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Mississippi Bishops Aim to Follow Thea Bowman’s Lead on Racism

Sister Thea Bowman is pictured in an undated photo. The granddaughter of slaves, she was the only African-American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and she transcended racism to leave a lasting mark on U.S. Catholic life in the late 20th century. Photo: Beatrice Njemanze/Mississippi Catholic via CNS.)

By Nick Mayrand, Journalism Intern

(Crux) — Pointing to the late Sister Thea Bowman as an “icon of hope,” the bishops of both Mississippi dioceses have pledged to “liberate the Church from the evil of racism that severely compromises our mission.”

Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz of Jackson told Crux that he and Bishop Louis F. Kihneman of Biloxi have decided to tackle racism together because the “reality of race relations in Mississippi” is rooted in the time when Mississippi’s Catholics were united in a single diocese.

“The unified diocese spanned slavery, the Civil War, segregation, Jim Crow, and the early years of Civil Rights,” Bishop Kopacz explained. “A unified voice on this social justice issue is most fitting honoring the shared legacy of education, service, empowerment and advocacy on behalf of the African American population and racial issues.”

The bishops held up the “prophetic life” of Mississippi-born Sister Thea Bowman, a granddaughter of slaves and a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who directed the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson in the late 1970s and 1980s. She was also a founding member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Her canonization cause was initiated at the same 2018 USCCB meeting that approved the publication of “Open Wide Our Hearts.”

In a joint statement released July 4 – three days after Mississippi’s governor signed a law retiring the state’s flag that included the Confederate battle emblem – Bishop Kopacz and Kihneman denounced racism as a plague, an evil, and a “force of destruction that eats away at the soul of our nation.”

The Mississippi prelates committed to work with their state’s Catholic community to “strengthen our Catholic tradition to educate, to serve, and to empower all who are on the margins in our communities, especially those who are oppressed by the yoke of racism.”

Drawing heavily from the 2018 U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” Bishop Kopacz and Bishop Kihneman stressed the need for Catholics to “recognize our participation in the chains of racism” and expressed “deep sorrow and regret” for the acts of racism that Catholic bishops, clergy, religious and laity, and institutions have committed.

The “antidote to the toxin” of racism is love, “an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace,” they argued.

Highlighting Bishop Bowman’s unceasing efforts to “break down racial and cultural barriers” through programs and presentations that she famously continued from her wheelchair after her breast cancer diagnosis, the two bishops pointed to her as an “icon of hope” in the fight against racism.

“She loved her African American people and traditions especially, but not exclusively,” Bishop Kopacz told Crux. “Sister Thea loved the diversity among all of God’s children, especially the marginalized and oppressed, and labored to build bridges across the racial divides that crushed people’s spirits.”

“She demanded excellence from her students and the highest level of commitment from all in leadership in the church, ordained and lay alike,” he added.

“As the struggle for racial justice convulses our nation once again,” Bishop Kopacz said, “Sister Thea’s life and legacy can provide a way forward for our church and nation that is grounded in gospel faith, hope and love.”

Bishop Kihneman told Crux, “Sister Thea touched both of our lives personally as we attended one or more of her presentations of Hope. She is an example of what we are attempting to address in a very faith-based way of living out the Gospel.”

The aim of their combined efforts to combat racism in Mississippi’s Catholic community, Bishop Kopacz said, is to cause “not just a momentary reaction, positive or negative,” but to spark a “grassroots response that endures and bears good fruit.”

To that end, the two bishops also issued a list of recommendations to “provide a practical starting place for clergy and the faithful on engaging effectively in combatting racism, that begins in the human heart.”

Among the practical suggestions for parishes were a plea for priests and deacons to preach on racism and include prayers to end racism in Masses and prayer services, a request that parish pastoral councils and parish finance councils be engaged in discussions on racism, and a call for Catholic communities to hold listening seminars where parishioners and community members can reflect on their life experiences and perceptions of “the other person.”

For individuals, the Mississippi prelates recommended that each Catholic “educate yourself on the history and causes of racism in our country,” steer clear of racial and discriminatory humor, exercise the right to vote, and “talk to your children about the pain and injustice caused by racism.”

These practical steps followed the lead of “Open Wide Our Hearts” and were designed to encourage people “to think, to pray, to dialogue and to act,” Bishop Kopacz explained. “Of course, this follows the path the Lord Jesus laid down for us when he taught that one is blessed who hears my words and puts them into practice (Luke 11:28, Matthew 7:24).”

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