Ending racism demands ‘hard spiritual work,’ Eucharistic commitment, says Archbishop Pérez in pastoral

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Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez is seen at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul May 23, 2021. Archbishop Pérez has issued a pastoral letter on racial healing, 'We Are One Body', on the occasion of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, also known as Corpus Christi. (OSV News photo/Sarah Webb, CatholicPhilly.com)(CNS photo/Sarah Webb, CatholicPhilly.com)

(OSV News) — Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez has issued a pastoral letter on racial healing, addressing “the grave sin of racism” and urging the faithful to “embark on a journey of conversion” as believers in Jesus Christ and his real presence in the Eucharist.

“We cannot deny that racism persists within the body of Christ … (inflicting) immense pain, division, and injustice in our Church, our communities and our world,” said the archbishop in “We Are One Body,” released June 7 ahead of the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi).

“Philadelphia has a long history of hometown saints who dedicated their lives to fighting racism and discrimination like St. John Neumann, St. Katharine Drexel and St. Frances Cabrini,” wrote Archbishop Pérez.

Yet “despite their monumental efforts and the work of so many others, this evil continues to poison our souls, our Church, our relationships with one another and with God,” he said. “Racism shreds the fabric of our communities, hinders our unity and impedes the building of God’s kingdom on earth.”

In February, three students left the archdiocese’s St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls, located in Philadelphia, after being investigated for creating a social media video featuring blackface and racial slurs.

The incident drew both national attention and a swift response from Archbishop Pérez and his Commission on Racial Healing, established in 2021.

In May, Archbishop Pérez and the 18-member commission — comprised mostly of lay archdiocesan parishioners — unveiled a short film in both English and Spanish stressing the destructive nature of racism and the shared responsibility to counter it.

The film was shown to students at St. Hubert and other archdiocesan high schools during a May 17 prayer service and student-led anti-racism workshop. Archdiocesan parishes also were asked to specifically pray for racial healing at Mass on Pentecost Sunday (May 28).

In his pastoral letter, Archbishop Pérez extended “a deep apology to all who have been wounded by racist words or deeds — subtle or overt, intentional or unintentional, sins of commission and omission — particularly those committed by members of our faith community.”

“Like the Prodigal Son, we have sinned against heaven and against you, and we ask your pardon and God’s,” he said. “With God’s help, we resolve to do better.”

Citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1869), Archbishop Pérez noted that “racism is not limited to individual sin,” but “(makes) men accomplices of one another,” thereby creating “structures of sin that in turn give rise to social situations and institutions contrary to the divine goodness.”

He noted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reaffirmed the structural nature of racism in their 2018 pastoral letter, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”

“As Catholics, we are compelled to recognize that racism is a stain upon the body of Christ – and if one part of the body suffers, ‘all the parts suffer with it,’ (as) St. Paul tells us,” said Archbishop Pérez, citing 1 Cor 12:26. “That means that whatever wounds one, even if unintentional, is everyone’s responsibility to heal.”

Combatting racism “will take hard spiritual work,” including “prayerful reflection, unflinching examination of conscience and a commitment to unlearning conscious and unconscious biases that may have taken root in each of us,” Archbishop Pérez said.

Action at the parish level is “crucial,” he said, encouraging parish communities to “create opportunities for encounter across racial and cultural lines to better understand and appreciate the richness of diversity that God has bestowed on us.”

“These events and encounters may feel awkward at first, but we are called to love those whom we do not know,” he said.

Catholics must also “foster a culture where open and honest conversations about race can happen,” the archbishop said. “Only through dialogue can we witness the pain that racism has inflicted, the barriers we must raze, and the stereotypes we must root out. Then, and only then, can we begin the healing that Jesus commands us to undertake.”

Archdiocese of Philadelphia racial healing commission chair Father Stephen Thorne told OSV News the pastoral letter is “the beginning” of an initiative “we want to make sure is lived out.”

“We cannot call ourselves a Eucharistic people and harbor racism,” he said, adding that Archbishop Pérez’s letter “fits perfectly” with Corpus Christi.

Father Thorne said he is hopeful about the impact of practical steps the archdiocese has taken to address racism.

St. Hubert students “are doing a restorative justice program” following the racial video incident, and “a lot of good has come from that painful moment,” he said.

“Change will take time, but that should not hinder us because we know that nothing is impossible for God,” Archbishop Pérez said in his letter. “Our faith is based on hope, and hope does not disappoint.”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.