Bishop Perry to seminarians: Include everyone in your ministry

By Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Members of the choir sing during a Mass of thanksgiving in honor of Venerable Augustus Tolton at St. Philip Neri Church, on Oct. 14, 2019. Bishop Perry writes that people of all races should worship together in the spirit of the Pentecost moment. (John H. White/Chicago Catholic)

At the request of Cardinal Cupich, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry delivered the following address, edited here for length, to seminarians at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary on Sept. 2.

When I was a young priest in Milwaukee in the early 1980s, I had occasion one Sunday to concelebrate Mass with Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba in a suburban parish. He opened Mass with the sign of the cross and then immediately invited the congregation to the Penitential Rite with the following words:

“I see we are not a complete representation of the church of Christ this morning, for we don’t have the privilege of having people of color worshiping with us today. But, let us ask God’s pardon for this and hold on to this as we move forward in what we want to do and be as Catholic Christians.”

Everyone froze for a few seconds. What was the bishop saying and why?

Bishop Sklba, of Slovak heritage, is famous for dropping stop-in-your-tracks pieces of wisdom. But the bishop was on to something. Single-race parishes are the norm. But, as far as the Gospel is concerned, they are not normal.

We have grown accustomed to the idea that social patterns of separateness are part of living in a free society. Civic freedoms and opportunity, financial and otherwise, enable us to carve out separate space from one another. But such choices are not easily reconciled with the evangelical summons of the Christian life. The consequences of separate space are destructive for many.

Whereas our parishes and missions run alongside the racial partitioning of society, particularly in the areas of housing, education and economic opportunity, the Catholic Church is also a force for good in an era of narrow-mindedness by use of the teaching of our principal documents and the evangelical behavior of individual Catholics.

We are increasingly a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-cultural society, to the discomfort of some. We are experiencing again immigrants coming to our country seeking the same things our ancestors sought in the name of freedom from political strife, episodic wars, a variety of social ravages, freedom of religious belief and expression, peace and prosperity, new beginnings. Only now we are asked to handle it differently than we did during the 1900s through the 1960s. We are asked to craft a new interracial well-being in our communities different from what was done in the past.

Religious leaders can settle comfortably into our various ministries and can afford to think that some of our communities are safe from current social strife. Yet we are witnesses to the pandemic of racial strife all across the land. We can also challenge those same communities to stretch themselves to experience the diversity discovered originally at Pentecost.

So when we celebrate the Eucharist and we are obviously and routinely one group alone, absent some measure of the variety of the Christian faithful, we should genuinely sense an ecclesial incompleteness and then do something about it.

Without doubt, since the civil rights struggle, for all its horror and bloodshed and demeaning of a group of people, a greater politeness is apparent among the American populace, following breakthroughs in understandings of human rights and social justice. Yet, even today, insensitivity in words and gestures, graffiti and racial violence are too frequently brought to our attention through the media. Our democratic leanings and education have not been able to address certain resentments lying under the surface of American life and certain inequities that linger.

The church must intervene in these instances with a saving word. Our discipleship in Christ urges us to transcend obstacles to arrive at a new world order, a new human condition that shapes the kingdom of Christ.

The effort here, of course, is not meant to erase or blur the distinctiveness of culture and ethnicity or race. Rather, it is to raise up the giftedness of cultures, ethnicities and races while fostering an abiding respect for the dignity of each person and the sharing of gifts that is uniquely Christian, so that all are proceeding equally on the playing field.

Here and there, in parishes today, an Anglo-Catholic will enter a pew only to find they are sharing it with a Filipino or an African or a Vietnamese or a Latino. Are these persons just oddities to be tolerated for as long as they are around?

Such a surprise encounter was less possible a couple generations ago by the structure of national parishes. Still, in some parishes today, cultural and ethnic mix is something considered unusual, if not uncomfortable.

Pope Francis speaks frequently about how necessary encounter is to neutralizing the harshness in the world. Encounter begins by welcoming equal and mutual friendships with people we would normally feel to be outside our purview. The pope recently addressed the Pontifical Academy for Life in Rome, invoking the humanism of solidarity between individuals and peoples:

“Mutual distrust between individuals and peoples is being fed by an inordinate pursuit of self-interest and intense competition that can even turn violent … (H)ow could it happen that, at the very moment of history when available economic and technological resources make it possible for us to care suitably for our common home and our human family in obedience to God’s command, those same economic and technological resources are creating our most bitter divisions and our worst nightmares? … Let us face the fact … all of us are to some extent closed in on ourselves. It is time for a new vision, aimed at promoting a humanism of fraternity and solidarity between individuals and peoples.”

