Fr. Manuel Williams, pastor of Resurrection Parish in Birmingham, Ala., was the guest homilist at the Martin Luther King Mass celebrated this year at St. Mary’s Basilica Jan. 16. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

By Jeff Grant
The Catholic Sun

With the nation divided following one of the most brutal political campaigns in American history, it may be more important than ever for the country to reflect on the values and philosophies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said Fr. Manuel Williams, CR, the homilist at the diocesan Mass honoring the civil-rights icon on his holiday Jan. 16 at St. Mary’s Basilica.

And those values and philosophies were deeply rooted in the Beatitudes preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, he said, reflecting on the Gospel passage for the special liturgy.

“He was, in effect, a ‘Beatitudes Man,’” said Fr. Williams, who is the pastor of Resurrection Parish in Birmingham, Alabama.

While some historians and theologians have pointed to the philosophy of India’s independence leader Mahatma Ghandi, he said the list in Matthew 5 was the basis for King’s nonviolent approach, citing the letter King wrote while held in the Birmingham City Jail to local religious leaders concerned that his approach was actually hurting the civil-rights movement in the 1960s.

“Blessed are the peacemakers. … Blessed are you when they persecute you and utter all kinds of falsehoods against you because of me,” Fr. Williams said, referring to two of the principles laid out by Jesus.

Members of the multi-parish choir sing at the annual Martin Luther King Memorial Mass at St. Mary’s Basilica Jan. 16. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

“The faith King evidenced in his letter and our faith in the Lord Jesus calls each of us to do our own little part to make our world more peaceful and just,” said Fr. Williams, a native Alabama, who has traveled extensively throughout the United States addressing areas of Black Catholic spirituality and history.

“This (letter) is the most important document of the civil-rights era. It is a clarion call again in 2017 to be committed again to doing the acts of justice and mercy. It is a classic piece of Christian reflection which can still challenge you and me to continue to make … this earthly city something that resembles more closely a heavenly city that we all aspire to.”

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, who celebrated the Mass, said during a reception afterward that King demonstrated how faith and working for social justice go together.

“We need that example to show being a follower of Jesus Christ helps you to be a better citizen. He’s a great example of that. His faith formed his contribution to our country. That’s something we should be inspired by,” Bishop Olmsted said. “He fought racism graciously and strongly.”

A poster with the text of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is displayed in front of the sanctuary of St. Mary’s Basilica. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

Robert Watson, who read the second reading at the Mass and is incoming director of the diocesan Black Catholic Ministry, said the Catholic Church plays a role in carrying out the principles Rev. King stood for.

“As humans, we have some wishes and fears, but I do think … the institution of Catholicism has a lot of influence with people,” he said, noting the influence priestly messages can have on the masses. “People listen to their pastors.”

Andy Hardin, a Black Catholic Ministry volunteer, said she was hopeful Fr. Williams’ message inspired those attending to live out Rev. King’s legacy.

“The homily reminded us that was Dr. King’s mission: to move the community forward peacefully, and it still should be our mission,” she said.