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Jaisy A. JosephSeptember 14, 2023

In his book Synodality: A New Way of Proceeding in the Church, the Venezuelan theologian Raphael Luciani notes how the synodal process is rooted in the Second Vatican Council’s recovery of the ecclesiology of the local church. He further connects the importance of the local church with the specific synodal practices of listening. Pope Francis, states Professor Luciani, understands that:

the people of God must be listened to, in their particular place and time, “in order to know what the Spirit is saying to the Churches” (Rv 2:7). By listening to the people in their own places, each Church can find ways of proceeding that respond to the particular reality where ecclesial life and mission evolves.

These words beckon us to reflect prayerfully on what it means to be a local church in the United States today. What are the particularities of this time and this place that shape our ecclesial life and mission?

The U.S. bishops’ “National Synthesis of the People of God,” which emerged from the diocesan phase of planning for the Synod on Synodality, can serve as one source for discernment. Among the numerous wounds that the synthesis mentions, including the enduring pain from the clerical sex abuse crisis and the presence of sociopolitical polarization in the church, racism has surfaced as an important theme for contemplation. The synthesis notes how “Catholic people of color spoke of routine encounters with racism, both inside and outside the Church” and “Indigenous Catholics spoke of the generational trauma caused by racism and abuse in boarding schools.”

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has called the universal church away from a culture of exclusion and toward a new way of seeing and listening cultivated by a culture of encounter. In the United States, Catholic theologians of color have reflected this new way of seeing and listening by specifically attending to the presence of Christ amid the wounds of racism. How might the local church of the United States become a powerful witness of the good news amid cries for racial healing and justice?

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has called the universal church away from a culture of exclusion and toward a new way of seeing and listening cultivated by a culture of encounter.

Pope Francis’ call to mutual conversion

In his homily at the vigil Mass of the first Pentecost of his pontificate, in 2013, Francis suggested that the word encounter is crucial to what it means to be a Christian, stating: “In this ‘stepping out’ [of ourselves] it is important to be ready for encounter. For me this word is very important. Encounter with others.... Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others.” By imitating Jesus, the church is also meant to cultivate a culture of encounter that results in a new way of seeing and listening.

This new way of seeing is present in Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti” (2020), where he leads the reader into a lectiodivina of the parable of the good Samaritan. Of course, it is good to be like the Samaritan, who can see the full humanity of the person lying half dead on the side of the road—who is able to see the full humanity of one who would presumably deny him his own. However, Jesus is also teaching the scholar of the law, who would more readily identify with the dying traveler because of a history of racial strife between Jews and Samaritans, what it means to be on the receiving end of a loving gaze. In a culture of encounter, we are called not only to love the marginalized other, but also to receive love humbly from those whom we have maligned for so long. This capacity to both give and receive love is what leads to a conversion of heart.

In addition to calling the universal church to a new way of seeing, a culture of encounter invites the church to a new way of listening. Theinitial preparatory document for this global synod highlighted the mutual conversion of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 as a paradigm of this new way of listening. Here we witness Peter experiencing a strange vision in which a long sheet filled with animals of all kinds unfurls before him and he is given instructions to eat them. As a devout Jew, Peter is disturbed by these words and protests that he has never eaten anything against the traditions of his people. The voice speaks again and repeats the following words three times: “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane” (Acts 10:15).

Profoundly disturbed by the meaning of this vision and unsure of how to proceed, Peter has his doubts interrupted by the presence of three men who have been sent by Cornelius to find him. Experiencing the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Peter accompanies them to the house of Cornelius, where the latter had gathered his entire household to receive the apostle. As Peter crosses the threshold into the Roman centurion’s house, he says, “You know that it is unlawful for a Jewish man to associate with, or visit, a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Peter then listens to Cornelius tell of his profound spiritual encounter with a “man in dazzling robes” and immediately recognizes the presence of the resurrected Lord in this gentile’s life.

This recognition leads to Peter’s own deeper conversion regarding the vastness of God’s love even among the colonizers who ruled over his land, and who ultimately put Jesus to death. Stunned, the apostle exclaims: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). In this account, we witness how both Peter and Cornelius are protagonists in the singular story of salvation. There is neither an us v. them exclusion in the Lord nor is one dependent on the other for his salvation. Rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit, both individuals experience conversion because they can listen and recognize the presence of the resurrected Jesus in each other’s lives.

Peter’s realization that God shows no partiality encourages us to ask how we may better develop a culture of encounter that recognizes the presence of Christ in the entangled and wounded histories that constitute both U.S. society and the U.S. Catholic Church.

