Father Cyprian Davis and Racism in America

 “[The country] has yet to solve the question of race; that has been America’s tragic flaw. We have never really come to grips with race. We went through the civil-rights movement, but here we are in 1993 with young people who never knew racial segregation, never knew the civil-rights movement, and all of a sudden on college campuses you have a tremendous amount of racism. There’s still an awful separation between people. It isn’t only against blacks. It involves Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Not that other countries don’t have the same problem. The Church for a long time did not take a stand. It has started to.”

  • U.S. Catholic Magazine quoting Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB

Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, pictured in a 2009 photo. (CNS photo/St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology)

Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB was my professor, mentor, and spiritual director. He was a Benedictine monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey whose passion was his monastic vows and his faith in Jesus Christ. He was also a Black Catholic, staunchly proud of his African American heritage. Fr. Cyprian was ordained a priest when Black American priests were few in number.

I fondly remember sitting in his classes and hanging on his every word. He was a storyteller. His voice had gravel in it, his stance was slightly bent over, and his eyes lit up as he recalled stories of the past. He also had a wonderful humor that brought those stories to life in a way that few can. I always imagined that around a campfire he would be king for no one could match his ability to speak of things that happened hundreds and even thousands of years ago as if they were modern day events. He literally put you as a bystander into those stories.

His detailed history of Black Catholicism is the seminal work on how truly diverse our faith is, and how our Catholic faith has never been nor will it ever be a “European” religion. Holding a doctorate in history, he wanted to study the Church Fathers but upon returning to the United States and the country in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement he realized that his contribution to the movement was to highlight the gift that black folks had offered to the Church and the nation. But he was not simply a bookworm. He was a man of action. He marched in Selma across the Edmund Pettis bridge and was one of many who faced down state and local law enforcement in the fight for equal rights. He personally placed himself in the midst of violence against an unjust system to demand he and all people of this country be treated as equals, to have his and others’ dignity recognized.

In addition to being a student, I had the blessing to have him as a spiritual director. There is an intimacy that comes with a spiritual director, a fraternal bond that allows not only the spiritual director to see into the heart of the directee but for the the directee to see deeper than the casual interaction between professor and student. It required me to humbly open myself up to his wisdom and guidance and to listen. I will always remember his voice the day he called me “friend”; I felt unworthy of the honor.

I trusted him and saw a prophet before me on religious, political, and social issues of today, particularly those connected to racism in America. Over the last couple years after I graduated from Saint Meinrad his health began to decline and so it was difficult to keep contact with him before he entered eternity in 2015. I have wondered over the past couple years since the protests in Ferguson, NYC, Chicago, Minneapolis, and elsewhere what he would have had to say about the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenge our nation faces with the racial division that never went away but was only masked over the course of the 5 decades since the Civil Rights Act. I know he would be disheartened by the injustices in our system but not surprised by what is transpiring in our nation. He would also offer hopefulness. This man who faced down the segregationists alongside Dr. King in Selma confronted the violence and knew that things can be better. As he taught about historical and contemporary prejudice and racism in society I never heard bitterness, only a passion to effect change. He challenged us all to examine how we may be contributing to injustice and how we may find our path to helping overcome it. He offered that challenge to dig deeper into resources and histories of America and of the Church. It was Fr. Cyprian’s way of giving voice to the stories often left untold in a culture dominated by a “whites only” voices.

As Catholics the Sacrament of Reconciliation is where we not only confess our sins, but discern how we may grow from our personal shortcomings and place ourselves at the mercy and love of God to help us learn from our sins. In the examination of conscience that we do to prepare for confession we open ourselves up to discern ways in which we may not be living up to the call of the Gospel and that examination helps us to discover things to work on for our own betterment of which we may not even be aware. In the spirit of Fr. Cyprian and his compassionate but challenging expectation for Catholics to address the sin of racism, in my next post we will have a “racial examination of conscience” to help us all become more aware of how we may grow in understanding and compassion for one another.

In the meantime, please consider reading the US Bishops’ document “Brothers and Sisters to US” which can be found online at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/african-american/brothers-and-sisters-to-us.cfm

Mark Schmidt is Director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at The Witness.


Going Deeper!

