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Bishop and Diocesan Pastoral Council confront the sin of racism

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Bishop Robert J. McClory makes remarks during his first meeting with the Diocesan Pastoral Council, which focused on safety protocol and re-opening actions related to the coronavirus, before the Social Teaching Commission gave a presentation about the challenge of racism, at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage on Oct. 8. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)



Northwest Indiana Catholic


      PORTAGE – Bishop Robert J. McClory, members of the Diocese of Gary’s Social Teaching Commission and the Diocesan Pastoral Council all agreed at the council’s Oct. 8 meeting that it’s time the Catholic Church’s “best kept secret” be shouted from the rooftops.

      Everyone agreed that Catholic Social Teaching brands racism as a sin. The problem, said Deacon Frank Zolvinski, is that not enough Catholics learn about the principles of Catholic Social Teaching in faith formation classes and parochial school theology classes.

      Deacon Zolvinski recalled a teenager that returned years ago from a Catholic youth conference to report to the Diocesan Youth Council he had created that she learned from a priest “that racism is a sin, and she’d never heard it described in such blunt terms.

      “What struck me was that after 11 years of Catholic education, she didn’t already know that. Where did we fail?” he said.

      Deacon Zolvinski noted that “we’re doing better,” mentioning that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has made clear that racism is a pro-life issue.

      During a segment of the event at Nativity of Our Savior, council members were invited to share their thoughts and reflections on the challenge of racism. Michael Cummings, a deacon candidate from Ss. Monica and Luke in Gary, rose first to relate how, at a diocesan workshop about “Sin,” participants were told that “not coming to Church (on Sunday) was a grave sin, but racism was a sin, a casual sin.

      “That came from the diocese, and I had to stand up and say something. But if I hadn’t been in that class, (that statement) would have just been accepted,” he suggested. “I think we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

      Bishop McClory agreed, stating emphatically that racism “is something that is intrinsically evil” and that Church leaders “haven’t always exhibited that truth.

      “I apologize for the Church that that (truth) wasn’t seen as important (at the workshop),” the bishop told Cummings. “There’s a lot that we have to unpack. There’s a lot of history, a lot we have to repent for.”

      When the subject of racism comes up, as it did at the council meeting, “and only two people stand up (to address it), we can’t even have a dialogue, and that’s important, to have a dialogue,” Cummings said.

      His remarks prompted more comments, including those of Clarence O’Connor, a volunteer chaplain at two Northwest Indiana prisons, who said that is where he learned about prejudice. “The majority of people incarcerated are black, and they never had the opportunity to overcome the disadvantages they faced.

      O’Connor detailed a talk with Father David Link, another prison chaplain and former University of Notre Dame Law School dean, “about how fortunate we are to be white, and had opportunities. I mentioned one prisoner and said it was a shame that he fell through the cracks, and Father Link said, ‘No, he was born in a crack.’

      “We need to get to these people (in prison) with money and legislation so they get an opportunity. . .they may had made just one mistake and yet there they are,” O’Connor said. “We have to get them the opportunity to get out of the poverty they were born into, out of the poor neighborhoods.”

      John Cox, music director at Nativity parish, pushed for more integration among the Church faithful. “We are kind of segregated in our Church, yet we are one body in Christ. If it is a sin to be separated from Christ, we need to get together more,” he suggested. “(All races) used to work together in the (steel) mills, when they employed 100,000, but now there are about 10,000 working in the mills, and we have become more segregated where we live.

      “If we can’t be together within these walls, be together with our brothers and sisters there’s something wrong,” Cox added. “We need to become one body.”

      Lisa Gutierrez, a St. Matthias parishioner in Crown Point and principal of Aquinas School at St. Andrew in Merrillville, agreed that reaching out to youth is critical to addressing racism. She admitted that she is “disturbed by the exclusionary nature” of some diocesan schools that set quotas for non-Catholic students. “We need to take a good look at that (practice),” she said, adding that she takes great joy in the baptism of Aquinas students who convert to Catholicism.

      Mike Catania, another Nativity parishioner, noted that his employer provided “unconscious bias” training that he found beneficial. “I learned a lot” about bias people don’t even realize they have, just because that’s how you were raised. It would be great if we could offer that training,” he said.

      Father Kevin Huber, diocesan chancellor and pastor of Queen of All Saints and St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Michigan City, agreed that unconscious bias is a problem. “If I don’t have an awareness of it, (then) it’s not there for me to deal with, and I think I’m good,” he said.

      Vicky Hathaway, consultant to the diocesan Office of Youth and Young Adults, said addressing racism “is something that is very important to our young people. They want to look to a Church that reflects a love for everyone. If we don’t stand up for the marginalized. . . (that may be why they are) reticent about authority. We need to do more to reflect what’s already in their hearts.”

      Adeline Torres, diocesan director of the Office of Intercultural Ministry, called racism a “mortal disgrace. We were not born that way, and that’s why we must eradicate it.”

      She offered recommendations that included finding an opportunity to get to know your neighbor and acquire resources to make their lives better; praying with others and allowing them to teach you how they pray, which may be different from your way; including people of color in all decisions before making plans, remembering that they see things through a different lens; and having “our diocese, parishes and schools reflect all of our people.”

      Each member of the diocesan Social Teaching Commission also offered short “takeaways” on the issues of racism and inclusion. “This group is awfully passionate about Catholic Social Teaching, as you can see,” summarized commission chairwoman Beth Casbon. “Seek us out, we want to be a resource,” she urged the council’s parish representatives.

      “Every generation has to talk about racism, but people don’t like to do it. It’s uncomfortable,” Bishop McClory admitted as he offered his perspective to conclude the meeting. “It’s not just that racism itself is evil, and it is, but (also) we are missing out on the gifts that God wants us to have from each other, because we’ve closed the door on that (when we allow racism to exist).

      “The Lord has a great adventure ahead of us as we come to grips with this,” he added. “We become fully alive as we explore that word – diversity – and it’s a really cool way to live on the other side of this.”


      (This is the first installment of a two-part series on the issues raised at the Oct. 8 Diocesan Pastoral Council meeting, the first since Bishop Robert J. McClory was installed on Feb. 11 due to the restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Look for Part II in the Nov. 1 issue of the Northwest Indiana Catholic)

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