Catholics throughout the United States are being urged to pray for racial justice on Sept. 9 to mark the Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities, a commemoration called for earlier this summer by bishops following several high-profile cases of violence involving police officers and civilians, against a backdrop of racial unrest.
“We hope to highlight the importance of prayer as a reasonable and efficacious response to the violence that has touched too many communities in our nation,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta said Thursday, on a call with reporters.
“We also hope that through this prayer, local dialogues will take place in parishes and in small communities to highlight the root causes of this tension that obviously is still very much a part of too many of our lives.”
Archbishop Gregory is leading a task force convened in July by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is charged with gathering materials related to racial justice already being used in dioceses across the country and to promote dialogue in communities affected by violence.
The group is expected to present a final report to the U.S.C.C.B. during their fall meeting in November.
Archbishop Gregory, who is black, said that the work of promoting racial justice falls not just to those who are directly affected by racism and violence, but is the job of all people, especially Catholics.
“Not every neighborhood and every urban environment is filled with violence,” he said. But all Catholics have a duty to “to raise up the frustration that drives the violence, whether it be loss of economic opportunity, jobs, education.”
“All of those things that are really systemic examples of racism that need to be identified and confronted,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory said he expects the issue of gun violence, and what to do about it, to be addressed in the report.
“Catholic bishops are on record calling for a really significant review of the proliferation of guns in our country and ways that will safeguard our people, whether it be background checks, or the elimination of certain types of high caliber weapons,” he said.
“Our prayer, our hope is that the bishops and the local pastors will continue to push on the local level real serious gun control and safety precautions because we know that all politics is local.”
During Thursday’s call, Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, said that beyond the need for stricter gun control laws, “the deeper question is why are [people] turning to guns, why is it that they believe violence will bring about what they want?”
Several incidents of alleged police brutality against African Americans this year, including the deaths of some unarmed black men at the hands of white officers, have brought attention to the issue of discord between law enforcement and people of color.
Archbishop Gregory said those concerns would be addressed during a Mass on Friday in Atlanta for police and first responders.
“We will use that vehicle both to thank them for their service, to pledge to them our support and respect, but also to make the theme of racial harmony and justice a part of that celebration,” he said. “It brings together two moments, that in many situations, are not often locked together.”
Bishop Fabre also said that bishops are drafting a pastoral letter on racism, which has been in the works for a couple of years.
“It’s in the very beginning stage, but it will certainly address how is it that racism manifests itself in society, and maybe even in the church today,” he said. “Racism is something that remains, and it can adapt to new circumstances.”
The chair the U.S.C.C.B. subcommittee on African-American affairs, Bishop Fabre said that prayer is the first step of a “very long process of working toward racial harmony and healing in our community.”
“As people of faith, we always begin with prayer and then that prayer leads and empowers us to undertake action,” he said.
He stressed the need for dialogue and bridge building before racial tensions erupt in violence.
“If tensions do run high, they know one another and there’s not a rush to judge one another,” he said.
He said the Catholic Church could be a partner to the Black Lives Matter movement, “working with them to see how together we can assist one another in addressing these needs in the community.”
The Day of Prayer for Peace in our Communities coincides with the feast day of St. Peter Claver, a 16th century Spanish Jesuit, who is the patron saint of African Americans.
Archbishop Gregory said he hopes the Day of Prayer is just the first step in an ongoing conversation about race and justice. He pointed to Catholic schools in the archdiocese as an example of how that might work.
“All of the school kids at the same hour will offer the prayer of peace, and they will take home those prayer cards,” he said. “When parents and grandparents ask, ‘What did you school today?’ they will be able to say, ‘We prayed for peace,’ which will hopefully generate some conversation in all the homes that those youngsters come from.”
The prayer, created for the Day of Prayer, says, “Fill us with your mercy so that we, in turn, may be merciful to others. Strip away pride, suspicion and racism so that we may seek peace and justice in our communities.”
“Hopefully the prayer will soften hearts and enlighten minds as we move forward,” Archbishop Gregory said.
Michael O’Loughlinis the national correspondent for America. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.