Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Baton Rouge

What pastors and parishes can do to combat systemic racism in the church

By FATHER JOSH JOHNSON, Catholic News Service | Published October 15, 2021

“What can our parishes do to combat the sins of racism in the geographical boundaries of our community?” This is a question I am frequently asked when I travel the nation to speak on the topics of racial justice and reconciliation. My response to this important question always begins with prayer.

Combating racism is a good and necessary work for the Catholic Church in the United States. However, every good work must be the fruit of our time spent in prayer with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Father Josh Johnson is director of vocations for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La. CNS photo/courtesy Father Johnson

In fact, prayer is the first mandate that Jesus gave to the apostles after their ordination at the Last Supper. Before they were commanded to preach, teach, baptize and make disciples of all nations, they were invited to spend an hour praying with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus invited the apostles to pray 2,000 years ago and Our Lord invites us to pray today. As a witness, Jesus spent time in prayer before he preached his first sermon, before he called the Twelve Apostles and before he entered into his passion.

As disciples of Christ, we are invited to imitate Our Lord and prioritize prayer so that our works of racial justice and reconciliation can be the fruit of our intimate communion with God.

Often when we reflect on the lives of the saints, we are drawn to their apostolic works. What goes unnoticed though is the amount of time they spent in prayer before they engaged in their works of justice and reconciliation.

For instance, St. Dominic spent hours in prayer in the eucharistic presence of Jesus before he preached his sermons.

Likewise, St. Jean Vianney woke up every day at 2 a.m. to pray in silence before the Blessed Sacrament. The fruit of his personal relationship with Jesus was manifested in the amount of hours he sat in the confessional offering the sacrament of reconciliation.

Similarly, St. Katharine Drexel prayed on her knees for four hours a day before the presence of Jesus in the tabernacle while she engaged in the work of racial justice for African Americans and Native Americans throughout the nation.

I cannot emphasize this enough; we must be men and women of prayer. The fruits of our prayer will be manifested in our works of racial justice and reconciliation. These works may include:

  • Offering Masses of reparation for the sins of racism in America.
  • Hosting listening sessions in which the people of color within the geographical boundaries of the parish are invited to share their stories of racism with the pastor, staff and leadership team.
  • Joining in protests of institutions and organizations that have racially unjust practices and policies.
  • Reading the writings about the Black Catholic experience from “Servant of God” Sister Thea Bowman, the late Father Cyprian Davis and the Black bishops of the United States.
  • Purchasing stained glass windows, statues and artwork of the Black saints and those on the path to canonization for our church parishes and schools.
  • Attending the Archbishop Lyke Conference and the National Black Catholic Congress and enrolling the parish staff into classes at Xavier University of Louisiana’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies.
  • Financially tithing to religious orders that serve predominantly Black communities such as the Sisters of the Holy Family, the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the Josephites.
  • Participating in small group Bible studies with people of different races, ethnicities and tongues.
  • Praying the rosary throughout the different neighborhoods in the geographical boundaries of the parish.
  • Inviting Catholic speakers of color to present at the parish Advent and Lenten missions.
  • Seeking out people of color for leadership roles on the staff, pastoral council and finance council.
  • Examining the parish church and school handbook guidelines along with people of color to ensure that there are not any policies that unintentionally alienate or discriminate against parishioners or students of color.

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The Holy Spirit is very creative. The Holy Spirit may inspire parishes to participate in these works or invite priests and their co-workers in the vineyard to do a number of other activities that are geared toward healing the racial divide in the geographical boundaries of their communities.

In the end, the capacity for each parish to bear supernatural fruit in their efforts to purify the sins of racism in their land will be rooted in the amount of time each priest and parishioner spends with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in prayer.

The ministries, apostolates and works that we participate in for this just cause must not be our first priority. Rather, communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in prayer must be prioritized above all else.

If we are faithful to prayer with the Trinity, then the fruits of our relationship with God will be manifested in our parish ministries, apostolates and works of racial justice and reconciliation.

Father Johnson is director of vocations for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an author and host of the podcast “Ask Father Josh.”