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In talk to Yale students, Cardinal Gregory says rejecting racism is how to ‘live the way we were intended to live by the Creator’

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory speaks during his Feb. 3 Black History Month talk on “Race and the Catholic Church” sponsored by the St. Thomas More Catholic Community at Yale University. During the talk, he said “the mission of the Catholic Church is to serve all of God’s children regardless of their ethnicity, culture, immigration status, race, or religion.” (Screen capture by Richard Szczepanowski)

When people “reject all forms of racism, bigotry, and injustice” and recognize that “we are each made by God and are deserving of respect and dignity because of just that,” then mankind will “live the way we were intended to live by the Creator,” Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory said in a Feb. 3 address.

“We each are called to reach beyond ourselves – that which is comfortable and familiar. As a human family, we are to be a good neighbor to one another,” Cardinal Gregory said. “This is the only way to bring about true justice for all American and global citizens.”

Speaking on “Race and the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Gregory delivered his remarks during a Black History Month address sponsored by the St. Thomas More Catholic Community at Yale University.

Because of the ongoing pandemic, the address was delivered via Zoom.

“I wish we were together in-person,” he said, because “I believe conversations about race are best had in-person so we can encounter one another as sisters and brothers created in the image and likeness of the Lord, the Creator of the human family.”

Lamenting that “racism, intolerance and discrimination come in a variety of forms – both overt and covert,” Cardinal Gregory noted that when the faithful are open to racial diversity, “they see the inherent beauty of God’s creation in the mosaic of skin tones, facial expressions, cultures and ethnicities.”

Pointing out that “some of the very first Catholics (in this country) included free Black Catholics, who arrived from Protestant England on the Eastern Shores of Maryland in 1634,” he said, “despite this fact, in the Catholic Church we do not have a story of unity or history of mutual respect.”

“We are a Church and a nation of immigrants who willingly or unwilling fled to or were brought to these shores – some in chains and in bondage,” Cardinal Gregory said. “Racism is sometimes seen as America’s original sin, and the reality of America’s original sin has denied or limited many African Americans from living out their calling to become full members of the Catholic Church as priests or religious and certainly, to fully attend or teach in higher education.”

Acknowledging “polarization both inside the Catholic Church and in our wider society,” Cardinal Gregory pointed out that society is “experiencing a generally-accepted, pervasive negative brashness.”

“There is often acceptance of openly, unapologetic racist language, hostility, and consistently uncivil behavior,” he said. “Civility is no longer a treasured American virtue we agree to live by. Civility does not come naturally to any of us, but it is a quality that can be cultivated. Civility, charity and service are needed in order for us to successfully work toward common ground that benefits all.”

He said that during “Black History Month and every month, we must work hard to practice civility in our challenging discussions about race and every other issue that touches our families and our communities. The mission of the Catholic Church is to serve all of God’s children regardless of their ethnicity, culture, immigration status, race, or religion.”

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory smiles as he addresses “Race and the Catholic Church” during a Feb. 3 Black History Month talk on “Race and the Catholic Church” sponsored by the St. Thomas More Catholic Community at Yale University. While the talk was held via Zoom, the cardinal said he believes “conversations about race are best had in-person so we can encounter one another as sisters and brothers.” (Screen capture by Richard Szczepanowski)

Departing from his prepared remarks, Cardinal Gregory responded to questions posed by Yale’s St. Thomas More Catholic group and its African American Ministry.

Speaking of how the Church can reconcile its past of racism, colonialism and slave ownership, Cardinal Gregory said “we must admit our involvement and admit the sins we have shared in, maybe not personally, but we inherit the legacies that that sin has left in its wake.”

“I am very, very proud of the Jesuits in the United States as they are coming to an acceptance and an understanding of their awful selling of slaves to keep Georgetown University and perhaps other Jesuit institutions afloat,’ the cardinal said. “They are expressing a contrition and a desire to do what is right. Reconciliation and retribution are very difficult, but they (the Jesuits) are willing to walk that path.”

Referring to the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love – A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” and other documents in which the bishops of this country have spoken out against racism, Cardinal Gregory said, “we have got to make sure people know” what the bishops have said.

“The bishops have issued a number of statements, many of which have just become overlooked as products that are just put out … they are sincere, but people do not know about them,” he said. “We have to make known all the statements and the good work the bishops have done. We haven’t not done enough, but what we have done is often unknown.”

