Archbishop Lucas talks with Bishop Shelton Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux. Photo: Mike May

Shepherd's Voice

Racism is still a problem in our schools, communities


In this installment of The Shepherd’s Voice, communication manager David Hazen speaks with Archbishop George J. Lucas about a listening session he attended in Omaha on Nov. 2 to highlight the experiences of minorities in view of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent pastoral letter on racism.

Q: November is Black Catholic History month, and on Saturday the 2nd you attended a listening session hosted by the Archdiocese’s Black Catholic Implementation Team. What was the aim for that gathering?

The aim was to highlight a pastoral letter published by the USCCB in 2018 entitled, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love—A Pastoral Letter Against Racism.” We, as pastors in various dioceses around the country, continue to notice with sorrow that racism is an issue in our country that sadly has not gone away.

When the bishops published the letter, the Conference committed to scheduling listening sessions in dioceses across the country to look at its content, and to allow those who have experienced racism in their own lives to talk about it, and be invited to a greater level of healing. I’m grateful that one of my brother bishops, Bishop Shelton Fabre from the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana, the head of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism joined us in Omaha.

We heard testimonies that Saturday morning from local people who have been affected by racist speech and actions. I’m always grateful when someone is willing to share his or her experience, especially if it has been hurtful. Those experiences were shared very respectfully that day. They were heartfelt and powerful.

Q: What did you find most striking?

After listening to the testimonies, I offered a couple of observations to the group which I am happy to share here. One of them is that I was reminded of how deep and long-lasting the hurt can be for someone who has been disrespected or ostracized because of their race. We heard from adults, now well into middle age, who recounted experiences their families had in schools or parishes when they were younger. Those experiences have continued to shape them. I admired those who spoke, for the healing that they have been open to over time, but also for being very frank about the injustice that they have felt in a very personal way.

The second thing that struck me was hearing from teenagers who have been experiencing racism in their public high school. That is a reminder to me and to all of us, that this is still going on. I feel sad for them and for all of us that we have not as a community and as a society been able to overcome the sin of racism.

It is the effect of original sin, that we experience differences among us as a negative. It makes me sad that we have not come to grips with that more, both in the church and in our larger society. I’m sad to know that young people are still experiencing this hurt, which elders in the community have talked about from decades ago.

We all must be committed to work as we move forward to eliminate the sin of racism from our own hearts and lives, but also to work together in the community to eliminate the institutional forms of this sin as well as we can.

Bishop Fabre reminded us at the beginning of the session that the pastoral letter focuses on individual conversion of heart. We are called first not simply to call out examples of racism we see around us, but to look at our own hearts. That is, we need to be willing to go before God and admit our sinfulness, to ask for healing, and to ask the Lord to reveal to us how we might be more open to positive personal connections with brothers and sisters of different races and backgrounds, particularly in the church.

I think the letter calls us to realize also that racism grows out of original sin, and the effect of sin is division. Whenever we see division, whenever we see one group pitted against the other, that is the work of the devil, and we need to recognize it for what it is.

The pastoral letter encourages us to listen to each other, and encourages us to allow anyone who might have experienced the hurt of racism to speak for himself or herself about what they have experienced.

It is easy enough for me, for any of us, to say, “Well, that is not a problem—you shouldn’t feel that way,” or, “You are just holding on to something. You just need to let go of all that.” But nobody likes to hear that about their own experiences. I mean, we kind of flippantly say that to others, but if I have experienced a struggle, I appreciate it when others honor my opportunity to speak about it for myself. We really do not move in the direction of the common good, in the direction of the unity that is Jesus’ desire for us in the church if we are not able to listen to each other and allow one another to express our own experiences.

It is also important then, that we do acknowledge where evil has crept in, or where we have allowed evil in by our own ignorance, selfishness, pride or prejudice.

Q: Where do you see opportunities for people to overcome the divisions in their local communities, and to begin to share more of the experience of Christian life together?

The Lord has put many different people in our lives, and in our community, and he loves and values each of us. I think our experience, if we are open to it, is that when we have the opportunity to get to know someone of another race or another culture, we are not diminished ourselves, but we really become more ourselves.
Our pastoral vision for the archdiocese begins with the phrase, “One church.” We know that is the mind and the heart of Jesus, and that needs to be our mind and heart also. When we talk about who are we in the Catholic Church in this archdiocese, it is a rich tapestry of races and cultures.

On a more personal level, I think we need to see it as part of our responsibility as missionary disciples of Jesus to share the reality of human life and dignity which comes from God with our neighbors. As we talk about the future of our country, as we talk about political and social issues, we really need to be conscious of speaking respectfully and not be drawn into crude humor, or stereotyping, or any kind of talk that denigrates individuals or groups in our society.

Jesus has invited us to be with him in the church, but he sends us out to be light for the world, to be salt for the earth. So we are supposed to be having an effect. And at this particular moment in our history, I think this is a particular calling that we have.

Most people know that we are Catholic. Most people know that we claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ, so any racist speech or actions can scandalize young people especially, but also our neighbors. This has been a problem in our country from the beginning, and still is. It can certainly be a problem in the church as well.

Prayerful self-examination before the Lord is helpful. We should ask the help of the Holy Spirit to see how we can have a good influence in this regard.

I invite any who are able to do it to pick up the Bishop’s pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.” It offers a very engaging, scriptural approach to this important issue and I think it could benefit anyone who would read it and reflect on it.