By Archbishop Bernard Hebda, featured in The Catholic Spirit
The whir of helicopters provided an evocative background to our recited Litany of Saints at last week’s priesthood ordination in the Cathedral of St. Paul, reminding me of the strong wind that filled the Upper Room on the first Pentecost.
Those helicopters and the absence of congregational singing, as well as a Cathedral populated by clusters of faithful sitting three rows apart from each other, all underlined that these are days unlike any other. And yet there was something reassuringly familiar as seven men came forward for ordination, having heard the Lord’s call to serve as his priests. As they donned facemasks to distribute holy Communion to their families, I couldn’t help but think that they were the new medics that the Lord was raising up for the field hospital that is our Church. For me, they were a powerful affirmation of the Lord’s great love for this archdiocese.
I had been in the Cathedral just 12 hours earlier. Mayor Melvin Carter had convened faith leaders Friday afternoon and asked us to lead our communities in prayer in the first hour of St. Paul’s curfew. Bishop Andrew Cozzens and I chose to do that before the Blessed Sacrament in the silence of the Cathedral, where we were joined on Facebook by faithful responding to the call for prayers. As we prayed the sorrowful mysteries, my eyes were repeatedly drawn to the oil painting that hangs on the right side of the sanctuary and depicts Mary cradling the lifeless body of Jesus. While it’s usually lost in the splendor of the Cathedral, I felt a unique closeness that evening to the Sorrowful Mother, sensing her pain as she cradled the Church, the mystical body of Christ, wounded not only by a pandemic but also by the indifference to life that characterized the death of George Floyd and by the all-too-painful signs that our communities have given a home to racism, violence and hatred.
Earlier that evening, Bishop Cozzens and I had been blessed to be at St. Peter Claver parish for a live streamed moment of prayer led by the pastor, Father Erich Rutten. Father Rutten lifted up his parishioners and community to the Lord, who reminded us to come to him whenever we’re heavy burdened. With an emotional “Lead Me, Guide Me,” cantor Rita Commodore got us all pointed in the right direction: “Lead me through the darkness thy Face to see, Lead me, oh Lord, lead me….”
For more than 125 years, St. Peter Claver parish has been a beacon for those longing to see Christ’s face, and for those of us who need to be reminded to look for his face in those of our neighbors, regardless of skin color or national origin. Archbishop John Ireland was ahead of his time in establishing the parish. He likewise welcomed into our seminary a young black man from the Caribbean, Stephen Louis Theobald, at a time when it was almost unheard of to have an African American diocesan priest. After ordination, Father Theobald would go on to lead St. Peter Claver for 22 years.
It is painful for me to hear today from black Catholics of their continued experiences of racism in the Church and in our community. Voices like theirs, I understand, led Archbishop Harry Flynn in 2003 to write “In God’s Image: Pastoral Letter on Racism.” It’s still on the archdiocesan website because it is as relevant today as when it was written. I will be encouraging all of our pastors to offer opportunities for studying that prophetic statement, along with the 2019 pastoral letter from the bishops of the United States, “Open Wide our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” I see that as an essential step as we continue our preparations for our Archdiocesan Synod.
We need, however, to move beyond study to action. As Pope Francis recently stated, “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” In a phone conversation with the president of the USCCB on June 3, Pope Francis conveyed to Archbishop Jose Gomez that he was particularly praying for our local Church. Imagine that! I am confident that, strengthened by the Holy Father’s prayers, those who will gather in our parishes to explore this sin of racism will be able to recommend concrete steps for addressing that sin and contribute to healing the wound that has been laid bare in recent weeks.
I ask your prayers for our new priests, for the success of our parish efforts, and for the long-term outreach about to be undertaken by the Drexel Mission Schools Initiative. Named for St. Katherine Drexel, one of our first American saints and a great proponent of racial justice through education, the initiative is one of the fruits of the Road Map for Catholic Education project. In particular, it is intended to focus support for elementary schools serving some of our most economically challenged and racially diverse communities. You will be hearing much more about out Drexel Mission Schools in the weeks to come. Please know how grateful I am for your prayers.