Editor’s Note: Fr. Walter Woods is a retired priest from Boston, now living in Holy Trinity Parish in Ladera Ranch.
These are very troubling times for our polarized nation. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought sickness, rising death counts, tensions over masks and restrictions, massive unemployment, and severe financial distress. Then came those racist encounters in Central Park and on a Minneapolis street. The video of the subjugation and death of a black man, George Floyd, under the knee of a white police officer has been extremely provocative. Mass protests erupted all over our country, and rightly so, despite instances of looting and other criminal activity. People are now addressing the use of violence by police officers and the respect due to black people with a seriousness not seen before.
We’re dealing with a multiplicity of distortions and grievances all mixed in with each other: ethnic, cultural, economic, political, social, and more. Honest observers recognize that black people and minority groups have been worn down by chronic disrespect and disproportionate levels of sickness, poverty, incarceration, and early death. Racism in all its forms—in persons but also in institutions, culture, and customs—has been an extremely destructive force in our society.
Now that our country’s ills have again been thrust into our faces, we’re again on the hook to deal with them. But this time most of us realize that it won’t do to burn the clock until the crisis blows over. Calls for patience and saying the right things cannot substitute for actions that correct the conditions that spawned this crisis and others before it. Nor can we continue the old pattern in which proposals for meaningful change meet with opposition, and without good faith efforts on all sides to find a constructive way forward.
As human persons and citizens, we ought to work with others to make the changes necessary on many levels. Effective action on behalf of justice and peace requires a strong sense of community, warm hearts, and a readiness to listen to those who bear the scars of injustice and racism. As Catholics we can draw from well-developed traditions of reflection on the moral life and the requirements of social justice. They can help us to respond to the Lord’s call, confront our own demons, and draft substantive proposals to remedy the underlying causes of this crisis.
But first, our inner space must be cleared of obstacles that would frustrate the task. For example, some of us might keep our faith, worship, and daily life in separate silos. Even if this is unconscious or well-intentioned, those silos must come down. Only then can faith, worship, and daily life flow from and into each other, creating a synergy that can transform us and our communities. It is likewise essential that our partisan and ideological attachments remain totally subordinate to the Gospel and the great commandment of love, and not the other way around (Lk. 10: 27). Site-preparation is never glamorous, but sound construction depends on it.
“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.” With our inner sanctuary prepared, this well-known prayer points to the only foundation worth building upon, namely, the fierce, burning love that God nurtures for each and every person. Nobody deserves it; love comes solely as gift. “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another” (1 Jn. 4: 10-11). God loves us first—with a faithful, personal love that we can never escape or defeat. If we let God’s love in, it burns away the debris from past sins, hurts, and resentments that wounds hearts and poisons relationships. It displaces racist attitudes and, inspiring respect for everyone, prompts us to accompany and assist those who are neglected, abused, or powerless (Matt. 25: 31-45). God’s love motivates personal conversion and empowers us to be missionary disciples who see all others with the eyes and heart of Jesus Christ. That changes everything.
When the fire of the Lord’s love renews his disciples, it lifts up the missionary dimensions of their community. Let us listen again: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13: 34-35). The Lord intends the community of his disciples to be so marked by faith, hope, and charity that it attracts others to become his disciples. To build a community of justice and peace is to grace its members and advance the work of evangelization.
This same mission-related commandment also bids us go forth and bring the blessings of justice and peace to everyone else. This must include cooperative efforts to understand exactly what has gone so wrong in our country, the specific causes, and what must be done to institute meaningful changes. Laypersons are well positioned to contribute to this process. Besides their competence in relevant areas of expertise, they have access to faith-based reflections on the human person and community that have stood the test of time. Moreover, since the Industrial Revolution, popes and others have addressed grave social and economic distortions in various countries, offering analysis and proposing ways to respond. Their writings constitute a valuable resource that can help us understand and respond—humanely and faithfully—to the essentially moral and social character of our present crisis. A good place to begin is “The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.” It was prepared at the request of Pope St. John Paul II in order to provide a “concise but complete overview of the Church’s social teaching.”
As we consider all that confronts us in these troubled times, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. True enough, we can do nothing on our own (Jn. 15: 5). But we’re not alone. The risen Lord walks with us (Lk. 24: 15-16) and the Holy Spirit continues to guide and empower us to carry on the mission of forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, and peace here and now. None is helpless. Endowed with many gifts of nature and grace, we are called to go and witness Christ’s love for each and every one (Matt. 28: 18-20; Jn. 20: 20-23). Our faith inspires us; our community supports us; our country needs us.
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.”