Faith communities around the country are praying and acting for racial justice. For ideas, watch this Google hangout on racial justice that highlighted several examples.

A Response to Charlottesville

Community members in Charlottesville, Va., hold a vigil for Heather Heyer Aug. 16. She was killed Aug. 12 during a white supremacist protest over a plan to remove the statue of a Confederate general from a city park. (CNS photo/Kate Bellows, The Cavalier Daily via Reuters)

In August, Neo-Nazis, fascists, Klansmen, white supremacists, neo-confederates, and other hate groups converged on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, and in their wake left one young woman dead and many others bleeding and critically injured. Their message of hate and acts of violence and terrorism instilled fear in many thousands more. Our Catholic faith and our local church, the Archdiocese of Dubuque condemns such violence and such ideology as it is intrinsically evil. It is sinful and has no place in our world. As Scripture tells us: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” (1 John 3:15)

Since then I have heard comments of shock and disbelief that, here in 2017, this is actually happening. “I thought we were past this.” “This is not who we are.” “I can’t believe this.” I have yet to hear or read any of those same statements from my friends who are black, brown, migrants, Muslim, or from other marginalized groups. That is because they are daily reminded that they are in the demographic minority and they are regularly subjected to this kind of hate and violence. So, I have not heard shock from them. I have heard their sadness, fear, anger, frustration, and hopelessness, but not shock.

How did we get to this point? Many are trying to understand the answers to this question. For people on the receiving end of hatred and violence this is only a continuation of what they have collectively experienced since the very beginning of our country: slavery, the slaughter and transfer of native peoples to reservations, Black Codes, the Chinese Exclusionary Act, Jim Crow, the “Southern Strategy,” segregated housing, mass incarceration,  the myth of the “welfare queen”, an inhumane immigration system, patently false claims of widespread voter fraud by “the other,” and so on. We find symbols and messages in movies, television, newspapers, magazines and on social media that only deepen this pit of prejudice and injustice and spread false narratives about various peoples. All of these things have us swimming in messages that reinforce bias and at the same time keeps us physically apart from sharing community with people who are do not share our same background or experiences.

“And while they were eating, he said, ‘Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’ Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely it is not I, Lord?’ ” Matthew 26: 21-22

While we know that Judas is known as the betrayer we also know that all of the other apostles would betray Jesus, save John, by the end of the following day. Those who fell asleep at Gethsemane betrayed Jesus. Peter betrayed Jesus three times before the cock crowed. And the others remained absent from his presence during his passion and crucifixion for fear of what would happen to them.

However, unlike the other apostles, the women and John bore the threats and violence in the difficult task of supporting Jesus in his darkest hour. Are we like the apostles who immediately look to shift blame or free ourselves of any responsibility for the institutions and the culture that we are living? I am not innocent in this regard. We protest, “Surely, it is not I, Lord!”, because we do not hold explicit prejudice towards others but if we are to overcome the racial hatred and violence in our country we must look to the women and John as our example. We often lack the courage and conviction, myself included, to take a moment to reflect introspectively on how we may, even in tiny ways, contribute to the injustice or oppression of others for we are not only responsible for “what I have done” but also “what I have failed to do.”  When our words or actions are challenged related to racial injustice how quickly are we to reply “Surely, it is not I, Lord!” Do we take the hard task to ask ourselves and Christ, “Is it I, Lord? How may I better serve you and your people?”

It is essential that we not only openly reject and denounce racism but actively work to counter it. We must repudiate racist actions and speech, including racially charged “harmless jokes.” We must learn to recognize symbols and messages that reinforce explicit and implicit bias. We must open ourselves to hearing the stories and experiences of those who share a different background than our own. We must listen to the messages of those who have been on the receiving end of oppression and injustice. These conversations are not easy but they are necessary.

Mark Schmidt is Director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.


Going Deeper!

Find practical resources to address racial and work for racial justice here. Access bishops’ statements, prayer resource, learning materials, and more on the USCCB Racism page.

Racial Justice and Peacebuilding: A Perspective from the Joy of the Gospel

headshot of Fr. John Crossin

Fr. John W. Crossin, OSFS

As the U.S. bishops undertake the work of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, I want to reflect on Pope Francis’ teachings in Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ on building peace, which may be applied to the pursuit of racial justice.