How might the local church of the United States become a powerful witness of the good news amid cries for racial healing and justice?

Listening to Catholic theologians of color

In his bookA World Church in Our Backyard, the Korean American Catholic theologian Simon C. Kim argues that the Holy Spirit was shaping the U.S. Catholic Church in 1965 through two moments that have yet to be fully integrated into our self-understanding as a local church. First, the Second Vatican Council, which concluded that year, opened the church to the world, becoming (as Karl Rahner stated) fully conscious of itself for the first time as a world church amid diverse cultures. Second, because of the civil rights movement led by African Americans in this country, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 abolished the prejudicial quota system and allowed a greater number of immigrants from the Global South (those from Asia had been banned, and almost no immigration from Africa was allowed, from 1924 onward) to arrive and establish communities in the United States.

The simultaneity of these ecclesial and historical events, Father Kim argues, belong to one movement of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, he continues, there were two blind spots, one before and one after the council, that prevented the U.S. Catholic Church from fully seeing the Spirit in these “signs of the times.” He argues that the first blind spot results from the inability of the U.S. bishops to fully acknowledge “what the Spirit was doing in their own society in terms of civil rights and race relations.” He finds it remarkable that in the votas sent to Rome in preparation for the council, international issues such as the threat of communism received more attention than the issues of racial injustice that also occupied national consciousness in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The second blind spot, Father Kim argues, appears in how the understanding of “world church” after the council was not prepared for postmodern realities. In the United States, the world church:

was understood as churches all over the world, but a church “out there,” not occupying the same spaces geographically. [But] in the postmodern world of migration and globalization, the world church was no longer a reality “out there” in different parts of the world. Rather, the world church would be coming to the backyards and neighborhoods of societies that were [presumed to be] culturally homogenous.

To move beyond these blind spots and see in a new way, the U.S. Catholic Church must acknowledge how pre-Vatican II immigration differed from post-Vatican II immigration and how this difference has ecclesial implications for our dioceses today.

Before Vatican II, Catholic immigration to the United States came mostly from Europe. A system of ethnic enclaves supported by national parishes protected these immigrants from the dominant culture while also simultaneously separating Catholics according to their heritage countries, like Ireland, Italy and Poland. In the ensuing decades, however, Catholics in the United States who were second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants from Europe eventually lost touch with their heritage cultures and merged into English-speaking, Anglo-conforming American parishes.

This experience of the “melting pot” has often been set as a model for post-Vatican II Catholic immigrants. However, what this implied vision of Americanization ignores is the racism that prevents Catholics of color from ever assimilating (or even desiring to assimilate) into whiteness. Because post-1965 immigration mostly comes from the Global South, the postmodern reality of the U.S. Catholic Church involves an unprecedented complexity of cultural relations that bear the wounds of racism and colonialism.

Furthermore, we must recall that the dominant narrative of the U.S. Catholic Church as an immigrant church ignores the fact that not all Catholics are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Many Catholics were forced onto reservations, others arrived in chains, and some had the border cross them. (The assumption that they crossed the border voluntarily is in many cases not true.) Indigenous, African and Latinx Catholics were partaking of the Eucharist on this land long before the United States became a country. Yet their experiences often remain on the edges of U.S. Catholic consciousness. The Holy Spirit has been calling forth theologians from these communities to reflect and articulate how God is responding to the cries of God’s people from the underside of U.S. history.

The dominant narrative of the U.S. Catholic Church as an immigrant church ignores the fact that not all Catholics are immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

Popular religiosity

The Cuban American theologian Roberto Goizueta, for example, in his seminal workCaminemos con Jesús, notes how Latinx theologians and ministers have been bringing together the resources of their faith and of the academy to attend to their people and to express the presence of Christ encountered in popular religiosity. In a passage that moves me as much now as it did when I was a college sophomore, he vividly describes a Good Friday service at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Tex.

As the church community accompanies Jesus as he carries his cross through the streets of San Antonio, “[i]t becomes clearer than ever that this is not so much San Fernando’s celebration as that of the entire community.” One of the most moving points in the Stations of the Cross procession, Dr. Goizueta notes, occurs when Jesus falls for the first time, in front of one of San Antonio’s most famous Mexican restaurants. A woman in colorful garments comes out onto the second-story balcony to sing to Jesus the song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Dr. Goizueta observes how “the deep sense of anguish and love reflected in her beautiful voice is felt by the entire crowd, who stand motionless as the mournful eyes of this woman, looking down at the fallen Jesus, meet his glassy, bloodshot eyes, glancing up at her.”

