Bishop calls racism a serious offense against God and grave sin against love and justice
In response to outbreaks of racial tension and violence across America following the death of George Floyd in May, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend addressed the topic of racism with a prayer service aimed at young people. The service took place Sept. 9 at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne and was livestreamed to other Catholic schools in the diocese. Additionally, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked that dioceses around the country acknowledge Sept. 9 as a day of fasting and prayer for peace and an end to racism.
Bishop Rhoades chose the feast day of St. Peter Claver, the patron saint of interracial justice, for the service. Prior to organizing it, he had met with the diocesan Black Catholic Advisory Board to receive their insights concerning racial justice and the Church’s responsibility to combat racism. Deacon Mel Tardy, chairman of the board, joined Bishop Rhoades at the high school for the prayer.
The bishop offered a bit of background about St. Peter Claver. A Spanish Jesuit, St. Peter Claver came to Cartagena, Colombia, in 1610, which at that time was the center of the African slave trade. He served the newly arrived slaves — nearly 1,000 of them every day — by boarding the ships, entering their dank and fetid holds to minister to those in the atrocious bonds of slavery.
“There he became known as ‘the apostle to the slaves’ and ‘the slave of the slaves.’ For 44 years, he served the physical and spiritual needs of the slaves,” said Bishop Rhoades. “Besides caring for their physical and medical needs, he sought to meet their spiritual needs by teaching them about God and their dignity as human beings created in God’s image.”
The dignity of each human person was woven throughout the service. The chosen reading was from 1 Corinthians 12, which speaks of each member of the Church as part of the body of Christ, all dependent on each other to make up the whole. Bishop Rhoades reiterated this when he said: “In solidarity, we are called to share the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have been wounded by the evil of racism. Their wounds are the wounds of the whole Church. If any member of the Body of Christ is suffering, whether they’re white, black or brown, we are all responsible for that member.”
He spoke of the evil of racism in America and how it is the antithesis of love. “In this service, we are praying for racial justice. Pope Benedict XVI taught that if we want to exercise Christian love toward others, we must first treat them with justice. If we do not treat others justly, we are not loving them, and if we are not loving them, we are not loving God.”
He also reminded those listening that “racism is a pro-life issue,” pointing out that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was known for a racist mindset. Many of the organization’s abortion clinics are deliberately located in neighborhoods that have large racial minority populations.
Regarding recent violence that has erupted throughout the nation, Bishop Rhoades referenced Pope Francis and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom denounced such violence as detrimental to defeating racism.
He called upon the young people present, in person and via livestream, to aid in this struggle.
“I have great hope in you as participants in the battle to overcome racism in our society. You are vital members of the Body of Christ and the Church needs your witness to the sanctity and dignity of life and to the equality of all people … I pray that all our schools will be shining examples of unity in diversity; communities animated by the love of Christ.”
He closed by invoking the aid of St. Peter Claver and expressing his hope that the six Black candidates for canonization in the U.S. will soon become recognized saints. Deacon Tardy then added a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
The junior and senior classes at Bishop Luers were in attendance in the school’s gymnasium, while other students watched in their classrooms. The video production class at Bishop Luers assisted with the production of the livestream, a first for them. Students from the school also served as lectors and cantors for the event.
Principal Jim Huth said he felt incredibly proud to host this important event at his school. Of the bishop choosing the high school as the staging ground for the service, he stated: “It’s a sign of him knowing who we are as a school and as a family. We are the most diverse Catholic high school in the diocese, currently running about 30% Hispanic/Latino, 20% African American and 50% Caucasian. I think out of respect for the diversity of our school he made the decision to come here, and I appreciate that.”
Huth applauded the bishop’s intentions and the students’ reaction to the prayer service. “The message is good for our kids to hear. Every day I watch them interact with each other, and they’re respectful and take care of each other. We call this place a family, and it is a family; but it’s always good to rehear the message and understand that it’s not that way everywhere.”
Regarding the ideal of racial harmony, Huth said, “If you want to watch it happen in reality, come and watch us.”
Dr. Joseph Brettnacher, superintendent of Catholic schools, was also in attendance. He commented on the bishop’s reflection on the life of St. Peter Claver and how the saint is a role model for the students to emulate.
“The students learned how they could, as Christians, join in solidarity to peacefully serve those who are victims of the evils of racism in today’s society. Bishop Rhoades said to our students that to love our neighbor as we do ourselves, we must do our part to try and eliminate racism and injustice,” Brettnacher emphasized. “It was time well-spent with the Lord in prayer, along with the lessons students learned from Bishop Rhoades during the service.”
In a presentation on race relations Sept. 2 at St. Jude Parish in Fort Wayne, Deacon Tardy stated that Hispanics, Africans and Asians are the fastest-growing populations within the Catholic Church. Bishop Rhoades affirmed the importance of welcoming and appreciating the uniqueness that these groups bring to the body of Christ, the universal Church.
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