By BISHOP ROBERT J. BAKER
This “listening session” today (Feb. 17) with our brothers and sisters of African-American heritage is a graced opportunity for all of us in the Diocese of Charleston.
Nationally the month of February is a month dedicated to promoting an appreciation of the rich heritage and culture brought to our American society by our brothers and sisters of African-American heritage. We Catholics in the Diocese of Charleston join this national celebration of the gifts we enjoy in our church and society because of the great African-American cultural and religious contributions.
On Tuesday, Feb. 13, I had the pleasure of spending time in a question-answer discussion and book reading session with fourth- and fifth-graders from St. Martin de Porres School in Columbia.
After a delightful time together — that could have continued all day we were having so much fun — members of the Children’s Gospel Choir entertained me with music that could have brought tears to anyone’s eyes — it was so powerful and so professional! I was proud to be the bishop of a diocese that has a school such as St. Martin de Porres. How great would our loss be if this school were not there!
The principal of the school, Sandra Leatherwood, has been on the faculty of the school for more than 20 years. She told me of the great influence of the Dominican Sisters in her life, and she wanted to give back to this school what she had received from those sisters. As a laywoman, she is today a member of the Secular Dominican Community.
This is one example of the faith and support so evident in parishes and schools in our African-American neighborhoods, for which I am so grateful.
Today we acknowledge the great gift we have been given in our church through the presence and active participation of our African-American brothers and sisters. We thank you for what you bring to our church. We need you in order for us to be a church that is alive and well! We embrace you! We love you!
We want you to know how grateful we are to you, not so much for what you do, but for who you are; you reflect back to us in a powerful way the living and loving face of God. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
After our listening session today, I join my brothers and sisters of other cultural heritages in acknowledging that we Christians have not always welcomed you, we have not always embraced you, supported you, and loved you.
Following a Year of Prayer in our diocese and in preparation for a Year of Evangelization next year, we are spending time this year focusing on the theme of reconciliation in this Year of Reconciliation.
The honest and open reflections you have shared with me today further suggest the need we Catholics have in our church for reconciliation.
I thank you for trusting me enough to be willing to be frank and clear about areas in need of serious attention.
First of all, we all acknowledge the devastating consequences of the evil institution of slavery, an institution Pope Leo XIII referred to as “one which is wholly opposed to that which was originally ordained by God and by nature. The Supreme Author of all things so decreed that man should exercise a sort of royal dominion over beasts and cattle and fish and fowl, but never that men should exercise a like dominion over their fellow men” (In Plurimis — To the Bishops of Brazil, On the Abolition of Slavery).
While that evil institution was perpetrated by generations before us, without judging individuals, we regret that members of our church were not more forceful much earlier in eradicating the practice of slavery from our culture and society. As society and culture does today in the face of the evil of abortion, society and culture at that time lagged behind in asserting the Christian value of the equality and dignity of every human being.
Slavery was always evil because it denied human dignity. Christianity was a force in bringing that institution down, but Christians could have and should have awoken to that responsibility early on in the Christian era. That they did not is an indictment of Christians past and a reminder to Christians present of our need to be vigilant about any attacks by individuals or societal groups against the dignity of human beings, young or old, born or unborn. And abuses against human rights and human dignity are still with us.
For the wrongs made to our brothers and sisters of African descent through the institution of slavery we ask pardon and forgiveness.
Racism is an evil that remains with us because of a hardness of heart, a narrowness of vision, and a preoccupation with a sense of superiority of one race over another. Thanks to the civil rights movement, over the past 40 years great strides have been made to foster respect for people of all races and cultures, but we know that Martin Luther King’s dream has yet to be realized.
You touched on some of the ways racism remains in our society today, whether through blatant, malicious intent or through ignorance.
We acknowledge our failures here as well, as people who should know better and do better.
For the wrongs we have committed through open or veiled racism, we ask pardon and forgiveness.
There is another sin which surfaced today, which we as Catholics need to face if we are to be a reconciled Christian community, preparing ourselves for evangelization.
That is the sin of neglect, sometimes referred to as the sin of omission. Reflecting on an observation made today in our discussion, we might also refer to it as the sin of abandonment.
That is the sin of failing to respond, when and where we can, to pressing needs facing us. I think here of the story of Mother Teresa, attending an international conference on hunger in Bombay, India. Dignitaries and experts on hunger from around the world were present for this important meeting. Mother Teresa arrived late for the meeting, and as she headed for the entrance to the building, she discovered a man lying in full view, right in front of the entranceway. A person would have had to step over him to get inside. Other people did. Mother Teresa did not. She began to see what the problem was. After getting the man back to one of her houses, she discovered the man was dying.
It occurred to her how strange it was that the participants in a meeting on hunger were willing to discuss hunger for hours, but apparently not willing to do anything about it when it was staring at them in the face.
Such is the sin of neglect, of omission, of abandonment. And to avoid this sin will be one of the great challenges ahead of us as a diocese.
We cannot tackle all issues and be successful. But a vision that encompasses reasonable goals and objectives can be presented and implemented.
Today we have moved in the direction of a vision for the future. We have surfaced certain goals that need to be discussed, fleshed out, and acted upon. We are all aware that this conversation we have started needs to continue if we are to be successful.
(See part two in next week’s issue of The Miscellany.)