First, we must value the importance of relationships. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis states “Everything is related and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” (92). Indeed, this interconnectedness is important when considering the need for racial justice.

Next, we cannot overstate the importance of social dialogue and its contribution to peace. The dignity of the human person and pursuit of the common good are more important than the contentment of a minority who are well-off. In Evangelii Guadium, Pope Francis writes, “In the end, a peace which is not the result of integral development will be doomed; it will always spawn new conflicts and various forms of violence.” Patient and ‘arduous’ efforts are needed to achieve a “peaceful and multifaceted culture of encounter” (218-220).

Pope Francis offers “four specific principles which can guide the development of life in society and the building of a people where differences are harmonized within a shared pursuit.” He goes on to say: “I do so out of the conviction that their application can be a genuine path to peace within each nation and in the entire world” (221).

Those four principles are:

1.) Time is greater than space.  In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes, “Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present; trying to possess all the spaces of power and self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back.” If time governs space, people seek to develop processes in society that engage people and groups and that lead to significant events. Such processes make for full human existence (222-24).

2.) Unity is greater than conflict. It is best to face conflict ‘head on.’ Here one opts for “a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides.” This is unity that comes from the Holy Spirit who can harmonize every diversity. Of course, this involves a process of discernment where the views of all are valued and thoroughly considered. This can lead to a “reconciled diversity” within a society or culture or between churches (Evangelii Gaudium 226-30).

3.) Realities are greater than ideas. It is dangerous to dwell solely in the realms of images, rhetoric, concepts and ideas. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis states “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action.” This principle calls for actions toward justice and charity in imitation of the saints (231-33).

4.) The whole is greater than its parts. While sinking our roots deeply in our native place, we also must keep the bigger picture, the greater good, in mind. “[E]ven people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked.” Pope Francis’ model here is not the sphere but the polyhedron “which reflects the convergence of all of its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness” (Evangelii Gaudium, 234-37).

Fr. John W. Crossin, OSFS is the former Director of the USCCB Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. He is a member of the Peacebuilding Working Group of the Dialogue between the World Council of Churches and the Vatican.


Going Deeper

Many parishes around the country are putting Pope Francis’ words into action.  At usccb.org/racism, you can find helpful resources such as Prayer of the Faithful suggestions on racism, and stories of how communities are working for racial justice, such as St. Louis parishes hosting sacred conversations on race (+ action)  and a Dallas parish’s work to improve police-community relations.

 

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and Racism

Consideration of racism is grounded in fundamental scriptural beliefs: equal dignity of all people, created in God’s image; and Christ’s redemption of all.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells this out:

The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: “Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.”

Moral judgments on racism, based on equality, are consistent: “any theory or form whatsoever of racism and racial discrimination is morally unacceptable” (Compendium); and “racism is not merely one sin among many, it is a radical evil dividing the human family…” (Brothers and Sisters to Us).

Jesus tells the Good Samaritan story— one of his three “great parables” —to answer “Who is my neighbor?” His response addresses entrenched divisions between Jew and Samaritan and sets the stage for the unity of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5; Deus Caritas Est). This unity admits “no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex…” (Lumen Gentium).

The Many Faces of Racism

Catholic teaching “emphasizes not only the individual conscience, but also the political, legal, and economic structures…” (Economic Justice for All). Racism is about people and about group behaviors and societal organization. Individual racism includes conscious acts, spontaneous attitudes, “the tendency to stereotype and marginalize,” indifference, and “the triumph of private concern over public responsibility…” (Brothers and Sisters to Us).

Laws such as U.S. segregation or South Africa’s apartheid represent blatant systemic racism (The Church and Racism). More subtle racism treats groups as “second-class citizens with regard, for instance, to higher education, to housing, to employment and especially to public… services…” (The Church and Racism). Even more subtle racism is now masked in appeals to equality that guarantee that past inequalities are perpetuated by blocking corrective efforts. (Brothers and Sisters to Us). “At times protestations claiming that all persons should be treated equally reflect the desire to maintain a status quo that favors one race and social group at the expense of the poor and non-white” (Brothers and Sisters to Us). Social, economic, educational, and political advantages from the past are cemented as the often-unconscious privilege of the present. Thus, “Racism obscures the evils of the past and denies the burdens” that history imposes on people of color today (Brothers and Sisters to Us).

