PROSPECT HEIGHTS — This year’s Feast Day Mass for St. Peter Claver in Brooklyn, according to the homilist, was a momentous step toward healing “America’s original sin” — racism.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had asked dioceses around the country to dedicate the Memorial of St. Peter Claver, Sept. 9, as a day of prayer for racial justice and solidarity.
The bishops’ plea followed the shooting of Jacob Blake during a police altercation on Aug. 23 in Kenosha, Wis. The USCCB urged participation in “reparation for sins of racism” via the special Mass. They also called for a day of fasting and prayer in the spirit of St. Peter Claver, whose patronage includes ministry to African Americans.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio selected the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph as the venue to celebrate the Mass.
The Feast Day of St. Peter Claver is celebrated with the Mass every year, but according to Father Alonzo Cox, who delivered the homily, this year’s event had social, political, and historical implications.
Father Cox said the USCCB’s call was timely. The Kenosha incident capped a summer of racial unrest across the U.S., which started in May with the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.
From the pulpit, Father Cox declared, “We are dying, and our cries are going unheard — until now. Today, in the year 2020, black and brown people are crying out, to no longer be oppressed, to no longer be looked upon as evil, and we are crying out for justice.”
On such a journey, Father Cox urged that “we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, like St. Peter Claver, the slave among slaves.”
This 17-century missionary priest from Spain cared for African slaves in Colombia by becoming a slave with them, sharing the gospel, and baptizing an estimated 300,000 of them. He thus became the patron saint of seafarers and slaves.
Father Cox is pastor of St. Martin de Porres parish in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The parish includes three churches: Our Lady of Victory, Holy Rosary, and St. Peter Claver. He is also the diocese’s vicar for Black Catholic Concerns.
During the homily, he said it is an honor and a privilege to pastor a parish named for St. Peter Claver.
“He went to the ends of the earth from Spain to Cartagena, Colombia to serve the hurting slaves. He made himself a slave and gained their trust. Their burdens became his burdens.”
Thus, the saint was the only example of God’s love for slaves, countless many of whom said “yes” to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it is the Gospel that will overcome the darkness of racism, Father Cox said.
“If racism is our original sin, a sin of darkness,” Cox asked, “who can we turn to but Jesus himself? He is the light of the world.”
Auxiliary Bishop Neil Tiedemann, C.P. celebrated the Mass and was joined by a dozen of priests and deacons from the diocese, including retired Auxiliary Bishop Guy A. Sansaricq, and Father Cox.
Bishop Tiedemann chairs the diocese’s Commission on Racism and Social Justice. Bishop DiMarzio formed the commission in 2017 after racial turmoil unfolded in Charlottesville, Va.
Among the people who attended this year’s Mass was Delores Casey, a member of St. Peter Claver Church in Brooklyn, who described how the parish was founded nearly 100 years ago by Msgr. Bernard Quinn. His picture graced a pin she wore. Msgr. Quinn is a candidate for sainthood for standing against racial inequality in New York during the early 1900s.
She said Msgr. Quinn was one who stood on the shoulders of St. Peter Claver, and both men are an example for Catholics today as they confront racism.
“The Church has a powerful role in helping to dissolve the pain and hatred of our world,” she said. “That’s what Jesus was all about.”