Around the time of the March for Life, when we proudly sent a number of our students down to Washington, D.C., one of our grad students—a person of color—proposed this question: if we believe that all lives matter to God, why don’t the Catholics show up for Black Lives Matter and other rallies like it the way they do for the March for Life? I’m not going to lie to you: at the time I didn’t really have a great answer, and I remain haunted by that question.
As we come together today on Pentecost to receive anew the gift of the Holy Spirit—which empowers us to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every circumstance, to every person and in every language—the foremost thing on my mind, and I’m sure all of yours, is the death of George Floyd. It is another story of an unarmed black man killed by a police officer, and his death occurs along with a series of incidents involving race-based violence and xenophobia. We have also witnessed a double standard in the application of justice for people of different races. These things have raised once again the specters of racism and bigotry that are very much ingrained in the fiber of our nation. Understandable outrage and senseless acts of violence and destruction have ensued in cities throughout the country, even as we emerge from the shared experience of a global pandemic and mourn the collective loss of 100,000 sisters and brothers, loved ones and friends.
In their statement on the death of George Floyd and the protests that have followed, the US bishops write:
We are broken-hearted, sickened, and outraged to watch another video of an African American man being killed before our very eyes. What’s more astounding is that this is happening within mere weeks of several other such occurrences. This is the latest wake-up call that needs to be answered by each of us in a spirit of determined conversion.
Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a throwaway political issue to be bandied about when convenient. It is a real and present danger that must be met head on. As members of the Church, we must stand for the more difficult right and just actions instead of the easy wrongs of indifference. We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life. We serve a God of love, mercy, and justice.
While it is expected that we will plead for peaceful non-violent protests, and we certainly do, we also stand in passionate support of communities that are understandably outraged. Too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard, their complaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this deadly treatment is antithetical to the Gospel of Life.
It could not be clearer. This is not about politics. It’s not about one group of people, one type, or class, or color of persons. It’s not about one city, or one community, or one neighborhood. This is about our nation, about our world. This is about us. No one gets to sit this one out and say, “Isn’t that sad . . . thank God it’s not me or my kids,” or “Not in my neighborhood,” or “Don’t blame me, I voted for the other person.” No one gets to say, “Oh, we’re above all that,” or “We’re past that.” Because in our human family, when one fails or suffers, or when one harms another, we all experience the pain and carry the wounds. I’m reminded of the words of Our Holy Father Pope Francis, who said that “wherever any minority is persecuted and marginalized because of its ethnic identity, the wellbeing of society as a whole is endangered and each one of us must feel affected.” This is about every human person made in the image of God and breathing God’s Holy Spirit, imbued with intrinsic dignity, worthy of justice, honor, and protection from conception to natural death.
As Christians we believe in the power of love, the power of Jesus Christ, his words and works that changed the world and his victory over sin and death. And as we prepare for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to let God’s Holy Spirit in, we pray that the fire of God’s love will be in our world, and in our hearts.
Letting the Holy Spirit in means being honest with ourselves, with each other, and before God. It means allowing God to tend to our sins, especially those born out of hatred and prejudice, and our sins of omission born from our sense of aloofness or feeling removed from the plight of our sisters and brothers.
Letting the Holy Spirit in means allowing God to tend to our sense of hopelessness that renders us apathetic. It is true that many of us are privileged in that we can run our errands and go about our lives without the lingering fear of deadly violence simply because of the color of our skin. But watch the video. Hear George’s words: “I can’t breathe. I’m dying.” Hear him call for his mother. Did you hear that? How did it feel?
Letting the Holy Spirit in moves us with compassion, and that challenges us to stand in others’ shoes and to stand with them. The Spirit enables us to understand our differences, to open ourselves up to reconciliation and transformation. The Spirit enables us to live in unity under the bond of peace; to live and to proclaim the Gospel in real time; to work for justice while responding to the needs of our struggling and broken humanity. But on the other hand, when our hearts are closed, when we fail to heed the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we fail in our attempts to live the Gospel.
We must pray for the Holy Spirit to come anew into our hearts and help us to embrace the dignity of every person regardless of their race, class, creed, tongue, or their country of origin. That love demands that we prophetically name and call out injustice in all its ugly forms, especially when it manifests as aggression against the dignity of the human person. We must be converted ourselves and take a stand, even if that means courageously breaking out of the locked rooms we sometimes so comfortably hide in. Now is the time to listen to the cries of our brothers and sisters, to pray and to live courageously our faith in Jesus Christ. And at any moment we may be called not only to listen, to preach, and to pray, but to show up, to answer the haunting question posed to me by our student months ago and march for justice and for peace in unity with our brothers and sisters. That’s faith in action.
Rabbi Irving Greenburg wrote that “humans encounter God most deeply when they act as divine agents in sustaining life, protecting humans who are made in God’s image. God chooses to depend on humans to repair the world and end the suffering.” Right now, in this moment, our nation is sick, suffering, and hemorrhaging from the ancient sins of hate and apathy. God depends on us “to repair the world and end the suffering.” So, in faith we pray: “Come Holy Spirit.” Today Jesus breathes on us and says: “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
So I send you. Imagine that: all of us came together this morning to hear the Word of God, to receive God’s Holy Spirit, and then to be sent forth by the same Spirit into the world as Christ’s presence, his truth, his peace and his love. Imagine that: hundreds of people hearing that Word, receiving that call, and promising to live by it. Hundreds here and around New Haven, hundreds in Hartford, in Waterbury; hundreds in Minneapolis, in Detroit, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, in Ferguson; hundreds, thousands, millions . . . “Come Holy Spirit. Renew the hearts of the faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.”
Fr. Ryan Lerner was appointed 8th Chaplain for Saint Thomas More in March 2019 and is currently the chancellor of the archdiocese of Hartford. He is a native of Manchester, Connecticut. He holds a B.A. in History and Religion and a M.A. in Public Policy from Trinity College.