Ultimately, we are called to love our neighbors. It's harder to see that everyone is our neighbor when all our neighbors look like us.
You can't win a game that's never played. Maybe that's the life lesson New Orleans Saints fans have learned in recent days better than most. Whether you've been "robbed" or simply failed to advance, there's nothing you can do from the sidelines or the stands. The field is the only place victory can be achieved.
The same principle holds true in other areas of life. Certainly, we had all hoped that by now the USCCB would have made more concrete progress on the scourge of sexual abuse, corruption, and infidelity in the Church. Tragically, however, this ongoing issue has clouded all others. It has been particularly disappointing that our bishops' pastoral letter on racism -- "Open Wide Our Hearts" -- hasn't made the headlines, let alone parish or dinner table discussion. Something always seems to prevent this issue from being a priority.
This year, 2019, marks some significant national milestones. It is the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. But on a more bitter note, this year is also the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship to the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia. Over 12 million Africans were shipped to the Americas; over 10 million survived the voyage. Try to absorb that for a minute. Twelve million souls were robbed not only of their human dignity and freedom, but of their language, culture, families, homes -- everything that gives a person his or her identity. It takes more than a Constitutional amendment and time to overcome the legacy of those realities.
Though I'm happy to know that the Archdiocese of New Orleans has had an Office of Racial Harmony for some time, our Church has not always been on the right side of race relations. Pope Nicholas V issued a series of papal bulls in the 1450s granting Portugal the right to enslave sub-Saharan Africans. The transatlantic slave trade was initiated in 1517 at the request of Spanish Bishop Las Casas. A little more than one hundred years later, American property owners in both north and south began profiting from the slave trade. Catholics captured slaves, bought and sold slaves, and held slaves; strangely, they also often baptized them. Our fifth chief justice, Roger Taney, was the first Catholic to serve on the U. S. Supreme Court. Sadly, his faith did not inform his public service when he wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case. Ironically, Taney was personally opposed to slavery and considered it a terrible evil. I have personally spoken to an African American priest who was refused ordination in Cleveland, where I grew up, simply because he was black. He got around that only by joining a religious order that was founded so that people of color could answer religious and priestly vocations. Still wonder why there aren't more African American Catholics?
Yes, genuine progress has been made toward racial equality, but not nearly enough. Thankfully, the Church has done much better in recent decades. Many Catholics supported the Civil Rights Movement, and not just in behind-the-scenes ways. But there is still racial disparity in our criminal justice system. The poorest people in our country are people of color. Our worst schools just happen to be in African American neighborhoods. Rising socio-economic tides don't quite seem to lift all boats.
Four hundred years is a long time to wait for constructive conversation. That's why I was so happy that our parish made the new pastoral letter on racism available and held a round table discussion on it last Saturday morning. Because our parish here in Louisiana, (and our neighborhood, and our whole city) is racially diverse, a meaningful conversation could occur. I recognize that talk is cheap. Still, talk can be a beginning.
There are many great and holy Black Catholic saints, blesseds, and servants of God. During this African American History Month why not take the opportunity to learn more about extraordinary American Catholics: Father Augustus Tolton, Sister Thea Bowman, Pierre Toussaint, and Mother Henriette Delille. Consider the obstacles they faced and overcame.
Ultimately, we are called to love our neighbors. It's harder to see that everyone is our neighbor when all our neighbors look like us. I know, I grew up thinking that the South was racist and the North wasn't. That's simply not the case. And at least here in southern Louisiana, everybody lives together. Races don't have zip codes. But justice is a pre-requisite to love. I can't love someone if I still owe him something that is rightfully his. And we can only move forward if we're willing to open our hearts just a little bit wider.
- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and serves as a senior editor at Ave Maria Press. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.
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