Baltimore, Md., Nov 15, 2016 / 03:39 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Race relations, racism, and violence were on the mind of the United States bishops during their fall general assembly in Baltimore.
“The Church has a tremendous opportunity, and an equally tremendous responsibility, to bring people together in prayer and dialogue to begin anew the vital work of fostering healing and lasting peace,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta told the gathering Nov. 14.
The archbishop heads a task force established by the nation's bishops to promote peace following racial tensions and violence. It is trying to address “pervasive challenges” associated with race relations in the country, said the archbishop.
Archbishop Gregory conveyed the recommendations of the task force and its consultants to the bishops’ general assembly on Monday afternoon.
“Many stressed that the Church must find its bold prophetic voice at this time,” he said. “Participants emphasized that race relations and combatting the evil of racism were central issues to be confronted and addressed.”
Archbishop Gregory served as the U.S. bishops’ conference president from 2001 to 2004.
According to Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the outgoing conference president, the task force aimed to combat “the vexing problems of race relations, gun violence, and surrounding issues.”
The U.S. bishops’ general assembly meets in Baltimore Nov. 14-16.
In April 2015, the city was the scene of large protests, some of which became violent, after African-American Freddie Gray died from severe injuries apparently sustained during police custody.
Racial tensions grew after Gray’s death and several other incidents in which African-American men died during encounters with police that became major news stories. Adding to the tensions are several deadly ambushes of police officers.
Archbishop Gregory discussed “the need for empathy and compassion on the part of law enforcement” and the role of the Church in promoting dialogue and accountability.
The task force also discussed class distinctions as a factor in social relations, alongside difficulties related to the education system, poverty, lack of jobs, domestic violence, gun violence, incarceration and migration.
Among successful programs to respond to such problems, the task force identified efforts to help at-risk youth achieve full-time employment and basketball outreach to gang members.
The task force advocated “intentional efforts to encounter one another” and forums in which individuals and families can “speak their pain” at the parish and diocesan level. It said the bishops’ National Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities should be made permanent and it recommended the U.S. bishops make a statement on racism.
The task force said prayer is essential, encouraging bishops to initiate opportunities to pray for peace in their communities throughout the year at Masses, rosaries, and interreligious work. It recommended dialogues with local community members, including religious leaders, law enforcement officers and youth, about issues that move towards concrete action. The task force also discussed funding opportunities for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
Other task force members included Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami; Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux; Bishop Emeritus John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee; and Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento.
The bishops decided to say Mass on Monday at West Baltimore’s St. Peter Claver Church, which dates back to 1888 and has a long tradition of civil rights activism.
The church is in the Sandtown neighborhood, just blocks away from where the riots following the death of Freddie Gray took place.
The protests of Gray’s death were on the mind of Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who delivered remarks ahead of Mass at St. Peter Claver Church on Monday.
He recounted the morning after the unrest in Baltimore, when he saw the church’s pastor Fr. Ray Bomberger and parishioners cleaning the neighborhood. They were “helping each other reclaim their community while setting a peaceful and a loving example for those around them and for the whole community,” he said.
“This parish is that field hospital, envisioned by Pope Francis, where the Lord’s mercy is shared day in and day out alongside people struggling in many, many ways,” he continued. “Many who are in need, many devoid of hope, many desperate to encounter Jesus.”
Archbishop Lori prayed that the bishops’ presence at St. Peter Claver will convey the Church’s solidarity with everyone committed to bringing about “the change that is needed to ensure just and peaceful communities for God’s people.”
Archbishop Kurtz delivered the homily for the Mass.
“We need to head into the deep and announce the good news if we are to reverse the rising violence and the falling civility that plagues our nation,” he began.
“We know that announcing the good news of Jesus is more than simply a quick visit on a bus,” he said, stressing the importance of dialogue that is rooted in the gospel and that fosters responsible action.
“These acts will occur only if each of us recognizes the inherent dignity of every human being. Citizens young and old, black and white, in uniforms of blue, and every human being,” the archbishop added.
He invoked the parish’s patron saint, Peter Claver, as a guide. The 17th century Jesuit missionary spent his life in the service of African slaves who had been brought against their will to South America.
“He knew 400 years ago that a presence accompanied by prayer would move hearts away from violence as a solution to terrible conditions,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
“Peter Claver did not come with the feel of a distant observer, but as one who had heard the voice of Jesus, as one with a heart moved to engagement,” he continued. “So for violence to fall and civility to rise, everyone must do a part. The dignity that is ours as children of God is a gift, but it is also a task, a mission. “
He told the bishops that their difficult path begins “with prayerful witness and humble beseeching.”
“Lord Jesus, change our hearts,” the archbishop prayed. “We are sent on the mission by the voice of Jesus Christ, risen and glorified, who confidently says ‘head into the deep’.”
“May the peace of Christ reign, violence fall, and civility rise,” Archbishop Kurtz said.