FALL RIVER, Mass. — Over the past two weeks, the nation’s focus has shifted from dealing with the shutdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic to responding to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minn. on May 25.
Reactions have been swift and often intense, resulting in a series of protests across the U.S. — some peaceful, others violent and volatile — with several taking place at locations within the Fall River Diocese.
Catholics across the diocese have likewise attempted to respond to Floyd’s murder and the resulting acts of violence it incited with words of support and a call for peace.
On June 3, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., released a formal statement to address a situation he deemed to be “trying, disturbing, and difficult.” (Click here for the full statement.)
The bishop acknowledged “violence and destruction serve no purpose other than to compound the challenges at hand.”
“Our collective response must reflect a respect for all people and a unified resolve to work for equality and justice for all,” he wrote.
Bishop da Cunha instead asked everyone to pray for the repose of George Floyd, for the comfort of his family and friends, and for all those who have suffered racial injustice.
Tom Dwyer, coordinator for Massachusetts Voice of the Poor and Spiritual advisor for the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the diocese, said he applauds Bishop da Cunha’s statement but he hopes to move beyond that and inspire “the laity and the clergy in our diocese in some kind of active outreach or protest.”
“We Catholics aren’t are typically inclined to be protesters, and if you look at the clergy that are leading the protests, in many cases, Catholic clergy are conspicuous by their absence as far as I’m concerned,” Dwyer told The Anchor. “But there are other things we can do. Our priests can talk about it. We can have a collective day of recognition — we could do things like that as a diocese or as a deanery. I’m sending out a letter encouraging everyone as the Spiritual advisor for the St. Vincent de Paul Society of diocese, that we have to deal with this at the local parish or conference level. To offer Spiritual reflections when we meet so that we can recognize and confront this issue. People who are in leadership positions in different small parish groups — the Knights of Columbus, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the women’s guilds — we all need to start talking about this and really start to deal with this and bring about that change of heart that I think is critical to really making lasting change.”
While Dwyer acknowledged that changes in legislation and policies are important, “what we really have to change is hearts and the culture.”
“I mean, people say you can’t legislate morality, but to move people forward you really have to change hearts and change culture to bring about a long-term change,” he said. “If this is truly going to be a watershed moment, then we have to deal with that aspect of it, the so-called white privilege, and recognize what it has meant to blacks, people of color, and people who are other than white over so many years.”
Father Gregory A. Mathias, pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in East Freetown, spoke from personal experience in his recent bulletin column entitled “Entrenched Racism.”
“In my extended family there are two bi-racial families: My cousin is married to an African-American man, and they have two lovely children, a girl and a boy,” Father Mathias wrote. “Her sister, my other cousin, has three adopted girls of mixed race. I think all of these children would be identified as African-American in this country. These are not distant relations — I am close to them and we engage at the holidays and during the summer. And I am aware of the concern they have — especially my cousin with the bi-racial son — of the things going on in this country with respect to ongoing racial injustice.”
Admitting it was difficult to take on the topic of racism as “a white man living in a predominantly white section of the state and nation,” Father Mathias nevertheless felt compelled to speak out.
“I can never adequately empathize with the experience of the black man in America,” he wrote. “But, as a Catholic Christian, I want to understand and to stand for justice. And, if I have any residues of racism in my blood or mind or soul, I want them purged by the grace of God Who created all human beings of every color in His image and likeness.”
Sadly, Father Mathias noted that “racism remains a persistent and pernicious scourge on our society.”
“The particular injustice of George Floyd’s death and the many others like him, who received a death sentence for an alleged petty crime, require the focus on the affected community at the center of the current protest movement,” Father Mathias wrote. “Young black men, like my own second cousin, are exceptionally vulnerable to misunderstanding, profiling and unjust prosecution in this country. One would have to turn a blind eye not to see that this is true.”
Father John M. Sullivan, pastor of Holy Redeemer Parish in Chatham, echoed these sentiments in his recent bulletin commentary entitled “The Veil Pulled Back.”
