The disturbing events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-August have prompted a multitude of responses on the local, regional and national levels to combat pervasive racism, and for the Church it’s no different.
On Aug. 23, the U.S. bishops announced the formation of a new ad hoc committee that will respond to the “sin of racism” on a national level. Leading the charge is Jesuit Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, who told Our Sunday Visitor in an interview that there needs to be a “moral response” to the increase in hate groups and hate speech of the past few years.
| Bishop Murry
“That’s the role of the Church,” Bishop Murry said. “The Church reflects Jesus Christ. It was Jesus who called us to love each other as God loves us, and God loves us as individuals that he has created in his own image. So it’s important for the Church to, in a sense, step into this breach and be the voice of the Gospel and the voice of hope in a very difficult situation.”
The first steps will be actually forming the committee, Bishop Murry said, and to do that, he is looking for individuals “who can bring experience, insight, knowledge and wisdom … about how do we establish criteria and measure results” for such a venture.
Once the committee is formed, the first task will be to gain a better understanding of “contemporary racism” in the country, as it varies from place to place. Bishop Murry said he also wants to hold a national, ecumenical gathering where people will share ideas and insights about reducing racism in their communities. The committee also will work with Catholic institutions, such as parishes, schools, hospitals, Catholic charities, to “identify where the sin of racism raises its head and determine how we can challenge that,” he said.
“The key here is changing hearts, it’s not a matter of just changing external behaviors,” Bishop Murry said. “It’s helping the Catholic community, all of us and not only the Catholic community but people of good will, to understand that racism is contrary to God’s will.”
Here, listening will be key.
“We need to understand each other,” Bishop Murry said. “So often we come into a situation with preconceived notions. And then either by accident or by design, we get into a conversation with someone who has a different view, and we begin to learn why it is they think the way they do. That’s where the grace of the Holy Spirit comes in, with conversion.
“For a Christian, for example, to say that he or she doesn’t recognize or doesn’t appreciate the humanity and the value of another person because that person is a different color, strikes me as being so contrary to the Gospel that it leaves me floored,” he continued. “We may disagree with a person because of their political stance or because of the fact that they like a particular type of music that we don’t like … we don’t all agree. But every human being, regardless of that person’s skin color, is created in the image and likeness of God, and as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, I think that we need to help each other to see that and respect that person as a person created in God’s image.”
This process is begun through dialogue and listening with open hearts to the experiences and background of others. “What has led them to think that a particular person is somehow inferior, and where can we help that person to see that God’s love is universal and it leapfrogs over every division and every accident of nature?” he said.
The bishops have a history of being vocal on the issue of race, but it has been a lengthy 37 years since the publication of their 1979 pastoral letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us” that was penned in response to an unsettling “mood of indifference” around the issue following the great upheaval of the 1960s. This lapse of time doesn’t mean the Church was asleep at the wheel, however, Bishop Murry said. The responses were just more local.
“It’s not as if nothing was done in the past because there are dioceses, there are bishops who have been outspoken on this issue,” he said. Now, however, “we’re doing it nationally and we’re doing it together in response to an increase in hate speech and in violence.”
|Bishop Murry on Monuments, Former KKK Priest
In response to a question on the recent trend to remove Confederate monuments, Bishop Murry said: “There are some people who seem to think that if all Confederate monuments were eliminated, racism would be eliminated in the United States. Well, that’s just not the case, because it’s much deeper than that. It’s an attitude. Whether monuments are removed or not is a local political issue. The question is what does that monument represent? What does that monument teach us about authentic American history and authentic American values?”
When asked about Father William Aitcheson, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who recently revealed that he had formerly been a member of the Ku Klux Klan some 40 years ago, Bishop Murry said: “This is a two-edged sword. When I first heard about this, I thought that this was a very helpful confession or revelation ... because it showed that it was possible for the grace of god to touch a heart of stone and turn it into a heart of flesh, as it says in the Scriptures. As the story has continued to unfold, we’re now realizing that this man never apologized to those people and has had no contact with these people and is apologizing now, but we don’t know exactly, or at least I don’t know exactly, why he’s apologizing now. I hope the man is sincere, and I pray for him. I do see the fact that he changed his life as being hopeful for all of us — that we can overcome sin. Unfortunately, this story is continuing to unfold, and we just don’t have the whole story at this point.”
A new document on race also currently is in the works.
The bishops also were active in the last year with a task force on peace in communities” headed up by Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory. That effort, Bishop Murry said, focused on the micro issue of “community-police relations.” The ad hoc committee, in comparison, will examine the roots of racism present in those situations — what the bishops are calling “the original sin of the American experience.”
“We want to look at the underlying issues that lead individuals to see one group of people as superior to another, which is completely contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.
As the ad hoc committee gets underway, Bishop Murry encouraged every Catholic to both pray and work to end racism, something that can be done individually or within parish communities. He also encouraged priests to pray for an end to racism in the prayer of the faithful during Mass and to raise the issue in their homilies.
“We have to look at our structures and we have to say that these are places where in our society, we favor one group over the other,” he said. “What can we do about that? What can we as a collective community do to offer opportunities to people who have been systematically excluded from those opportunities?”
The issue of racism is intertwined and deep, and the committee will be focused on untangling those knots — something which will require time and patience to do correctly.
“We’re not going to resolve the problem of racism in 24 hours, and we’re not going to resolve the problem of racism in two years,” he said. “What we’re doing is starting a process of saying that as a community, as a Catholic community, we need to look at this together and stand together and help teach other to grow in the depth of our faith. And if part of that is challenging each other, we do it in a loving way.”
Gretchen R. Crowe is editor-in-chief of OSV Newsweekly. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.