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Gloria PurvisFebruary 24, 2022
A demonstrator in St. Paul, Minn., uses a megaphone during a Black Lives Matter demonstration March 19, 2021. (CNS photo/Nicholas Pfosi, Reuters)

On “The Gloria Purvis Podcast,” Gloria speaks with Bishop Shelton Fabre, who currently heads the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, La., and leads the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In February, Pope Francis appointed him archbishop of Louisville, Ky. When he is formally installed in March, Bishop Fabre will become one of two Black archbishops in the United States at a time of racial reckoning for both the country and the Catholic Church.

In their conversation, Gloria and Bishop Fabre talk about the experience of Black Catholics and the role of “wokeness” in the church. And Gloria asks: Is it possible to merely “pray away” racism?

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Gloria Purvis: What was your reaction to finding out you were going to be appointed the archbishop of Louisville?

Bishop Shelton Fabre: My heart immediately went to the wonderful people here in Houma-Thibodaux because Houma-Thibodaux has been my home for the past eight-and-a-half years. And I’ve journeyed on these bayous with the wonderful, wonderful people whose faith is so strong and whose hope is rooted in Jesus Christ, particularly now as they recover from Hurricane Ida. But I have absolute trust in the lay and clergy leadership in this diocese that the recovery from Hurricane Ida will continue.

So that’s where I am right now. Happy and excited—looking forward to going to Louisville, yet at the same time, I’m also recognizing what the Lord is calling me to let go of.

GP: You first became [an auxiliary] bishop in New Orleans. How do you believe that helped prepare you for being the archbishop in Louisville?

SF: Wherever I have gone, I always remember I am there to share and to teach the people. But I also remember that, equally important, people have something to teach me. And so the different cultures and the different people and the resiliency of the people of the Archdiocese of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina—they taught me a lot about what it means to stay faithful and to believe even though your life goes off in a direction that you didn’t expect.

Wherever I have gone, I always remember I am there to share and to teach the people. But I also remember that, equally important, people have something to teach me.

It’s also just, I can’t do it alone. The archbishop [of New Orlean] could not do it alone, and none of us really can do it alone. We’re all in this together.

GP: When you say “all of us together,” I’m thinking about what is happening in the church right now, the current moment of dealing with racism and some solid pushback against the church’s move to really talk about racism....

Some people are finding that being a part of the parish, or attending Mass, [is] an occasion of sin because of either the hostility that they’re facing regarding issues of racism or because the matter is just completely ignored. Some Black Catholics are so frustrated, they’re leaving the church. What do we do?

SF: I would say to Black Catholics: Do not allow the humanity, the human sin of the church to blot out who it is that we believe in and who [it is that] comes to us, Jesus Christ. That’s a very important distinction to remember. We have to learn how to love something that is not perfect.

[Do] not be afraid to enter into those courageous conversations about race in the church. It is hard and it is slow, but I think that this is a watershed moment for our country and a watershed moment for our church. And I think we do, in constructive ways, have to call one another to accountability. We have to call one another and challenge one another to be the disciples of Christ that Jesus calls us to be.

I would say to Black Catholics: Do not allow the humanity, the human sin of the church to blot out who it is that we believe in and who [it is that] comes to us, Jesus Christ.

I know that people are frustrated. I know that people are disappointed. I know that people even have what I will call a prophetic anger. But I am asking them to stay with us, to allow the Eucharist to strengthen us for the task that is ours and to do what we can at this moment, where I think we have a very opportune time to invite people into those conversations.

GP: I’m curious to know if any of that “prophetic rage” came out in the listening sessions that you held across the country for people to talk about racism. Was there anything in particular that struck you?

SF: There are two things that struck me. Number one is the great pain and hurt that came out of the listening sessions—not only from Black Catholics but from Hispanic Catholics, Native American Catholics, Asian Pacific Islanders.

The second thing that I remember was the enduring faith of those who spoke, who said: “This is my church, and I am not leaving. My church has hurt me, but this is my church and I am not leaving. And I am here today because I want to help the church to begin to take the steps to rid the church of the evil and sin, the racism.”

GP: For me and other Black people, not just Black Catholics, when we use the term “woke,” we mean, “awaken to the injustice or suffering of another,” which moves you to want to do something about it. As a bishop, how do you understand woke-ism?

