By Tony Gutierrez
PHOENIX (CNS) – Imagining what the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. might say if he were alive today, retired Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, delivered a homily in the voice of the civil rights leader killed to explain how racism continues to impact the church and society as a whole.
The Bishop was the guest preacher for the Diocese of Phoenix’s annual Memorial Mass for the Reverend King celebrated Jan. 17 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral.
Noting that the Reverend King would have turned 93 on January 15, the bishop said the Baptist minister knew what it meant to follow Jesus’ command to ‘Go and do likewise’, based on the parable of the good Samaritan. which was the Gospel passage of the day.
“Despite the undeniable and remarkable strides that have been made in bridging the racial divide in this country, the gory headlines of nearly every morning paper make it clear how much we still need the voice and deeds of this drum- major for justice, this trumpeter for peace,” said Bishop Braxton, one of 12 African-American Catholic bishops.
“Yet for many Americans – and yes, for many American Catholics – the murder of Dr. King means little more than a day off in January. He would surely say that America is still learning who its neighbors are and what it means to go do the same.
Bishop Braxton briefly related the story of the controversy surrounding Martin Luther King Day in Arizona, noting that it was the last state in the country to make the day a paid holiday.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a measure declaring Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday to be observed annually on the third Monday in January. Prior to this, a number of states observed Reverend King’s birthday as a public holiday.
Bishop Braxton praised the work of the Diocese of Phoenix Black Catholic Ministry Office and its “Let the Church Say AAMEN” initiative; “AAMEN” means African American Ministry Evangelism Network.
Speaking as the Reverend King, the bishop went on to quote the US bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” and its 1979 predecessor, “Brothers and Sisters to Us”.
He asked if these letters are well known in the diocese or if the clergy refer to them in the pulpit. More directly, he asked if the faithful in the diocese were actively working to confront the sin of racism.
“Were parishioners and students in elementary, secondary and college schools urged to study, discuss and pray for action to overcome the sin of personal, structural and institutional racism here in your community with the same urgency that they are invited to discuss, pray and act to overcome the terrible sin of abortion? He asked.
“How much direct social contact do members of the Catholic Church have with people of different racial and ethnic origins? Bishop Braxton continued. “Do Catholics tend to live in separate, even segregated worlds? Do African Americans, European Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Indigenous peoples have real, regular, personal social contact, or are their relationships superficial at best and strained at worst? »
The bishop noted that the term “minority” itself can be demeaning because it identifies people as who they are not – not of European descent – rather than who they are. He compared the usage to how Catholics often refer to those from other traditions as non-Catholic rather than the tradition to which they belong.
“Why not call us what we are? We are Baptists and other Christians! Bishop Braxton said through the voice of Reverend King. “You may notice that we never refer to you as non-Baptists – why do you refer to us as non-Catholics?”
Noting that the Reverend King’s son, Martin Luther King III, was in Phoenix on his father’s birthday to participate in a suffrage march and rally, the Bishop emphasized the fundamental right of every American citizen to vote.
He referenced a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld two Arizona election laws, including a ban on third-party ballot collection. The court said Arizona did not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which enforces the constitutional guarantee that the right to vote may not be restricted “by reason of race, color or a previous condition of servitude”.
“I fear that my granddaughter Yolanda will live long enough to see the day when the United States slowly returns to a time not unlike the era of Jim Crow voting restrictions,” said the bishop, still speaking as Reverend King.
“I know that your Catholic Church does not officially support any political party,” he continued, “but as the great Karl Barth taught us, we Christians must face the challenges of our time with the word of God in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other,” he added, referring to the Swiss Calvinist ecumenist and theologian.
In his closing remarks for the liturgy, Bishop of Phoenix Thomas J. Olmsted, who celebrated Mass, thanked Bishop Braxton for a “very uplifting homily.”
The two bishops have known each other since they were both priests in residence at the Pontifical North American College in Rome in the mid-1980s.
Bishop Olmsted remembers studying Reverend King’s work when he took a six-month sabbatical at a monastery after returning from his priestly mission in Rome.
“I discovered that he was very well trained in the dogma and in the moral teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, therefore, he was really solid in his faith”, recalls the bishop. He praised Reverend King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for its scholarship.
“It’s a book well worth taking the time to read because it shows his scholarship – not because he’s trying to display his scholarship, but because every time he quoted something, it really had substance,” he said.
Supreme Knight Jim Ellis of the Knights of Peter Claver — the only traditionally black Catholic fraternal society in the United States — attended the liturgy to show his support for the local Council of Knights and the Ladies’ Auxiliary Court 369. Ellis also advises the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ad Hoc Committee on Racism.
“Our order was born out of a commitment to the church, a commitment to our communities and being that good Samaritan,” he said afterwards, reflecting on the Knights’ mission. “More recently, social justice – the idea that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – has been our focus.”