“Over the last few weeks, we have experienced the veil covering so many social ills suddenly pulled back to reveal injustices and inequalities in our world,” Father Sullivan wrote. “The existence of severe and ingrained racism in our country is evident as social unrest after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer has rocked many cities. This horrendous crime, yet again, reveals the lives of racial minorities are valued less than those of whites. Four hundred years after the introduction of black slavery into this country, we still have racism ingrained in our culture. It is a fact, and no one is immune to it.”
Father Sullivan suggested these difficult days should be viewed as lessons to be learned moving forward.
“We have an opportunity to create a new reality for our world,” he wrote. “It is a rare chance. Now is our opportunity to care about those suffering and in danger of being left behind. Now is our chance to take up the cause of all those who feel oppressed and fight to protect them. Now is the opportunity to give the disenfranchised the dignity all humankind richly deserves. Now is the time to help make God’s Kingdom come.”
In his latest bulletin column, Father Thomas Washburn, pastor of the Catholic Community of Central Fall River, quoted St. Augustine, who said: “Hope has two beautiful daughters — their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
“There is no better statement that captures how I and countless many — perhaps you, too — are feeling right now with the strife that is plaguing our nation,” Father Washburn wrote. “Racism has been called America’s original sin. Born in the age of slavery, the scourge of racism is something that we have never quite fully rid ourselves of as a nation.
“And, now, in our own time we see this original sin of our nation continue to express itself in case after case after case of brutality towards our black brothers and sisters as the hands of the very officers who are charged with keeping the peace. And, so, this violence fills our hearts with anger. Anger at the way things are, anger at the hatred in people’s hearts, anger that change seems to come so very slowly, and so very painfully.”
But Father Washburn said we cannot forget Hope’s other daughter, Courage.
“If we are merely angry at the way things are, then things will only continue to stay the same,” he wrote. “We need that courage to be the advocates for change, the advocates for love, the advocates for healing. Because ultimately as believers, we are not fatalists. We do not look at the way things are and simply come to the conclusion that they can never change.”
Reminding us of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount in which He said: “Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness,” Father Washburn offered prayers for George Floyd and “countless others who have been the victims of racism and hate.”
Father Michael R. Nagle, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish on Martha’s Vineyard, agreed that the death of George Floyd was the result of the “sin of hate.”
“Pope Francis has reminded us that we are called to be defenders of the Sacredness of life,” Father Nagle said. “Perhaps George Floyd’s death will help all people of good faith to stop and examine what each of us can do to defend the Sacredness of life — beginning in our homes, then moving to our communities, our parishes, our diocese, our state, our country, and our world. May George Floyd pray for us that we become the instruments of peace and justice that God has created us to be and calls us to be.”
Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth issued a “Statement of Solidarity” on its Facebook page June 4. It reads, in part:
“At this time of national and local turmoil, Bishop Stang High School wishes to underscore its unequivocal rejection of racism as an evil that has no place in our school, family or in society as a whole. Racism, both personal and systemic, is a direct contradiction of our Catholic mission as it destroys trust and sows disunity. Bishop Stang is committed in both word and deed to being a community of inclusion and respect for all, where racism cannot take root, and solidarity is the norm. And at this moment, our school family stands united with the African-American community.
“During this highly volatile moment in our nation and local communities, let us pray to our Father that we will respond to racism and violence with justice and love. Let us pray to Jesus that we will respond to injustice with merciful actions that will bring about healing rather than destruction. And, at this Pentecost, let us pray to the Holy Spirit that we receive a spirit of solidarity within our society and our school family.”
John T. Weldon, executive director and CEO of St. Vincent’s Services in Fall River, issued a written statement last week. As a faith-based organization and ministry of the diocese, Weldon reminded us all that before His death, Jesus expressed His desire that “They all may be one” (Jn 17:21) and also reminded us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31). Click here to read Weldon’s full statement.