Saint Pope John Paul II maintained a fourfold personal responsibility for social evils:

… the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world; and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of a higher order. (Reconciliation and Penance)

Thus we can be involved in societal racism as: 1) supporters or exploiters; 2) accessories through complicity or indifference; 3) accessories through fatalistic acceptance; and 4) accessories through consecration of the status quo.

Responses to Racism

Personally, we are called to conversion—to respect the rights, dignity, equality, and sanctity of racially different individuals and groups. “This does not mean erasing cultural differences,” but “…a positive appreciation of the complementary diversity of peoples” (The Church and Racism) and the distinct contributions of racial minorities to “the internal strength of our nation” (Brothers and Sisters to Us).

Moreover, the tradition emphasizes “respect for foreigners, acceptance of dialogue, sharing, mutual aid, and collaboration with other ethnic groups.” (The Church and Racism)

Systemically, we must unmask social evil and, like prophets, denounce injustice. We must eradicate overt and covert racism. This requires solidarity with those suffering from disadvantages woven into society and our self-perceptions. For John Paul II, this solidarity is “not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people…On the contrary it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good…”(Sollicitudo Rei Socialis).

Our interdependence globally implies a moral responsibility for human development; this, Pope Benedict writes, “depends, above all, on a recognition that the human race is a single family working together in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side”(Caritas in Veritate). For those who benefit from the express and hidden advantages of racial inequities—still continuing—the church urges honesty about the past and present so that everyone’s future will be different. “An honest look at the past makes plain the need for restitution wherever possible— makes evident the justice of restoration and redistribution.” (Brothers and Sisters to Us).

Fr. Fred Kammer, SJ, JD is Director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans.

 This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at the JustSouth Quarterly website.


Going Deeper

At USCCB.org/racism, read U.S. bishops’ statements, access resources and tools, and learn how faith communities are working for racial justice. At WeAreSaltandLight.org, find out how your faith community can welcome and celebrate diversity, and form and nurture diverse leadership.

Jesus, Healer of Wounds and Source of Mercy

Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley carries a monstrance during eucharistic adoration at the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” July 2 in Orlando, Fla. Leaders from dioceses and various Catholic organizations are gathering for the July 1-4 convocation. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The recent Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America was an unprecedented gathering. Led by 155 bishops, over 3,200 Catholic leaders attended from 159 dioceses and over 200 national Catholic organizations, apostolates, and movements. Inspired by Evangelii Gaudium, the Convocation equipped and re-energized leaders to share the Gospel as missionary disciples.

One special moment set the tone for honest conversations throughout the Convocation–the Sunday evening of adoration and reflection: “Encountering Jesus, Healer of Wounds and Source of Mercy.”

Introducing the reflection, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas shared: “We pause to pray and reflect together on both our wounds and the ways that we, as individuals and as Church, have participated in or failed to prevent the woundedness of others.” Seán Cardinal O’Malley of Boston led the devotion, which included a Litany of Sorrow based on the five wounds of Christ. Five specific areas were addressed.

The Scandal of Clergy Sexual Abuse

Bishop Flores prayed to Jesus, Healer of Wounds and Source of Mercy: “We implore you to heal the hearts of all those who have been wounded by the evil of sexual abuse, especially within the Church. We pray that your Divine Mercy will move to repentance all those who, in any way, have contributed to this evil by their actions or inactions. Prompt the Church to acknowledge its failures in protecting children in the past and the loss of trust that has resulted. May we never again forget our responsibility to protect the children in the care of the Church.”

A Lack of Respect for Human Dignity

An African American leader prayed for a profound respect for the dignity of every human life: “Awaken in us an acknowledgement of the multitude of ways in which human dignity is threatened–with abortion and assisted suicide, on death row, in abusive homes, and amid racial or ethnic discrimination.”

Selfish Disregard of the Common Good

A young refugee prayed that Jesus would cleanse us of our disregard for others: “Help us to promote peace in war-torn lands, to assist refugees, to seek justice for the poor who suffer each day from homelessness, hunger, and hopelessness, and to protect the beauty of your Creation which sustains us all.”

