Catholics reflect on racial reconciliation in U.S. Church: ‘We must be rooted in prayer’

Chika Anyanwu Father Josh Johnson Chika Anyanwu (left) and Father Josh Johnson | Credit: FOCUS SEEK23 / FOCUS

Two prominent Catholic speakers and evangelists say they have seen some progress in terms of Catholics being willing to listen to the experiences of those who have experienced racism, and an openness among many Catholics to acknowledge racism as a sin and as a continued problem in U.S. society.

“How can we do better, I think, is to continue to lean into the Lord in Scripture, in the Gospels, and in prayer,” Father Josh Johnson told CNA in early January.

“We must pray. We must be rooted in prayer. And the greatest saints were all formed, and rooted, and devoted to prayer. And the fruit of their relationship with Jesus in prayer was seen in their works that they did out there in the world.”

Johnson is the author of the new book “On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Restoring God’s Vision of Race and Discipleship,” published by Ascension. In the book, Johnson encourages Catholics to seek out relationships with people of other races, striving always to create a society where people of all races and backgrounds feel welcome.

“The fruit of adoration is imitation, and Jesus Christ constantly crosses cultural boundaries,” Johnson, who serves as vocations director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, continued.

“He went out and encountered people who are different, and he walked with people from various backgrounds and belief systems and walks of life. And what’s going to transform our culture, what's going to build a civilization of love, what’s going to battle against the sin of racism is when disciples of Jesus Christ are actually imitating Jesus Christ,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who is Black, has spoken in the past about experiencing prejudice, both before and after becoming a priest. He also has spoken about his perception that most Catholics have, historically, been inattentive to racism or overly entrenched in a left-or-right political mindset over the issue.

Two and a half years after the death of George Floyd — which prompted widespread protests and a national conversation about racism — Johnson said he has seen “a lot of progress” in terms of his fellow Catholics recognizing and rejecting the sin of racism. The fallout prompted by Floyd’s death led to a renewed interest in the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism, Open Wide Our Hearts, leading many Catholics to read and study the letter.

“I think that when George Floyd was killed, that lifted a veil and it began conversations that people were not having in the Church,” Johnson said.

“And progress is slow, but I've seen conversations take place, and an openness to conversations, and that's where it begins — dialogue with people who at one point were totally shut off to even having the conversation.”

Johnson has said that in addition to talking, writing, and preaching about the topic for years, he has been constantly praying and fasting for an end to racism. He reiterated in January that any effort to combat racism must start with prayer, particularly prayer done during adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

“I want to encourage people,” Johnson said.

“If we want to continue to see reformation and renewal happen in the Church and in the world, we must never neglect Scripture in the Blessed Sacrament. The more we spend time with the Lord in prayer, the more we will be able to imitate him as his hands and his feet and his voice in the world today.”

‘People are crying out’

Chika Anyanwu, a Catholic speaker and evangelist from California, spoke about the loneliness that Black Catholics can sometimes experience, being such a minority in the United States. She said at her parish, she is very often the only Black person in attendance at both Sunday and daily Mass.

She also noted that despite the progress she has seen in the past few years, racism remains “a life or death situation for a lot of people.”

“We’re three years from George Floyd, but we’re just a few weeks from the last shooting of a young Black man. And it’s almost like there are times where you feel like you’re shouting into the void and it’s like, ‘Is anyone hearing?’ And that’s really hard,” Anyanwu told CNA in early January. 

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“People are crying out and not being heard.”

Anyanwu, who is of Nigerian descent, said she continues to experience instances of “unfortunate” and “hurtful” displays of prejudice — even, occasionally, from fellow Catholics. That being said, Anyanwu said she has seen in the years since George Floyd a willingness among many Catholics to take action to combat racism, particularly at the parish level. Some parishes have held listening sessions and dialogues to talk about racism, for example. 

“What is the Church doing well? The Church is listening. But there’s so much active listening that you can do before you take action,” she noted. 

One important action that some Church leaders have taken, she said, is taking care to hire a diverse range of people — and not just in terms of race.

“So whether it’s hiring people of color, hiring women, those with disabilities, those who are differently abled… all of that,” she noted. 

“Your church should look like the community, because your parish isn’t just those who are in the pews, it’s the geographical boundaries.”

‘Jesus Christ is sufficient’

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Johnson also spoke about the importance of welcoming and celebrating Black Catholics, who make up a very small minority of Catholics in the United States overall. But in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, many vibrant parishes have served the Black Catholic community for centuries.

A survey released last year found that Black Catholics are significantly less likely than other Catholics — and also less likely than Black Protestants — to attend a church where most of the other parishioners are of the same race or ethnicity they are. Black Catholics also tend to travel farther to get to Mass than their white or Hispanic counterparts, with 41% saying they have to travel more than 15 minutes to get to Mass.

Many of the Black Catholics whom Johnson encounters say they feel unwelcome or neglected by the Catholic Church — “that’s just a fact,” he said. But the most important reason to stay in the Catholic Church is Jesus himself in the Eucharist, Johnson said. Jesus offers an example of persevering through suffering, Johnson said, as do many of the holy Black men and women currently being considered for sainthood. 

“My encouragement for [Black Catholics] is to pray, as well, because Jesus Christ is sufficient. God is enough. So even if the community that surrounds us is the only Catholic church in our area, even if they persecute us, Jesus was persecuted and he was misunderstood. And he was mocked, and he was abandoned, and he was betrayed, and he was rejected, and so there’s an intimacy with Christ in that to be experienced.”

Johnson said people who, like him, work continually for racial reconciliation in the Church may not see in their lifetimes the fruits of their labors. But he encouraged everyone to continue striving for holiness, even through adversity. 

“We might not see the visible fruit in our lifetime, but the fruit is there, even if it’s invisible. Even if I cannot see the fruit of my labor in the Church for racial reconciliation, I feel like God has called me to be a saint,” the priest said.

“I’m just focused on doing the work that he told me to do so that whenever I die, I can say the same words that Jesus Christ said at the end of his life in John 17. He said, ‘Father, I have accomplished the work that you gave me to do’ ... maybe when I’m a saint in heaven, God willing, he’ll show me the fruit.”