Charlottesville and beyond

In the midst of chaos in one of the communities of his diocese, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of the Diocese of Richmond issued a statement on the afternoon of Saturday, August 12, which said (in part), “In the last 24 hours, hatred and violence have been on display in the city of Charlottesville. I earnestly pray for peace.” This shepherd died of heart failure five days later, on August 17.

The same day Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement: “On behalf of the bishops of the United States, I join leaders from around the nation in condemning the violence and hatred that have now led to one death and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, Va. We join our voices to all those calling for calm.” Remember that he was communicating to an ongoing situation of violence.

The Texan cardinal continued, “The abhorrent acts of hatred on display in Charlottesville are an attack on the unity of our nation and therefore summon us all to fervent prayer and peaceful action. The bishops stand with all who are oppressed by evil ideology and entrust all who suffer to the prayers of St. Peter Claver as we approach his feast day [Saturday, September 9]. We also stand ready to work with all people of goodwill for an end to racial violence and for the building of peace in our communities.”

The next day (Sunday, August 13) Cardinal DiNardo joined Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla. (chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development) in issuing a call to prayer. They wrote, “As we learn more about the horrible events of yesterday, our prayer turns today, on the Lord’s Day, to the people of Charlottesville who offered a counter example to the hate marching in the streets.”

The two clerics stated, “We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism. We stand with our sisters and brothers united in the sacrifice of Jesus, by which love’s victory over every form of evil is assured.  At Mass, let us offer a special prayer of gratitude for the brave souls who sought to protect us from the violent ideology displayed yesterday. Let us especially remember those who lost their lives.  Let us join their witness and stand against every form of oppression.” There was no equivocation as to what the bishops supported and what they condemned.

The same day, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., of Philadelphia issued a statement, which pointed to the history behind the violence. He wrote, “Racism is a poison of the soul. It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed. Blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity.”

Archbishop Chaput then issued a challenge that we go beyond platitudes and look at ourselves. He wrote, “We need more than pious public statements. If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change. Charlottesville matters. It’s a snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country. We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories. If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.”

Virginia is split into two dioceses — Richmond and Arlington. On the Monday following the violence, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington issued a statement. He wrote, “The more we read about the demonstration of racism, bigotry and self-proclaimed superiority made it seem as though we were living in a different time. So much progress has been made since the Civil Rights Movement. And yet, there are some who cling to misguided and evil beliefs about what makes America unique and remarkable.”

Bishop Burbidge continued, “Any discussion of this sensitive topic must begin by condemning all forms of bigotry and hatred. For Christians, any form of hatred, no matter who it is against, is an offense — a sin — against the Body of Christ. Each person is created by God and bestowed with His unyielding love. Anyone who treats one of those creations with disrespect, disdain or violence, has offended not just that person, but also the Creator of that individual. When we witness destructive behavior, such as racism or hatred, we might naturally respond with righteous anger, but we must not respond with our own form of hatred. Hating those who hate us offers no possibility of authentic conversion or growth as sons and daughters of God.”

In other words, Bishop Burbidge was reminding us that we do not fight hate with hate (which is what the devil would want us to do). We fight it with love (which means challenging the hatred, but loving the hater).

The Arlington bishop challenged his readers: “We should be grateful to live in a country where freedom of speech and assembly is cherished and protected in a Constitution. At the same time, these rights also open the opportunity for those with evil intent and backward thinking to demonstrate and share what they believe as well. The question we must ask, especially after seeing our rights misused to the point that violence erupts leaving many injured and a young woman dead, is: what do we do now?”

Answering that rhetorical question, the bishop stated, “We must find unity as a country. Unity does not mean we all believe the same things. Likewise, the freedom to express differing views or opinions does not mean we reject our unity as God’s family. The Catholic Church is rooted in fundamental principles that make us authentically Catholic — but apart from them, there are issues that allow for debate and discussion, which is normal within any family. Our country is the same in many ways. We must be united by a shared interest in freedom, liberty, and love for our neighbor. There will be disagreements and differing beliefs. But our unity is in our shared values and, perhaps more importantly, the respect we show to one another. Without respect for each other, even when we adamantly disagree, we will see more violence and discord in this great nation. Pray for unity, respect, and peace in our communities.”

The specter of a rerun of Charlottesville on Boston Common threatened us on Saturday, August 19. Thanks to the work of the community leaders and to the power of prayer (we must not forget God’s power — neither forgetting our need to pray nor our need to conform our hearts to His), we did not have a bloodbath here. May we heed our pastors’ calls to pray, to convert, and to truly examine our history of racism and work to eliminate it. 

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