Suffering from Participation in Abortion

A diocesan Project Rachel director offered the intention for the millions of women and men in our nation who are wounded from their participation in abortions: “Help us as a Church to recognize the unique pain that abortion brings to individuals, families, and our society.”

The Hurt We Have Individually Caused Others

A leader from the National Catholic Partnership on Disability prayed for Jesus to help us acknowledge all the hurt we have ever caused ourselves or others through our thoughts, words, actions, inaction, or times when we excluded others: “Grant us the grace to sincerely repent of our sins. Fill us with your overflowing love and mercy that will enable us to serve as your loving hands and faithful disciples who proclaim your gospel throughout the world with great joy.”

From sins of commission to sins of omission, from excluding persons to racism, from sexual abuse to not addressing domestic violence, from abortion to turning our backs on the inconvenient, as this litany indicates, we needed to begin the Convocation by acknowledging our failures and seeking forgiveness. Thankfully, there were many opportunities for the Sacrament of Confession throughout the course of the Convocation

That grace, and the overflowing love of Jesus, Healer of Wounds and Source of Mercy, made all the difference in making the Convocation an authentic moment of healing for the Church in America.

Tom Grenchik is the Executive Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Learn about the bishops’ pro-life activities at www.usccb.org/prolife

 This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at the Life Issues Forum.


Going Deeper

 How are you called to help heal wounds and imitate Jesus’ mercy? Join the Church’s work to fight racism, prevent sexual abuse, protect the unborn, and welcome migrants and refugees.

 

Stand Up and Speak Out: Racism is a Sin

DeKarlos Blackmon, OblSB is the Director of Life, Charity, and Justice for the Diocese of Austin

The tragic events of Charlottesville, Virginia have revealed again the prevalence of racism in the United States. Almost 60 years ago, the U.S. bishops spoke out against discrimination and enforced segregation in the 1968 document “National Race Crisis,” in which the bishops called for us to eradicate racism from society.

In the 1950s and 1960s, various branches of the federal government wrestled with laws and policies restricting equal protection. Some bishops found themselves fighting the architects of division, racism, and separation. We are fighting these battles today.

Undoubtedly, this is a very uncomfortable topic for people in our pews. However, “Racism is a sin, a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father” (Brothers and Sisters to Us, 1979). Many of us remained quiet and on the sidelines of issues that affect the whole family of faith.

Catholics pride ourselves on being intrinsically pro-life. During the 1999 Apostolic Visit of Saint Pope John Paul II in Saint Louis, when challenging us to be unconditionally pro-life, the Holy Father directed us “to put an end to every form of racism.” Being intrinsically pro-life means that that we must always stand up for the uncomfortable “right and just” as opposed to merely remaining silent in the face of the inherently “wrong.” The eradication of racism from our society is also what it means to be pro-life.

Considering the entrenched divisions between the Jewish and Samaritan communities, Jesus outlined very clearly in the Good Samaritan parable our responsibility to others. We know very well that “every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design” (Gaudium et Spes, 29). We have to stand up, speak out and work towards the unity that Saint Paul speaks of, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).

Every day of my life, I look at my black face in the mirror. At the youthful age of 40, I know very well that African Americans among others have not made it over. Regardless of our ethnicity, we must recognize the certain reality that every day is a process of continual, ongoing conversion. The anthem of the Civil Rights movement remains our objective: to overcome some day. Bigotry, violence, and racism should never be tolerated.

So, as we praise God for another day, we should also recall the words of Jesus to “Treat others as we would have them treat us.” (Matthew 7:12) For Christ to increase, we must stand up to be witnesses to the saving power of God. We will overcome prejudice, racism, intolerance, and bias when we stand up and speak out. If you disagree with the politics of hate, it is time to say so. Let not your silence be construed as tacit approval. Life seen as self-centered earthly existence and lived in denial of Christ ends in destruction.

DeKarlos Blackmon is the Secretariat Director of Life, Charity and Justice of the Diocese of Austin. He is the Past Supreme Knight of the Knights of Peter Claver, and the President of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights.

