BURKE, Va. (CNS) — After he returned from Rome where Pope Francis elevated him to the College of Cardinals, children at Catholic schools in the Washington Archdiocese drew pictures of Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory wearing his new red hat.
The nation’s first African American cardinal smiled as he related how, at the bottom of one little girl’s painting of him, she wrote, “Congratulations, Cardinal Gregory! You look like me, and I like that!”
The cardinal told the story March 20 in a question-and-answer session that followed his keynote at Nativity Church in Burke for a conference on how Catholics can confront racism and work for racial justice and harmony.
Titled “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” the conference was named for the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism.
During his keynote address, he noted how young people give him hope for the future, and in the Q-and-A that followed he and Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, were asked how to enhance Catholic school curriculums to embrace diversity in society and the church and to help create anti-racist Christians.
“How we treat our youngsters is of vital importance. We’re planting seeds of tomorrow in those young minds and hearts,” said the cardinal.
One way Catholic schools can do that, he said, is to take advantage of the calendar and provide educational opportunities for students during times like Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March.
Bishop Burbidge said Catholic schools should highlight the histories and stories of people from different cultures and backgrounds.
Earlier, they were asked about people who think racism was a problem of the past and no longer exists.
Cardinal Gregory, noting that his formative years coincided with the height of the civil rights movement, said that while important progress has been made, it’s important to acknowledge “the work isn’t over.”
Bishop Burbidge said his diocese held listening sessions at parishes and Catholic schools after the bishops’ pastoral on racism was issued. One of the key things “we must continue to do is have a willingness to listen to people’s stories and experiences,” he added.
While at times people spoke about things that were difficult and sad to hear, “it motivates us to stand up and be proactive in seeking justice,” the bishop said.
Both prelates said it was important for clergy to speak out in their homilies about the sin of racism, because they are called to preach the Gospel.
The conference included a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Gregory and a panel discussion by three members of the Arlington Diocese on what individual Catholics and parishes can do to oppose racism.
Panelist Alexandra Luevano, program director for the Mother of Mercy Free Medical Clinic operated by the diocese’s Catholic Charities, said it is important to emphasize that “we are all one body of Christ, and we are here to stand up for our brothers and sisters who cannot stand up for themselves.”
Racism is a life issue, she said, adding that followers of Christ are called “to love one another” as brothers and sisters, no matter their color of skin or where they come from.
“We need to unite ourselves in prayer for racism to end. We need to stand up and talk about it,” said Luevano, who served on the Arlington Diocese’s Ad Hoc Committee on Racism.
She noted it was important for people to be witnesses of their faith, especially to those in need. “We show them our faith by our actions,” she said.
Panelist Emelda August, a parishioner of Holy Family Parish in Dale City, Virginia, who participates in the Black History & Heritage Outreach Ministry there, said: “Racism is a spiritual sin. … We are fighting a spiritual war.”
She too emphasized the importance of sharing Christ’s love with others as a way to combat racism, and she also stressed dialogue as a way that people can get to know others on the inside. “We’ve got to listen to one another,” she said.
Panelist, Jose Aguto, associate director of the Catholic Climate Covenant in Washington who formerly worked with the National Congress of American Indians, noted that he is of Filipino ancestry.
“I myself have experienced forms of racism in my life and in the Catholic Church, and so has my daughter,” he said. “Racism is an original sin.”
Aguto pointed out how racism runs counter to the second part of Christ’s greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. “That’s how fundamental it is,” he said.
The Catholic Church, founded on Christ’s Gospel of love and with its worldwide reach and diverse members “must be an agent for the transformation of our nation and our world” in promoting racial justice and understanding, Aguto said.
He said it was important for parishes, and perhaps youth groups, to promote dialogues, so people can learn from others.
He noted how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people of color in deaths, sicknesses and job losses, and also how minority communities often live near polluting factories, making them victims of environmental racism.
In his closing prayer, Bishop Burbidge thanked God for “giving us the gift of your Son, who taught us to love all people, to treat all people with justice and equality, and to promote the unity that must be ours.”
“We pray that with the grace only you can give, we will leave with a renewed commitment to do our part each and every day to help people see Jesus,” he said.