December, 2016

Raising the Issue

An article entitled, “The Challenge of Unconscious Racial Bias” by Fr. Bryan Massingale appeared in the Fall, 2016 issue of The Church in the 21st Century published by Boston College ( This was an excerpt from Conscience and Catholicism, Rights, Responsibilities and Institutional Resources published by Orbis Books in 2015. In the article he stated, “Racism is a symbol system, a culture operating on a preconscious level, a learned and communal frame of reference that shapes identity, consciousness, and behavior – the way social groups understand their place and worth. Race, in the Western world, tells us who we are.” Fr. Massingale offered ways to raise consciousness and counteract the movement toward separation and prejudice. “I suggest that a way forward lies in the cultivation of authentic interracial solidarity and trans-formative love (compassion). . . . What would authentic interracial solidarity entail? It would seem that the following would be among the essential requirements: an ability to hear and be present to black anger; the interior space to welcome perspectives that significantly differ from one’s own; and the cultivation of genuinely affective relationships with persons of color.” (p. 31) In an email sent in response to this Newsletter he mentioned, “One of the benefits and challenges of being Catholic is that we have sisters and brothers of faith who are ethnically and racially different than whites (in many dioceses, the majority of Catholics are nonwhite).  The challenge of this moment is for the Catholic Church to live up to our name by becoming truly ‘catholic’ –that is, radically inclusive – especially of those whom society disdains or even demeans.”

Enter the Parish

What might a parish do to address this issue of racial bias, knowing that it includes all persons of color? Preaching or teaching on the subject is not enough. There needs to be creative actions that touch people’s lived experience. Presented below is just one of many ways of proceeding.

  • The pastor sets the tone. He might feel that this would be a good time to give racial solidarity a primary focus, perhaps even declaring next year to be a Year of Racial Solidarity.
  • He presents this idea to members of the staff and is encouraged by their enthusiastic response. They immediately begin to brainstorming how this new focus could be reflected in their ministries and programs. No longer is it just the pastor’s priority, it gains momentum through the staff’s heightened awareness and willingness to become involved.
  • The pastor then goes to the pastoral council and asks for more ideas of how this emphasis on racial solidarity might shape and influence all that takes place in the parish community over the coming year.
  • One council member suggests forming a Racial Solidarity Committee that could plan, coordinate and oversee events throughout the year that would keep this initiate present in the minds of the parishioners.
  • The council find two persons to co-chair the group and help them pick five other people known for their commitment and creativity to join them in this effort for the coming year.
  • The pastor kicks off the Year of Racial Solidarity by inviting a multicultural pastor from a neighboring parish to join him for the weekend homilies. Both pastors announce a joint “Gathering of Solidarity” to include staff, leaders and parishioners from both parishes as a way of getting to know one another.
  • The committee, now made up of members from both parishes, begin planning a Day of Service. Projects are arranged throughout the local community, each requiring a crew of 10 to 15 people. By pre-arrangement, volunteers from both churches spend three hours on a Saturday sharing the task. They return to the neighboring church for a brief prayer service and a time to share stories with one another. From there they move to the parish hall for a celebration of food, music, videos from the service projects and presentation of gifts. This is only the first of many programs planned for the Year of Racial Solidarity where “the cultivation of genuinely affective relationships” might begin to blossom.

Tom Sweetser, SJ