The sin of racism must be recognized, confronted and overcome, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl said in a new pastoral letter, The Challenge of Racism Today.
“Intolerance and racism will not go away without a concerted awareness and effort on everyone’s part. Regularly we must renew the commitment to drive it out of our hearts, our lives and our community,” the cardinal wrote in a letter dated Nov. 1, All Saints Day, that was addressed to the clergy, religious and laity of the Church of Washington.
The letter from Washington’s archbishop was issued at a time when issues of racism and calls for racial justice have sparked protests on city streets, college campuses and even pro football fields across the country.
“The mission of reconciliation takes on fresh emphasis today as racism continues to manifest itself in our country, requiring us to strengthen our efforts. We are all aware of incidents both national and closer to home that call attention to the continuing racial tensions in our society,” Cardinal Wuerl wrote, noting that the nation’s Catholic bishops have established an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism made up of clergy, laywomen and laymen “to speak out against this divisive evil that leave great harm in its wake.”
The cardinal added that, “It is our faith that calls us to see each other as members of God’s family. It is our faith that calls us to confront and overcome racism.”
Citing the story of creation from the book of Genesis in the Bible and Catholic teaching in The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the equality and human dignity of all people, Cardinal Wuerl noted, “What makes us equal before God and what should make us equal in dignity before each other is that we are all sisters and brothers of one another, because we are all children of the same loving God who brought us into being.”
Racism, he said, is a “sin against our neighbor” that offends God and goes against the unity of the body of Christ, a unity that all Christians share by means of their Baptism
The letter was also issued in November, when the Catholic Church celebrates Black Catholic History Month. The cardinal noted how the “stain of racism” has affected people in every continent throughout history, often manifesting itself in marginalization, discrimination and oppression to indigenous people or newcomers.
But the cardinal added that, “in our homeland, the most profound and extensive evidence of racism lies in the sin of centuries of human trafficking, enslavement, segregation and the lingering effects experienced by African-American men, women and children.”
Noting how Saint John Paul II in the Great Jubilee Year asked for the recognition of sins committed by members of the Church during its history, Cardinal Wuerl said, “Today we need to acknowledge past sins of racism and, in a spirit of reconciliation, move towards a Church and society where the wounds of racism are healed. In this process, we need to go forward in the light of faith, embracing all of those around us, realizing that those wounded by the sin of racism should never be forgotten.”
The cardinal then pointed out, “At the same time, we acknowledge the witness of African-American Catholics who through eras of enslavement, segregation and societal racism have remained steadfastly faithful. We also recognize the enduring faith of immigrants who have not always felt welcome in the communities they now call home.”
The Challenge of Racism Today marked the 10th pastoral letter that Cardinal Wuerl has issued as archbishop of Washington, following earlier letters on topics including supporting and strengthening Catholic education, upholding Catholic identity in challenging times, finding a spiritual home in the Church, sharing the Catholic faith with others, and relying on God’s mercy in the sacrament of Confession.
Cardinal Wuerl opened his new pastoral letter noting how he sees the diverse face of the Catholic Church as he celebrates Mass in churches throughout the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes more than 620,000 Catholics in the city of Washington and in the suburbs and rural countryside of five surrounding Maryland counties.
“On almost any Sunday, we can join neighbors and newcomers from varied backgrounds,” the cardinal wrote. “We take great pride in the coming together for Mass of women and men, young and old, from so many lands, ethnic heritages and cultural traditions. Often we can point to this unity as a sign of the power of grace to bring people together.”
He also noted the pioneering efforts of Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, who soon after taking the shepherd’s staff as Washington’s first resident archbishop in 1948, began integrating Catholic schools in the archdiocese, years before the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that outlawed segregated schools. Cardinal O’Boyle also offered the invocation at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream" speech.
Cardinal Wuerl said his pastoral letter underscored the Catholic teaching on racial justice and equality shared and expressed over the years by every archbishop of Washington.
“It is in continuity with that same teaching… that I ask us to reflect on and emphasize anew the importance of dialogue on how we can confront racism today,” the cardinal wrote.
Racism, the cardinal noted, continues to manifest itself in many ways, as it is experienced personally, in institutions or in society. “Often racism is both learned from others and born of ignorance from not interacting with people who are from a different culture and ethnic heritage,” he wrote, adding, “…The pain it causes in people’s lives is very real.”
Cardinal Wuerl said people’s diversity enriches the Church and our world, and responding to Christ’s love should inspire Christians to work for solidarity.
“As we struggle to remove the attitudes that nurture racism and the actions that express it, we must show how the differences we find in skin color, national origin or cultural diversity are enriching,” he wrote. “…Equality does not mean uniformity. Rather each person should be seen in his or her uniqueness as a reflection of the glory of God and a full, complete member of the human family.”
The cardinal said all of the parishes and schools in the archdiocese seek “to provide a welcoming and inclusive home for all. We must all seek to affirm and rejoice in the gift of our diversity,” he said. “Such a task is underscored in our archdiocesan-wide trainings in intercultural competency for parishes, schools, programs for our seminarians, and newly ordained priests to be better able to serve culturally and ethnically diverse communities.”
The archdiocese’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach is engaged in that work to celebrate the heritage of the diverse members of this family of faith, including through its annual Masses to mark the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to celebrate Black Catholic History Month, and its Walk with Mary pilgrimage and Mass inviting Catholics to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe as the patroness of the Americas.
Cardinal Wuerl noted that the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities and Spanish Catholic Center “provide a helping and welcoming hand to all who need it,” through a range of services that include housing and family assistance, medical and dental care, legal services and job training.
The archdiocese’s Catholic schools seek to provide children from all backgrounds with an academically excellent education marked by a strong Catholic identity rooted in Gospel virtues of respect for the dignity of all people, the cardinal said, adding that archdiocesan and parish efforts to expand tuition assistance help increase educational opportunities for students, as do government programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and Maryland’s BOOST scholarship program.
The cardinal also noted that parishes “can follow Pope Francis’s example in promoting a spirit of dialogue and encounter with others,” by confronting the evil of racism and by promoting unity and understanding through homilies and prayers at Mass, and by promoting related parish adult education programs and evangelization efforts that welcome people of every race, culture and nationality.
Washington’s archbishop underscored the need for addressing the effects of racism in the realms of housing, employment, public education, and the criminal justice system, and he said religious faith has an important role in confronting the key challenges of today, especially in standing resolutely for the dignity of all human life.
“Without God and the sense of right and wrong that religious convictions engender, we will never adequately confront racism,” he said.
Eliminating racism might seem “too great a task for any one of us or even for the whole Church,” Cardinal Wuerl wrote at the conclusion of the pastoral letter, adding, “Yet we place our confidence in the Lord. In Christ, we are brothers and sisters to one another. With Christ, we stand in the Spirit of justice, love and peace.” And he said on that journey, “we make our way with faith in God’s grace, with hope in our own determination, and above all with love for each other as children of God.”
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.