Janna Reynolds, The Catholic Virginian

On Friday, Aug. 28, the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Danville, celebrated a Mass of Atonement for racist actions committed by city leaders and residents over the past centuries at its daily 12:10 p.m. Mass.

That same evening, a “Unity Matters” rally was held in Danville to mark the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the march.

The faithful were invited to attend the Mass of Atonement in person while following COVID-19 safety protocol or via livestream on the parish Facebook page. 

Father Jonathan Goertz, pastor, began Mass by explaining why the Mass of Atonement was celebrated: 

“Dear brothers and sisters, as far as I know, on the entire planet, there is one single city that bills itself as the last capital of the Confederacy. And in that city, I know this for certain, there is one single Catholic Church. 

“And so it is incumbent on us, on this community, to offer this Mass as eucharistic sacrifice of atonement, seeking God’s forgiveness for sins, especially against respect for the dignity of all people and unity committed in the context of our city’s story.”

According to a press release from the parish, Danville “played a significant role in supplying Confederate forces” during the American Civil War and provided a brief refuge for Jefferson Davis and the Confederate cabinet as they fled advancing Union forces. 

The press release also stated that unjust actions a century later were not isolated incidents. On June 10, 1963, 38 people protesting segregation laws were jailed and dozens attending a prayer vigil on the courthouse steps were attacked by police.

In his homily, Father Goertz illustrated the Christian understanding of authentic love by quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, the renowned theologian and doctor of the Church whose feast is celebrated on August 28, and called him “one of our most important saints ‘of color.’”

Quoting St. Augustine, the priest said, “‘What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of (others). That is what love looks like.’” 

He said that authentic love “doesn’t just stay at home and keep to itself” because “the more love is shared with others, the more it actually exists.”

Father Goertz said that Jesus provided detailed instructions on how Christians should love one another, but that Christians often “just don’t do what Jesus calls us to do” and “fail to be who Jesus calls us to be.”

He said St. Augustine’s teaching that “God intended us to have dominion over creation, not over one another” was sometimes ignored by Church leaders who “seemed to make excuses for their own slave ownership and theologians (who) tried to make distinctions between just and unjust slavery” despite Church teachings that have, for centuries, been centered around Gospel values. 

“Fortunately, this convoluted history led the Church to increasingly affirm the reality that to enslave another human is to undermine the inherent human dignity,” Father Goertz said.

He noted that the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, promulgated by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council, condemned all forms of discrimination because it goes against God’s intentions.  

 “Catholics around the world bear some guilt for not fully adhering to this essential teaching,” the priest said.

Father Goertz said that despite Church teachings and numerous documents written by the U.S. bishops condemning racism as a sin, most recently in 2018 with “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” it continues to be present in society.

Sacred Heart, Father Goertz said, is a majority non-white congregation whose clergy, religious and parishioners have faced “hate, racism and exclusion,” and sometimes the Church leaders did not uphold the “value of inclusion.”

For example, Father Goertz recalled a time when Danville Catholics were not allowed to participate in civil rights demonstrations.

The priest said that today, “we need to do better in our Catholic witness” and “look critically at our political, economic, social, legal and educational structures” as well as at our own attitudes to combat racism.

“So we have a lot to think about, a lot to pray for, and a lot to do,” Father Goertz said. “We pray, as a local, national and international Church, for the grace and courage to serve in the Body of Christ as the hands to help others, the feet to hasten to the poor and needy, the eyes to see misery and want, the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of (others), and the vessels which transmit the saving love which flows out from the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

At the conclusion of Mass, Father Goertz sprinkled those physically in attendance with holy water to “remind them of their baptismal mandate to work for justice, unity and respect for all people, which are constitutive elements of the Kingdom of God.”