Catholics in Cincinnati are hoping that an upcoming meeting of bishops and leaders will give the local Church a much stronger voice to address issues of racism and violence.

"It is a blessing for this archdiocese, through the archbishop, to embrace addressing racism, the pervasive gun violence, restorative justice…race relations, and mental health, that our voice has to be heard," said Deacon Royce Winters, director of African-American ministries for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

"That's what we really wanted to do was to say as big and as powerful as the voice of the Catholic Church is in the United States, we have to do our part to bring about justice and the dignity of life for all peoples," he told CNA.

The Feb. 28 meeting of Catholic leaders at Xavier University – entitled "Promoting Peace In Our Communities" – is a continuation of a years-long effort by Catholics to restore race relations and heal social tensions in the archdiocese, Deacon Royce said.

Area social tensions were inflamed after a 2015 incident where a University of Cincinnati police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in a car. The officer was tried for murder and voluntary manslaughter before a judge declared a mistrial in November. A re-trial has been set for May.

That was the starting point for next Tuesday's meeting, Deacon Royce recalled.

"We began to have conversations about what is the role of the Church to use this prophetic voice to address violence, whether it be police violence or black-on-black crime or any violence," he said.

Several members of the archdiocese's pastoral services department met to bring the problem of violence in the city to Archbishop Dennis Schnurr. The archbishop then celebrated Masses for peace at four African-American parishes in the archdiocese, and staff sent out prayer intentions and homily suggestions to parishes on "the role of the Church in seeking justice."

Then, after a rash of violent incidents across the nation in the summer of 2016 – police shootings of minorities and retaliatory shootings of police officers – Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, then-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for a Day of Prayer and Peace in Our Communities on Sept. 9. There were two Masses for peace that day in the archdiocese, at African-American parishes.

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The U.S. bishops also commissioned a special task force to plan the day of prayer, but also to issue a report to the U.S. bishops' conference on "promoting peace."

Bishops addressing these issues at the national level proved to be a vital support to Catholics in the archdiocese who had been working for years on them, Deacon Royce said, noting that it "emboldened us to be even more intentional about addressing the issues in the diocese."

Two big social problems in the Cincinnati area are "policing" and "black-on-black violence," he said. Back in 2002, the police department and federal government entered a collaborative looking at "how they are policing in our communities."

The collaboration led to firearm training and cultural sensitivity training for police officers, among other things, but "there's still more to do," Royce said.

He recalled that during the initial trial of the police officer that killed the unarmed black man in 2015, Catholics joined ecumenical leaders and social activists to pray on the steps of the court house. They prayed for the young man who was shot, and for his family, as well as for the police officer.

"We were also…that justice be done, whatever that justice is," he added, insisting that "we weren't praying for an outcome" in the case.

In November, Deacon Royce gave a presentation on Church statements against racism at the University of Cincinnati, citing the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter on racism, "Brothers and Sisters to Us." The previous November, Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville discussed his letter on the "racial divide" at both Dayton University and Xavier University, preached at Mass, and participated in a panel discussion with area police chiefs and state representatives.

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When Cincinnati hosted Major League Baseball's All-Star Game in the summer 2015, Catholics joined with ecumenical leaders, activists and members of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center to ask the MLB to take public stands against racism and violence. They met with the owner of the Cincinnati Reds and representatives of the MLB.

Church leaders must be better equipped to talk about racism and gun violence, the deacon insisted.

"Our pastors, our deacons, or whoever's preaching in our communities, are not skilled to address this issue, so that means the people in the communities are not being formed and most of us as preachers and as homilists would rather steer away from it than address it."

After Archbishop Kurtz called for the Day of Prayer, Deacon Royce and others reached out to him and began planning the event modeled after the theme of the task force, "Promoting Peace In Our Communities." The archdiocese, along with Xavier University's Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice and Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio, will host the event.

"It provides us an opportunity to, again, promote the Church's response to the letter that was sent out from the general secretary and Archbishop Kurtz," the deacon said.

Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati will celebrate Mass at 4 p.m. in the university's Bellarmine Chapel to begin the event, with Archbishop Kurtz concelebrating.

The Mass will be followed by dinner and discussion on "embracing diversity in our communities." This topic is needed for discussion, Deacon Royce stressed, because even though Catholic organizations do "great work" in the area, "we tend not to be engaged at the street level of dealing with people where they are."

"We have to ask ourselves the question: Are we prepared to minister to all of God's people and the range of race, culture, and origin in which they place themselves?"

This involves "teaching our staff" to look at "our own personal biases," he said, "and identify their impact on our ministry."

He added that there must be "an understanding that there is no one culture in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati into which non-white cultures are supposed to assimilate."

The discussion will be followed by a keynote address on "Carrying Out Our Prophetic Ministry in Times of Racism and Violence" by Archbishop Kurtz.

The meeting is so important, Deacon Royce emphasized, because it gives the opportunity for Catholics to "be engaged" on these societal issues.

"When we say there's a seamless garment of life from the womb to the tomb, then that means that we have to be engaged in those events to help people know what that dignity of life is."