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Knowing each other’s history is vital in fighting racism and healing America, Cardinal Gregory says

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory gives a keynote address at a March 20, 2021 conference at Nativity Parish in Burke, Virginia, that examined how the Catholic Church can confront the sin of racism and promote racial harmony and justice. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

In a major address on confronting the sin of racism and working for racial harmony, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory – the nation’s first African American cardinal – said a “healing of America’s soul” is needed.

“We need a national reconciliation – a healing of America’s soul from the torment of oppression and hated. We need to forgive one another for all of those things that belong to the past so that we can move into a better more hopeful tomorrow,” Cardinal Gregory said at a March 20 conference at Nativity Parish in Burke, Virginia, sponsored by the Diocese of Arlington’s Peace & Justice Commission.

Washington’s archbishop underscored the need for racial and multicultural understanding, saying, “When we approach one another’s history, we stand on holy ground.”

The first step of valuing cultural diversity, he said, begins “with the reverence that is due to the history of a people,” and he said that history must be explored with an open mind, adding that he strongly endorses cross-cultural educational opportunities. He noted that the United States is a nation of immigrants, including some who were brought to these shores in chains.

“Racism is only able to survive as long as there is ignorance. Racism grows only in the soil of ignorance and unfamiliarity. We must be brave enough to acknowledge the savage realities that history may hold. That is why cross-cultural opportunities for all people are an herbicide for the unchecked growth of racism,” Cardinal Gregory said, adding, “The more that we know about history the less likely we may be to repeat its failures. The appreciation of a culture's history is a primary step in the eradication of racism.”

The cardinal said it remains difficult for people to discuss racism.

“It is still one of the most awkward issues about which one can ever speak!  You know the ‘R’ word!  We still stumble about trying to find expressions to admit that we are not completely healed of racism as a nation, he said.

But racism is real and sometimes deadly, and Cardinal Gregory noted the March 16 murders of six Asian American women working in spas in the Atlanta area.

“Within the past few days, we have been faced with the hatred and violence that Asian-Americans have endured with increased intensity since the beginning of the global pandemic, and now the horrific killing of Asian women in the Atlanta community reminds us that we still have serious racial problems that continue to plague our national harmony and unity,” he said.

The United States of America was founded on noble ideals of human equality, principles that through its history and today have not been translated into the everyday lives of all of its diverse people, Washington’s archbishop said.

“Let’s face it, we have a long way to go before we truly reflect the ‘E pluribus Unum,’ that our currency so proudly proclaims,” the cardinal said, later adding, “In attempting to bring to reality the words of the great seal of the United States: E pluribus Unum, the Unum [one] does not supplant or deny the pluribus [many], it becomes a new reality of oneness and strength because of the many who enhance it by their diversity.”

The conference’s title, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love” was drawn from the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism, and then-Archbishop Gregory was scheduled to speak to the gathering one year ago, before the pandemic caused its postponement.

Noting that he was delighted to speak at the conference during his first official visit to the Diocese of Arlington, which he said has a “proud heritage and faithful commitment to racial justice and diversity,” Cardinal Gregory opened his remarks by joking that “I feel like I’m preaching to the choir on occasions like this,” since it was doubtful that there were any racists in the audience.

But he said it is important to talk about racial healing, even when it means “preaching to the choir, quite simply because the task of peace building here and in too many other communities is yet to be achieved and even the choir needs a good rehearsal or a practice now and then.” 

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory gives his keynote presentation at the March 20 “Opening Wide our Hearts” conference at  Nativity Parish in Burke, Virginia. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The cardinal added, “Racial healing is an aspiration that will only be possible because of the ceaseless attention of all of people of good will who believe in the value and significance of living harmoniously in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society.”

He said that “the issue of race is never very far from the dimension of any of our lives in America,” and he noted, “Part of our healing will depend upon our ability to recognize diversity as a positive reality.”

Cardinal Gregory, who titled his talk, “Seeing with the Eyes of Christ,” emphasized how confronting racism and promoting racial harmony is a work of faith.

“The Catholic Church, because we are Catholic, has the responsibility to call all of our people to see with the eyes of Christ,” he said. “We are obliged to challenge our society and any institution within society that supports, defends, or promotes racism or inter-cultural hostility.  An important component of our Christian identity is our ability to be peacemakers.”

Washington’s archbishop pointed out how the Book of Genesis in the Bible tells the story of how “God fashions a whole universe with splendid variety and repeatedly pauses in the midst of His creative accomplishments to make an obviously self-satisfied reflection that ‘it was very good.’… Part of the message of our Judeo-Christian religious heritage is that God’s elegant wonder is best experienced in the diversity of His creation.”

