Repentance, spiritual healing, and hard conversations are necessary to respond to racism and racial divisions, the bishops of South Africa said on Monday.

The Holy Spirit "calls us as a country to be healed; to build and develop relationships of equality, dignity and mutual respect," the bishops wrote. "Dialogue, rational and respectful, is necessary so that we open ourselves to receive God's healing."

The Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference on March 7 released its pastoral letter "A Call to Overcome Racism." In addition to the South Africa, the conference includes the bishops of Botswana and Swaziland.

"In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, as Church in Southern Africa, we commit ourselves to a credible and comprehensive conversation on racism," the bishops said. "We realize that this is not an easy conversation, one that many of us may prefer to avoid."

They said such conversations can evoke such emotions as self-justification, self-righteousness, guilt and denial, or anger and sadness.

This means acknowledging racism in the Church before, during and after apartheid, the strict racial segregration of South Africa which ended in 1994.

The bishops took a repentant attitude.

"In humility, as St. Peter confessed, we your pastors prostrate before God and before all who are in pain, ask for forgiveness for our historic complicity with racism in the Church," they said.

They called on "the faithful and all people of goodwill to do all in our power to address the problem of racism in our society and in the Church." They encouraged South Africans to address the social trauma resulting from colonialism and apartheid.

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"We need to acknowledge the link between race, power and privilege," they said. "We need to redress urgently the economic inequalities present in our society as a result of past racial discriminatory laws and practices; to allay unfounded fears and promotes justice."

The bishops said that St. Peter and the early Church, "through the Holy Spirit," overcame beliefs in racial superiority and the belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability.

They cited St. Peter's words in the Acts of the Apostles: "Truly I now perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."

"Through our celebration of the Eucharist, the symbol of unity in the body of Christ, we ask the Lord to heal and transform the relationships in our dioceses and our parishes so that we become communities of faith where 'there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female.'"

The bishops also offered practical advice, such as to avoid "loving only people who are just like ourselves."

"In loving only those who share our racial and ethnic backgrounds, we fall short of fulfilling the demands of love which the Gospel calls for," they said.

"While reaching out to one another, in open and honest dialogue, the sacrament of Reconciliation becomes especially important and meaningful because through it we come in our sinfulness to our all merciful Father for healing and forgiveness."

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Catholics should grow in appreciation for cultural diversity and its expression in the liturgy and parish activities, the bishops advised.

"Our experience of the Gospel call us to rejoice in diversity, to become more culturally inclusive and more enthusiastic in our appreciation of God's gift of racial diversity," they said. "This leads us to appreciate that in our parishes, in our religious communities and in our dioceses, the glory of the body of Christ is enriched and mediated through the various rich cultural, social economic contributions that each race and all ethnic groups contribute from their basket of traditions and social identities."

They recommended "watchfulness and ardent prayer" to advance racial reconciliation. They encouraged parish and family prayer campaigns to overcome racism, special days of prayer and fasting, and cooperation with parishes across racial lines. They also encouraged cooperation with organizations that help combat racism.

The bishops' conference will adopt a process to deal with issues of racism for use in small group reflections, in dioceses and parishes.