Bishop W. Shawn McKnight couldn’t forget the opening remarks to Bishop Joseph N. Perry’s keynote address at the 2018 Missouri Catholic Conference Annual Assembly in Jefferson City:
“I am aware that this is holy ground here in Missouri.”
Bishop Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, is postulator of the sainthood cause of Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, a former slave turned priest — “one who sprung up from the soil of your own state here.”
Bishop McKnight thought of Fr. Tolton and of his early life in Monroe County while voting “yes” on the U.S. Catholic bishops pastoral letter on racism and on collectively endorsing sainthood cause for Sister Thea Bowman.
Both votes took place on Nov. 14, the last day of the bishops’ fall general meeting at Baltimore.
“For Fr. Tolton, this was sacred ground in the same sense that Mount Calvary was sacred ground,” said Bishop McKnight.
The bishops overwhelmingly approved the pastoral letter against racism — titled “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love: A Pastoral Letter Against Racism” — by a vote of 241-3 with one abstention.
“Despite many promising strides made in our country, racism still infects our nation,” the pastoral letter says.
“Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice,” it adds. “They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love.
Bishop McKnight said “Open Wide Our Hearts” challenges Catholics and all people of faith and goodwill to identify and address personal and systemic forms of racism.
“Anything that causes us to think of ‘the other’ as less than human is completely contrary to our Catholic faith,” he said.
The topic brought to mind for him all of the international priests who are of different races and nationalities who are serving in the Jefferson City diocese.
“Without them, we could not fulfill our mission as a local Church,” he said.
He recalled living as a student in Rome, as a foreigner struggling to speak the language and connect with the local people.
“It reinforced for me that there’s so much more to the human family and to the Church than your own race and language,” he said.
“To be a member of the family of God means you recognize that — the Catholicity of our faith, the universality of our faith,” he stated.
Bishops speaking on the pastoral at the bishops’ meeting gave clear consent to the letter’s message.
“This statement is very important and very timely,” said Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky.
He appreciated that the letter took note of the racism suffered by African-Americans and Native Americans, “two pieces of our national history that we have not reconciled.”
“This will be a great, fruitful document for discussion,” said Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, in whose diocese the violence-laden “Unite the Right” rally was held last year.
Bishop Knestout added the diocese has already conducted listening sessions on racism.
Bishop Robert J. Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, in what he called “ground zero for the civil rights movement,” said the pastoral’s message is needed, as the civil rights movement “began 60 years ago and we’re still working on achieving the goals in this document.”
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, said he was grateful for the pastoral’s declaration that “an attack against the dignity of the human person is an attack the dignity of life itself.”
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix said the letter will be welcome among Native Americans, who populate 11 missions in the diocese, African-Americans in Arizona — “I think we were the last of the 50 states to be part of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday,” he noted — and Hispanics, who make up 80 percent of all diocesan Catholics under age 20.
“This is very important for our people and our youth to know the history of racism,” he added.
Bishop Shelton T. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, said an electronic copy of “Open Wide Our Hearts” would be posted “somewhat immediately,” with a print version available around Thanksgiving.
“Also, there will be resources available immediately” now that the pastoral letter has been approved, including Catholic school resources for kindergarten through 12th grade, added the bishop, who also is chair of the bishops’ Subcommittee on African American Affairs.
“‘Open Wide Our Hearts’ conveys the bishops’ grave concern about the rise of racist attitudes in society,” Bishop Fabre said Nov. 13, when the pastoral was put on the floor of the bishops’ meeting.
It also “offers practical suggestions for individuals, families and communities,” he said.
“Every racist act — every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity or place of origin — is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God,” it adds.
“Racial profiling frequently targets Hispanics for selective immigration enforcement practices, and African-Americans, for suspected criminal activity. There is also the growing fear and harassment of persons from majority Muslim countries.”
The document also addresses extreme nationalist ideologies that “are feeding the American public discourse with xenophobic rhetoric that instigates fear against foreigners, immigrants and refugees.”
Woman of love, sacrifice
The bishops gave unanimous support for the advancement of the canonization cause of Sister Thea Bowman on the diocesan level — the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, headed by Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz.
It is the diocese where Sr. Thea grew up and also where she ministered in her last years while taking care of her aging parents and subsequently fighting cancer herself.
The great-granddaughter of slaves, Sr. Thea was the only African-American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
She transcended racism to leave a lasting mark on Catholic life in the United States in the late 20th century.
“She was an incredible woman of great love and sacrifice,” Bishop McKnight stated after the meeting. “And that’s a language understood by all — a language without which we cannot witness or evangelize.”
Contributing to this report in Jefferson City was Jay Nies of The Catholic Missourian.