Archbishop Alexander Sample, archdiocese of Portland, recently visited Corvallis and conducted a meeting at St. Mary’s. One man asked him for guidance on how Catholics can respond to the issue of racism in our country.
Sample told us about a 35-page letter the U.S. Catholic Bishops published in November of 2018. It is called "Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism," and it is freely available online. The Catholic bishops in our country have been discussing racism and working toward a more inclusive society for many years, having also published letters against racism in 1958, 1968, and 1979.
My very brief summary of the excellent letter follows: Racism is a “particularly destructive and persistent form of evil.” “Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice. They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love.” Racism comes in many forms, from deliberate sinful and hateful acts, to discrimination in hiring, housing, educational opportunities and incarceration. Racism also comes in the form of “sins of omission, when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered.”
What is called for is a “genuine conversion of heart” that will compel change and the reform of our institutions and society. Taking inspiration from the prophet Micah, the bishops divide this process of conversion into three parts: “To do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
The original meaning of justice is to be in right relationship with God, with one another, and with the rest of God’s creation. The first step of doing justice is to acknowledge the harm that has been done to so many people in our country over the centuries. The second is to “listen and know the stories of our brothers and sisters. We must create opportunities to hear, with open hearts, the tragic stories that are deeply imprinted on the lives of our brothers and sisters.” To understand how racism works today, we must recognize how generations of Native Americans, Blacks, Hispanics and many others have been disadvantaged by slavery, wage theft, the systematic denial of access to numerous wealth building opportunities, and the message in the U.S. social subconscious that they are inferior.
St. Katharine Drexel, the first U.S. born Catholic saint, and a woman who exemplified love of goodness and of neighbor by a lifetime of serving people of color, summarized the Christian call this way: “If we wish to serve God and love our neighbor well, we must manifest our joy in the service we render to Him and them. Let us open wide our hearts.”
To accomplish the third part of conversion — walking humbly with God — the bishops discuss and commit to several actions. These include acknowledging the ways the Catholic Church has been complicit in the evil of racism, being open to encounter and new relationships, resolving to work nationally and locally for justice, and educating themselves. They invite all of us to walk the same steps in our own homes and communities and remind us that, “There is no place for racism in the heart of any person; it is a perversion of the Lord’s will for men and women, all of whom were made in God’s image and likeness.”
Venerable Augustus Tolton, a former slave and the first known African American Catholic priest, summed it up well when he said, “The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery — that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both.”
Jessica Barton is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, former middle school math and science teacher, lactation consultant, and married mother of 3. She and her family have called Corvallis home for 4 years. She is a parishioner at St. Mary's in Corvallis and leads a group called Exploring Catholicism for people interested in learning about the Catholic faith.