We all want to live out our faith, knowing—with St. Francis—that we may be the only Gospel our neighbor ever reads. But it’s easy to be not exactly blinded, but rather oblivious, to ways that could make our lives real, vibrant, to allow us to walk with Jesus through the challenges of the 21st century, and particularly in terms of racial justice.
Lorna DesRoses, the Coordinator of Black Catholic Ministries at the Archdiocese of Boston, has had this on her mind for some time. “When I think about racial justice as it pertains to the Church,” she says, “she should be part of the solution, not waiting to see what others do. The Church should be the headlight, not the taillight.”
One of the obstacles in that process is the unfortunate practice of seeing people who don’t look like us as “the Other.” Sr. Thea Bowman offered one way of overcoming that obstacle: just get up, she said, and walk to the other side of the room—where there are people you don’t know, with whom you don’t agree, who don’t look like you—and just talk with them. Once you’ve done that, once you’ve broken bread with them (literally or symbolically), then it’s much more difficult to think of them as Other. “Relationships are where you begin to care,” says Lorna.
That’s particularly essential since we can be sure God doesn’t make those distinctions. “God created us in his image,” Lorna points out. “He never said this one’s better than that one. So if we call ourselves children of God, we can’t say one person is better than the other. We can’t pick and choose. We are called to relationship with everyone.”
In fact, that image is woven into who we are as Christians. “Christ came for us all,” says Lorna, “for the ‘other’ as well as for me. Saint Paul talks about us all being the Body of Christ. Think about it. If you hurt your knee, it’s your whole body that’s hobbling along until you take care of it. If part of the body is suffering, we are all suffering. If part of the Body of Christ has been crying out for justice for over 400 years enslaved, we have to take care of that. If the knee hurts, then we’re hobbling along as a Church.”
“We’re all so connected now,” says Lorna. “And yet at the same time we’re more segmented than ever. Where people live, where they go to school, where they go to Mass… look around yourself when you’re in these places. Who is there? Are they all similar to you? Are they different? We have to step out of our comfort zones to make and build relationships with people of different experiences from our own, and to learn about those experiences: Native Americans, Black Americans, Hispanics, Asians. What is their experience? How have they lived? How have they survived? Go deeper!”
And there are so many opportunities to do just that. “Even in the pandemic,” Lorna points out, “you can take a virtual tour of the African American museum. It’s right there. Don’t wait. There are books you can read, novels that can bring you into someone else’s experience. We are blessed with creative minds.” She pauses. “We can learn,” she says softly. “It’s all part of an internal learning of who we are. We need to keep asking the question. What more do I need to learn? We need to be humble enough to admit what we don’t know.”
Once we form these relationships, these communities, this Church, how do we share the love with others? “Once you know better, you have to do better,” says Lorna. “Thea challenged the Church to do that. You are involved. You are right there. It’s not optional. It’s part of being a disciple and bearing witness to Christ’s love. It is not political: it is being who we are. Caring for the most vulnerable begins with the child, with the man or woman who’s being accosted, with the unarmed man who is shot, with the family mourning their murdered child, with children incarcerated who are seeking justice, with those on death row awaiting execution. This is part of who we are as Catholics, it is the Gospel of Life.”
It’s not as if the Church doesn’t have a rich history of people willing to, as Thea Bowman suggested, walk to the other side of the room, the side which for many is especially hostile to them because of the color of their skin. In America especially their voices are relevant to us now, as we struggle with being Church in a country dealing with racism. “Our Church has many documents about racial justice,” Lorna points out. “We should delve in to what we have. St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict, Archbishop Braxton, Pope Francis… back in the 1980s, the bishops wrote letters about the sin of racism. This isn’t something antithetical to the Church’s teaching, it is absolutely who we are as Catholics. Respecting the dignity of every human person is part of who we are as Catholics.”
Most white Catholics probably don’t consider racism their problem, but Lorna says it’s everybody’s problem. “Racism isn’t just the people who commit personal acts of injustice, people saying expletives that should never be said,” she explains. “Let’s face it, we all hold certain attitudes that we don’t perceive as part of the problem. We need to be asking ourselves the hard questions. What attitudes are we passing on, both implicitly and explicitly? Because we have to think about these things. It’s challenging, but it’s necessary.”
So what do we need in our own communities to be the Church in this difficult time? How can we manifest and communicate love in our parishes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces?
“It will take time,” Lorna acknowledges. “I was speaking to a woman in her 60s and having this discussion. She said, I pray every day that my children’s children’s children will live a life free of these chains. Not her children, not her children’s children, but her children’s children’s children. And it may take that much time.” She pauses. “We’re wrestling with this,” she says. “Americans are reluctant to face this part of our history. And it will continue to cost us—until we look at it full on. Until we can have these conversations. It’s not just a paragraph in a history text: it’s what so many Christians are dealing with in this country, day in and day out. And you know what? It’s not just a challenge for Black people, for people of color. It’s a challenge for everybody. Because at the end of the day, everyone’s imprisoned by these structures.”
