Leaders hope local application will be made

Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

While Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl was writing to the Catholic community in his archdiocese, Pam Harris, director of the Diocese of Richmond’s Office for Black Catholics, found much of what he said applicable to the Diocese of Richmond.

One of the cardinal’s points that resonated with Harris was his stating, “Often racism is both learned from others and born of ignorance from not interacting with people who are from a different culture and ethnic heritage.”

She noted that lack of interaction is a problem in the diocese.

“The times when you have Black History Month (February), Black Catholic History Month (November), times when we’ve had African liturgies — anything related to the black Catholic community and it’s out there for the diocese — nine times out of 10 it’s only going to be people of color, African Americans, who are going to be there,” Harris said.

She said the reconciliation that is needed is not going to occur if those who are not African American or Hispanic don’t participate in those events.

“How are we supposed to be together as one people, and you don’t know who I am and you don’t know why I celebrate the way I do if you’re not there with me?” Harris said.

Devin Jones, administrative assistant in the Office for Black Catholics, said that what the cardinal addressed is something “black people have always had to deal with.”

“It’s not something that hasn’t been addressed, but it’s so close to Richmond that maybe it is being looked at in a different light that is more local, as opposed to black people in large metropolitan areas,” he said.

Harris said dealing with racism can’t just be “a room full of black people only talking to each other,” but rather requires an effort of “encouraging and educating others” on everyone’s part.

“It has to be a unified effort with all of the ministries under the Pastoral Center to really be focused and to acknowledge that this is something that we need to do and want to do and how do we implement it,” she said.

Noting the cardinal’s statement that “racism is a sin,” Jones said people need to recognize that sin and “where they participate in that sin.”

He continued, “Because most people say, ‘Yes, racism is a sin, but I don’t do it.’ And they don’t recognize the time where they are either complacent to it when they see it happening, they say nothing, do nothing, or when they actually are discriminating against a person because of their race.”

Jones suggested that in parishes where there isn’t a predominant population of color, racism needs to be discussed.

“Communities need to assess where do we fall into that sin of racism. Until that happens, you won’t see much progress,” he said. “It’ll continue to be a problem — it’ll be a black problem or a Hispanic problem, and it’s not; it’s a sin problem that all Catholics face.”

As part of the racial separations within the Church, Jones noted the saints who are venerated.

“As people of color, we need to continually — I don’t want to use the words ‘have to,’ but it’s normal for us to venerate people like St. Dominic and different European saints, but when it comes to venerating people like Fr. Augustus Tolton, Pierre Toussaint and St. Augustine, who was black, you don’t really see that unless it is in our (black) communities,” he said.

Fr. Tolton is a “servant of God,” a title granted when the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approves the opening of one’s cause for sainthood. Toussaint has the title “venerable,” a designation granted by the same congregation once it has determined the candidate lived a life of “heroic virtue.”

Jones said all Catholics seeing the universality of those saints would make a difference.

“Once we start to recognize those saints that don’t look like us as part of our family, we can reach out to the people that look like those saints and say, ‘These are our brothers and sisters.’”

Editor’s note: For more information about Black Catholic History Month and the Office for Black Catholics, call (804) 359-5661, Ext. 104 or http://richmonddiocese.org/office/office-for-black-catholics/.