A Response to “Open Wide Our Hearts”

In 2018 the Bishops of the United States published Open Wide Our Hearts:  The Enduring Call to Love – A Pastoral Letter Against Racism.  I have read criticisms of the pastoral letter from theologians and thought I needed to read it myself.  This is one lay woman’s response to the letter and what the Bishops were calling the membership of the Church to do and be.

The first thing the letter does is to define racism.

“Racism arises when…a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard.  Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice.”

“Racism occurs because a person ignores the fundamental truth that…all (are) equally made in the image of God.”

The inspiration for engaging in the work of eradicating racism is found in Micah 6:8:

“You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you:  Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Using Micah as the inspiration for the different sections of the letter, they talk about doing justice.  The Bishops quote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate, no. 6: “For a nation to be just, it must be a society that recognizes and respects the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples.”  To do justice or to be just means to be in right relationship with God, with others and all of God’s creation.

The letter goes on to relate, in a capsule, the experiences of various minorities in the U.S.:  Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics.  White explorers brought indignities to the indigenous peoples of America.  Policies were made that were directed toward the theft of the land.  The government forcefully relocated the Native Americans in marches such as the “Trail of Tears” and the “Long Walk.’   Native American children were taught to be American, not speak their native language or hold onto their traditions.  Those Africans brought to the shores of America suffered at the hands of White America from the moment they stepped on the shores in 1619, enslaved.  Families were separated and sold, marriages were forbidden, and children maltreated and forced to work.  Then we had Jim Crow laws and systemic discrimination to prevent African Americans from wealth building opportunities.  Some of the same practices have been applied to the Hispanic population in this country.  Difficulties in obtaining housing, employment, healthcare and education become barriers to their American dream. 

The Bishops continue to talk about Micah’s urge “to love goodness.”  When we categorize people based on unjust assumptions, we fail to love them.  When we fail to love others, we fail in providing a just society for them.  We use excuses to explain the situation the other finds themselves in:  they’re lazy, they cheat the welfare system, they’re all either on drugs or sell them and on it goes. 

The bishops call this time an “…urgent call of love.” Love is willing the good of the other, up to and including laying down our power, prestige, wealth and even lives that others might live in freedom.  This kind of love has not one thing to do with feelings and everything to do with choice.  In this time of social unrest, when protests are going on calling for racial justice, I would have to agree it is urgent that we try love.  They say:

“Overcoming racism is a demand of justice, but because Christian love transcends justice, the end of racism will mean that our community will bear fruit beyond simply the fair treatment of all.”

What I found interesting, and a bit puzzling was that, in support of these statements, the Bishops tell a story of a slave who escaped to Illinois who felt a calling to become a priest.  Augustus Tolton, Servant of God, applied to seminaries in the U.S. but they all turned him away.  So he went to school in Rome and was ordained.  When he returned, he was tormented by a white brother priest so much so that the Archbishop of Chicago invited him to Chicago to minister there, where he served until his death in 1897.

It seems to me that this story acknowledges the great failure of the Church to live the vision of Christ.  It seems to whitewash Tolton’s experience and sufferings as a great gift to the Church of people suffering for Christ’s name.  That is certainly a noble action, but to suffer at the hands of the Church of which you are a part?  Could this be what Fr. Bryan Massingale means when he says it is one of the fatal flaws in this document, that it was written so as not disturb the comfort of the White church?

In the next section, “Walk Humbly with God” we see the Church acknowledging Her own sins in the support of racism.  The Church institution, through the Papal Bull Dum Diversas, in 1452, granted permission for the buying and selling of Africans.  Subsequent Popes would condemn this practice, but American leadership failed to oppose slavery.  Some Bishops even owned slaves.  The acknowledgement of the sin and asking for forgiveness is a good first step but much more needs to be done.

As the document draws to a close, the Bishops give us recommendations for actions we should take to combat racism.

  • Being open to encountering Jesus and new relationships.
  • Resolving to work for justice.
  • Educating ourselves.
  • Working in our churches, committing themselves to preaching with regularity on racism. It also instructs priests and deacons to do the same.  Think back, how many homilies have you heard on race or racism since 2018 when this document was promulgated?
  • Changing structures. Asking that the body of Christ work to change institutional policies and laws that create barriers to equality. Being open to the need for conversion for all. Does this mean to suggest that the oppressed need conversion as well?  If so, that is another place the document tries not to make we white folks too uncomfortable.  They do not need conversion…they need justice done.  Seeing an end to racism as a commitment to life.

I am ashamed of my ancestors, and the legacy that has succeeded in preventing these people of God, my brothers and sisters, from equity and justice.   In my parish we recently had 2 presentations on racism.  98% of the audience was White.  In this situation, while it is a beginning, needs more.  White people cannot lift themselves out of generational racism by their bootstraps.  We need dialogue between Whites and Blacks.  We must see, hear, understand and be willing to be uncomfortable with those who bear the scars of racism in their souls.

The journey to anti-racism is a long one.  I am hoping that listening sessions will be held so the White congregations can hear the stories of our Black members.  I wish that parishes provided resources to teach their adults and children the reality of Black life in America and ways to heal it so we can reconcile with our beloved sisters and brothers.  I wish we held prayer services with an examination of conscience focused on racism.  I am hopeful that, at least in my parish, we will see actions toward eradicating racism in our midst and opening wide our hearts.


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