Going Deeper

On September 9, join Catholics around the country for a Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities. Visit the USCCB Racism page for prayer and action resources to use on this Day and beyond.

Sowers of Change, Protagonists for Social Justice, and Bold Leaders of Action

Attendees cheer a statement about justice for immigrants Feb. 16 during a the opening program of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Midway through the U.S. Regional Meeting of World Popular Movements in Modesto, California, a strong wind came up which almost blew off the metal protections of the roof of the beautiful new gym where we were meeting at Central Catholic High School.

The force and the noise of the wind reflected the force and noise of the gathering of over 700 inter faith delegates of community organizations from around the United States, with some international representation also. The force was a powerful wind of strong voices calling for the popular movements to be sowers of change, protagonists for social justice, and bold leaders of action in bringing down the walls that divide the struggles against the systems that Pope Francis mentioned in his letter of greeting to the gathering.  The Pope wrote about being confronted by “a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.”

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., listens to a speaker Feb. 18 at the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. His diocese hosted the event. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Many voices then spoke from diverse perspectives but shared the urgency of being one people in one fight (one ‘witness’ as Cardinal Peter Turkson called it) “to rebuild society in which every person is seen as fully human, has a full voice in the decisions that shape their lives, and is able to thrive and reach their human potential.”  The noise was that of great enthusiasm for “disrupting oppression and dehumanization” as Bishop Robert McElroy, Archbishop Jose Gomez, and others spoke about and “rebuilding” systems that promote and protect justice in ownership of land, for working people, in housing, for immigrants, and in ending racism. One might wonder why the meeting was held in Modesto, California, and not some large city easily reachable by modern modes of transportation. The answer simply is that the planners felt that the great Central Valley in California provided a location that reflected the challenges being faced all over the country.

The Central Valley is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world but struggles with issues of water, clean air, higher unemployment, lower wages, thousands of annual migrant farm workers, large percentages of immigrant peoples, human trafficking, homelessness, and a host of other social issues including violent gangs, hunger, school drop outs, etc.   But at the same time there are so many who live in the Central Valley who want to make life better for all who live and work there. The Regional Meeting received a warm welcome and recognition by those who knew about its purpose. What made this meeting different from other church or community gatherings?

Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, poses for a photo Feb. 16 with Lira DeMoraes, a volunteer with the Merrimack Valley Project in Massachussetts at the start of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif.

It was the first time in the United States that community organizers from across the land were invited by the Church to come together so that the Church might hear from the people experiencing exclusion, dehumanization, and the pain of poverty.  Pope Francis had previously convened three World Meetings of Popular Movements. He spoke at all three about overcoming the globalization of indifference by “placing the economy at the service of peoples; working for peace and justice; and defending Mother Earth.” To this regional gathering in the United States the Pope sent a written greeting wishing that the “constructive energy” of this meeting “would spread to all dioceses, because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals…that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance.” The Holy Father acknowledged with gratitude the sponsors of this gathering: The Catholic Campaign for Human Development; the host bishops from the three dioceses in the Central Valley; and Cardinal Peter Turkson, who leads the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and expressed his support of the popular movements.  What was different was that Catholic dioceses hosted and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development of USCCB sponsored the meeting, which was organized and run by the popular movements under the leadership of the PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) National Network and other organizing networks. Pope Francis highlighted PICO’s work for promoting this meeting.

Although representatives of the Churches did speak and were well received, the Church leaders, including over 20 Catholic bishops, were there to listen and to accompany participants in the dialogues.  The message from the delegates at the end of the meeting was addressed to the popular movements and leaders in the United States and globally and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis. The message quoted Pope Francis and Catholic bishops extensively but also laid out the challenge, urging “our clergy and faith communities to speak and act boldly in solidarity with our people.” The message quoted Cardinal Tobin in his video address to the gathering that “faith leaders need to walk out in front and show that they are not afraid.” Pope Francis was indeed the inspiration for this gathering. Cardinal Turkson, by his presence and in his words, gave strong witness for the Church’s commitment to the integral development of the human person. Every human person has been created in the image and likeness of God, and full human development gives glory to God.

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.


 Going Deeper

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development provides ongoing support for community groups that work to transform their communities. Visit our map to find out where this work is happening where you live—then get involved!