This year, two Catholic religious published books about combating racism from a Catholic perspective. Father Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M, encourages his fellow white Catholics to engage in “the hard work” of introspection and reflection on racism and privilege in A White Catholic’s Guide to Racism and Privilege. Patrick Saint-Jean, S.J., offers a 30-day retreat based on the spirituality of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his book The Spiritual Work of Racial Justice.
“As divisive as our society can be, in our world and in our church, I hope that readers come with an open mind and an open heart,” said Father Dan, who is the director of the Center for Spirituality and a professor of philosophy, religious studies, and theology at St. Mary's College, in Notre Dame, Indiana.
Both books provide reflections on racial injustice, systemic racism, and privilege. The authors draw on the teachings of the Church and their own experiences to provide insight and accountability for the everyday Catholic trying to navigate these problems.
“This is a very, very sensitive topic, including for us in the Church,” said Saint-Jean, who is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, and professor of psychology at Creighton University. “This work really is more about the conversation that we need to have within ourselves and how God has come to encounter us through our experiences, our journey, and also what God is calling us to do.”
The title of Father Dan’s book comes from his own experience as a white person in the Catholic Church, and is written for an audience of white women and men in the Church. He does not attempt to speak on behalf of the experiences of people of color, he says, because he cannot know what that is like firsthand.
“As a white man, and a friar, and a priest, and a theologian, and a professor, I can speak from my own experience, my own knowledge, and my own learning, and invite others to do the same,” he said.
In the book, Father Dan explains the differences between systemic racism and individual acts of racism, or what sociologists call “common-sense racism.” He uses his personal experiences, including the mistakes he has made, to encourage readers to be vulnerable in their own reflections.
“This is an opportunity for all of us, myself included, to continue learning about the experiences of our neighbors and our brothers and sisters who live in the same communities, work at the same places, worship in the same parishes, but have very different experiences of the world,” he said.
In the U.S., Father Dan said, people are likely to focus on individual sins, which might focus on a particular instance of racism, such as a racial slur or an act of hate, committed by an individual or a group. He also says that organizations, school systems, and governments are not immune from racism.
“There are injustices that are structural, that are systemic—it's not just bad apples—there are systems that are harmful, that have grown in their deleterious effects on others,” he said. “There is a system at work that is affected by the reality of sin that affects all of us as members of this community.”
Father Dan has previously preached and written short articles on this topic, but was motivated to complete a book-length project after the racial unrest of 2020, and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
He encourages readers to be patient with themselves as they read, recognizing that his book is not going to be an easy book to read. The work, he said, is inherently difficult and uncomfortable.
“Humility is really important, particularly for white women and men who are interested in learning and thinking and pursuing this experience of conversion,” he said. “Humility invites us to listen—not just to hear—but to truly listen to what our sisters and brothers of color are saying.”
It is inevitable that people will make mistakes when engaging in this type of conversation, Father Dan said, but he encourages people to keep trying and keep engaging with the material. He also recommended reading this book with a friend or a group.
“The resources and information might invite people to be vulnerable with one another and the spirit of faith and the spirit of trust, and to ask themselves, ‘Where is the spirit calling me? Where is God calling me to think differently, or to review things in my life, in my society, in my church, in my community?’” he said.
Each chapter concludes with a recommended reading list, which includes both faith-based and secular writing on the topics of racism and privilege. An accompanying downloadable journal, available from the book’s publisher, Ave Maria Press, provides reflection questions and prayers for each chapter.
“A lot of leaders in the anti-racism movements over the decades have said that there’s work that white people need to do,” Father Dan said. “This is inherently difficult work. It’s uncomfortable. And the work is ours to do, so let's not be afraid.”
Patrick Saint-Jean, S.J., invites readers to engage in their own reflections about racism and justice in The Spiritual Work of Racial Justice. The book, which follows a 30-day retreat in the format of Saint Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, includes overall themes for each week and daily meditations.
Saint Ignatius experienced his conversion 500 years ago in 1521, over a period of 10 months while he recovered from injuries sustained in battle. He read about the lives of the saints and slowly transformed his life away from sin and toward God. Saint-Jean’s book is designed, he said, to be a gift to the Church from Saint Ignatius, to undergo transformation and conversion much like he did many years ago.
“It’s inherently impossible to spiritually get out from where we are right now without a spiritual conversion,” said Saint-Jean, who is originally from Haiti. “I truly believe that we have to come to terms with the sins of racism through conversion.”
The prevalence of systemic racism and the mistreatment of others who are not white is a “deep crisis of spiritual imagination in America,” Saint-Jean said.
(Column continues below)
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“Whiteness has become an idol,” he said. “It’s hard for us to imagine people with a different skin color than white as human, fully people, fully God.”
The humanitarian crises at the border, as well as those happening in Haiti and Afghanistan, are other examples of how mistreatment and racism prevail in today’s society, he said. In his book, Saint-Jean invites readers to reflect on where they see racism in their own lives, consciously or unconsciously.
Each meditation in the book begins with a series of quotes, both from Scripture and from leading voices in the anti-racism movement, followed by a story and explanation of that meditation’s theme. At the end of the chapter, readers are encouraged to journal with the provided questions and pray a specific prayer.
“We have tried many, many things, but I don’t remember the last time we invited Christ into these conversations in more intentional ways, deeper ways,” Saint-Jean said. “Once we are open to Christ, we allow him to come to this conversation. Christ will teach us what to do, how to do it, where to do it, and when to do it.”
This kind of work is difficult, Saint-Jean said, and he suggested going through the book of meditations with a spouse, friend, family member, or small group to be able to dialogue about the topics.
“The work of healing is the work of community,” he said. “Ignatius' conversions came by inspiration from other people. We have to lean on the shoulders of others in order to move forward.”
Justice is the work of transformation to a deep sense of conversion, and conversation is a process, Saint-Jean said. He encourages readers to give themselves time to go through the material, noting that the book does not have to be completed in 30 days.
“Racial justice is a lifetime work,” he said. “We have to take our time, and pay attention to the interior movement, how and where Christ is leading us through this process.”
Measuring less than five-by-seven inches, the book was designed to fit easily in a bag, backpack, or next to a breviary or Bible, Saint-Jean said.
“I always wanted something to pray with, something I can carry with me, ways of engaging in conversations with Christ that can challenge me, and that could help me deepen my relationship with God, but I couldn’t find it,” said Saint-Jean. “I remember Toni Morrison saying, ‘If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.’”
Saint-Jean also suggested praying for openness while going through the meditations.
“The work of the Cross, carrying your Cross, isn’t easy,” he said. “We need to be aware that it might be very difficult, it might bring pain, but once we invite God into it, he will help us carry our own Cross. He is the one who is making the healing happen.”
Editor's Note, Oct. 7, 9:28 a.m. MDT: A correction was made to Patrick Saint-Jean's title. He is a seminarian in formation for the Society of Jesus.