By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
During the Bishops’ Conference this past November it was a crowning moment to introduce Sister Thea’s Cause for Canonization following the overwhelming approval of the new Pastoral Letter against Racism: “Open Wide Our Hearts—The Enduring Call to Love.” Because of the legacy of racism in our nation against the Native American and the African American especially, but also the deep -rooted prejudice against many immigrant populations since our nation’s earliest days, each generation of Americans is challenged to labor toward liberty and justice for all.
One preeminent way to overcome the legacy of the racial divide and the lurking racism sustaining it, is through education. In celebrating Catholic Schools we proudly recognize that the Catholic Diocese of Jackson – through our schools – has lifted many out of the hopelessness of poverty and illiteracy. The Daughters of Charity, at the invitation of Bishop John Joseph Chanche, the first bishop of the then Diocese of Natchez, came in 1847 as missionary disciples to begin the legacy of Catholic School education in Mississippi. The great command of Jesus Christ to “go and teach all nations, making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was the loving vitality of their mission.
Among their students were the children of slaves. The three pillars of our diocesan vision to embrace diversity — serve others — inspire disciples have been living stones in our Catholic School communities for these past 172 years evident in the many branches of the European and African-American populations. Remember that Sister Thea realized her God-given potential through the dedication of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. This Servant of God continues to inspire through her Cause for Canonization that disperses far and wide her passionate holiness and her hunger and thirst for justice and inclusion for her people and all marginalized populations. The proud legacy of Catholic School education continues today, and considerable effort currently is being applied for the recruitment of our Hispanic Catholic students.
As the Church in the United States studies and puts into action “Open Wide Our Hearts — The Enduring Call to Love,” we do so in light of the tragedies and triumphs in Mississippi and throughout our country. The Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, just over one year young, preserves the reality of hatred, violence and racism during the Civil Rights Era. It also recognizes and cherishes the sacrifices and commitment of people of all races and backgrounds to achieve our nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all. Finally, it sits like a bulwark that announces to all that the citizens of Mississippi will remain unmoved in the fight for racial justice for all peoples.
However, once again today the fault lines of racial, ethnic and sectional division and distrust have fractured civil discourse and constructive social action. “Open Our Hearts — The Enduring Call to Love” challenges Catholics, all Christians and citizens to intentionally step aside from the vitriol that has reared its ugly head in the mainstream media, on social media, and in our homes in order to recognize and work against the demons of racism and prejudice. Through study, reflection and dialogue we must reconcile the brutality of near genocide that overwhelmed our Native American populations, the inhumanity of chattel slavery that decimated the African American population and the prejudices and injustices that have afflicted many ethnic groups, in particular the Latino population in our day.
We are not called as Christians to wallow in the shame of our sinful history, but rather to reconcile it at a much deeper level so that we can move forward as a nation, freer and more united, truly ‘e pluribus unum.’
“We cannot, therefore, look upon the progress against racism in recent decades and conclude that our current situation meets the standard of justice. In fact, God demands what is right and just.” (Pastoral against racism)
“Open Our Hearts” asks the question, “how do we overcome the evil of rejecting a brother or sister’s humanity, the same evil that provoked Cain’s sin against his brother Abel? What are the necessary steps that would lead to this conversion?” The bishops point to the enduring words of the prophet Micah. “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God (Mi 6,8).”
For Catholics genuine conversion requires that we live by the greatest commandment as taught by Jesus Christ. “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. (Mt 22, 37-39).” “When we begin to separate people in our thoughts for unjust reasons, when we start to see some people as “them” and others as “us” we fail to love. The command to love requires us to make room for others in our hearts (Pastoral against Racism).”
With passion and eloquence the bishops invoke our commitment to Life in combating racism. “The injustice and harm racism causes are an attack on human life. The Church in the United States has spoken out consistently and forcefully against abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, the death penalty and other forms of violence that threaten human life. It is not a secret that these attacks on human life have severely affected people of color, who are disproportionately affected by poverty, targeted for abortion, have less access to healthcare, have the greatest number on death row and are most likely to feel pressure to end their lives when facing serious illness. As bishops, we unequivocally state that racism is a life issue.”
Finally, as a people of hope in Jesus Christ, let us give thanks to all who labor to create communities of life, justice and peace, through education, service, empowerment and advocacy on many fronts, because their efforts bear fruit that will last. “Brothers and sisters, be on your guard, stand firm in faith, be courageous, be strong. Your every act should be done with love. (1Cor 16, 13-14)
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz