred in the past several days. Of course, those deaths immediately called to mind the deaths of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and closer to home, Mubarak Soulemane. It has taken me a long time to learn how to speak about big social issues (twelve years of priesthood, five as pastor) and on my best days I am uncertain if I have learned anything. It seems to have taken even longer to summon the courage to say anything, and it seems an eternity has elapsed in order for me to figure out some of the vital nuance and linguistic precision necessary to speak coherently on matters of significance in a world that prefers soundbites and generalities. But in this season after Pentecost, the time in which the Church reminds us of our mission as believers, as people of faith, as disciples of Jesus Christ, the time in which the Holy Spirit impels us to go out with the grace of God to bring mercy to bear on the world, the Church’s prophetic voice must be raised as salt and light in our divided, suffering world.
“You will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans.” – Mt. 10:18
To begin, then, a word about “political.” When the Church speaks on social issues, it is not for the sake of being partisan, that is, of a particular political party or platform. Rather, the Church speaks to issues that are political in the classical sense. The Greeks understood humanity to be political, of the polis, the city. Thus, any issue that affects the lives of human beings is, in the strictest sense, political. It is in this context that the Church speaks. The Church cannot be partisan. Perhaps an historically too-cozy relationship with secular governmental power at certain periods of the Church’s life, or the perception that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is mainly a lobbying and public relations firm, leads many to think that the Church speaking on a social issue is getting political. Partisan politics has a place in the public square, but we must always be aware of the temptation to make a god of party affiliation and platform and to worship at that idolatrous altar. Psalm 146 tells us to “put no trust in princes,” but rather in the Lord. The Church proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and the logical consequences of that Gospel – to the whole world, even to earthly princes. What the Church teaches about social issues then, flows not from a partisan platform, but from a concern for the polis, for every human being created in the image and likeness of God. As Catholics, we must insist that the full truth about the human person be reflected in the law of the land, regardless of who holds power. We must conform our partisan ideas to the truth of Jesus Christ and His Gospel.
“Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim? He answered, ‘The one who treated him with mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go, and do likewise.’” – Lk. 10:36-37
From this fundamental teaching and Scriptural belief in the dignity of every human person flows everything that we believe as Catholics about social justice. The dignity of human life is held in the Church universally; it is a teaching not confined by national borders. Every Catholic, and indeed, every believing Christian, must recognize and uphold the dignity of human life. The consequence of this foundational principle is the absolute rejection of all willful violence against the human person from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. This pertains to all human persons, regardless of race, class, creed, gender, or any other identifying trait. Human life is precious and is to be defended.
On the issue of racial violence and discrimination, the Church is clear. There can be no justification for or acceptance of racist ideas or actions. The Bishops of the United States have been clear and unequivocal about the recent violence our country has witnessed. Bishop Frank Caggiano here in the Diocese of Bridgeport said, “The Truth of Jesus Christ has no room for racism, no tolerance for bigotry, and no place for hatred. You and I must courageously challenge people who perpetuate such hateful ideas. We must work to reform the structures that continue to repress our brothers and sisters. We must build bridges of mutual respect and trust in our society, so that we can move forward together as one family in Christ. We cannot stand silent before any form of hatred, because to remain silent is to condone it.” Led by Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, the chairs of several bishops’ committees stated together, “We are broken-hearted, sickened, and outraged to watch another video of an African American man being killed before our very eyes. What’s more astounding is that this is happening within mere weeks of several other such occurrences. This is the latest wake-up call that needs to be answered by each of us in a spirit of determined conversion. Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a throwaway political issue to be bandied about when convenient. It is a real and present danger that must be met head on. As members of the Church, we must stand for the more difficult right and just actions instead of the easy wrongs of indifference. We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life. We serve a God of love, mercy, and justice.” Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, the president of the USCCB said, “The killing of George Floyd was senseless and brutal, a sin that cries out to heaven for justice. How is it possible that in America, a black man’s life can be taken from him while calls for help are not answered, and his killing is recorded as it happens?”
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like.” – James 1:22-24
Clear statements are welcome and needed. But in order that they be substantive and not mere virtue-signaling, accompanying action is necessary. It is not enough to call for action if we ourselves are not ready to act in a personal way. Each of us must examine our own hearts and take steps toward deeper conversion that lead us into action. Some will object that the Church is inconsistent, that countless racial atrocities have been carried out in the name of religion, or that racism exists even in the Catholic Church. It is a fair point that bears engagement. Here, perhaps we can learn a lesson from modern approaches to race relations.
