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CTU Opens School Year with Contemplation on Racism

September 15, 2020

Fr. Mark Francis, CSV, President of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, found the date of the opening school liturgy to be prophetic. It occurred on Sept. 9, which is the feast of St. Peter Claver, patron of the missions to African people and human rights defender.

Fr. Mark Francis shares his homily via Zoom during the opening liturgy for the CTU community.

“His feast gave me a chance to address the issue of racism for the CTU community, and I received a good response,” Fr. Francis wrote to his fellow members of the Viatorian Provincial Council. “Parts of it might be useful.”

They are. So far, a video of the liturgy, including the homily by Fr. Francis, has been watched by more than 900 people. Here is his homily, in its entirety:

“We gather this afternoon to begin CTU’s school year at an extraordinary moment. Because of the Covid crisis we opted to come together celebrating a liturgy of the Word, rather than the Eucharist. And the date set aside this year for what would have been the Mass of the Holy Spirit—our usual way of initiating a new year of learning together as a community—happens to fall on the Feast of St. Peter Claver, the Spanish Jesuit priest who gave his life ministering to the enslaved Africans arriving on the shores of Colombia in the 17th Century.

St. Peter Claver

“He recounted his experience of ministry in the letter we just heard. His labors and those of the people he inspired to help him, took seriously the challenging words of scripture from the Prophet Isaiah and Matthew’s Gospel—that real faithfulness to God is not constituted by mouthing nice ideas or performing ritual observances, but by concrete acts of feeding the hungry, giving refreshment to the thirsty, clothing to the naked and working for the liberation of those oppressed. Pious protestations of love of God are hallow and false without love of neighbor—especially those neighbors who are, poor, powerless and marginalized.

“So, today we are in the midst of the national debate on race, and we remember and celebrate St. Peter Claver. In light of this context, as a Catholic school of theology and ministry, I believe we need to respond to the basic question raised by the readings and by the signs of the times: how do we as a community witness to the call summed up in the cry, “Black Lives Matter.” I know that some will answer that we need to affirm that “all lives matter”—which is true of course—but because of history we need to proclaim that Black Lives Matter since for centuries black lives didn’t much matter in Americas—and all too sadly, the example of Peter Claver was an exception.

CTU is a diverse community, with students coming from 30 countries.

“We are blessed that CTU is a diverse community—made up lay women and men, religious from numerous communities, those preparing for the priesthood as well as for lay ministry. Our student body is made up of people from more than 30 countries. So how can we affirm that Black Lives Matter—and that all people who have been marginalized and oppressed in this country—brown lives, native American lives, Asian lives—also matter? As an answer to that challenge I would like to propose something that may seem to you as counter-intuitive. I would invite all of us this year to engage in on-going contemplation.

“I know, I know, you may think that I am calling on us to navel gaze, because unfortunately contemplation has been misunderstand by many as something that only “contemplatives” in monasteries do. It is not particularly something those of us in active ministry practice. But I would like to suggest the definition of contemplation proposed by Walter Burkhart—that basically contemplation is “a long loving look at the real.” It is slowing down sufficiently to get in touch with one’s illusions, biases, assumptions, worldviews. It is getting in touch with reality—the world’s and our own. It helps us to really see the world as it is. Understood in this way, for those engaged in theology and ministry, contemplation is not just a nice “add on” – but a crucial component for anyone who would aspire to minister in God’s name. It then prepares the way for concrete actions that each of us can make to counter racism in all its forms.

“A great advantage that we have at CTU is each other—and our diversity provided that we listen with the ear of our heart (as St. Benedict puts it) to one another—especially to the people of color – hearing their stories, listening to their witness. There are also many resources here—books, videos, journals—that we can use to truly discover the reality that might be beyond our own experience. Before we begin regular periods of contemplation, this will enable us to take a long, loving look at the reality we might not have seen before.
In her latest book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson, tries to help us understand how we can gain a new and liberating perspective that helps us overcome the cultural blinders that many of us were raised with. She compares our current situation to living in an old house.

“In the US, we are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say, “I had nothing to do with how all this started, I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of the property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.” (p.15)

“This year at CTU, as residents in this old house, we are being called on to help make the necessary repairs so that our common home is livable, safe and welcoming to everyone. Contemplation will help us see those parts of our house in need of a major rehab that we have collectively neglected—to now follow the improved blueprints for this house left to us by people like St. Peter Claver, Frederick Douglass, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Sr. Thea Bowman, John Lewis, and so many others.

“Let’s get busy!”