Bishop battling cancer relays racism message

Fewer than 10 months after being appointed chair of a new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop George V. Murry, SJ, of Youngstown, Ohio, has stepped down to undergo intense chemotherapy following a diagnosis of acute leukemia.

The work, though, must continue.

Building on the past

On May 4, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, announced that Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, will succeed Bishop Murry.

Though Bishop Murry has resigned, his thinking, and the work of the past nine months, remains. The USCCB is planning to release a pastoral letter on racism in the fall of this year, and Bishop Murry had played a central leadership role in developing that text.

To better understand that thinking, we can look at remarks delivered to several hundred people April 25 on the campus of St. Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. The remarks were those of Bishop Murry, but delivered on his behalf by Jonathan Reyes, USCCB’s assistant general secretary for integral human development, due to Bishop Murry’s illness.

Seeking greater impact

In his address, Bishop Murry, who is one of only six African-American bishops heading a U.S. diocese, was critical of the Catholic Church and its handling of racism in all its form. In particular, he noted that while the U.S. bishops have written four documents addressing racism and discrimination over the past 60 years, they have had little impact of the lives of Catholics.

He explained that in 1958 the bishops issued  the pastoral letter “Discrimination and Christian Conscience,” which pointed out the injustices of segregation and Jim Crow laws.

In 1968, they issued “Statement on National Race Crisis” in response to the issues and events that led to widespread violence and destruction in a number of American cities that year. Eleven years later, in 1979, the bishops issued “Brothers and Sisters to Us.”

“While these three documents address the evils of racism, the condemnation found in the pages of these documents only went so far. The impact (of these documents)  for the majority of Catholic was minimal,” the address stated, adding that the lesson learned from these pastoral proclamations is that the publication of a  standalone document has proven to be ineffective in eradicating racism.

“Much of the (Church’s) teaching on racism suffers from a lack of passion,” the address noted. For instance, he cited the  initial outcry from religious leaders and politicians  for justice in the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As well, he noted the condemnation of hatred, violence  and death that occurred in the summer of  2017 at demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“However, after the initial outrage of these events,  all too often the status quo returns in far too many places,” the address said. Bishop Murry relayed his hope that the upcoming pastoral letter would ignite a passion in the Church like that found in the pro-life movement.

“I would like to see the  same  level of passion for racial justice as Catholics  have had  for the sanctity of life over the decades,” the address stated.

In that spirit, the upcoming pastoral letter on racism will include study guides and the call for every Church  organization, school and health facility to facilitate or continue the conversation on  matters of race. Over the next year, Church leaders also will hold listening sessions on issues of race in selected dioceses across the nation.

“From there, other activities will grow,” said Bishop Murry’s address. “The key will be for us to remain focused and consistent in our work.”

Education and formation

Among those in attendance was Sister Eva Marie Lumas, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word who serves in Los Angeles. She applauded Bishop Murry’s vision and shared with the audience her own experience of race relations in her work as a teacher.

“Up to a certain point, school-age children can befriend and play with anyone,” she said. “But there comes a point where these kids learn who they may or may not date, marry or have social relationships with.”

She added that understanding another race must go beyond having a book that shows black kids doing what white kids do. “The earlier kids are introduced to human values versus American values or white or black values, the more we will be able to see that all men are created equal.”

Also on hand was Michael Pressimone, president of Fontbonne University  in  St. Louis.  He shared with those in  attendance his experience  as an educator and father of four young adopted African-American children.

“What we  certainly need  in the  Church are pastors and leaders who are willing to challenge that (racial)  bias that creeps so insidiously  into the vernacular of our society and becomes inflamed over time and grows to a point where we have overt racism,” he said.

Finally, a question arose about how the Church is educating seminarians on racial issues. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of the Archdiocese of St. Louis personally addressed this question. He stated that while theology and spirituality are certainly  important in priestly formation, much more focus these days is placed on human formation of priests than was in years past.

“In the area of human formation, that’s where these issues are addressed,”   Archbishop Carlson said. “We have workshops that deal with real scenarios and role playing where our seminarians are critiqued on their responses and reactions to real-life situations that they could face in their own parishes.”

According to Reyes of the USCCB, who delivered the address, the speech at St. Louis University was the second speech in what he had hoped would be a series of addresses on racism. As Bishop Murry battles cancer and Bishop Fabre takes up the work of the bishops’ committee, it will fall to other voices to keep the conversation going. 

Eddie O’Neill writes from Michigan.