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Addressing racism through the Immaculate Heart of Mary

On June 21, 2020, the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the diocesan patroness, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight delivered a homily at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, in which he called on Catholics to purify their hearts of the evil of racism. “Our devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary forces us to contemplate the full reality of what we see happening throughout our nation as we continue to grow in our awareness of the evil of racism,” he said. The full text of the homily follows.

Today we celebrate the feast of the principal patroness of our diocese under the title of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

First, a word about patrons. Every parish has a title, often under the name of a saint, like St. Joseph for the Cathedral parish.

The practice of having patrons or patronesses makes a connection between the community of faith and the saint under their patronage. We seek their protection as we contemplate their particular virtues or role in salvation history.

When the Diocese of Jefferson City was established in 1956, Bishop Marling proclaimed that the Immaculate Heart of Mary would be our patroness.

This rounds out a “trinity” of Marian titles that we can claim: We have Our Lady of Guadalupe as the Patroness of the Americas. And we have the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary as our national patroness.

Cathedral of St. Joseph: Mass of Solemnity of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, 21 June, 2020

With our particular Marian patroness, the connection is made between the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. These twin feasts of the Sacred Hearts celebrated this weekend cause us to contemplate their meaning together:

The heart is an essential part of the human body, the part most apt to symbolize the essence of who we are. We die if our heart stops beating.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus is thus a symbol of his humanity. Jesus was not like a human, he WAS human—fully human and fully divine. Except for sin, he took on all the mental and physical frailties and the limitations we all face from nature.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart seals our true faith in the humanity of the God Man, Jesus Christ. The Sacred Heart symbolizes the profound mystery of God loving us with a human heart.

Devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary also manifests the interplay between the human and divine, but from the opposite perspective. In Mary’s Immaculate Heart, we see a human being fully immersed in God’s merciful grace and love.

The Immaculate Heart of Mary stands as a symbol of the salvation of the whole human race. When we have God at the center of our hearts, the center of our lives, as Mary did completely and without fail, we can experience the limitless love of God which purifies our hearts of all weakness and sinfulness.

The love of God in the human heart enables heroic actions, the practice of reconciliation, and the ability to “love one another as I have loved you.” Mary was the perfect mother, the perfect disciple, and no other human being, except her divine Son, ever loved others more than she.

Our devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, therefore, forces us to contemplate the full reality of what we see happening throughout our nation as we continue to grow in our awareness of the evil of racism.

We need first to purify our own hearts from any blemish of this kind of evil, which is contrary to the love of God.

The difficulty with racism is that it is often very subtle. Very few individuals think of themselves as racist, even as they may harbor prejudices of all kinds in their hearts.

We who are white are often unaware of what people of other races experience in life, even in simple things like going to a store and being treated suspiciously because of the color of one’s skin. Too many good and faithful Catholics remain unaware of the connection between institutional racism and the continued erosion of the sanctity of life.

Because of the spiritual danger it presents, the bishops of the United States issued a pastoral letter, “Open Wide Your Hearts,” against racism in November 2018.

In it the bishops teach that racism arises when — either consciously or unconsciously — a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard.

When this conviction or attitude leads individuals or groups to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity, it is sinful.

Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice. They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love (Mt 22:39).

Racism occurs when a person ignores the fundamental truth that, because all humans share a common origin, we are all brothers and sisters, all equally made in the image of God.

When this truth is ignored or denied, the consequence is prejudice and fear of the other, and — all too often — hatred.

Every racist act — every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity, or place of origin — is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God.

Racism comes in many forms. It can be seen in deliberate, sinful acts. In recent times, we have seen bold expressions of racism by groups as well as individuals.

Too often racism comes in the form of the sin of omission, when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered.

Despite the great blessings of liberty that our country offers, we must admit the plain truth that for many of our fellow citizens, who may have done nothing wrong, interactions with the police are often fraught with fear and even death. That is something most of us who are white have a hard time understanding.

At the same time, we reject harsh rhetoric that belittles and dehumanizes law enforcement personnel who labor to keep our communities safe, and who take risks in order to protect and to serve. We, as Catholics, condemn violent attacks against police just as we do police brutality.

With the positive changes that arose from the civil rights movement and related civil rights legislation, some may believe that racism is no longer a major affliction of our society — that it is only found in the hearts of individuals who can be dismissed as ignorant or unenlightened.

But racism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart.

This evil causes great harm to its victims, and it corrupts the souls of those who harbor racist or prejudicial thoughts. People are still being harmed, so action is still needed.

What is needed, and what the bishops are calling for, is a genuine conversion of heart, a conversion that will compel change, and the reform of our institutions and society.

Conversion is a long road to travel for the individual. Moving our nation to a full realization of the promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all is even more challenging.

However, in Christ we can find the strength and the grace necessary to make that journey.

Each of us can make a commitment to educate ourselves on the pain being experienced by our brothers and sisters and try to deepen our empathy towards them.

We can take the risk of talking with someone whose skin color or ethnicity is different, listening to their perspective. We can take the time to read and reflect on the bishops’ pastoral, and watch documentaries or read about others’ point of view.

All of this must be done in an attitude of prayer, embracing the model offered to us by our Mother Mary.

We all know how strong our mothers are! And so it is with our spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

From the moment of the Annunciation, a special mission of Mary has been to visit the People of God who are in need. Think of St. Elizabeth, her cousin who was six months pregnant. And then think of her intervention at the wedding of Cana, where, like a good mother, she provoked the beginning of Jesus’ miraculous signs with the command to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”

And think of all the officially sanctioned devotions to the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin down through the centuries — Lourdes, Fatima, Knock, and Guadalupe — often in places where there is a desperate need, in desperate times.

Let us therefore invoke the protection and aid of the Mother of our Lord for our diocese, in this time of racial distress, beseeching her maternal assistance by renewing our consecration to the Sacred Hearts:

Most kind Jesus, humbly before thee, we renew our consecration to thy Divine Heart.

Be thou our king forever! In Thee we have full and entire confidence.

May Thy Spirit penetrate our thoughts, our desires, our words and our deeds.

Bless our undertakings; share in our joys, in our trials and in our daily labors.

Grant us to know Thee better, to love Thee more, to serve Thee without faltering.

By the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Queen of Peace, set up thy Kingdom in our land.

Enter closely into the midst of our families and make them Thine own so that soon one cry may resound from home to home: “May the triumphant Heart of Jesus be everywhere loved, blessed and glorified forever!”

Honor and glory to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

O Sacred Heart of Jesus, protect our families!

Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us!

Saint Joseph, friend of the Sacred Heart, pray for us!

Our Patron Saints and Guardian angels, pray for us!