Archbishop urges repentance from racism in new pastoral note

A woman prays during the Gospel Mass for Peace at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in January. The Mass, commissioned by Archbishop Vigneron, was written by Detroiter Kier Ward as a way to bridge racial divides in Detroit's community. On June 18, Archbishop Vigneron released the first in a series of "pastoral notes" reflecting on the impact of Unleash the Gospel on different areas of society and culture, on the topic of racism. (Michigan Catholic file photos)

Reflection is first in a series examining societal topics in light of 'Unleash the Gospel'

DETROIT — In order to be effective at the task of evangelizing the culture, Catholics must first reflect and repent from the sins of years of institutional racism in the Archdiocese of Detroit, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron wrote in a new pastoral note, released one year after the publishing of his blueprint for evangelization in the archdiocese, Unleash the Gospel.

Catholics participate in "Take Back the Night" prayer vigils in Detroit in 2016 as part of an effort to draw attention to increasing violence in the city.

The pastoral note, titled “Agents for the New Creation” and released June 18 in both English and Spanish, is the first in a series over the coming months that will examine cultural and societal topics in light of “Unleash the Gospel.”

Seventy-five years after the infamous civil unrest of 1943 that took the lives of 34 people and wounded countless others in Detroit, a catalyst for decades of racial animosity and bitterness, Catholics in Metro Detroit have a role to play in bringing Christ into the deepest recesses of lingering division by repenting of evil and recommitting to protecting the inherent dignity of all people, the archbishop wrote.

“Our nation’s history has many tremendous accomplishments of which we should be proud. But it also bears the stain of many years of institutional racism whereby Blacks – even after emancipation – were treated as second-class citizens or worse. Complicit in these sins were many who professed the Catholic faith,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote.

“Sadly, we are living the wounds of those many years of injustice in our local communities. For the sins of these Catholics past and present, I as your Archbishop am truly sorry. Acts of racism are sins.”

Racism brings about three kinds of harm, the archbishop said: to the person afflicted, to society at large, and to the individual committing sin.

When a person becomes a victim of racism, he or she “is deprived of his inherent human dignity by actions or attitude of another person and thereby may struggle to realize his God-given value,” Archbishop Vigneron said. At the same time, “as attitudes of injustice are transmitted to others, it becomes harder for us to reflect the equality of all men through societal structures.”

Racist attitudes also cause a kind of self-inflicted harm, Archbishop Vigneron said, as “the perpetrator of racial prejudice disfigures his own understanding of right and wrong and obscures his ability to see truth through the light of the Gospel.”

Clergy and altar servers pray during a remembrance service at Christ the King Church in Detroit for victims of the 1967 Detroit racial violence.

In order to become a truly missionary archdiocese, Catholics in southeast Michigan must acknowledge the past with a forthright trust in the “life-changing power of Jesus Christ” to overcome sin and move forward in love, he said.

“For us in metro-Detroit, this mission-oriented attitude means that we keep Jesus Christ at the center of everything we do,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote. “Our role is to entrust ourselves faithfully to him and to let his teaching shape our lives and our actions.”

The fact that the archbishop has repeatedly addressed the topic since even before the 2016 Detroit synod that led to Unleash the Gospel is a sign that the issue is of paramount importance in Detroit, said Msgr. Dan Trapp, pastor of St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish on Detroit’s east-side and a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

“I think it says that this is a problem that has to be faced. It’s something we all need to be praying about and repenting — that is, thinking again — about,” Msgr. Trapp told The Michigan Catholic. “We’re not in a post-racial society. Some people like to think we are; we’re not. We’ve had four or five race riots in Detroit, depending on how people count them. This is just a longstanding difficulty, and the fact that the archbishop points it out, I think is helpful for all of us.”

Leon Dixon, director of black Catholic ministries for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said the archbishop’s repeated efforts to bridge racial divides have not gone unnoticed in the black Catholic community.

“So many times when dealing with matters of race, sex or anything that makes people uncomfortable, it kind of just sits there. He’s keeping it at the top of the conversation,” Dixon said. “In our world today, everything is so polarized and politicized, with people drawing lines in the sand. But the archbishop is telling us, there is no line to be drawn in the sand if you’re a Catholic or a Christian because Jesus has proclaimed salvation for all.”

A woman lights candles in remembrance of victims of the 1967 Detroit racial unrest during a service at Christ the King Church in Detroit in July 2017.

While predominantly black inner-city parishes — some built to house 1,000 to 1,500 parishioners — have suffered from dwindling congregations, Dixon said those who remain often feel isolated from the rest of the Church.

“For years, it felt like two separate churches,” Dixon said. “But we’re chipping away at the ice. We’re getting there.”

Dixon said Detroit’s much-celebrated economic revival is great for the city, but in order to repair the damage caused by decades of indifference and division, more outreach is needed.

“This is the third or fourth ‘renaissance’ in Detroit since I’ve been alive. I’m sure it’s going to reach Eight Mile eventually, but when you’ve been here 30, 40 or 50 years and change hasn’t come to your neighborhood, and your neighborhood is bleeding — literally with blood in the streets — you lose hope," Dixon said. "Things like (the pastoral note) go a long way in telling the community that somebody does care.”

To look forward as a community united in Jesus, Catholic parishes in the suburbs and city can take steps to engage one another in dialogue — not just on the topic of race, but on the topic of faith, Dixon said.

“It would be great if we could do ‘home-and-homes’ like they do in baseball,” Dixon said. “You come worship with us, and we’ll come worship with you. Maybe we could do a religious education program together, or even dinner once a month. But we have to start building bridges.
“If we want to defeat racism, it’s not going to be a policy that stops it,” Dixon added. “The only way we can stop it is to bring people together.”

A man plays drums during an Igbo Mass in May 2017 at St. Cecilia Church in Detroit.

Along with the pastoral note, the archbishop also provided audio, video and text resources for parishes to engage in dialogue about the issue of racism.

Those in the African-American community in particular, Archbishop Vigneron wrote, have many expressions of faith that enrich the life of the Archdiocese of Detroit, including a diversity of gifts given by the Holy Spirit.

“We would be a much poorer Church without the expressions of faith through prayer, music, and personal testimony proper to the Black communities. And these expressions are a leaven to the Catholic Church,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

Dixon pointed to January’s Gospel Mass for Peace at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament — commissioned by Archbishop Vigneron and written by Keir Ward, a local black musician — as a concrete example of positive growth and outreach.

“I think he hit a home run with that,” Dixon said. “It’s one thing for us to go to meetings and say, ‘The archbishop said this.’ But he had the entire community there and said it in such plain language that it couldn’t be refuted.”

Parish resources

To download the archbishop’s pastoral note, “Agents for the New Creation,” in English or Spanish, as well as to find audio, video and text resources for parish discussion, visit