In August 2020 in a Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral marking the anniversary of the March on Washington, then-Archbishop Gregory launched a new initiative by The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington called “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism.”  The initiative includes a wide range of pastoral activities and outreach for individuals and parishes, including prayer, listening sessions, faith formation opportunities and social justice work.

When Pope Francis appointed then-Archbishop Gregory as the new archbishop of Washington in April 2019 and he was installed in that role the next month, he became the first African American archbishop of Washington. Earlier, he had served as a priest and bishop in Chicago and as the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, and as the archbishop of Atlanta. In November 2020, Pope Francis elevated Cardinal Gregory to the College of Cardinals, making him the first African American cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.

In his talk to the Yale Catholic community, Cardinal Gregory added that when parishes fail to welcome and acknowledge and embrace people of different ethnic backgrounds or races it is not only “a lack of welcome, but outright hostility.”

“When we are teaching about the nature of sin, we talk about sin as an action, but sometimes sin is an inaction. We tolerate by our inaction the sin of racism,” he said. “What we as Catholics need to do better is to learn how to welcome people.”

Cardinal Gregory said that as the Church currently hosts listening sessions on synodality in preparation for an October 2023 world Synod of bishops, now is the time “for us talk to one another and to listen to one another.”

“We have to listen to our people and invite them to speak from our hearts. Listening does not mean agreeing. It means opening our hearts to hear and listen to those we disagree with,” Cardinal Gregory said. “In the Catholic Church there have always been disagreements – theological disagreements, cultural disagreements. It is not new. But we have to open our hearts and our eyes to reconcile and unify the Church in all of its fullness.”

He said welcoming persons of varied ethnicities or cultures or colors into a parish “is more than simply tolerating people.”

“Our welcome must be an aggressive and straightforward desire to say, ‘We want you here, not to become as we are, but to come as you are’,” Cardinal Gregory said. “We have to say, ‘You have a place at the Lord’s table, and we are enriched to welcome and accept you as you are.’”

He said since “the celebration of the Eucharist is the heart of our identity as Catholics, people learn about one another – to sing the music and to enjoy the expression of other cultures – in our worship. The wonderful thing about the Roman Liturgy is that it is adaptable. It welcomes other elements into the celebration of our worship, and that enriches us.”

“We don’t worship with tolerance, we worship with welcome,” he said, adding that “the Catholic Church has a platform to speak about racism. It is called our teaching, our preaching and our work in social justice, our supporting Catholic schools in neighborhoods with students who are predominately non-Catholics.” 

Stressing the Church’s various outreach programs and the work of Catholic Charities, he said, “those are well grounded in Catholic teaching of social justice and theology.”

“To be a good Catholic is not to simply circle the wagons and handle only Catholic issues, but to expand the circle and outreach to those who many not know about the Catholic Church, may not know about Christ, but who are our brothers and sisters,” he said. “These are opportunities to live out Catholicism in a very concrete and generous way. The teaching of our Church compels us to go outside the closeness of just the Catholic family.”

He said Catholic young people can help combat racism and discrimination and work to build a better society.

“Young people are by and large pretty open to new things, and I think we as a Church should capitalize on that youthful willingness,” Cardinal Gregory said. “These issues (of racism, discrimination and social injustice) – you did not create them, you inherited them. What are you going to do to correct them? You can stand up and be engaged and be involved in the work of social justice, charity, compassion and mercy to make the generation after you better.”

He also urged his audience to “encourage the fainthearted, the timid, and any hesitant souls to be brave in standing up to counter the subtle and occasionally not so subtle forms of intolerance.”

He also asked them “to look deeply into the archives of American history and to discover the numerous, often-overlooked contributions of African Americans in every area of our lives.”  

“Regularly exploring history will lead you to the realization that every people has its heroes and heroines, has its triumphs and tragedies, and has its villains and scoundrels. Cultural history will give every group something in which to take pride as well as things that need to be healed,” he said.

Calling Black History Month a time to “promote peace, racial harmony, and social justice instead of fear, harm, and violence,” Cardinal Gregory said it was his wish that as young people learn of “the injustices and indignities suffered and overcome in our American history,” it would inspire “real hope for us all to do the necessary and sometimes challenging work of our time.”

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory listens to a question posed by a student following his Feb. 3 Black History Month talk on “Race and the Catholic Church” sponsored by the St. Thomas More Catholic Community at Yale University. He urged his young audience to “stand up and be engaged and be involved in the work of social justice, charity, compassion and mercy.” (Screen capture by Richard Szczepanowski)