BLACK SAINTS AND MARTYRS WHO SHOW US HOW TO BE CHURCH:
Perpetua and Felicity were Christian martyrs of the 3rd century. Vibia Perpetua was a recently married well-educated noblewoman, said to have been 22 years old at the time of her death, and mother of an infant she was nursing. Felicity, a slave imprisoned with her and pregnant at the time, was martyred with her. This happened in Carthage, a city in the Roman province of Africa. Saints Felicitas and Perpetua are among the martyrs commemorated by name in the Roman Canon of the Mass.
Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was a theologian, philosopher, and the bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa. His writings influenced the development of Western philosophy and Western Christianity, and he is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers of the Latin Church in the Patristic Period. His many important works include The City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and Confessions. Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has written: "Augustine's impact on Western Christian thought can hardly be overstated; only his beloved example Paul of Tarsus, has been more influential, and Westerners have generally seen Paul through Augustine's eyes." Augustine is recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church.
Josephine Margaret Bakhita, FDCC (1869–1947). was born in Darfur and seized by slave traders when she was seven. She was bought and sold a number of times—with violent and terrifying consequences—before ending up in Italy staying (with her owner’s child) with the Canossian sisters, where she converted. The family appealed to the courts, which granted Bakhita her freedom. Three years later, she entered the Canossian novitiate. After a life spent in being uprooted, Josephine was assigned to the Canossian convent in Schio and remained there for forty-two years, throughout all of World War II. When asked later by one of her students what she would do if she met one of her captors or former owners, Josephine responded: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.” Bakhita was canonized in 2000 by St. John Paul II.
Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), the first Black priest ordained for the United States who struggled against rampant racism in the years following the Civil War but was known for bringing people of all races together. As a boy, Augustus Tolton was the first black student in the neighborhood Catholic school, encountering and overcoming great prejudice. Feeling the call to serve God as a priest, he persisted in pursuing his vocation in spite of the barriers placed in his way because of his race. Rejected by every seminary in the country, he studied for the priesthood in Rome. Ordained in 1886, he returned to the United States and ministered in Quincy, then in Chicago. He continued to encounter prejudice, both within the Church and out, but persisted in spite of tremendous odds to serve the Church and build up the Catholic community. He was declared Venerable by Pope Francis in June 2019.
St. Benedict the Moor was born in Sicily in 1526. He was the son of African slave parents, but he was freed at an early age. When about twenty-one he was insulted because of his color, but his patient and dignified bearing caused a group of Franciscan hermits who witnessed the incident to invite him to join their group. He became their leader. In 1564 he joined the Franciscan friary in Palermo and worked in the kitchen until 1578, when he was chosen superior of the group. He was known for his power to read people's minds and held the nickname of the "Holy Moor.” Immediately after his death a vigorous cult developed, and his veneration spread throughout Spain, Italy and Latin America. St Benedict the Moor was canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1807. The first exhumation of his remains occurred on May 7, 1592, three years after the Saint’s death, at which time his body was found perfectly preserved. In the year 1611, King Phillip III of Spain assumed the expense of providing in the same church, a new shrine to which the Saint’s incorrupt remains were transferred with great solemnity. There his incorruptible body is exposed for public veneration to this day.
St. Martin de Porres: On May 16, 1962, Pope John XXIII made Martin de Porres the first black American saint. Born in 1579, in Lima, Peru, de Porres was the illegitimate son of Don Juan de Porres of Burgos, a Spanish nobleman, and Ana Velasquez, a young freed Negro slave girl. From early childhood Martin showed great piety, a deep love for all God's Creatures and a passionate devotion to Our Lady. At the age of 11 he took a job as a servant in the Dominican priory and performed the work with such devotion that he was called "the saint of the broom". Martin was placed in charge of the Dominican's infirmary where he became known for his tender care of the sick and for his spectacular cures. In recognition of his fame and his deep devotion, his superiors dropped the stipulation that "no black person may be received to the holy habit or profession of our order" and Martin was vested in the full habit and took the solemn vows as a Dominican brother. He established an orphanage and a children's hospital for the poor children of the slums. He set up a shelter for the stray cats and dogs and nursed them back to health. After De Porres died, the miracles and graces received when he was invoked multiplied in such profusion that his body was exhumed after 25 years and said to be found intact, and exhaling a fine fragrance. Letters to Rome pleaded for his beatification; the decree affirming the heroism of his virtues was issued in 1763 by Pope Clement XIII. St John XXII canonized him in Rome in 1962.
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