Wuerl Pastoral Urges Catholics To Confront Racism

 

cardinal wuerl

Cardinal Wuerl.

Released in November 2017, “The Challenge of Racism Today,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s timely, welcome, and important pastoral letter to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington urges them to confront “the persistent evil of racism,” with renewed energy and dedication.

The Cardinal asserts today’s divisions are “not part of God’s plan.” He reminds believers all men and women were born in God’s image, and as such, possess an indispensable human dignity. Equal in dignity in God’s sight, we’re called to live as brothers and sisters in the same human family.

Racism is a sin because, as the US Bishops’ 1979 pastoral letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” says, it “divides the human family,” and “blots out the image of God among specific members of that family.”

More than fracturing the solidarity that ought to exist among people, racism is also a sin because, Wuerl says, it supports sinful “systemic social, economic, and political structures.”

The pastoral correctly asserts, racism manifests itself in several guises: personal, institutional, and social. And working to overcome racism requires we change the “attitudes that nurture” it in our own hearts and in our neighbors’ hearts and “the actions that express it.”

Working to overcome racism, Wuerl believes, should lead to greater human unity, which nonetheless acknowledges “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.”

To promote the unity, which disavows racism, Wuerl urges the faithful to “move to the level of Christian solidarity,” a fundamental and ancient Catholic principle, which reflects our persistent “commitment to oneness at work.”

To manifest their renewed dedication to oneness, the Cardinal wants Catholics to embrace Pope Francis’ challenge to promote a “culture of encounter, respect, understanding, and mutual forgiveness.”

Beyond our own hearts and homes, creating this culture will happen first, Wuerl correctly believes, in our parishes. We come to our parish home each Sunday to be restored in our faith.

And, sustained by the Eucharist and God’s words, we are then sent out into the world to live what we have heard in our encounters with our brothers and sisters.

We should also experience this when attempting to live what our Church teaches about racism. As Wuerl says, “the Sunday Eucharist offers a wealth of opportunities to reflect on this issue” for priests to urge parishioners to confront “racist behavior and prejudice.”

Parishes, he says, should also encourage dialogue on racism. Studying the pastoral would be a good way to begin that discussion.

These good suggestions will invigorate parishioners’ work to challenge racism, but more should be done. Acknowledging most parishes aren’t as diverse as they could be, pre-dominantly white parishes should enter into formal relationships with pre-dominantly African American, Latino, or Asian parishes.

These parishes could worship and socialize together and dialogue about finding ways to work together to address racism. Going through an Undoing Racism workshop together will challenge them to move further out of their comfort zones and enrich their relationships and their anti-racism work.

These partnerships will fortify Catholics for the work, which, as Wuerl correctly suggests, must be in done in the community to address racism in housing, the workforce, education, and the criminal justice system among other arenas.

When confronting racism, it’s especially important for Catholics to make the connection between poverty and racism. For instance, African Americans and Latinos are twice as likely to live in poverty as whites. As a consequence, persons of color are much more likely to suffer poor health, and experience shorter life spans.

A lethal combination, poverty and racism kill, which is precisely why the Church, which stands for life, should combat poverty and racism together. Our commitment to end poverty is unmatched, but in the past, our Church’s response to racism was often acquiescent, and inadequate.

Our religious orders owned slaves, our parishes and schools weren’t always fully integrated, and only this year did the USCCB establish its Ad Hoc Committee on Racism. While a welcome development, it should be a standing committee, and should have been established a long time ago.

“The Challenge of Racism Today” presents Washington Catholics an opportunity to demonstrate our Church can do better when fighting racism.

To capitalize on this moment, the Archdiocese should coordinate a campaign, which promulgates the pastoral fully to all parishioners, encouraging them to study and discuss it and reflect and act upon it.

This campaign could become a model, which inspires others to work for “a more perfect union.” This campaign won’t flourish, however, as Wuerl suggests, without God’s help.

And while prefect unity may elude us, we shouldn’t worry about that. As TS Eliot reminds us: “Ours in the trying. The rest is not our business.”

