On the Feast of All Saints we celebrate men and women of every place and time who lived with great sanctity. Many of them are known to us and are among our great heroes of the Faith; even more are unknown to us.
The most common hymn for this feast day is “For All the Saints.” It is interesting that the name of the tune to which the lyrics are set is “Sine Nomine” (without name). In other words, this feast celebrates those who, although they attained great sanctity, are largely unknown to us. They lived in ordinary circumstances and were fairly hidden from the world at large, but God knows them and has awarded them the crown of righteousness. They, too, are part of the rich tapestry of this feast and the glory of the Communion of Saints.
It is fitting, then, that on the Feast of All Saints, Donald Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington released a pastoral letter on racism entitled, “The Challenge of Racism Today.” We are all well aware of recent racial tensions in our country and the Cardinal would have us reflect on this problem as Catholics. This reflection should come from the perspective of our faith more so than from politics and worldly culture.
I’d like to review a number of the Cardinal’s teachings under three headings.
I. God’s Vision – Cardinal Wuerl begins by noting our daily experience here in the Archdiocese of Washington:
The sight from the sanctuary of many a church in our archdiocese offers a glimpse of the face of the world.
“Catholic” means universal and it could not be more obvious in Washington, D.C. as it is in many other regions. Catholics come from everywhere!
This diversity is from God Himself, who has not only created the rich tapestry of humankind but also delights in uniting us all in His Church.
Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me; Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called “Mother” for all shall be her children.” It is he, the Lord Most High, who gives each his place. In his register of peoples he writes: “These are her children,” and while they dance they will sing: “In you all find their home.” (Psalm 87:1-7)
It was always God’s plan that people from every nation would find their home in His family. St. Paul spoke eloquently of this plan:
The mystery was made known to me by revelation;…. the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the people of other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. And the mystery is this: that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:3-6)
By God’s grace, by His plan and vision, we are called to be members of the One Body, the Church, through the grace of shared faith.
Jesus sets forth the realization of God’s desire in his great commission: Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).
This is order number one from Jesus: Go everywhere; call everyone; make them disciples by teaching them what I have taught and baptizing them into the one Body of Christ, the Church.
This is God’s vision, His plan, and His command.
II. Sinful Revisions – We human beings are often slow to hear and even slower to do what God commands. When it comes to reaching across racial and ethnic boundaries to make disciples, we often give in to fear and the hostilities that result. We also give in to pride and notions of racial superiority. This has been an ugly tendency throughout human history.
As people of faith, we cannot ignore God’s command to include all in His Kingdom. The Cardinal tells us that we must confront and overcome racism. This challenge is not optional.
Jesus warns us against wrathful disparagement of others: Anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” will be subject to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be subject to the fire of hell (Matt 5:22). He counsels us, So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5:23-24).
The Cardinal cites the Catechism and bids us to remember this:
This teaching is applied to our day with clarity in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone …” (CCC # 357). … There is no basis to sustain that some are made more in the image of God than others.
Cardinal Wuerl cites the pastoral letter, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” published by the United States bishops in 1979:
Racism is a sin. … [I]t divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.
We have no right or capacity to overrule God or reject the dignity He Himself has established. The Cardinal describes racism as a denial of the goodness of creation.
While some dispute the particulars of racism in this or that specific situation, we cannot simply brush aside the consistent experience of so many of our brothers and sisters. The Cardinal reminds us:
To address racism, we need to recognize two things: that it exists in a variety of forms, some more subtle and others more obvious; and that there is something we can do about it… even if we realize that what we say and the steps we take will not result in an immediate solution to a problem that spans generations.
As we are reminded by St. Paul, There should be no division in the body, but that its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, every member suffers with him (1 Cor 12:25-26).
As a Church we have not always lived up to the call that God has given us. The Cardinal writes:
Saint John Paul II in the Great Jubilee Year asked for the recognition of sins committed by members of the Church during its history. He called for a reconciliation through recalling the faults of the past in a spirit of prayerful repentance that leads to healing of the wounds of sin. So acknowledging our sins and seeking to remedy what we can, we turn with sorrow to those we have offended, individually and collectively and also express gratitude for the tenacity of their faith…. We also recognize the enduring faith of immigrants who have not always felt welcome in the communities they now call home.
It is a remarkable testimony that so many who have felt spurned by fellow Christians and Catholics did not reject the faith, but tenaciously held on to it. Even in the midst of great pain, so many stayed in the faith; through forgiveness and great patience they have helped to purify fellow Christians and work for ongoing reform within the Church.
III. Overcoming Divisions – The Cardinal also writes:
Because God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, we have received the ministry of reconciliation. Saint Paul tells us, “God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ … entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Thus the Cardinal invokes a key dimension of the apostolic office: reconciling us to one another and to God. As a bishop, Cardinal Wuerl urges us to seek reconciliation where it is needed.
Reconciliation requires first that we acknowledge our sins. As Jesus says, we must go and be reconciled to our brother or sister. If we have in any way fostered division, if we have scorned, mocked, excluded, or derided others, we should admit the sin and seek to be reconciled.
While there are often grievances on all sides when it comes to race, this need not stop us from hearing and pondering the consistent and widespread experience of those who feel excluded or scorned. Sometimes it just starts with listening, before rushing to judge whether the experience of others is valid.
There are wounds that go back decades and even centuries. Reconciliation takes time. Recognizing another’s pain and experience is an act of respect. Listening is a very great gift.
Please consider making a careful, spiritual reading of the Cardinal’s pastoral letter. See it as an honest assessment of our need to recognize racism and repent for any cooperation we have had in it, past or present. Consider, too, his call for us to entrust our hearts to the Lord, so that we can, as the Cardinal says, envision the new city of God, not built by human hands, but by the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.
In the weeks ahead, other initiatives and gatherings will be announced in the diocese. Among them is a recognition of the many African-Americans who were enslaved and who were buried in our Catholic cemeteries without any headstones or markers. You might say that they were buried sine nomine, without any recognition of their names.
It is fitting, then, that on this Feast of All Saints, when we acknowledge the many saints whose names we do not know, that we also remember those buried in our cemeteries whose names are known only to God. They were called slaves but were in fact God’s children, possessed of the freedom of Children of God. May they rest now with God in the peace and unity of the Communion of Saints.