June 1, 2020 – Today, on the Feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, the Most Rev. Ronald A. Mercier, SJ, sent a pastoral letter to the members of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province urging prayer and action to address systemic racism in the United States:
Dear brothers and friends in the Lord,
Over the course of the last week, the images on the news have shocked us, have revealed our profound vulnerability, and, in the process, our need for God’s healing presence. Last Wednesday the toll of those in the U.S. who have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic passed the 100,000 mark. Too many people have already died or suffered greatly, often gasping for air. The virus, that external threat, robs so many of us of life, livelihood, breath itself. We pray that somehow the efforts of our healthcare providers and researchers will find a way to bring an end to this scourge.
Yet, this last week as we saw the footage of the killing of George Floyd, we heard a different echo of the same cry, “I can’t breathe.” One police officer accompanied by three others committed that act, but the rage that followed, one that we have seen in passionate protests and in urban violence, points to the stifling reality that affects our Black sisters and brothers on a daily basis.
The presence of systemic racism, of injustice rooted in policies and structures that disproportionately burden persons of color, stands revealed not simply by what happened to George Floyd – or to so many others who have experienced such institutionalized brutality – but also by the impact of COVID-19 as communities of color have suffered at rates far higher than whites.
We confront a moment that reveals a nation wounded by systemic racism, a reality we would rather not discuss since it touches us directly. As with COVID-19, we too often find ourselves wishing to go back to the “normality” that existed before these horrors. There will be no vaccine or miracle drug to make racism go away.
This moment also provides a powerful call to conversion, asking us to confront the realities that so burden our black brothers and sisters and other communities of color. Fr. Thomas Clark, SJ, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, Baton Rouge, La., wrote such a call three years ago:
Race prejudice and systemic racism are interrelated, but by far the more serious issue is systemic racism because it makes discriminatory policies and has the power to enforce them. Not surprisingly, we focus on the interpersonal because it is a decoy that shifts attention from the root cause. To focus our gaze clearly and unflinchingly on the systemic nature of racism, we do what the General Congregation calls Jesuits to do: “to enter into a deeper understanding of the mystery of evil.”
It is easy to decry the violence that erupts in response to events like the killing of George Floyd and to forget the culture of violence we take for granted.
Today we celebrate the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, a Church brought into being by the fire of the Spirit, a fire which reveals, purifies, and empowers, a reconciling and renewing presence. Our Lady placed herself, her future, her life at the disposal of the Trinity that this world could be transformed, that the breath of the Spirit might be loosed on all people through her Son. The question before us today in the United States remains whether we will let the Spirit open our eyes, hearts, minds, imaginations, as St. Ignatius bids us do in the Incarnation Meditation, to see the good and the evil before us and to devote ourselves to that process of personal, communal and institutional conversion that can heal the deep wound, the sin, of racism. The Bishops of the United States in November 2018 in “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, A Pastoral Letter Against Racism” asked all Catholics to engage in this work of justice.
I ask all of us today in the U.S. Central and Southern Province to ponder the images of the last week. We know too well how the reality of slavery and the racism that flowed from it mark our history as a Province. We have learned much, and with it comes a responsibility to ponder how we shall respond. It would be tragic were we to forget what has occurred over the last three months and especially the last week in the hopes of restoring “normality.” Rather, how will we remember those deeper desires and create something new with God? How are we being asked at this time and in this situation to be agents of the mission of racial reconciliation and justice?
As a province, we must respond to the call of our bishops and to the call “to walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice” given to us by the Holy Father.
The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson marked the start of my time as provincial; the killing of George Floyd comes at the end. I find myself asking, when will such violence end? How will we Jesuits and our partners in ministry help end the scourge of violence, of racism? Those questions move me to write and ask how we in UCS can respond. Our bishops have asked us to act now. Faithful to the call of the bishops in 2018 and to the Universal Apostolic Preferences, our spiritual conversation in our communities and apostolates over the next few years must engage this call to racial reconciliation as we discern our apostolic priorities for the future.
Many in the province will begin a time of retreat tomorrow, one that seeks the grace of conversion to which the Universal Apostolic Preferences call us. I ask them – and all of us – to insistently beg to experience the presence and power of the Spirit who brought the Church to birth and still seeks to “renew the face of the earth,” to make of it a place where all people can breathe freely and know themselves at home with God.
Your brother in the Lord,
Ronald A. Mercier, S.J.