In the wake of nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality sparked by the killings of African Americans under police custody, the Catholic bishops serving in Maryland issued a June 15 letter calling for people of faith to take action to end racism.

“Prayer and dialogue, alone, are not enough. We must act to bring about true change. United, we seek healing, harmony and solutions that recognize that every person has been created in the image of God and that every person possesses human dignity,” the bishops said in the letter.

Titled “Building Bridges of Understanding and Hope,” the letter was released by the Maryland Catholic Conference, the public policy arm for the state’s Catholic dioceses, and it was signed by the nine Catholic bishops serving in Maryland, including Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who last year was installed as the seventh archbishop of Washington, becoming the first African American to lead the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes the five Maryland counties surrounding the nation’s capital -- St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

The letter was also signed by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori and by Bishop W. Francis Malooly, the bishop of Wilmington, Delaware, whose diocese includes counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; and by the auxiliary bishops of Washington and Baltimore, including Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., who also serves as the president of the National Black Catholic Congress, which is headquartered in Baltimore.

In the letter, the bishops acknowledged “our own Church’s past sins and failings.” 

In colonial times and in the first decades of the new United States, the Jesuits in Maryland were slaveholders and operated plantations to support their ministries, and in 1838, the order sold 272 enslaved men, women and children, with some of the proceeds helping to secure the future of Georgetown College, now Georgetown University. After the Civil War during times of segregation, Black Catholics in Maryland and Washington, D.C., had to sit in the back of church or in galleries and wait until the end of the Communion line.

The Maryland bishops’ letter noted, “With regret and humility, we must recognize that as Catholic leaders and as an institution we have, at times, not followed the Gospel to which we profess and have been too slow in correcting our shortcomings. For this reason, it is incumbent upon us to place ourselves at the forefront of efforts to remove the inequalities and discrimination that are still present in Maryland and our nation today.”

The bishops’ letter also pointed out how “the Church in Maryland has been deeply enriched by the gifts of Black Catholics,” and noted how Mother Mary Lange, whose cause for sainthood is underway, founded the first Catholic school for black children in the United States in Baltimore in 1828 and also founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious order for women of African descent. The Josephite order of priests and brothers, which is headquartered in Baltimore, serves African American communities throughout the United States.

The letter notes how two earlier bishops in Maryland, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan of Baltimore and Washington Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, integrated Catholic schools and parishes in the state in the mid-1900s when segregation was still a widespread practice. 

Shortly after becoming the first resident archbishop of Washington in 1948, then-Archbishop O’Boyle began the process of integrating Catholic schools and parishes in the nation’s capital and in the surrounding Maryland counties, six years before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed segregated schools. In 1963, then-Archbishop O’Boyle offered the invocation at the March on Washington, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Noting the Church’s own “painful history” of racism and also its work to end that evil, Maryland’s bishops wrote, “This history provides the context for us today and should act to animate our prayers, thoughts and actions for an end, finally, to the sin of racism that remains with us and in us. The unjust killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans, and the subsequent protests, rallies and vigils that continue to take place make it clear that the conscience of our nation is on trial as questions of race and equality confront each and every one of us.” 

Floyd’s May 25 death after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest and other recent deaths of African Americans during police actions sparked protests across the country, including a June 8 prayerful protest near the White House led by a Josephite priest, Father Cornelius Ejiogu, the pastor of St. Luke Parish in Washington, that drew more than 40 priests and deacons, several bishops, and more than 200 other Catholics, including lay people and women religious. 

After Floyd’s death and the protests that followed, Archbishop Gregory issued a statement noting, “This incident reveals the virus of racism among us once again even as we continue to cope with the coronavirus pandemic,” and Washington’s archbishop also said, “This moment calls us to be the Church of hope that Jesus Christ created us to be in a world full of pain and despair.”

In their letter, Maryland’s bishops called on Catholics to pray and examine their own hearts and then to work together for racial justice.

“We call all people of good will to prayer, to root out any hatred and animosity that has taken hold in one’s own heart,” the bishops wrote.

Maryland’s bishops said they will continue their efforts to support laws seeking “to bring about justice and an end to unequal treatment based on race. This includes access to health and maternal care, meaningful educational opportunities, prison reforms, restorative justice initiatives, housing anti-discrimination efforts, juvenile justice reforms, and ending the grossly disparate practice of capital punishment.”

Communities of color have been hit hard by the COVID-19 health crisis and the resulting economic downturn, and analysts have said that longstanding systems of inequality have played a key role in the sufferings and deaths among minorities during the coronavirus pandemic.

Maryland’s bishops in their letter said they looked forward to joining discussions on a state and national level on legislative initiatives needed for reform and racial equality.

In closing their letter, the state’s bishops wrote, “We pray that God will guide us during these difficult times and give us the courage to act with conviction in our duty to seek racial equality, heal divisions, and build bridges of understanding and hope.”