By ANDREW NELSON, Staff writer | Published August 24, 2017 | En Español
ATHENS—Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory urged Catholic college students to have the courage of faith to respond to hatred and bigotry.
Speaking to about 500 students at the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia, the archbishop focused on a faith response to the violent and hate-filled demonstrations that took place during a rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 11-12.
The archbishop came to celebrate the first Mass of the new semester at UGA on Sunday, Aug. 20, and preached to a standing-room-only congregation.
“The voices of hatred are not the final voices to be heard,” he said in his homily.
While he prayed the greatest hardships the Athens students face are tough exams or roommates with annoying habits, Archbishop Gregory said if voices of bigotry and racism appear, Catholic voices should be “the counterpoint to those voices of hatred.”
Archbishop Gregory is the senior African-American Catholic leader in the United States. He led a task force of the U.S. Catholic bishops formed last year to respond to the shooting deaths of unarmed African-American men by police and to the ambush killing of police officers.
In his homily, the archbishop said many women and men who came of age during the civil rights era thought the slurs of white supremacists had been quieted and “the questions of bigotry and race while not completely solved, were certainly no longer front page news.”
“We know there are voices—voices that perhaps we thought had been silenced, or at least embarrassed enough to go off center stage—that have come back with the use of media and the internet and begun to speak words we thought were long since dismissed,” he said.
Youth are stepping forward
He told the group of young Catholics to look to their peers as a source of hope. He cited the 40,000 people who rallied in Boston Aug. 19 to counter the message of white supremacists and neo-Nazis and the group of young counter-protesters in Charlottesville, one killed by a car deliberately driven into their group. The woman killed, Heather Heyer, was 32.
“So many of the voices that stood up in counter distinction to the hatred and the racism, the bigotry, were voices of young people, your peers, in Charlottesville, yesterday in Boston,” the archbishop said.
People who stood up against hatred this summer are too young to remember the civil rights marches 50 years ago against Jim Crow laws. They are of a generation who didn’t live through the “harsh reality of forced segregation, who never saw people be water-hosed or attacked by dogs,” he said.
Yet they are the ones who have stepped forward.
“So many of these young people decided to say, ‘We will not endure this. The voices of hatred are not the final voices to be heard.’”
If circumstances demand it, the archbishop said, he prayed for the Catholic community to take a stand for justice and that “your faces will be the faces of people who will say, ‘We will not live that way. We will not treat others that way. We don’t believe that is the American way.’”
Students can lean on the values taught by their parents, the diversity of their friends and their faith to live a life of justice, he said.
“I hope there are people in this assembly who realize their call to justice and who will find the courage, if the occasion demands, to stand up for justice and for peace and harmony.”
The words of the prophet Isaiah are important, he said: “Observe what is right. Do what is just.”
Stand with the vulnerable
Students and Catholic leaders on campus said the message came at the right time, as it reinforced the foundation of their faith. Some said hearing the archbishop talk about the unrest in a religious setting made them feel empowered to act against racial hatred.
There are people who feel “under threat by people who are racist or hateful,” said Franciscan Father John Coughlin, the director of the Catholic Center. It is a “moral imperative” for those who follow Jesus to stand with those threatened, he said.
The center’s book club this semester focuses on Catholic moral teaching and the archbishop’s theme of protecting human dignity is the foundation of the Catholic perspective, he said.
Chris Johnson, 19, grew up at St. Anthony of Padua Church, Atlanta. He was an altar server for the Mass. The message was well timed because the archbishop linked religious faith and social justice, Johnson said.
“It was really nice to hear it at Mass,” he said.
“I feel like we take a few steps forward and a few steps back,” said Johnson, who is African-American. He added at the university he is surrounded by a diverse group of friends.
Polo Vargas, 20, who attends Holy Trinity Church, Peachtree City, said Athens is a diverse, welcoming community. He said however, there is an obvious need to understand differences so they don’t create conflict.
Sarah Scherer, 19, a business management major from San Diego, California, said the archbishop’s message reinforced for her the mandate of the Catholic faith to care about all people.
“It’s a big part of our faith,” she said.