WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the wake of nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality sparked by the killing of African Americans under police custody, the Catholic bishops of Maryland called on people of faith to act to end racism.
“Prayer and dialogue, alone, are not enough. We must act to bring about true change. United, we seek healing, harmony and solutions that recognize that every person has been created in the image of God and that every person possesses human dignity,” the bishops said in the June 15 letter.
Titled “Building Bridges of Understanding and Hope,” the letter was released by the Maryland Catholic Conference, the public policy arm for the state’s Catholic dioceses. It was signed by the Catholic bishops serving in dioceses whose territory includes Maryland counties, including Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
Gregory was installed in 2019 as the seventh archbishop of Washington, becoming the first African American to lead the archdiocese, which includes five Maryland counties surrounding the nation’s capital.
Also signing the letter were Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori and Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Delaware, whose diocese includes counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. They were joined by the auxiliary bishops of Washington and Baltimore, including Washington Auxiliary Bishops Mario E. Dorsonville and Roy E. Campbell Jr., who is president of the Baltimore-based National Black Catholic Congress; Baltimore Auxiliary Bishops Michael W. Fisher and Adam J. Parker; retired Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden; and Bishop-designate Bruce A. Lewandowski, named a Baltimore auxiliary June 10.
The bishops acknowledged “our own church’s past sins and failings.”
In colonial times and in the first decades of the new United States, the Jesuits in Maryland were slaveholders and operated plantations to support their ministries. In 1838, the order sold 272 enslaved men, women and children, with some of the proceeds helping to secure the future of Georgetown College, now Georgetown University. After the Civil War during times of segregation, Black Catholics in Maryland and the District of Columbia had to sit in the back of church or in galleries and wait until the end of the Communion line to receive the Eucharist.
The letter noted, “With regret and humility, we must recognize that as Catholic leaders and as an institution we have, at times, not followed the Gospel to which we profess and have been too slow in correcting our shortcomings. For this reason, it is incumbent upon us to place ourselves at the forefront of efforts to remove the inequalities and discrimination that are still present in Maryland and our nation today.”
The bishops also acknowledged how “the church in Maryland has been deeply enriched by the gifts of Black Catholics.” They noted how Mother Mary Lange, whose cause for sainthood is underway, founded the first Catholic school for Black children in the U.S. in Baltimore in 1828. She also founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious order for women of African descent. The Josephite order of priests and brothers, based in Baltimore, serves African American communities throughout the U.S.
The letter explains how two earlier bishops in Maryland, Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan of Baltimore and Cardinal Patrick A. O’Boyle of Washington, integrated Catholic schools and parishes in the state in the mid-1900s when segregation remained a widespread practice.
Shortly after becoming the first resident archbishop of Washington in 1948, O’Boyle began the process of integrating Catholic schools and parishes in the nation’s capital and the surrounding Maryland counties. His action came six years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregated schools. In 1963, he offered the invocation at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Noting the church’s own “painful history” of racism and its work to end it, the bishops wrote, “This history provides the context for us today and should act to animate our prayers, thoughts and actions for an end, finally, to the sin of racism that remains with us and in us. The unjust killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans, and the subsequent protests, rallies and vigils that continue to take place make it clear that the conscience of our nation is on trial as questions of race and equality confront each and every one of us.”
Floyd’s May 25 death after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest and other recent deaths of African Americans during police actions sparked protests across the country. A June 8 prayerful protest near the White House, led by Josephite Father Cornelius Ejiogu, pastor of St. Luke Parish in Washington, drew more than 40 priests and deacons, several bishops, and more than 200 other Catholics, including women religious and laypeople.
In their letter the bishops called on Catholics to pray and examine their own hearts and then to work together for racial justice.
“We call all people of goodwill to prayer, to root out any hatred and animosity that has taken hold in one’s own heart,” the bishops wrote.
The bishops said they will continue their efforts to support laws seeking “to bring about justice and an end to unequal treatment based on race. This includes access to health and maternal care, meaningful educational opportunities, prison reforms, restorative justice initiatives, housing anti-discrimination efforts, juvenile justice reforms and ending the grossly disparate practice of capital punishment.”
Communities of color have been hit hard by the coronavirus health crisis and the resulting economic downturn. Analysts have said that long-standing systems of inequality have played a key role in the sufferings and deaths among minorities during the coronavirus pandemic.
Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.