Pope Francis and Race in America

9:00 AM

I just came across an article from The Washington Post, Why Pope Francis’s silence on black America may soon end, and, while it breaks new ground, I would suggest re-focusing some of its conclusions. Take a minute, go read the article, and come back, please.

I have been struck in recent months by the challenges before us, as a nation and as a Catholic Church in the U.S., around the issues of race. I was out of the country until the end of March. I watched from abroad as events unfolded in Ferguson, MO. Living in Chile these last years, I perceived anew some of the warped ways that we attend to race in the U.S., ways that are peculiar to our history. Also, in recent months, I have been reading Bryan Stevenson, Michelle Alexander, john a. powell, and Ta-Naheisi Coates. Increasingly, issues around race, structural racism, and implicit bias have been a growing concern for me.

The Pew Research Center recently ranked Catholics as among the most racially diverse faiths in the U.S. and, among mainline Christians, the most diverse body. Nonetheless, what Martin Luther King, Jr. said days before his death while preaching at Washington's National Cathedral remains true:

We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’we stand in the most segregated hour of America.”

Sadly, almost fifty years later, this remains true for American Catholics. We worship like among like. When an American Catholic attends Sunday liturgy, he or she will most likely see people in the pews who look like them. Blacks with Blacks, Latinos praying with Latinos, Filipinos with Filipinos, Vietnamese with Vietnamese, and Whites with Whites, and diversity at a Sunday liturgy being the exception rather than the rule. Some of this is obviously the result of language and cultural preference. Some of it is also the legacy of a long-standing structural racism. Every diocese has historic episodes that it would rather forget: racism in particular parishes countered with the erection of Black parishes, the closing of schools in inner-cities, and historic obstacles to vocations from minority communities. Alongside some holy examples in racial harmony, we also have an ugly history around race that we, as American Catholics, would rather not acknowledge.

At the same time, these episodes that make us uneasy about our past also linger in structures and biases that we experience today. For instance, take this question about the state of American Catholicism:

What would you guess to be the most common last name of an American Catholic priest?

I have asked the question for more than a decade, and most will answer "Murphy" or "O'Connor" or some name of Irish-American heritage, bu the answer is incorrect. If the respondent "expects the unexpected," often he or she will turn to a Latino last name like "Perez" or "Rodriguez." They, too, would be wrong. According to the Kenedy Catholic Directory, which has an alphabetized list of all U.S. Catholic priests, the most common last name of an American priest for at least the last dozen years has been "Nguyen." Let that sink in. Imagine what that says about who we are today as American Catholics.

So, turning to this Papal visit, first, we must keep in mind that every Papal visit is carefully prepared. This Pope, concerned about the periphery, the poor, the marginalized, will be prepared to address issues of race. The article conveys Traci Blackmon's surprise that she would not need "to talk basics — slavery, Jim Crow, Ferguson" underestimates the Vatican, in general, and this one, in particular. Monsignor Peter Brian Wells, with whom the delegation met, is an American, a native of Tulsa, OK. Additionally, the Vatican, while a very Italian institution, also is highly international and multicultural. The Vatican, of its essence, will seek to see the  bigger picture and to understand conditions more broadly.

Second, Pope Francis always identifies the elephant in the room. He does not ignore issues of tension. That was true in the previous synod, and it has been true, I believe, throughout his public life. Pope Francis will raise the issue of race at some point, but he likely will address it in a different way than the Washington Post article might suggest. During his days in the U.S., Pope Francis has beautiful scriptures in the liturgical calendar for addressing numerous topics. Friday's Mass at Madison Square Garden may offer the best liturgical opportunity to speak directly to the American church, and the readings are spectacular, a slow pitch over the plate for Pope Francis. As for what the Pope will say, based on his history, he will not prescribe a specific solution for the U.S., but he will call the U.S. Catholic Church to address the issue. Pope Francis insists repeatedly (including Evangelii Gaudium #32) on the importance of the national conference of bishops (such as the USCCB) attending to specific local issues. I have no doubt that he will say, in his own way, that race is a problem in the U.S. While his words may not offer a specific plan beyond Gospel love and the mission to the periphery, I imagine that he will challenge the U.S. church to engage this question more constructively.

Third, expect a surprise. I love the Holy Father's preaching, but this Pope is most effective sometimes less in words and more in gesture. I imagine that we will see something that speaks clearly to race in America. As an Argentinian, as an outsider, as one with a different experience of race and discrimination, he will have some gesture that will call our attention to our mission as U.S. Catholics. He cannot fix our problem in our local church or the U.S. as a whole, but he can fix our attention on it.

The real work will come after the Holy Father departs from the U.S. In my own unscientific, informal research, while national news has devoted hours to "Black Lives Matter," lethal encounters with law enforcement, protests, and race in America, my intuition is that American Catholics have very uneven experiences of their parish attending to these matters. Specifically, priests in more diverse parishes are more likely to talk about issues of race in the Sunday homily, and, unsurprisingly, a largely White parish is likely to have heard nothing about race in Sunday preaching. A local incarnation of Evangelii Gaudium for U.S. Catholics is to attend to this "most segregated hour of America."

Again, the Pope cannot fix our problems around race, but he can strengthen our resolve to attend to them meaningfully as Catholics and people of good will.

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