The Holy Father’s notion of encounter serves as an antidote to fear that turns people away from heroic behavior. How can we lead with opportunities for encounter among a variety of peoples in our parishes and communities, encounters that are not rehearsed or staged, but that allow for the heroism of human nature to surface? Can we create more opportunities for encounter among different groups? The church, for all our stumblings and fumblings, has a unique role in bringing people together.

The integration of races and cultures has been happening in hesitant steps, despite our worst efforts. But economics and racial fear, shifting demographics, changing neighborhoods, often meaning people of color are moving next door, cause people to pick up and move.

In 2000, the U.S. bishops stated in their document “Many Faces in God’s House: A Catholic Vision for the Third Millennium”: “We cannot be satisfied with coexistence with different cultures from a distance or just with mutual toleration. The catholicity of the church and our union with Christ require that the different cultures get to know each other and form relationships. … We live amidst a cultural crisis of unsuspected proportions in which fundamental Gospel human values tend to disappear and give way to attitudes, deeds and situations that separate us from God and from one another.”

I needn’t mention the arduous task that perpetually redounds to priests, pastors, educators and other ministers of bringing people together with a true neighborly regard. Reconciling individuals and groups requires consistent and persistent energy in some imaginative ways in ministry today.

We must constantly coach people to an authentic carry-through with the injunction of the Lord to love of neighbor in season and out of season. Even pious people dispute the relevance of this Gospel teaching in the day-to-day.

In our church, the coming together of peoples of different backgrounds in mutual respect and cooperation has always been chief among pastoral challenges and a difficult topic to treat in the pulpit. The Christian message has always led with inspiration on how this ought to be done.

But the church has not always been everywhere a stellar example of human relating. People often proceed in life prompted by their fears, not their courage. But we can look to individual Christians who have done it well by their singular charisms: Katharine Drexel, who walked the South Side streets of Chicago, Tom Dooley, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, who marched the streets of Chicago, and Teresa of Kolkata, who visited the streets of Chicago. In addition, all of us can cite the names of priests, religious and laity closer to home who are exemplars of indiscriminate goodwill and Christian service.

Given the disparities of economics and education and opportunity that separate us, the church can breach those barriers to build genuine familiarity and the sharing of human resources and intercultural formation beyond mere usher-hospitality on Sunday.

We have a great pastoral challenge before us. Radical hospitality has to be a goal of parish life and the new evangelization. Among our objectives should be the effort to proactively spot any unfamiliar faces and provide a warm welcome. We must support such efforts to embrace anyone seeking spiritual belonging.

This may sound obvious, but, not too long ago, pastors and parishioners routinely gave a cold stare or pushed away African Americans and others who were not of the local ethnic or racial or linguistic definition. “Give them the cold shoulder or refuse the sign of peace with them long enough and they will eventually drift away,” was the unspoken thought lurking underneath.

It is true that our attitudes, manners and ways of relating with people can build boundaries, indicate recalcitrant biases and exclude. Such gestures have no place in the church. Instead, every effort should be made to perceive difference as a virtue.

Since the revelation made to Peter at the house of Cornelius in the Acts of the Apostles, our places of worship and our actions within them can do no less. Radical hospitality calls for pastoral leadership of a new mindset.

It requires concerted effort, regular self-examination, willingness to risk and the courage to admit mistakes and begin again. Above all, it requires a conviction that the house of God is not holy just because all are welcome but because we are fundamentally brothers and sisters in the Lord.

What’s our responsibility then for delving into the stories of those who, at least outwardly, seem so different from us? How do we approach cultures sensitively without pre-judging them?

Given that opportunity and privilege, poverty and disenfranchisement divide our Christian communities, how can we program diversity in our parishes where it is largely absent? How can we link arms with fellow Catholics across neighborhoods, railroad tracks, east and west, north and south? How can we arrange diversity in our ministries that can lead to a genuine church-inspired familiarity and then to dialogue about what we have in common? What are we missing about the beauty of life and experience if we don’t do these things?

You can find yourself in the same church with two different mindsets. You can discover yourself among a different crowd of people and lament how uncomfortable you’re feeling, or you can connect with the unfamiliar with use of appropriate words and gestures.

