Against a backdrop of increasing racial violence in the United States, members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced in a press conference Sept. 8 that a new pastoral letter on racism currently is in the works. The new document, which is in its beginning stages, is being drafted by the USCCB Subcommittee on African-American Affairs, of which Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux is chair. In the press conference, Bishop Fabre said the document would address the manifestation of racism in society — and even in the Church.
"As we know, racism is something that remains, and it can adapt to new circumstances,” Bishop Fabre said. "Certainly with a country now that is more racially diverse, that pastoral letter on racism would also need to address how is it that racism might also manifest itself in a community now that is far more diverse than it used to be."
The letter, which will be the first formal document on race published by the USCCB since its 1979 pastoral letter “Brothers and Sisters To Us," will encourage dialogue and awareness among Catholics, Bishop Fabre said, providing not just a document to read and reflect on, but a document that can help people “actively work” toward healing and reconciliation.
The announcement came on the eve of the country's first National Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities — an effort called for by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the USCCB, in the aftermath of the violent shootings in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas this summer. The Sept. 9 event coincides with the feast of St. Peter Claver, patron saint of African Americans and interracial justice, and is meant to bolster a larger effort: a task force that is working with local churches and communities to promote peace and healing.
“We hope to highlight the importance of prayer as a reasonable and efficacious response to the violence that has touched too many communities in our nation,” said Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, chair of the task force. “We also hope that through this prayer, local dialogues will take place in parishes and in small communities to highlight the root causes of this tension that obviously is still very much a part of too many of our lives, and hopefully the prayer will soften hearts and enlighten minds as we move forward."
Other members of the task force include Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento and Bishop Fabre. The task force, the bishops said, will provide best practices to churches and local groups and leaders about how to best engage in dialogue that will promote peace and reconciliation.
“We need to listen, we need to learn, we need to encounter at the local level,” Bishop Fabre said, "and how best that is accomplished is up to each diocese."
Part of this effort, said Archbishop Gregory, is ecumenical and interfaith collaboration.
“The issues that we face are not [just] Catholic issues, they are American issues,” Archbishop Gregory said. “In order to have an appropriate response, we have to work with our interfaith and ecumenical partners so we present a united front — so it’s not simply the Catholic Church speaking in response to violence and hatred and racism, it’s a community of believers and men and women of good will who may not have any particular religious faith that they follow, but they too are involved in the work of racial harmony and peacemaking."
This includes the local government, Bishop Fabre said. “It’s civic, it’s religious, it’s all people of good will. It’s national, local and state government."
While the Church has not officially endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement, Bishop Fabre said it could be a possible partner in racial dialogue “depending on what they embrace and what is it that they want to devote their time and attention to."
Regardless, he said, the Church believes that all human life is sacred, “particularly in those areas where human life might be under attack or threatened."
Archbishop Gregory said he suspects the outcome of task force will raise the question of gun control and safety in the hope that local Church leaders will continue to push for “real serious gun control and safety precautions.”
“If the outcome of this task force, which I suspect it will, does raise that question, it will give further evidence to local communities, local pastors, local bishops, to make clear the Catholic Church's deep concern and commitment to promoting safe firearm legislation, respecting the rights of people to safeguard their homes, but also working to diminish the proliferation of these illegal and unregulated weapons of destruction,” Archbishop Gregory said.
The deeper question that should be explored, Bishop Fabre said, is “why are they turning to guns?"
“As we all know, violence only perpetuates more violence,” he said. “I agree with the need for gun control, but again I lift up the whole idea of dialogue and discussion and ask why is it they are turning to guns in these situations?"
Both men hope that Friday’s day of prayer for peace will sow seeds of dialogue. In Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory said that all Catholic school children will offer the USCCB's “prayer for peace” at the same hour and will take home cards with the prayer. He said that he hopes it will “generate some conversation in all of the homes that those youngsters come from."
He also hopes the day of prayer will inspire parishes and other organizations and committees to pursue the question of racism and peace “around the table at their homes, in their classrooms” and other places "where real dialogue takes place."
Bishop Fabre said he hopes the day will be "an opportunity for people to get to know people and not only causes.
"In coming together to pray, it is my hope that maybe at that Mass, people of different races who have never spoken to anyone of another race might speak to one another,” he said. "Because everything that we are talking about is about people … it’s about people who in many ways right now are suffering. [The day of prayer] is a beginning to build those relationships."
Gretchen R. Crowe is editor-in-chief of OSV Newsweekly. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.
The Prayer for Peace in Our Communities is here.