 

 

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Remembering Miss Ellie on the 10th Anniversary of Her Death

Me and Miss Ellie 2

With my mom on my high school graduation day from Georgetown Prep in May 1978.

On the 10th anniversary of my mom Ellen Branson Byrd’s death – October 15, 2007 – one memory recalls her enduring influence upon my life: the day Miss Ellie, as we came to call her, brought me to a red brick row house at the corner of 5th St. NW and Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC in June 1976.

We were there to participate in the celebration for the House of Ruth’s opening: a new community residence for homeless women.

Now a sophisticated non-profit organization with a more than a $7 million budget, which provides housing, daycare and counseling services to 1,000 women and children annually, the House of Ruth back then promised to shelter eight homeless women.

But you wouldn’t have believed this was a modest undertaking by my mom’s enthusiasm, happiness, and pride that day. Like the others actively involved with the event, mom was especially pleased Eunice Kennedy Shriver would be there for the ribbon cutting. 16 then I knew it was a boon to have a Kennedy bless your event.

But I didn’t have quite the same kind of reaction when, with an almost reverential tone, mom introduced me to Dr. Veronica Maz, who founded the House of Ruth. Miss Ellie’s attitude was understandable.

Having also helped start So Others Might Eat (SOME), she was about to launch the House of Ruth and was later instrumental founding Martha’s Table: three organizations, which still fight poverty in the District.

But I didn’t know enough then to be impressed by what Maz had done or was trying to do. I was there because service was important to my mom.

Her devout parents, the Sisters of St. Joseph at Holy Comforter School, and the Visitation Sisters at Georgetown Visitation instilled Miss Ellie with her desire to serve.

The examples of her sisters Sisters Serena and Anna Marie Branson DC – the Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Albany and a missionary in Bolivia respectively – also inspired her to act.

Years later, after my time in the Jesuit Volunteers Corps, and my continued work at Catholic non-profits, and opposing the death penalty, my mom proudly, invariably introduced me as her “peace and justice son.”

But I hadn’t necessarily revealed any inclination then to live a life of service, or expressed any interest in social justice. Perhaps, though Miss Ellie had seen something she wanted to nurture in me by including me that day.

Plus, on a practical level, young and healthy and strong, I was good for lifting and moving things. Which is what I was precisely called upon to do. I don’t possess many memories of that day, but I distinctly recall being asked to carry chairs out to the lawn for the ribbon cutting.

In more than 35 years of organizing conferences, meetings, fundraisers, forums, and celebrations, I have carried, set up, unfolded, and stacked countless chairs for numerous groups in several cities. That day, my mom’s invitation prepared me for my life’s work, and a life of service.

I’m profoundly grateful to Miss Ellie for the seeds she planted that day. They grew into a life lived for others, rooted in her kind of faith and always striving for justice. And, as the old song says: “I won’t take nothing for my journey now.”

JP and Miss Ellie Wedding 1

July 19,1949. Her wedding day.

My mom continued to serve. She was on the House of Ruth’s first Board of Directors, and soon after that she was one of the first graduates of the Archdiocese of Washington’s lay ministry formation program Education for Parish Service. For several years after that, she enjoyed teaching CCD at her parish, Little Flower.

In later years, mom’s focus turned toward re-entering the workforce, tending to my dad as his health rapidly deteriorated from emphysema, and caring for her grandchildren. That service limited Miss Ellie’s community service, but she remained curious about and engaged in the world.

She read “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times” and wanted to know what the Pope, the Bishops, leading Theologians, and political commentators thought of the day’s issues.

And mom often ran late for Sunday mass because she couldn’t tear herself away from “Meet the Press,” with “that nice Catholic” Tim Russert. While others preferred reading Stephen King novels before going to bed, Miss Ellie liked contemporary Theology books, and urged her children to read her favorites.

Mom also cultivated Jesuits as friends and advisors, and was particularly devoted to the Visitation sisters, often returning to Visitation to attend alumna events, Days of Reflection, and of course, mass in their chapel.

She finally took a special interest in my work. And compiling a scrapbook of my publications, she became my biggest fan. And, I trust, as she enters her second decade in her true home, Miss Ellie roots me on still.

 

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