SF: For us as Catholics, “being awakened” is probably a better term. It’s far less loaded. And I mean awakened by the Holy Spirit to the pain and suffering of another, an awakening that comes from hearing that person’s story. But not only hearing it—that’s one side of it—but also allowing it to change me. There was a priest who once said, “I cannot say that I’m truly listening to someone unless I can accept the fact that I may be changed by what I hear.” It doesn’t mean I will be, but it means that I’m open to that.

For us as Catholics, “being awakened” is probably a better term. It’s far less loaded. And I mean awakened by the Holy Spirit to the pain and suffering of another.

So I think it’s, it’s an awakening that not only leads us to identification with the pain and suffering of another, but also leads us to do something about it, to the best of our ability: to allow the spirit that has awakened this in our hearts to make us instruments of Christ’s healing and peace, and instruments of God’s justice that bring about a change that seeks to respond to that suffering of another. That leads me, as Pope Francis so wonderfully says, to accompany that person and to encounter that person, and then to do something to the best of my ability to respond to the human dignity that I see and to love as Jesus loves.

GP: How would you advise people that are saying: “We only need to pray and live as Christ told us to live, and that’s it, we shouldn’t be involved in these other secular things”?

SF: Our prayer should lead us to action, and our actions must always be guided by prayer. The two have got to go together. Yes, we do pray, which gives us guidance and direction, but that prayer has to lead us to act, and our actions must be based in our prayer. The Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice said—and I’m paraphrasing—that laws have an important role to play in overcoming racism, but laws will not change the human heart.

Our prayer should lead us to action, and our actions must always be guided by prayer. The two have got to go together.

There also needs to be a conversion of heart because laws alone have a role to play, but laws alone will not accomplish what Christ is calling us to do. Even Dr. Martin Luther King longed for that “beloved community” where people would do the right thing not only because of the law but because it’s the right thing to do. I think the church is in the unique position to call for a change of human hearts. And that, ultimately, will get us where Jesus wants us to be.

GP: I’m wondering what’s next for the Ad Hoc Committee on Racism. I know there were people who wanted certain things [in the U.S.C.C.B.’s pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts”] to be less “comforting” to certain segments of the population...and maybe felt that the pastoral letter could have helped with that conversion by pricking the consciences of people, particularly white Catholics, who had been ensnared in this particular sin.

SF: Unfortunately, the pandemic interrupted us, but we will pick up the listening sessions again. We are working with college campus ministries to integrate teachings against the evil and sin of racism on college campuses. We are working with seminaries and houses of formation so that they will be preparing priests and religious who will be adequately prepared and comfortable talking about the evil and the sin of racism. We are continuing to be involved in policy [work] with the U.S.C.C.B.—looking at policymaking and how that can be used to end racism.... And then [we are] continuing to try and lift up the pastoral letter, encouraging people to read it and to move it forward in their parish.

GP: You yourself, obviously, have gone through seminary. What would you say was a difference then in terms of discussing racism in the seminary as a part of forming men for the priesthood, versus what you’re hoping will be accomplished now?

SF: When I was in the seminary, the church was becoming racially diverse. I think now the church is more racially diverse. And so I think that men and women who are going to be ministering the church have to be prepared to deal with a multicultural and racially diverse church. And I think that is why it’s very important today that we do this in seminaries and in houses of formation.

GP: If you consider immigration and things like that, we’re going to have a more racially diverse church in the United States. And we need to be prepared for that and understand the church isn’t somehow being “lost,” but it’s just [that] the face of the U.S. church is changing.

Before we leave, I’m just curious as to what your hopes and expectations are for Louisville, for your archdiocese.

SF: I do hope that together we can become the church that Jesus Christ is calling us to be and say, as you said, “the church is not being lost with all of our diversity.” We are becoming more and more what Jesus calls us to be, which is brothers and sisters in Christ, each with our own unique cultural and racial gifts. And we bring all of that to the one body of Christ.

So it is my prayer that in Louisville, we will pray together. It is my prayer in Louisville that we will accompany one another. It is my prayer in Louisville that we will act together in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. It’s my simple prayer that in Louisville we can more and more become the church that Jesus Christ is calling us to be. And the way that we do that is by each and every one of us becoming the disciple that Jesus Christ calls us to be.

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