Prayer service on poverty and racism

The reading from the prophet Micah calls us to do works of justice. Repeatedly in this year of the Great Jubilee Pope John Paul II, speaking in the name of the gospel of Jesus, has called us to the same evangelical task.

Cardinal William H. Keeler speaks with Sister Eleanor Noll, O.S.B., director of St. Vincent de Paul’s Beans and Bread meal program at the time the photo was taken. (CR File)

Even more, he has reminded us that we should stand before the Lord and ask God’s pardon for the times we and those who went before us have failed to do what God’s word and the virtues of truth and justice require.

We gather this evening mindful of an evil, a spiritual malady that has gnawed at the moral fiber of our nation, our community and our church from the early days of colonial America. The early history tells us of the slave trade. Like other sad pages whose message causes pain, these have been torn from the history books most people study, but the scars, the consequences remain. The illness festers. Today we call it by the name of racism.

Although I had read of this offense to human dignity, its reality struck me vividly when, as a seminarian, I had a long meeting with three Salesian seminarians from Latin America. They had come from Mexico through the United States to New York by bus. The year was 1952. Time after time, because two of them had dark complexions, as they traveled through the southern states of our land, they were forced to eat separately, to go to the back of the bus, to be other than they knew God had made them, people with the dignity that comes with being a child of God. They poured out their anguish and their anger to me, and I could only listen.

Since then, many things have happened. More widespread in our land and in this community is the understanding of racism as an evil, a spiritual evil, a sin. More general is the knowledge of its reality, not something to be blinked away, but to be named, confronted, dealt with.

We know too that racism has touched and hurt many people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Native Americans were the first on our continent to suffer. Recently a Maryland resident wrote me, observing that the Church has prayed for pardon for other sins but, to his knowledge, has neglected to mention the Native Americans who felt initial discrimination. Like the slaves of the same era, they were treated as though they were without souls, and had neither innate dignity nor an eternal destiny.

In February 1992, Pope John Paul II visited the island of Gorée, in Senegal. This was the place from which the slave ships for the West departed sailing for South America, and for our own land as well, with a cargo of living humans who were treated as objects, wares to be sold on the docks of America. The Holy Father, reviewing the situation, said,

“I have come here to pay homage to all these victims, unknown victims; no one knows exactly how many there were; no one knows exactly who they were. Unfortunately, our civilization which calls itself Christian, which claims to be Christian, we turn to this situation of anonymous slaves in our century: We knew what concentration camps were: here is a model for them. One cannot plumb the depths of the tragedy of our civilization, of our weakness, of sin. We must remain ever-faithful to a different appeal, that of Saint Paul who said: ‘Where sin abounded, grace abounded even more’; grace, that means love, abounded even more.” (February 22, 1992)

Later Pope John Paul II spoke to the people on the island of Gorée and implored, “Heaven’s forgiveness for us, for the sin of those persons ‘who did not live their faith.’”

Among other things, the Holy Father said,

“From this African shrine of Black sorrow, we implore heaven’s forgiveness. We pray that in the future Christ’s disciples will be totally faithful to the observance of the commandment of fraternal love which the Master left us. We pray that never again will people oppress their brothers and sisters, whoever they may be, but always seek to imitate the compassion of the Good Samaritan in the gospel in going to help those in need. We pray that the scourge of slavery and all its effects may disappear forever. . . .” (Meeting with the Catholic Community, Goree, Senegal, February 22, 1992)

On this side of the ocean, here in the colonies of England, as in other parts of the colonial empires, the slave trade flourished. Because Maryland was a border state between North and South, it was significantly affected by the practice of holding, buying and selling slaves. Among the sad facts of our own early history is that religious communities, Catholic laity and even our first bishop had slaves. By the time of the establishment of the Church here, efforts were made to soften and make gentle the practices. The slave of Bishop Carroll was set free in the end, but the Catholic slaves and free Blacks were required, when they came to the Basilica in the early days, to take their places in the galleries in the rear of the Church. These were enlarged to receive their growing numbers.

Here must have come in the early days Mother Mary Lange and her infant community, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Archbishop Whitfield saw in the foundation “the finger of God.” But what odds they had to overcome! They could not teach the little children of slaves or freed Blacks the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic legally, but they taught them nonetheless, because they knew they were teaching God’s children.