Here, as in Pope Francis’ writing, the loving gaze of Jesus becomes present in the 21st century, asking us if we can see anew and receive the love of the one we have dehumanized and marginalized for so long, asking us if we can love him whose body we continue to wound when we remain indifferent to the cries of our brothers and sisters.

In her bookKnowing Christ Crucified, the Black Catholic theologian M. Shawn Copeland expands on this profound intimacy with Jesus by reflecting on the apophatic wisdom of the enslaved, which was passed down from generation to generation in the form of spirituals. These songs were simple but not simplistic, she notes, in conveying Gospel truths that disrupt any lie that offered false religious legitimation for the control of Black bodies through chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation or mass incarceration. The enslaved were listening deeply whenever the Gospel was preached to them. She argues that Jesus of Nazareth captured the religious imagination and affections of the enslaved people in at least three ways:

First, Jesus identified with and preached the gospel to those who were poor and afflicted, oppressed and dispossessed: “Did you ever see the like before, King Jesus preaching to the poor….” The enslaved people understood the similarity of their condition with that of the Bible’s outcast and despised.

Second, Jesus was a man of word and deed: he does what he says that he will do: “My Lord’s done just what he said, He’s heal de sick and rais’d de dead.” The cures and miracles reported by the Gospels witness to Jesus’s continuing transformative power.

Finally, because Jesus himself was beaten, tortured, and murdered, the enslaved people believed that he understood them and their suffering like no one else. They believed that he was one with them in their otherness and affliction, that he would help them to negotiate this world with righteous anger and dignity. They were motivated not out of despair but out of love and faith when they sang, “Nobody knows de trouble I’ve had / Nobody knows but Jesus.”

These lines, sung from the depths of human misery before, during and after the birth of this country, reflect a profound understanding of Jesus. When heard with renewed ears, the spirituals invite the wider church to the same awe and humility that Peter expressed after crossing the threshold into Cornelius’s house: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.” Moreover, this humble recognition should be even more reason for solidarity among the baptized across racial lines.

In these encounters between faith and culture that have shaped the U.S. Catholic Church, death does not have the final word. The hope of resurrection resounds. Only by first taking seriously and practicing this attentiveness to our own interconnectedness across racial lines within the church can we become leaven in U.S. society and transform it through our redeemed relationships from within.

How might we better develop a culture of encounter that recognizes the presence of Christ in the entangled and wounded histories that constitute both U.S. society and the U.S. Catholic Church?

Crossing the threshold of the color line

This new way of seeing and listening proposed by Pope Francis’ desire for a culture of encounter presents a unique opportunity for the local church in the United States to discern how the Holy Spirit is speaking to us in this particular place and this particular time. While the synodal efforts thus far present a good first step, much more work remains to be done.

In the U.S.C.C.B.’s “Strategic Plan” for 2021-2024, the bishops note how the tragic murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, led to a shift in their priorities. In addition to the global pandemic, nationwide protests presented “another cataclysmic series of events that would call for the Church to stand in solidarity with all those peacefully seeking racial justice.”

To this end, the strategic plan proposes a national Catholic anti-racism gathering for Catholic laypeople and clergy “with the goal of educating, raising awareness, and having a forum for authentic and transformational conversion of heart and mind while building a capacity for understanding.”

A relevant model for such a gathering might be the unprecedented U.S.C.C.B.Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, Fla., in 2017. I had the privilege of attending this conference as a delegate of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy and was astounded by the way Catholics of color expressed themselves boldly and honestly in the sessions committed to issues of racism in the church.

Unfortunately, few white Catholics attended these sessions, and the discussions of race were relegated to a “people of color concern” rather than seen as a reflection of our broken relationality within the body of Christ. Discussions of racism in the church should not be seen as an act of charity or hospitality by the dominant culture, but rather as opportunities for encounter and mutual conversion led by the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

It is important, then, for this proposed national gathering to attract all U.S. Catholics to contemplate the sins of white supremacy and anti-Blackness that shape how Catholics relate to one another both in the church and to others in society. Moreover, those who attend this national gathering should be encouraged to follow up with their local parish and school settings through a continued process of synodal listening across racial differences.

Via the ecclesial habits that Pope Francis is inviting us to develop through a culture of encounter, may we come to see our profound interconnectedness with one another and listen anew such that we all become protagonists who are receptive to and converted by the presence of the resurrected Lord in one another’s journeys—so that when we reach our final destination on this pilgrimage, we may hear Christ say again, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear” (Mt 13:16).

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