By Rebecca Torrellas, Catholic News Service

HOUSTON (CNS)– “Racial reconciliation — reconciliation in general — is a matter of the heart,” retired Bishop Curtis J. Guillory of Beaumont, Texas, said during a recent night of prayer and discussion about race relations in the U.S.

The discussion was moderated by Father Reginald Samuels, vicar for the Catholics of African descent and pastor of St. Hyacinth Catholic Church in Deer Park, Texas.

Speaking about the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” Father Samuels said, “We are here to explore what it means to have God’s love in our society.”

The event, hosted by the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, brought together church leaders and members of the legal profession. It followed the Oct. 19 Red Mass celebrated at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in downtown Houston.

The heart of the pastoral “is conversion,” said Bishop Guillory, one of 10 African-American Catholic bishops and the first African-American bishop to head a diocese in Texas. He was appointed to Beaumont in 2000 and retired in 2020.

Joining Bishop Guillory as a speaker was Bishop Brendan J. Cahill of Victoria, Texas, who holds a master of theology degree with a specialization in African American Catholic studies from Xavier University in New Orleans. Xavier is the nation’s only Catholic historically Black university.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who was president of the USCCB when the pastoral was written, said that when it was being drafted, there was a lot of anger between staff and the experts that helped develop the letter.

“The first draft of the letter was so angry — really angry — that we practically had to call a truce,” he said. “We had to go back. And one of the things they decided to add — intensely — is confronting one another with the truth and occasionally with some uncomfortable things.”

At the same time, Cardinal DiNardo said, the letter expanded on Scriptures and the importance of Jesus Christ in all of the issues.

“As that happened, the second draft of the letter fell into place pretty well,” he said. “These are tough issues.”

Bishop Guillory said that, while it may seem to some that continuing to talk about racial reconciliation may be divisive, there is anger over cases of police brutality such as what led to the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of white officer.

He added these incidents cause mistrust between police and some minority communities.

“Police have a tough job,” he said. “And some of them do not make the force proud.”

These issues affect the wider community, he added. “They are part of us.”

Bishop Guillory said the goal of the pastoral letter is in line with the church’s mission to teach.

“Unfortunately today, for too many Christians, their conscience is informed and transformed not by the Christian teaching, but rather by political affiliation,” he said. “So this letter … is an attempt on the part of the bishops to give us some guidance by which we might deal with these issues and hopefully help bring about, first, a change within ourselves, and then bring about a change in society.”

Bishop Guillory said the letter defines racism as a conscious or unconscious belief in racial superiority.

“Acts that violate justice and ignorance of the fundamental truth that we are all created equal in the image of God,” he quoted from the document.

He noted the letter addresses different races, including African American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic and “talks about what we can do.”

Addressing the lawyers, judges and people of the law in attendance, he said laws can help toward the conversion needed, but they “may not take us there.”

He said that while a lot of progress has been made on race relations, there has to be a continuous renewal and humbling.

“We have to examine ourselves,” he said. “How do I look upon someone from a different culture or at someone who is not as educated as I am.”

He said it is essential to “know each other’s history.” He added people need to talk to each other, even though it is painful to bring about conversion, not blaming each other, but with an open heart.

“Go deeper. Our humanity is deeper than culture or customs,” Bishop Guillory said.

Bishop Cahill said bishops could help bring about change by having events such as the Red Mass, which traditionally marks the opening of the judicial year, to prompt discussion of the topic.

“Whatever the events are can bring people together (to listen),” he said.

In Victoria, Bishop Cahill said, diocesan officials brought in a play about the first African American priest, Father Augustus Tolton, who is a candidate for sainthood.

The play “Tolton: From Slave to Priest” was performed in several Catholic schools around the diocese. Following the play, students discussed the racism the priest encountered in his studies and his vocation as a priest.

“We had a discussion about the racism of that time, which led to a discussion of what is going on today,” Bishop Cahill said. “You have people talk about the reality of racism historically. … In a sense, it helps acknowledge the present by acknowledging the history.”

Bishop Cahill said dioceses also should have groups that are open to having “uncomfortable conversations.”

“It’s hard to talk about race,” he said. “It takes a long time to build that kind of relationship.”

Bishop Guillory said Catholics are blessed to be part of a faith that is representative of different cultures and racial groups.

“Every culture has an opportunity to make a contribution,” he said. “(We need to promote) unity and diversity of the one faith as brothers and sisters.”

Bishop Guillory said it is a duty of every Catholic to speak out when there is injustice and to educate others to “help people be informed and form their consciences from a Christian perspective.”

“What we really need to do today — in a group such as this and in our own parishes — is to work with and get our people involved,” he said. “We have to get over this fear of one another. And some of it is understandable.”

Bishop Guillory said we have to be “honest with ourselves and our own history.”

“In the same way, we have to be honest about the history of our own country; the history of the church,” he said. “Even the church was not always in a good place. Be honest with the history. Don’t cover it up.”