By Rhina Guidos
WASHINGTON (CNS) – In the aftermath of a chaos- and hate-filled weekend in Virginia, Catholic bishops and groups throughout the nation called for peace after three people died and several others were injured following clashes between pacifists, protesters and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 11 and 12.
A 32-year-old paralegal, Heather D. Heyer, was killed when a car plowed into a group in Charlottesville on Saturday. Various news outlets have identified the driver as James Alex Fields, who plowed into a crowd during a white nationalist rally and a counter-rally the afternoon of Aug. 12.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said early Aug. 14 the “evil attack” meets the legal definition of domestic terrorism and suggested pending federal charges for Fields, who was arrested and was being held without bail. Fields was formally charged Aug. 14 by a Charlottesville judge with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failure to stop in an accident that resulted in death.
The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Va., was one of the first to call for peace following the violence in Charlottesville late Aug. 11, which led to the events the following day.
On the evening of Aug. 11, The Associated Press and other news outlets reported a rally of hundreds of men and women, identified as white nationalists, carrying lit torches on the campus of the University of Virginia. Counter-protesters also were present during the rally and clashes were reported. The following day, at least 20 were injured and Heyer’s death was confirmed after the car allegedly driven by Fields rammed into the crowd of marchers. Two Virginia State Police troopers also died when a helicopter they were in crashed while trying to help with the violent events.
“In the last 24 hours, hatred and violence have been on display in the city of Charlottesville,” said Richmond Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo. “I earnestly pray for peace.” Charlottesville is in Bishop DiLorenzo’s diocese.
Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency Aug. 12 when violence erupted during the “Unite the Right” white nationalist protest against the removal of a statue of a Confederate general, Gen. Robert E. Lee. But the trouble already had started the night before with the lit torches and chants of anti-Semitic slogans on the grounds of the University of Virginia.
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the events “abhorrent acts of hatred.” He said they were an “attack on the unity of our nation.”
Other groups, including many faith groups, seeking to counter the white nationalist events showed up during both events. Authorities reported clashes at both instances.
“Only the light of Christ can quench the torches of hatred and violence. Let us pray for peace,” said Bishop DiLorenzo in his statement. “I pray that those men and women on both sides can talk and seek solutions to their differences respectfully.”
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia said racism was the “poison of the soul,” and said that it was the United States’ “original sin” and one that “never fully healed.”
He added that, “blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity.”
Cardinal DiNardo, along with Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, issued a statement saying: “We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism. We stand with our sisters and brothers united in the sacrifice of Jesus, by which love’s victory over every form of evil is assured.”
Former Brooklynites React
In Albany, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, a native of Brooklyn, issued the following statement:
“The dignity of every human person without exception, from conception to natural death, regardless of race, background or status, is rooted not only in the foundations of any civilized society but also in our very existence as children of a loving and merciful God.
“Racism in any form is an intolerable evil that directly affronts human dignity and enflames destructive passions. Smoldering in the heart as hatred – lest we need reminding – it inevitably erupts into violence, as we have just witnessed graphically at the recent instigation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va. Individuals and associations that endorse racism must be universally and publicly rebuked, lest history repeat itself – or even worse befall us.
“May our prayers for all who suffer from both individual and systemic racism unite us in a resolve to drive out its cancerous seeds from every human heart and in every corner of our society.”
Brooklyn-born Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn., said he was “deeply disturbed by the hatred and bigotry.”
“What happened at the rally is unacceptable to any Catholic, any American, and any human being,” he said.
He asked for prayers “for the victims of violence” and “especially those now who now live in fear of racism or discrimination, or those disturbed by the incomprehensible hatred displayed…”
Statement from Newark
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, N.J., issued a statement on behalf of “the one and a half million Catholic men, women and children of the Archdiocese of Newark – people who trace their roots to every continent of the world and represent every race and ethnicity.”
He said that they “view with horror the recent events in Charlottesville and condemn the racism and vicious rhetoric that contributed to this tragic moment in our nation’s history. We stand in prayer and solidarity with all people of good will and we witness to our Christian calling to “love your enemies … that you may be children of your heavenly Father.” (Mt. 5: 44-45)
“In the wake of her daughter’s brutal death, the mother of Heather Heyer told reporters in Charlottesville that ‘hate cannot fix the world. Hate only creates more hate.’ We join her in rejecting the brutality that killed her child, contributed to the deaths of two Virginia State Troopers and left dozens injured.
“While we denounce such violence, we also call for a thorough examination of racial bigotry and intolerance in the light of reason and love. ‘For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed’ (Jn 3:20). Dark words and deeds must be met with light and love.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., called for “soul searching” in the wake of the unrest.
“We must always identify hate for what it is, but the inevitable pointing of fingers of blame after the fact only entrenches division,” he said.
“We as a nation must also engage in soul searching about how it is that there is so much social unrest and violence in our communities. After years of seeing the flames of resentment and division fanned by incitement to bitterness and distrust, should we not now be actively seeking reconciliation and a return to civility?” he asked.
“At this time, as Christians, as disciples of Jesus, we must redouble our efforts to bear a witness for peace and the common good,” he said.
Other bishops adding to the criticism included Bishop Martin D. Holley of Memphis, Tenn. He wrote:
“May this shocking incident and display of evil ignite a commitment among all people to end the racism, violence, bigotry and hatred that we have seen too often in our nation and throughout the world.
“Let us pray for the repose of the souls of those who died tragically, including the officers, and for physical and emotional healing for all who were injured. May ours become a nation of peace…”
Bishop DiMarzio’s Statement On Events in Charlottesville
“We must condemn the violent acts of hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. Please join me in praying for those injured and killed and for all those who have been the victims of racism and bigotry. We must also pray for those who have allowed the seeds of hatred to grow in their hearts.”