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Ongoing conversion and dialogue can lead to racial reconciliation, Cardinal Gregory says

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory (at center) speaks during his Oct. 13, 2022 appearance at Fairfield University in Connecticut as part of that university’s Faith Leaders for Racial Justice Series. Jesuit Father Paul Rourke, Fairfield University’s Vice President for Mission and Ministry, (second from left) joined the cardinal on stage with other members of the university community. (Photo courtesy of Fairfield University)

Catholics – and all people of faith – must engage in the “critically important work” of fighting injustice, racism and other societal ills that prevent people from living in peace and healing, Cardinal Wilton Gregory said in an Oct. 13 address at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

“We have always as Catholic Christians known of our duty to search our hearts and minds in reflection to see if our thoughts and actions reflect the love, mercy, and peace of Jesus’s Gospel message as we seek to build a more equitable and just society for all people,” the cardinal said. “Our challenge is to help our fellow Catholics and non- Catholics understand that each human experience is unique and just as valuable, as any other.”

Cardinal Gregory made his remarks as the inaugural speaker in the Jesuit-run university’s “Faith Leaders for Racial Justice” lecture series.

Calling racism “a disturbing issue that still requires our vigilant attention and focus until we can see measurable and acceptable levels of justice for each one of our brothers and sisters,” Cardinal Gregory called it “fitting that we, as a Church, discuss the important topic of racism within the context of our faith.”

He acknowledged that while the Catholic Church “has been at the forefront of racial reconciliation and racial justice for many years … we have not overcome all obstacles of injustice even within the Church herself.”

“The institutional Church has openly acknowledged the racism of its past and is atoning daily across the globe in our communities,” he said. “We must continue to acknowledge the pain of a difficult history while intentionally doing things differently in our present and future life as a Church community.”

Cardinal Gregory called on the Church to recognize “our neighbors from various cultures are a ‘gift’ … and our various cultures should be represented and reflected in all we do including participation in our liturgies, our institutions, and all areas of parish and ministry life. To overcome the sin of racism, we must make our parishes and ministries deliberate places of genuine hospitality and welcome in order to counter the pain of the past where hospitality was intentionally not extended to all people inside our Catholic places of worship.”

The cardinal said the faithful “are called to model Christ in our society in every way we can,” and can be guided to do so by following Catholic social teaching, which he called “an incredibly valuable part of our faith.”

“The Church's social teaching is precious wisdom to instruct us in building a just society and living lives of holiness as we confront the challenges of society,” Cardinal Gregory said. “We are called by our Baptism to proclaim the Gospel, which affirms that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and is loved by the Father.”

Cardinal Gregory lamented what he called “a unique and tense time in our history” and pointed to the war in Ukraine, the damage of multiple weather events such as the recent hurricanes, “the continued racial reckoning in our own nation that includes repeated news headlines of African American young men and women experiencing frequent and too often unprovoked incidents of police brutality” and “our Latino brothers and sisters not being welcomed or assisted.”

“We are bombarded with the negative heaviness of it all as it becomes painfully clear that we are not caring for our neighbor… We see these things happening all around us and know that we cannot sit by and just let them continue,” he said. “…We are called to have to give to witness to our religious traditions in this world that sends a contrary message that people who are different in any way from us are permitted to be unloved and openly mistreated.”

He said “the urgent response” is to remember “that every person in our news headlines is worthy of respect and should be treated with the dignity they possess as the children of God that they are.”

He also criticized what he called a “breakdown in civility and respect (that) is threatening our unity and hampering our ability to address the myriad of issues we are facing – such as institutional racism, police brutality, gun violence, and respect for the dignity of every human life, especially the most vulnerable.”

“Our ability to communicate and speak honestly with one another to engage in meaningful and healthy conversation is diminishing, and it is costing us our well-being,” he said. “As people of faith and faith leaders, it is our responsibility to address … all inequalities we see – as we pray, work, and always promote peace in a world full of hostility and conflict.”

Cardinal Gregory urged the faithful to familiarize themselves with Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship. The pope issued Fratelli Tutti (“All Brothers”) in October 2020 as a call for the world to reject racism and war and strive toward global fraternity and solidarity.

The encyclical “opens our hearts to truly accompany one another as we listen and journey together – regardless of race, income, or country of origin,” the cardinal said, adding that it “reminds us to approach dialogue with the framework of compassion, integrity, mercy, and the recognition of each person’s dignity because they are made in the Image of God.”

He suggested the faithful “review and reflect” on Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, the pastoral letter against racism that was issued in 2018 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.   (USCCB).

“I encourage you to spend some time with it and allow it to focus your prayer on what more you can do,” he said.  “Each of us is asked to examine our conscience and to be honest about our individual attitudes about race. In the Open Wide Our Hearts Pastoral Letter on Racism it speaks about how we should love justice.”

He said that racism can be defeated if the faithful “experience ongoing conversion to live the Gospel message and work for justice. When our brothers and sisters are treated unjustly because of their country of origin or subjected to structural racism due to the color of their skin or discriminated against because of a disability or anything else – we are called to proclaim the Gospel message,” he said.

Cardinal Gregory said that while “history and modern-day events show both progress and work still needing to be done when it comes to respecting life and the value of every individual,” it is through respectful dialogue and encounters with people of various cultures, races, religions, abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds that people will learn “to appreciate the beauty and diversity of the people God has created.”

“We are on a journey as a human family, and I have great hope that we will experience racial reconciliation in our ongoing conversion through honest and respectful dialogue,” Cardinal Gregory said. “With this and our rededicated commitment to progress, led by our devotion to prayer and active work to end racism and division, we will get there.”