In many conversations about race in America, a quasi-liturgical formula has developed. White people, acknowledging their racial background, admit to their unconscious (or conscious) biases, the ways in which they now recognize they have been privileged and favored, and then commit to stand with and for people of other races and against discrimination. In general, this seems to be a good and helpful practice, though I worry that in some conversations, the uncontrollable circumstances of life (especially race) are considered morally blameworthy. Caution and precision are needed here. No one can be blamed for their race – it is not their fault that their skin is a certain color, nor is it their fault that individuals of the same race have done or failed to do certain things. Likewise, people ought not be blamed for unconscious bias, but helped to recognize its presence so that their thinking can be more respectful and rooted in truth. An attitude of accountability, not liability, can help necessary dialogue progress to reconciliation. With apologies for that short tangent, the Church can learn from this formula. Institutionally, it is necessary to acknowledge the failures against the dignity of human life that the Church herself (and her members) has committed and perpetuated. At the same time, it is necessary to acknowledge the efforts made to correct those sinful failures. With those past failures and corrections in mind, we can allow history to inform our present. The current circumstances of our nation and world cannot bear to see the worst of history repeated. The Church, having learned from the past, can and must apply those lessons to a full-throated and coherent proclamation of the Gospel of life and the dignity of the human person.
“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give your drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you? And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” – Mt. 25:37-40
At a more local ecclesial level, we must recognize that the Church in the Diocese of Bridgeport is situated in one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the state, as well as one of the most starkly separated or even segregated. The vast economic disparity between towns and the fact that many live below the poverty line in our own backyard cannot be forgotten. The Missionaries of Charity, founded by St. Theresa of Calcutta to serve the poorest of the poor, work and minister in Bridgeport, exactly three miles from the front door of St. Pius X Church. Reports of racism and discrimination are not uncommon in Fairfield County, or even, sadly, in our town. It is necessary to admit that these problems are not confined to the big cities, or to the South, or to some other, far-off place. They are local problems. Thus, as a local Church, we have the responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel coherently and living out the consequences of the Gospel each and every day. This applies in particular to us at St. Pius. Many in this parish have admirable histories of putting their faith into action for the sake of justice, for the sake of charity. I have seen so much evidence of super-abundant charity, much of it carried out quietly and without desire for recognition. This is the Gospel in action. A positive track record is no reason to sit back and watch, though. We are, without doubt, a privileged community. Privilege ought never to equal exclusivity. Race or ethnic background is not a prerequisite for walking through our doors. Each member of this parish family has a responsibility to welcome the stranger, to recognize in the person next to us our neighbor. Racial prejudice and discrimination have no place here.
The personal application of all of this is critical. If we want to see reconciliation and healing in our world, it must begin within us. That secular, quasi-liturgical formula that can be instructive for the Church Universal can be instructive for the Catholic Individual as well. I repent of any biases I hold, conscious or unconscious, and pray for the grace to grow, that I might be a help to the oppressed. Let us each acknowledge our past, our privilege, our unconscious (and conscious) biases. Let us repent of our sins where repentance is needed and let us resolve to work for and stand for justice. In all of this, our desire should be to open our minds and hearts, not to the judgment of the zeitgeist, not to some secular authority, not to some partisan platform, but to the bright light of the truth of Jesus Christ. To see all people as worthy of dignity and respect is not to be political in the partisan sense, but to be political in the truly human sense. The Catholic is called to love all people, not motivated by desire for human approval, but motivated by the love of Christ at work in our hearts impelling us to live out the full meaning of the virtue of charity. We love because Christ loved us first – He has taught us what love looks like and He calls us to be instruments of His love in our world! Racism and discrimination do not disappear merely because we posted the right caption to social media, or because we attended the right protest, or because we joined the right organization or party. Rather, the rooting out of racism is the fruit of a living relationship with Jesus Christ who died for all; who came that we might be one; who commands His followers to hear the cry of the poor, distressed, orphan, widow, alien, and oppressed; who tells us that whatever we do for the least, we do for Him; who cries out from the cross “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
“You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”- Micah 6:8
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit sent the Apostles out to proclaim the Gospel to the world, to everyone they met, regardless of race or nationality. That mission did not end on Pentecost: it continues to this day. In Christ, St. Paul tells us, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free. We are to be one in Christ Jesus our Lord. This unity is possible only in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is that Spirit poured out on Pentecost that enlightens our minds and hearts, that inspires us to learn and understand the complexity of racial issues, and that guides our efforts at reform, societal conversion, and personal growth in holiness. May this chapter in our history help us to see the true identity of each and every person, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we work for that.