Celebrating an Aug. 28 Mass to mark the 57th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington, Archbishop Wilton Gregory urged the faithful of today to continue the dream of the late civil rights leader and to work for “reconciliation and unity building.”

“Ours is the task and the privilege of advancing the goals that were so eloquently expressed 57 years ago by such distinguished voices on that day,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Men and women, young and old, people of every racial and ethnic background are needed in this effort.”

The Mass of Peace and Justice was celebrated at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington in honor of the 1963 March on Washington. It was organized by the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach and the archdiocesan Secretariat for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns.

Washington Auxiliary Bishops Mario Dorsonville, Roy E. Campbell Jr., and Michael Fisher concelebrated the Mass, which was live streamed over the Internet on various social media platforms. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, seating was limited at the cathedral. Despite that, Archbishop Gregory said, “the intensity of our prayer is not diminished in the least.”

“We are at a pivotal juncture in our country’s struggle for racial justice and national harmony,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Believers and nonbelievers, sports stars and corporate giants, small town residents and urban dwellers must all engage in the work of reconciliation and unity building so that our common future will be better and more secure than the past.”

To that end, Archbishop Gregory announced during the Mass an archdiocesan initiative to “fight against racial injustice everywhere.”

The initiative was outlined on a scroll presented to the archbishop by Betty Wright, a parishioner at St. Martin of Tours Parish in Washington who participated in the 1963 March on Washington; David Guillen, a young adult Encuentro leader who is a member of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg; Dr. Carolyn Ng, a catechist and lay leader at Our Lady of China Pastoral Mission; and Jeannine Marino, the Archdiocese of Washington's Secretary of Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns.

Archbishop Gregory read what was written on the scroll:

“In light of current events in our country and the need for ongoing work in the fight against racial injustice everywhere, I am announcing the new Archdiocese of Washington initiative ‘Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism.’

“This initiative will include a wide range of pastoral activities and outreach including prayer, listening sessions, faith formation opportunities and social justice work.

“Please join me, our auxiliary bishops, clergy, and staff as we pray and work together to proclaim Christ’s love for all people and work for justice for all.”

During the Aug. 28 Mass for Peace and Justice, Archbishop Gregory announces a new Archdiocese of Washington initiative to oppose racism, after he was presented with a scroll describing the initiative from four people representing diverse communities in the archdiocese. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Archbishop Gregory called the historic March on Washington “a moral and religious event” unlike other parades, gatherings and demonstrations usually held in Washington, D.C. He also noted that he was celebrating the Mass in the cathedral where then-Archbishop of Washington Patrick  O’Boyle had invited people to pray before the march.

On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. King was among the leaders who organized a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march included a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that was opened with an invocation by Archbishop O’Boyle.

Then-Washington Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, at podium, offers the invocation on Aug. 28, 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At right is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that day. An enlarged copy of this photo was displayed on an easel in front of a lectern in the sanctuary of St. Matthew's Cathedral during Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory's Aug. 28, 2020 Mass of Peace and Justice marking the 57th anniversary of the first March on Washington. (CS file photo)

Calling the March on Washington “a deeply faith-inspired event,” Archbishop Gregory said, “it was less about achieving something than about becoming something – becoming a single family of justice, unity and harmony.”

“Surely those goals are noble and more than desirable even today – perhaps especially today,” the archbishop said. “Death has silenced most of the great voices of August 28, 1963 – Dr. King, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson to mention only a few -- nevertheless the intensity, determination and the energy of their spoken and sung words echo still today.”

“The vast majority of the oratory of the day highlighted social and civil concerns but always with an undeniable touch of religious faith,” Archbishop Gregory said. “People from a wide variety of religious traditions were united in a prayerful moment for our nation. The existing social order was clearly challenged by people of faith. That is exactly what we need today.”

People pray during the Aug. 28, 2020 Mass for Peace and Justice celebrated by Archbishop Wilton Gregory at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

It was at that rally that Dr. King delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech, hailed as one of the greatest speeches ever given in American history.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” Dr. King said in that speech.

Many local Catholics were among the estimated 250,000 to 300,000 participants at the 1963 march.

“The spirit that they (marchers and organizers) shared on that remarkable day was unmistakably sacred,” Archbishop Gregory said. “With that spirit they were ready to change the world. It gave them a clear vision of what our nation was called to be – what we must become, as it was described so eloquently in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Noting that the Gospel reading for the Mass was taken from St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Archbishop Gregory said the Beatitudes “fit the commemorative observance perfectly as they highlight the virtues and the spiritual vision that are necessary for society’s renewal.”

The Beatitudes, he said, “all point to a society of harmony and justice which were the desired end of that march 57 years ago.”

“Dr. King spoke movingly about what our nation was destined to and must become -- he no doubt must have reflected often on the Beatitudes,” Archbishop Gregory said.

Dr. King often referred to his vision of this nation freed from racial division as a “beloved community.” That term was first used by Josiah Royce, a late 19th century and early 20th century American philosopher and theologian. Dr. King in his speeches used the term to denote a society in which racism and discrimination are ended by non-violent means and reconciliation.

Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 because of his efforts to end segregation and racial prejudice. In late March 1968, he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support black sanitary public works employees who were on strike seeking higher wages and better working conditions. On April 4, Dr. King, standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel, was mortally wounded by a gunshot fired by James Earl Ray. He was taken to St. Joseph Hospital, where after emergency surgery he was pronounced dead.

The archbishop has had a long association with the late civil rights leader.

Archbishop Gregory previously served as archbishop of Atlanta, Dr. King's birthplace. He has preached in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both Dr. King and his father preached, and in 2006, he was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Archbishop Gregory was installed as the current archbishop of Washington in 2019, becoming the first African-American prelate to lead the Archdiocese of Washington. He is known as a leading voice in the U.S. Catholic Church for racial justice. 

Archbishop Gregory celebrates the Aug. 28, 2020 Mass for Peace and Justice held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, marking the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

During the commemorative Mass, Archbishop Gregory prayed that God would “fill all hearts … with the fire of your love and kindle in them a desire for the just advancement of their neighbor.” Prayers were also offered for “those who have died, especially our loved ones and all those who suffered in the struggle for civil and human rights.”

Archbishop Gregory noted the context of the Mass, happening during the COVID-19 pandemic and at a time of nationwide protests for racial justice following highly publicized police shootings of unarmed Black men and women.

The archbishop also asked his “beloved brothers and sisters” to pray for “those affected by the sin of racism” as well as for victims of hate crimes, discrimination against immigrants and of those of different religions.

Archbishop Gregory urged the faithful not to become discouraged in their fight to end racism. “We must take heart and not be dissuaded or intimidated by the voices that seek division and hatred because ‘We shall overcome,’” the archbishop said as he concluded his homily, quoting a gospel song that became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

After the Aug. 28, 2020 Mass for Peace and Justice at St. Matthew's Cathedral, Archbishop Gregory spoke with and blessed some young adults who had participated in that day's March on Washington and then had attended the Mass. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)