The Sisters had to endure other crosses as well: the misunderstanding of others, clergy and laity, who believed that Blacks should not learn the basics or even be religious. It is a significant blessing for our city that the first religious community of women of African descent in the world should be established here in Baltimore, prior even to any record of such a community in Africa itself. I found enormous interest at the Synod for Africa in 1994 when I related this fact to the Holy Father and the others in attendance.

Also, the information has thrilled those from Haiti, where Mother Mary Lange was born. Earlier this year Archbishop Francois Gayot of Cap-Haitien came here to pay tribute of Mother Mary Lange. This year too the Mayor of Baltimore has honored Mother Mary Lange, one of the great women of the history of our city, with a monument. May God hasten the day when, through her intercession, miracles will be worked and recognized as such, and she will be raised to the honors of blessed and saint.

Five years ago Pope John Paul visited this historic mother Cathedral of our country and then went to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, where he recalled the courageous witness of Cardinal Lawrence Shehan to the cause of racial justice in our community. To that spirit and also to the legacy of Archbishop Borders we pay tribute this evening. God grant that we, together with others of good will and deep commitment, may offer it vigorously and perseveringly into the future.

The cause is one that grows in its complexity. Several years ago the Committee on Racism in our Archdiocesan Pastoral Council asked to have its name changed. When the African Americans on the committee heard what Hispanics and Koreans were experiencing, they asked that the committee be given a name that reflected the need to face other forms of discrimination in a multi-ethnic society. We know that people from other countries and cultures face challenges as well: from Asia and the Pacific Islands, from East and West and South, they come eagerly to the United States and, too often, find barriers of attitude and bitterness.

Last summer, when many from Baltimore joined Catholics from across the nation at Los Angeles, they saw together how issues of racism touch people of all colors. They saw too that our Catholic Faith is the catalyst for pointing out the sin that is present and the remedy to be applied, a divine remedy relying on God’s help and healing.

Twenty-one years ago last month, at the very first meeting I attended of the Bishops of the United States, we came together in a statement of theological and ethical insight on the issue of racism. Even as the examples of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Shehan and Archbishop Borders guide us in words and deeds writ large, this document charts for us a course still fully to be explored, developed and lived.

Let us tonight commit ourselves once again to living the Gospel of justice, striving “to make every element of human life correspond to the true dignity of the human person.” It is a big order, moving us to work for fairness in hiring and housing and educational practices. It is a huge challenge, but we must move forward. Again, as I have said before in the name of the Archdiocese, we will not abandon the city. We will keep our schools open. We will serve the poor and the children of the poor. Please God, we shall be instruments of God through these schools in giving the citizens of tomorrow the tools they need, the moral foundation they need, to enjoy true success in life.

Through Catholic Charities we are committed to serve, to the best of our ability, the human needs for food, shelter and special services of our sisters and brothers. This we do without regard for race or religion, carrying out the ancient Christian works of mercy.

With the Bishops 21 years ago, we recall what Pope John Paul said to America on October 3, 1979 at Battery Park in New York:

“It will always remain one of the glorious achievements of this nation that, when people looked toward America, they received together with freedom also a chance for their own advancement. This tradition must be honored also today. The freedom that was gained must be ratified each day by the firm rejection of whatever wounds, weakens or dishonors human life. And so I appeal to all who love freedom and justice to give a chance to all in need, to the poor and the powerless. Break open the hopeless cycles of poverty and ignorance that still are the lot of too many of our brothers and sisters; the hopeless cycles of prejudices that linger on despite enormous progress toward effective equality in education and employment; the cycles of despair in which are imprisoned all those that lack decent food, shelter or employment.” (Address at Battery Park, October 3, 1979)

At St. Louis last year the Holy Father lifted up the same theme, building on the consensus of the Synod for America:

“As the new millennium approaches, there remains another great challenge facing this community . . . and not St. Louis alone, but the whole country: to put an end to every form of racism, a plague which your bishops have called one of the most persistent and destructive evils of the nation.”

May God bless our renewed commitment to this holy task. Amen.

This reflection from Cardinal William H. Keeler was delivered Dec. 6, 2000 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.