There’s no place for racism in the Church or in any segment of civilized society.
All Catholics must guard against it in their hearts and work to dismantle the systems that perpetuate it.
Priests throughout the Jefferson City diocese preached variations of that message the weekend of June 6-7, as part of their homilies for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.
“Any time we look at any person or group of people to be less than us because of the color of their skin, we are doing nothing more than following the Father of Lies and falling into the evil of racism,” Father Philip Niekamp, pastor of St. Pius X parish in Moberly, proclaimed from the pulpit.
In a June 4 letter, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight urged the priests to read the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” while preparing their homilies.
“The murder of George Floyd by a police officer has brought to light the ugly reality of racism still present in our society,” the bishop wrote.
“Our people expect our preaching to address this issue in the light and hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he stated.
Many priests were planning on breaching the topic and appreciated the bishop’s guidance.
“I’ve seen the hurt in people around me — people who have dealt with racism personally in a way I never have,” said Father Stephen Jones, president of Helias Catholic High School and administrator of St. Martin parish in St. Martins.
“When you see it in people you know and value, you begin to wake up to it a bit,” he said.
“Racism has been a part of our landscape for generations,” Dominican Father Richard Litzau, pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbia noted. “There’s plenty of responsibility to go around. The way we can get past it is to talk to each other, acknowledge our own guilt and give it over to God in prayer.”
Videos of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis are the latest flashpoint in race relations, prompting mass demonstrations throughout the United States, including cities in this diocese.
“I think we have to stop and ask ourselves, ‘Where are we going and where do we want to be at the end of this process?’” Fr. Litzau stated.
At the table
Father Patrick Dolan, sacramental minister for St. Mary parish in Milan and the mission of St. Mary in Unionville, spoke of a Russian icon depicting the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit seated at a table with four chairs.
“The empty chair represents our God welcoming His people to be part of the life and the community of God Himself,” said Fr. Dolan.
Acts of racial prejudice and discrimination muffle that welcome and separate people who are created to be in communion with one another.
“We are all God’s people, of various nationalities, color and languages and cultural backgrounds,” said Fr. Dolan. “We all hope one day to be with our God at the table and the banquet of heaven, as one people, His people.”
Meant to be
Jesus longed for all people to be one, just as He and the Father and the Holy Spirit are one.
“The Lord God knew exactly what He was doing when He created you and me and everybody else on the planet,” Father Joseph Corel, pastor in solidum of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Sedalia, told his parishioners.
“He created people of all different races, languages and cultures and is very happy with having done this,” he said.
Fr. Corel said it’s important for everyone to become aware of their own blind spots in relating to people who are different.
Only by interacting and becoming friends with people from other countries, cultures and ethnic groups did he stop referring to people who are different from him as “them.”
In the seminary, he learned about Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, who was born into slavery in Missouri before the Civil War and encountered stinging racism while trying to answer his priestly calling.
Fr. Tolton wound up studying in Rome and becoming the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably black priest in the United States.
“He had to fight for equality in the Church,” said Fr. Corel.
“It’s about love! It’s about unity!” emphasized Father Anthony Rinaldo, pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Loose Creek and St. Louis of France parish in Bonnots Mill.
“We know that every human being is created in God’s image,” he said. “We are one people.”
Racism destroys that unity and opens the door to atrocious behavior.
“Right now, we’re being torn apart by racism,” he said. “There’s so much anger and hatred and fear.”
He emphasized that violence is the wrong response, but so is indifference.
“May the Lord open our hearts and minds and help us to find ways and means in which we can effect lasting change in our nation, in our own attitudes and to put an end to the violence that has come from all these things,” he said.
Father William Peckman, pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul parish in Boonville and St. Joseph parish in Fayette, said there’s no room in the Church for any of the “isms” that separate people.
“What is our contribution to society?” he asked. “Is it more division, or do we love one another in such a way as to draw other people to Christ?”
He believes that if the Catholic Church is going to make a difference on earth, “it will be in our ability to love.”
“We’re going to cast away the divisions that come from this world and see each other first and foremost as fellow children of God, made in His image and likeness,” he said.
“Let us go out”
Fr. Niekamp gave his Moberly parishioners a gripping overview of how racism — including institutionalized slavery — had infiltrated the Church and U.S. society through the years.
“And yet, throughout the Church’s history and throughout America’s history, we have had people who called us to be better, to love a little more, to be a little more compassionate, to extend those certain inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all people,” he said.
“We can be better, we are being better,” he stated, “but we have a long way to go.”
While condemning violence, Fr. Niekamp lauded the people who have demonstrated peacefully to raise awareness and call for change.
“They should be in our prayers,” he stated. “They should have our support. They should be an example for all of us.”
Because love lasts forever, it is the Church’s greatest weapon against division and racism.
“Let us go out into the world this day,” said Fr. Niekamp, “to beg forgiveness from God Himself, to work to make a difference, to change the world in which we live, so that our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren might grow up in a more equitable, more loving, more peaceful, more compassionate, more understanding world.”
Bishop McKnight asked the priests to include a call to prayer for an end to racism.
Father Christopher Cordes, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Columbia, asked his parishioners to join him in praying “for all who experience discrimination of any kind, for our law enforcement personnel, and for all who seek change through peaceful and nonviolent methods,” he said.
Fr. Jones noted that brokenness and division have been a fact of life since the fall in the Garden of Eden.
“Have we gotten better? I think we have,” he stated. “But I have friends of color who experience serious racism in 2020. And that’s abhorrent. The Church can never stand for it. Our culture should never stand for it. This nation should never stand for it.”
He said every movement that has changed the world started with a few individuals.
“I suggest listening to the experience of someone different from you,” he said. “To do that, you have to engage them. And pretty soon, you have a relationship, and those differences don’t seem as ‘different.’”
Fr. Litzau believes the peaceful protesters — not the violent rioters — have an important point to make.
He’s convinced the Church can help by providing a safe, neutral space for people of different backgrounds and experiences to speak honestly and listen to each other.
“If you share your experience of the truth with enough people, you start to notice some overlap,” he said. “And that’s where you grow. In the overlap.”
All the while, people must examine their own hearts and ask God, “How do I personally have to change my understanding of the world around me?”
He said Catholics should plan on hearing more homilies about racism.
“It’s not going to go away,” he stated. “We’re going to have to keep talking about it.”