‘This is the Christian message’: Cardinal urges Catholics to join struggle for racial justice

GettyImages 1173861162 Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald greets friends after receiving the red hat at the Vatican October 5, 2019. | AFP via Getty Images

A cardinal has encouraged Catholics to take part in the worldwide struggle for racial justice following the death of George Floyd.

Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, a former president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said that Christians should seek to listen to those who have experienced prejudice.

“I think it’s important that we listen to people and that we try to understand, because it is difficult to speak about racial discrimination,” he told CNA.

“It’s difficult to define and it’s difficult to speak about because many people who are discriminated against will feel that they are brushed aside and not listened to, and so they don’t want to speak. You have to create this atmosphere where you can share the difficulties and be listened to.”

He continued: “This is the Christian message: that we are all created in the image of God and everyone of us has our dignity, and this dignity must be respected. So it’s part of the Christian message. As church communities we should be playing a part in this for society.”

The 82-year-old, who lives in retirement in a parish in Liverpool, England, said that members of his religious community were following the worldwide protests after George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis May 25. 

“There was a march about 10 days ago from our area, the Toxeth area, which was an area which had race riots in the 1980s, and they organized a march into the city,” he recalled. 

“Now, I didn’t take part myself because I’m over-age for that sort of thing and I’m supposed to keep inside the house [because of the pandemic]. But the other three members of the community took part in that march. So we’ve been following it.”

Fitzgerald is a member of the order known colloquially as the White Fathers, founded in 1868 by the French Cardinal Charles Lavigerie to evangelize Africa. 

“It isn’t our official name, it’s a nickname,” he explained. “The official name is the Society of the Missionaries of Africa. We were called ‘White Fathers’ because when we were founded our first apostolate was among the Muslims of Algeria.” 

“The founder, he had already his priests who were wearing black cassocks at that time. And he put us in a white habit of Arab style dress, so that we would be close to the people that we were serving. That’s why we were called the White Fathers, les Pères Blancs. It’s a nickname that has stuck.”

He continued: “Most of our recent members -- those who have joined and are joining at the present time and are in preparation to become Missionaries of Africa -- are mostly Africans themselves.”

Within the community, those African members jokingly refer to themselves as the “‘black White Fathers,’ or ‘black White Father brothers,’ because we have brothers as well,” Fitzgerald told CNA. “There’s nothing racial in it at all,” he added, expressing his sense of conviviality within the religious community.

The superior general of the religious order, Fr. Stanley Lubungo, is himself a Zambian. His predecessor as superior general, Bishop Richard Kuuia Baawobr, is from Ghana, and is the bishop of the Ghanaian Diocese of Wa.

Fitzgerald, one of the world’s newest cardinals, received the red hat from Pope Francis at a consistory on Oct. 5, 2019. He said that the event was not a life-changing experience, unlike his episcopal ordination in 1992.

“The actual ceremony was just a ceremony,” he said. “I would say that in a sense it left me cold. We were there. We showed our faith and our obedience -- and all that is important. And there is the unity and the fellowship with the other cardinals, and that is important.”

“But it’s not like an ordination. It’s not a sacrament. It was much more impressive when I was ordained a bishop in St. Peter’s by Pope John Paul II. That was a really significant celebration. Receiving this red biretta is nothing very much.”

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Nevertheless, Fitzgerald was pleased to enter the College of Cardinals in the same consistory as Bishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, the current president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He said that the two appointments underlined the importance of interreligious relations today.

“It’s one of the signs of Pope Francis’ pontificate. He’s been very forthcoming in this and he’s taken initiatives. So I think that goes along that line,” the cardinal said.

Fitzgerald served as president of the pontifical council from 2002 to 2006, when he was appointed apostolic nuncio to Egypt. After stepping down in 2012, he entered retirement, settling first in Jerusalem and latterly in Liverpool. 

He said the coronavirus pandemic had changed his life far more dramatically than becoming a cardinal. Since the U.K. government imposed a nationwide lockdown in March he has been largely confined to his residence in the parish of St. Vincent de Paul. 

The virus has forced him to cancel his plans to travel and deliver talks. He is spending his time translating works by Cardinal Lavigerie. He also celebrates Masses in the parish, which are currently livestreamed as public liturgies are not permitted until July 4.

“Apart from that, we’ve organized -- and we’ve continued even during the pandemic -- a Gospel-sharing once a week,” he said. “We do it by Zoom. Together with another member of the community I’ve been helping to organize that and to run it. I was also asked to look after the altar servers -- a very serious engagement.”

The cardinal, who has dedicated his life to Arabic and Islamic studies, said he believed that Pope Francis had helped to usher in a new era in ties between the world’s major religions. 

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He cited the pope’s relationship with the Grand Imam of al- Azhar Mosque, Ahmed el-Tayeb, and his signing of a declaration on “human fraternity” in Abu Dhabi in 2019. 

He highlighted the pope’s commitment not only to dialogue, but also to “serving humanity together.”

He noted, however, that the emphasis on both conversation and practical action was not new. He cited the 1984 Vatican document “Dialogue and Mission,” which set out the four dimensions of interreligious dialogue.

He said: “There is this dialogue of presence -- just living together in peace and harmony. There is a dialogue of action, of doing things together. There is a dialogue of discourse, I would call it, of talking together, discussing together, thinking about theology, about religious questions. Then there is the spiritual dialogue, spiritual experience. The four aspects are there.” 

“But I think that Pope Francis has given -- as he has in his teachings generally, Laudato si’, Evangelii Gaudium... -- a more practical way of living out our Christian life. And living out the Christian life means to be related to people who are not Christians too and to be working together with them.”

Fitzgerald said that, amid the world’s depressing developments, we should rejoice at progress in relations between Catholics and members of other religions.

“When you look carefully you see that, as far as interreligious relations are concerned, there has been a growth and there is a greater confidence among the leaders of the different religions who are ready to come together and are taking initiatives,” he said.

“It’s not only the Christians who take initiatives. There are others too, and I think we should rejoice in that. They are small -- and sometimes they are not so small -- but small is beautiful.”

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