In 2018, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: the Enduring Call to Love,” to address systemic racism and the responsibility of Catholics to call out racism in our midst and peacefully advocate for change.

Today, our nation is in turmoil, struggling with these same issues of racism that have for too long festered and infected our institutions that were meant to protect people and administer justice. The polarizing positions and violence erupting in our cities leave many feeling helpless in a situation that calls for unity, understanding and solutions based on listening and dialogue, not violence.

As Catholics, what can we do? This pastoral letter is a good place to begin the process of understanding what racism is and how our faith calls us to respond.

“Racism occurs because a person ignores the fundamental truth that, because all humans share a common origin, they are all brothers and sisters, all equally made in the image of God,” the bishops wrote. “When this truth is ignored, the consequence is prejudice and fear of the other, and — all too often — hatred. Cain forgets this truth in his hatred of his brother. Recall the words in the First Letter of John: ‘Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him’ (1 Jn 3:15). Racism shares in the same evil that moved Cain to kill his brother.”

As Christians, the bishops’ letter challenges us to recognize and weed out racism first from our own hearts: “It has no place in the Christian heart. This evil causes great harm to its victims, and it corrupts the souls of those who harbor racist or prejudicial thoughts. The persistence of the evil of racism is why we are writing this letter now. People are still being harmed, so action is still needed.”

Nearly two years after the bishops’ letter, people of color still are being harmed, still being killed, and we cannot ignore this disregard for human life. While many of us would like to believe we are not racist, the bishops said it “can often be found in our hearts — in many cases placed there unwillingly or unknowingly by our upbringing and culture. As such, it can lead to thoughts and actions that we do not even see as racist, but nonetheless flow from the same prejudicial root.”

If we do not start by rooting out racism first from our own hearts, then “consciously or subconsciously, this attitude of superiority” will spread, they wrote. We can already see how pervasive it is in our society when, as they said, “certain groups of people are vilified, called criminals, or are perceived as being unable to contribute to society, even unworthy of its benefits. …The cumulative effects of personal sins of racism have led to social structures of injustice and violence that make us all accomplices in racism.”

As Christians, we must also listen and know the stories of our hurting 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, if we are to be moved with empathy to promote justice,” the bishops wrote.

This pastoral letter from the bishops called for a genuine conversion of heart, a conversion that will compel change and the reform of our institutions and society. “Conversion is a long road to travel for the individual. Moving our nation to a full realization of the promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all is even more challenging. However, in Christ we can find the strength and the grace necessary to make that journey,” they wrote.

Recently, some diocesan staff participated in the “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call for Love” study guide: usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/racism/upload/study-guide-open-hearts-2019-09.pdf. The study guide seeks to open hearts wide through prayerful engagement with this letter and invites all who participate to pray, listen, study, reflec, and respond. This study guide and the resources within are designed to complement the pastoral letter and will aid in grasping the spirit and intent of the letter.

“The Christian community should draw from this central, ongoing encounter with Christ and seek to combat racism with love,” the bishops wrote.

The guide stresses that “we must begin with listening through prayer if we are to hear how God is truly calling us to respond in love. Prayer can open our hearts to conversion, even in unexpected places.” And only through genuine listening can we know the stories of our brothers and sisters and be moved to empathy and justice.

The guide is divided into several sections that refer to the letter and additional background on racism for various races, including Native Americans, Hispanics and the Black community.  This allows for the study and reflection of our current situation based on our history and a thoughtful conversation of how each one of us is called to respond.

What is Racism?

Do Justice

Love Goodness

Walk Humbly with God

Each section includes probing questions to prompt conversation which at times can be uncomfortable but necessary for genuine dialogue and understanding of the systemic issues that have developed over decades and may not be obvious to many that are not directly impacted.

It is a place to begin the conversion necessary to face our current racial issues with unity and the love of Christ in our hearts.

“We cannot, therefore, look upon the progress against racism in recent decades and conclude that our current situation meets the standard of justice,” the bishops wrote. “In fact, God demands what is right and just.”

To read the entire pastoral letter visit: usccb.org/issues-and-/human-life-and-dignity/racism/upload/open-wide-our-hearts.pdf

“Open Wide Our Hearts,” Study Guide: www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/racism/upload/study-guide-open-hearts-2019-09.pdf.

—Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.

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We must pray together for the will and the strength to help contribute to the healing of racism in our time.

Prayer

God of Heaven and Earth, you created the one human family and endowed each person with great dignity.

Aid us, we pray, in overcoming the sin of racism. Grant us your grace in eliminating this blight from our hearts, our communities, our social and civil institutions.

Fill our hearts with love for you and our neighbor so that we may work with you in healing our land from racial injustice.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

 

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