Amid a near-universal chorus of condemnation for violence provoked by a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday that left one person dead and around 20 injured, Catholic leaders are adding their voices to expressions of outrage and concern.
“On behalf of the bishops of the United States, I join leaders from around the nation in condemning the violence and hatred that have now led to one death and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, Virginia,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“We offer our prayers for the family and loved ones of the person who was killed and for all those who have been injured,” DiNardo said. “We join our voices to all those calling for calm.”
The night before the Saturday protest, a group of anti-racism activists held a prayer vigil in a church on the campus of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Hundreds of mostly white men carrying tiki torches marched towards the church and the park, surrounding counter-protesters and shouting slogans such as, “Blood and soil” which was used by the Nazis, and “White Lives Matter” a riff on the organization Black Lives Matter.
The supremacists eventually dispersed, but were back again the next morning when things took a more violent turn. One counter-protester was killed when a car intentionally drove towards a crowd, killing one and injuring several others.
“The abhorrent acts of hatred on display in Charlottesville are an attack on the unity of our nation and therefore summon us all to fervent prayer and peaceful action,” Di Nardo said.
“The bishops stand with all who are oppressed by evil ideology and entrust all who suffer to the prayers of St. Peter Claver as we approach his feast day. We also stand ready to work with all people of goodwill for an end to racial violence and for the building of peace in our communities.”
Claver was a Spanish Jesuit and missionary in the 17th century, who’s considered the patron saint of slaves and of ministry to African-Americans. His feast day is Sept. 9.
In Charlottesville, at least one Catholic parish issued a safety alert for its 5:00 p.m. Vigil Mass on Saturday.
“In light of the unfolding violent situation in Charlottesville, we ask that everyone exercise utmost precaution in deciding to attend the 5:15 pm Vigil Mass tonight,” said a statement from St. Thomas Aquinas Parish.
“Mass will be held as usual, but please attend only if you feel you can do so safely. We advise everyone to stay at home and to avoid any potential danger.”
The rally called ‘Unite the Right’ was triggered by a decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville park, which has been renamed “Emancipation Park.” Well-known white supremacists such as David Duke turned out.
“We are determined to take our country back,” Duke said from the rally, calling it a “turning point.” “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”
Speaking from his private golf club in New Jersey on Saturday, Trump himself denounced the violence.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” Trump said. “It has been going on for a long time in our country — not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. It has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America.”
After several fistfights, clergy being attacked, and lots of throwing of objects back and forth eventually the police dispersed the crowds.
Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, released a statement saying that “the love of Jesus Christ is the most powerful weapon against hatred,” and calling for prayers for peace.
Catholic leaders from across the country also reacted.
A tweet from the Washington, D.C. Archdiocese read: “Lord, show us new ways in which hatred can be left behind, wounds, healed, and unity restored. Amen. #charlottesville #pray4peace.”
The New York State Catholic Conference tweeted out, “We strongly condemn racism in all forms, in particular the evil of white supremacy on display in #charlottesville. Pray 4 for the dead & injured.”
The Archdiocese of Atlanta released a tweet signed by Archbishop Wilton Gregory, former president of the U.S. bishops’ conference and probably the most visible African-American Catholic leader in the country.
“Hatred & vile racist actions defile the USA. Such activity is NEVER justified. Those who planned these acts must be denounced & defied. +WDG.”
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, tweeted, “Pray for an end to the evil of racism. And pray, especially today for its victims. Pray for justice and mercy in our nation.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia released a statement on Sunday, calling racism a “poison of the soul.”
“It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed. Blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity,” he wrote.
The public anger regarding the nationalist events in Charlottesville is well warranted, he wrote, but “we need more than pious public statements. If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change.”
According to Chaput, what happened in Charlottesville is a snapshot of “our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed.”
Building a different kind of country in the future, he said, will require a conversion of hearts. That might sound simple, the archbishop wrote. “But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.”
DiNardo also mentioned in his statement that the U.S. bishops had launched a task force last year after a series of shootings involving police officers across the country highlighted lingering racial tensions, which is designed, as DiNardo said, “to work for unity and harmony in our country and in our Church.”