Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City last week joined other Roman Catholic bishops in asking priests in the diocese to preach on the sins of racism.
McKnight said in a homily during the Chrism Mass on March 22, which celebrates priesthood and Jesus' direction to his disciples to reaffirm their ministries in his memory, that "racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race."
McKnight said Tuesday that he'd been thinking about things that have happened over the past several years.
"It is an issue in our society," McKnight said. "It's not a judgment by me. What I've asked (priests) to do is think about how it might fold into how we preach in our Holy Week."
During the Chrism Mass, McKnight encouraged priests and deacons to reflect on attitudes they might not even realize they have.
The Rev. Joseph Perry, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, led a today retreat and spoke about the Rev. Augustus Tolton during last week's Mass. Perry is the lead investigator in determining whether Tolton should be canonized.
In 1854, Tolton was born a slave in the Jefferson City diocese at Brush Creek. His Catholic slave owner had him baptized as a baby, but his mother fled slavery and escaped to Quincy, Illinois, a stop in the Underground Railroad. As Tolton grew into adulthood, he wanted to become a Catholic priest. However, the American church rejected him, so he traveled to Italy, where he became a priest.
Tolton then wanted to serve the church in Africa, McKnight said during a Sunday homily.
"No, you will go back to the United States and serve there," McKnight said the church told Tolton. "If they have not seen a black priest, they will have to now."
After returning to Quincy, Tolton was sent to Chicago. He died of heat stroke at 43 while treating others afflicted by the summer heat in 1897.
Tolton had been sent back to the community that rejected him because of the color of his skin, and he suffered because of it, McKnight said.
Tolton serves as a model for the church, he added.
"We can and should do our part to root out racism in our hearts, minds and communities," McKnight said, "even if doing so might cause us suffering."
The Catholic Church has created a committee to begin addressing the issue.
In August 2017, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established its Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. That committee was charged with focusing on addressing the sin of racism in U.S. society, including in the church, and focusing on the urgent need to bring communities together.
In an early February address to Catholics involved in social ministries, committee chairman the Rev. George Murry, bishop of Youngstown, Ohio, said recent events have made him question how far the country has come in terms of racism since the civil rights era. He questioned whether the Catholic Church had been capable of taking decisive action or creating principles regarding racism.
The National Catholic Reporter reported Murry said the new committee is "committed to the goal of helping the church become a consistent and productive voice in eradicating this plague." He said it had a goal of helping the church become a voice in eliminating racism.
Murry charged that the Catholic Church in America had been "virtually silent" about racism in Catholic society.
Shortly afterward, Catholic bishops began making race a topic of their homilies.
The Rev. Robert J. Carlson, archbishop of the St. Louis archdiocese, on Feb. 18 (the first Sunday of Lent), asked priests in the diocese to preach on the sin of racism during Masses.
Carlson and McKnight worked together at the Conference of Bishops, and Carlson gave a homily during McKnight's ordination in February.
Carlson sent a letter to priests and deacons after requesting they preach on racism, explaining why he chose to do so.
The request was in response to the "many challenges" the city faced since riots broke out in nearby Ferguson following a police shooting, the not-guilty verdict reached for a police officer involved in a fatal 2011 shooting, and after clashes broke out between protesters and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, he told them.
"I realize racism expresses itself in many different ways and when many hear the word they immediately think of policies, institutions, laws and language," he wrote. "It is certainly part of our history here in Missouri and is found in the social structures that make up society."
Archbishops in St. Louis have been leaders in combating racism for generations, according to a news release from the St. Louis archdiocese. In 1947 — seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools — Cardinal Joseph Ritter desegregated St. Louis Catholic schools. More recently, St. Louis Catholics have organized marches to bring greater awareness to racism in the community.
Overcoming racism will require people to meet many challenges, said the Rev. Robert "Rosy" Rosebrough, pastor of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Ferguson.
One is that many people don't recognize the biases they all have, Rosebrough said. Many in Ferguson's neighboring communities don't recognize they have issues.
"They say, 'We don't have a problem,'" Rosebrough said.
He called it a "non-discovery of ourselves."
Rosebrough, who has been involved in the civil rights movement since the 1960s, said people from other communities often ask how Ferguson has been doing since Darren Wilson, a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, which triggered a riot in August 2014. In November of that year, officials announced the grand jury chose not to indict Wilson on a murder charge. Riots plagued Ferguson and other cities across the country for days after the announcement.
More than three years later, people ask Rosebrough how Ferguson is doing.
He responds by asking them how they are overcoming racism in their communities, and explains racism wasn't and isn't limited to his community.
"Our society is sick," he said. "You're not aware of (racism), but you inherit it. It's carried out in our work places. It's carried out in society."
Another challenge is convincing people to create a movement.
They don't understand the difference between a moment and a movement, he added.
A moment happens when people respond by marching, chanting and posting their concerns on social media following tragedies like Brown's death, Rosebrough said. However, then they go home or move on to the next moment.
"The movement is pushing farther and farther and farther," he said.