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Bishops decry 'sin of racism' as country celebrates Independence Day

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Posted: 7/7/2020

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People in Katy, Texas, watch fireworks July 4, 2020. Bishops around the U.S. issued statements addressing the sin of racism as the country celebrated Independence Day. (CNS photo/Callaghan O'Hare, Reuters)


WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Drawing from the example of the late Sister Thea Bowman, the only African American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and the U.S. bishops' 2018 pastoral letter on racism, the two bishops of Mississippi denounced racism as "a plague among us."

"It is an evil and a force of destruction that eats away at the soul of our nation," Bishop Louis F. Kihneman III of Biloxi and Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz of Jackson said of racism in a statement released July 4. "Ultimately, it is a moral problem that requires a moral remedy -- a transformation of the human heart -- and compels us to act."

The statement was among of a series of reflections and comments on racism by bishops, dioceses and organizations centered on the Independence Day holiday.

The Mississippi bishops said Sister Thea offered a prophetic life of service to overcome racism in their state and took her message nationwide in an effort to "break down racial and cultural barriers."

The U.S. bishops as a body endorsed the sainthood cause of Sister Thea during the 2018 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, moments after adopting their pastoral later on racism, "Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love." Bishop Kihneman and Bishop Kopacz wrote that both acts "combined to show our nation a better way, the path to greater justice and peace, whose beginning and end is the dignity of the human person."

The bishops decried the "chains of racism" in society and the Catholic Church and called for the church "to be a leaven in society for solidarity, liberty and justice for all."

Their statement closed with a pledge "to recommit ourselves to continue to liberate the church from the evil of racism that severely compromises our mission to make disciples of all nations in the name of Jesus Christ.

Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami said in a homily during a July 5 "Mass for Unity Against Racism" that the "promissory note of liberty and justice for all," as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might describe the Declaration of Independence, "is not yet fully redeemed" for some Americans.

Acknowledging the "festering wounds of racism, the original sin of our founding" as continuing, Archbishop Wenski invoked the words of the civil rights leader, who asked, "Where do we go from here: chaos or community?"

As the United States celebrated the 244th anniversary of its independence, the archbishop said the country faces a "triple crisis," including a global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, economic upheaval and ongoing racial unrest in many cities.

He urged the country to overcome its partisan divisions to reach common ground in order to address the challenges.

"Chaos is not an option if we are to address this triple crisis as well as advancing needed reforms in the area of immigration, health care, education, social and economic inequality as well as fixing what is broken in our system of justice that is still far from being 'color blind,'" he said.

"America will only be strong when all our institutions promote the common good and work for the advantage of everyone. America will only be at its best when the rights of the weak and vulnerable are protected and not viewed as expended," he said.

A statement from members of the Racial Harmony Commission of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said July 3 they committed themselves to "reflect, pray and examine our consciences with respect to the sin of racism."

"We seek opportunities to dialogue with others whose faith is deep, lively and inclusive so that true listening can begin. We affirm this must include an identification and rejection of systemic racism in all its forms," the commission said in rejecting violence in response to any conflict.

The commission was formed in 2016 following the killing of Alton Sterling, a Black man, by white Baton Rouge police officers and the subsequent shooting deaths of three law enforcement officers.

The commission said the deaths of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis in May, Sterling and other African Americans and Hispanics "serve as a constant reminder that in too many cases the law is enforced differently depending upon the color of one's skin."

The statement also called slavery "America's original sin" and a "sin against humanity."

"The damage that this sin has inflicted and systemic injustice that it has spawned have affected every aspect of American life over the last four centuries. We must truthfully acknowledge and address this stain on our heritage, or our community and our nation will remain broken," the commission said.

Meanwhile, the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests said its members were "embarrassed, appalled and disgusted" about comments from an Indiana priest who referred to Black Lives Matters protesters as "maggots and parasites."

"Without acknowledging or judging what is in the pastor's heart, publishing such words is a sinful act of racism, according to the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter, Open Wide Our Hearts," the AUSCP said in a July 2 statement.

The priest, Father Theodore Rothrock, was suspended July 1 from his duties as pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Carmel, Indiana, by Bishop Timothy L. Doherty of Lafayette, Indiana, after the comments appeared in the parish bulletin June 28 and on the parish website.

Father Rothrock is not a member of the priests association.

The association welcomed Bishop Doherty's "timely" disciplinary action, but expressed caution that the "published words have spread far beyond the borders of the diocese to the nation and the world."

"We hope the bishop and his priests will go beyond the scandalizing words of one priest on one weekend, and attack the systemic racism that allowed one priest to think such words were acceptable. All of us in the church need to do the same," the association said.

During a Mass in Louisville, Kentucky, marking Juneteenth, the date that honors the end to slavery in the United States, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz prayed for justice, peace and healing from the "sin of racism"

The archbishop told the congregation at Holy Family Church who had gathered for the Mass to mark the recent deaths of four African Americans through violence committed by white people that the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a gift and that devotion to the Sacred Heart started at the cross where Christ "shed his body and blood for our salvation."

Delving into the Sacred Heart of Jesus can lead to much needed changes in society, he said.

"We know that for any meaningful change within our nation and in our church there must be a change of heart in each one of us," he said.

Archbishop Kurtz noted that the celebration of Juneteenth leads people to recognize that the sin or racism had not yet been eradicated. He also urged the congregation to take personal responsibility to rid themselves and society of racism.

"You and I each share the responsibility when anyone of us commits a sin," he said. "You and I share the responsibility to bring that sin to Christ for forgiveness and redemption."

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Contributing to this story was Ruby Thomas, a staff writer at The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.