By Tony Gutiérrez
PHOENIX — Just as the prodigal son cried out to his father for forgiveness, so too we cry out to God the Father for the sin of racism, said Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted at a special Mass for Forgiveness of the Sin of Racism June 8 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral.
“Racism is not overcome by our own human determination. It is overcome by God, by His mercy. … Only God can change minds and hearts. That’s why the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist play such vital roles in overcoming the sin of racism,” Bishop Olmsted said in his homily.
“The prodigal son, when he finally came to his senses and saw how his own selfishness had ruined his life,” he added. “He came to see how great was his need for God.”
The Mass was held in the wake of civil unrest throughout the country following the May 25 killing of African-American man George Floyd in police custody. In Arizona, protesters gathered every night since that day to protest not only Floyd’s killing, but also that of local African-American man Dion Johnson, who was shot and killed by an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer, also May 25.
When officers found Johnson, he had fallen asleep in his car parked at the gore point where State Highway 51 merges from Loop 101 near the Tatum Avenue exit. Body camera footage is not available, and details are still emerging from the killing.
After one such protest led to millions of dollars in damages at Scottsdale Fashion Square May 30, Gov. Doug Ducey issued a nine-day statewide curfew at 8 p.m., with some exceptions.
“Racism is a sin against justice. It cannot be overcome by further acts against justice,” Bishop Olmsted said, adding that a Catholic student from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff had shared with him that she’s worried that her father, a police officer, could be seriously hurt.
“We are gathered around the Altar of Sacrifice tonight to pray for forgiveness for the sin of racism in Arizona and wherever it occurs, especially in our own hearts,” the bishop said. Noting that 49 percent of the priests serving in the diocese are from other countries, he recalled prejudice experienced by them from Catholics in the diocese.
“On the day that I installed one of our finest pastors, protestors came to the parking lot and distributed flyers on car windows denouncing the bishop for replacing their beloved former pastor with ‘these Africans,’” Bishop Olmsted recounted. “Another priest said that, when he arrived at his first assignment, a parishioner told him ‘they could not stand a black priest at the altar.’”
After the Mass, Fr. Robert Aliunzi, AJ, a popular pastor at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Chandler who is originally from Uganda, shared how parishioners from one of his previous assignments told a local newspaper that “we are very good and sweet, but we are not one of them. I don’t know if it was resistance to change or it was racist, but I definitely didn’t feel good because I feel that I belonged,” added Fr. Aliunzi, who has now served in the diocese for 16 years.
“This the right place to start, because it is where true healing begins in the Church in Christ.”
While racism is a sinful act that results in prejudice, injustice and lack of respect for human dignity brings about, Bishop Olmsted said, it also hides behind indifference.
“Racists may not get caught because they are doing nothing. But, in Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment, (Mt 25:41ff) sin is depicted not as what people did but ‘what they failed to do.’”
Paul Welter, a white parishioner from Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tempe, acknowledged his own indifference to the issue before his wife challenged him to look more into the topic. While other issues that have been raised on social media since Floyd’s death, such as the disproportionate targeting of minorities by abortion providers, Welter said that the topic at hand is police brutality and what that represents: “an attitude throughout this country that we can oppress people if we want, police or otherwise.”
“When that first happened, I was a little bit out of touch with what was going on. My reaction was, “Wait, but I’m not a racist. I’m not prejudice against people. I don’t relate to what you’re saying,’” added Welter, who has been active in pro-life ministry with his family
“After a lot of reading, listening, reflecting, I realized it’s not about me,” he said. “I totally agree all lives matter, I totally agree human lives, unborn lives matter, but right now, we have to focus on the message. We cannot be silent, we cannot be indifferent, because the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
“We are standing up for Black Lives Matter right now, because that is the topic at hand,” added Welter’s wife Nellie. “If it were about immigration, we’d be standing up for immigrants. If it were about the unborn, we’d be standing up for the unborn. We stand up as our Catholic faith teaches us, to respect and honor the dignity of each human being.”
In a pastoral message promulgated June 3, Bishop Olmsted also addressed the topic of racism.
“The senseless and shameful killing of George Floyd focuses our attention on the painful reality that racism and hatred continue to be prevalent in our communities,” the bishop said. “We must work together to strengthen our families and communities.”
The Rev. Warren Stewart, senior pastor at the predominantly African-American First Institutional Baptist Church of Phoenix, and his wife, Rev. Karen Stewart, also a pastor at the church, attended the Mass as guests. The Stewarts have collaborated with the diocese in the past in promoting the U.S. Census, immigration advocacy and ecumenical efforts.
“The whole nation has been traumatized to see George Floyd be killed right in front of their eyes,” Stewart said. “We believe God has given us a Kairos moment, a watershed moment to change 400 years of systemic racism. We don’t want to waste this moment, and the bishop helped us tonight by this Mass.”
Angelica Cardenas, who attends the Crosiers’ Priory Church of the Holy Cross, said she felt motivated to work toward change. Cardenas, a young adult involved in the South Phoenix-based Mary’s Ministries, joined other members of the ministry in attending the Mass and promoting a peaceful and prayerful protest scheduled for Saturday, June 13.
“We know injustice is going on in the world,” Cardenas said. “We want to be advocates for change. We don’t want to just stand back and watch this happen around us, especially in our own communities.”