In 1997, the U.S. bishops reminded us in “Reconciled Through Christ: On Reconciliation and Greater Collaboration Between Hispanic American Catholics and African American Catholics” that: “Racial discrimination is systemic in our country and socio-economic limitations are intrinsically connected to it and while laws that support overt racism and segregation have been overturned the underlying attitudes that led to their establishment have not. Our people still face many forms of discrimination in everyday life … that Christians must continue to strive to remove the blight of prejudice and discrimination from our national character is unquestionable. Each day’s news headlines confirm that those who would turn back the clock of social progress are making significant strides.” 

How can we be pastorally effective with people who are blind to their racial biases, starting with our own? That is the lingering question. This area of ministry remains a vexing preoccupation.

Catholics are people who courageously break through barriers. Catholics are people who can stretch their comfort zones to keep the church faithful to its Pentecost template.

That feast reminds us that a lot of people showed up that day in Jerusalem, people with different colored eyes, different hues of skin tone and different languages — all praising God for the wondrous event of the Christ. A remarkable oneness of faith and mutual regard were evident that day.

Patterns of separate space form a drag on the Christian task. Homogenous communities or otherwise, our private spaces are never Gospel constructions. The Catholic Church here and there shows off diversity and is proud of its variety. But we return home to live and worship and recreate among our own, or we are condemned to do so.

The Sunday assembly should everywhere be as far as possible a visible proclamation of the Pentecost event. It’s the difference between clergy standing off to the side watching it happen, too shy to get involved, or watching it all unravel, wondering when “those” people will finally leave, and welcoming those who visit our churches seeking a spiritual home.

Diversity cannot happen spontaneously in many places, so we cast it like play for a few moments. We program a Scripture reading in Spanish here, or have an African American auxiliary minister of the Eucharist there, followed by a Vietnamese song after Communion — cosmetic applications to a situation that begs for genuine spontaneity.

When we talk about diversity in the everyday world, the business world, the world of education, diversity is always managed. It’s a numbers game. In America, it does not always happen spontaneously. When it does happen, we are surprised because it is not the usual visual. “It is not what happens in my neighborhood before and after work,” we say.

In many contexts, the dominant community tolerates just a few different people in their mix, just a few and no more. If there are too many, diversity is no longer deemed wonderful. But, “See how those Christians love one another,” the pagans commented back then. The church can help by leading with something different.

Authentic leadership requires that we shepherd the coming together of peoples, that our parish projects and ministries be representative of the gifts of diversity, that we monitor situations where people are hurt or obviously ignored, kept at arm’s length or stared at or pushed aside.

Inclusivity requires that we become as familiar with the culture of another as we want them to be with ours. Inclusivity at worship happens when we already have the experience of inclusivity in daily life. No culture, no race is superior to another.

In the Book of Revelation we read about the heavenly assembly being of “every race, people and tongue.” This is a kingdom description of the church’s catholicity toward which we strive. Jesus already told his disciples that people would come to believe, provided the world could see that they were one.

Notice, people of color or of non-European background tend to look to the church for endorsement, when such endorsement from society and its institutions is hard to acquire. Otherwise, faith in God and faith in themselves is perpetually in crisis.

For clergy, it’s a matter of doing what we have the charism to do, namely, have an eye for the stranger, choose to walk with the disenfranchised, with those erased from public view, with those who are routinely lost to the crowd, because Jesus did this. Certain of our laws and lawless customs crush the human spirit — on the southern border for example — and behind closed doors, where policies are enacted that often demean and discredit peoples.

When people of color move into a majority-white neighborhood, it can be worrying for parishes: anxiety about shrinking congregations, smaller school enrollments, diminished resources. Fierce political resistance to immigration in face of peoples arriving at our borders is an example of this national anxiety. When we move away from each other, quality of life diminishes for everyone.

So, Mundelein seminarians, you want to be priests someday. But what kind of priests? I bid you make sure you include everyone in your ministry.

Like Jesus, have an eye for the stranger. Refuse to align yourselves with the majority or the minority who are sold on the racial status quo. Call it for what it is when parishioners, unbeknownst to themselves, begin drawing boundaries and setting up walls. Throw in your lot enthusiastically with parish initiatives that seek outreach and connection with others. Make it a point to improve the portrait of human relations in our church beyond what current generations have been able to accomplish thus far. Make room for everybody, regardless of who they are.

This is the nature of the kingdom of God you desire to serve as a priest.



  • racial divide

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