That diversity should be recognized as an important component and a strength of our nation, the cardinal said, adding, “Our national unity is not predicated on all of us being exactly alike so much as it is on sharing common goals, a national purpose, and an acceptance of our differences as an advantage rather than a liability.”

Cardinal Gregory called on Catholics and people of all faiths to confront racism.

“The ecumenical and interfaith community in our region needs to continue to reassert its pastoral responsibility in challenging its faithful to accept the dictates of the Gospel and the tenets of our various religious principles and moral teaching in rejecting all forms of racism, bigotry and injustice,” he said. “Above all, those in pastoral leadership ought to encourage the fainthearted, the timid, and the hesitant souls to be brave in standing up to counter the subtle and occasionally not so subtle forms of intolerance.”

Working for racial justice has been a hallmark of Cardinal Gregory’s leadership. In August 2020 at a Mass of Peace and Justice at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle marking the 57th anniversary of  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Wshington, then-Archbishop Gregory  announced the launching of the Archdiocese of Washington’s initiative, “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism.”

That initiative includes a wide range of pastoral activities and outreach including prayer, listening sessions, faith formation opportunities and social justice work.

In his keynote address, Cardinal Gregory praised the Catholic Church’s work over the years in pursuing interracial justice and harmony, but added, “I know that we have a long way to go.”

Efforts like the Virginia conference are vital as the Church works to build racial harmony, the cardinal said as he addressed the people gathered in the school gymnasium at Nativity Parish who wore face masks and sat at social distances in accord with safety guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“I have found gatherings such as this one a hopeful expression of a desire to know one another better,” Cardinal Gregory said.  “In many respects, these types of gatherings are the most encouraging ones for our Catholic community because we gather not in the heat of crisis but in the calm of desire for an improved racial climate in our community.”

Racial harmony, he said, “is not simply a gracious hope, it is the only way that our nation will continue to advance toward its own constitutional ideals,” and he added that simply working for racial tolerance is not enough, because “tolerance cannot build a united society.”

Cardinal Gregory said that calling people by the titles that they call themselves, like Native Americans or people with disabilities, is a key way to show respect. Americans must face volatile topics like violence against minorities, immigration laws and gender equality, he said, also adding, “We need to tone down our rhetoric, especially in today’s climate.”

This past year, Washington’s archbishop praised the witness of young people who stood up and marched for racial justice and for an end to police brutality in the wake of  highly publicized killings of people of color under police custody. 

“I take great comfort when young people increasingly have been willing to take public and often controversial stands to ensure that our tomorrows will be better than our yesterdays,” Cardinal Gregory said.

An altar server leads a procession at the beginning of the March 20 Peace and Justice Mass at Nativity Church in Burke, Virginia that preceded the conference. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Before the conference, Cardinal Gregory celebrated a Mass at Nativity Church. The conference also included a question and answer session with Cardinal Gregory and Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, and panel discussion by three members of the Diocese of Arlington who discussed how Catholics and parishes can confront racism and build racial harmony: Emelda August, a parishioner of Holy Family Parish in Dale City, Virginia, who participates in the Black History & Heritage Outreach Ministry there; Alexandra Luevano, the program director for the Mother of Mercy Free Medical Clinic operated by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington; and Jose Aguto, the associate director of the Catholic Climate Covenant. (see upcoming story)

In his keynote, Cardinal Gregory said the concern of children about this issue is one of the hopeful signs he has witnessed in his years as a bishop.

“Our children sense that something is not right when white and black and brown children are infected by hatreds and mistrust that they cannot understand,” he said.

The cardinal said he remains optimistic about the work to build respect and understanding among people, saying, “Racial harmony is a persistent, tranquil, and uninterrupted presence in our nation and through its diligence and determination, it will help us all better understand one another – and please God even love one another as we are in our differences and uniqueness.”

Cardinal Gregory closed his talk with the cautionary tale of Narcissus, a figure from Greek mythology who was so in love with his own image that he fell into a pool of water while transfixed by his own reflection and drowned.

“Racism blinds us to the beauty of others and often makes an idol of our own reflection,” he said. “While the Greeks told this story to lament the fate of poor Narcissus, we have too many examples of people who find it impossible to love others who are not an image of themselves.  They too are hopelessly drowning in their own egos and will be lost not only to others but also eventually to their very selves.”