Catholic schools have been entrusted with an "awesome responsibility" to teach Gospel values that can help students to recognize, reject and work against racism and other forms of discrimination, Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory told Catholic educators Oct. 20.
"Our schools are the privileged places to learn the Gospel. We cannot shy away from the hard questions and conversations our children bring to the classroom," Archbishop Gregory said. "We have to give them the tools to develop their consciences, to grow in compassion and to see with the eyes of faith."
Archbishop Gregory made his remarks during a keynote address at the National Catholic Educational Association's National Catholic Leadership Summit. The NCEA is an association of more than 150,000 educators in Catholic schools and religious education programs.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the keynote address was livestreamed via the internet.
Pointing to racial injustice, the struggle for immigrant and refugee rights and other societal ills, the archbishop told Catholic educators "we are at an important time in our history as a nation and as a people of God. We have to be the witnesses. How we act and how we lead at this time can make a difference for generations to come."
"With so much unrest in our country regarding the ongoing challenges of racial inequality and the injustices committed against people of color, it is only fitting that we as a church explore these topics in the light of our faith," Archbishop Gregory said.
Referring to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2018 pastoral letter on racism, "Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love," Archbishop Gregory reiterated that the U.S. bishops called racism "America's original sin."
"Just like the original sin of Adam and Eve leaves us with wounds like concupiscence, suffering and death, the 'original sin' of racism left the United States with such wounds like slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration and other unjust laws," he said.
Archbishop Gregory called on Catholic school educators "to speak out, about and against injustice."
"Our church's Catholic social teaching gives us the tools we need to call out the many forms of injustice that plague our country today," Archbishop Gregory said.
"It is because of God's love for each individual person that we speak out," he said, "against the evils of abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia because they strike against the most fundamental right, which is life. ... Racial justice is (also) a pro-life issue."
Catholic social teaching, he added, "also compels us to speak out against economic injustice. ... We also must defend the immigrant and refugee as well as the environment, and a whole host of other social issues."
He said Catholic educators "not only have the means to bring about change, but also the important responsibility to share the Gospel message of love, mercy and justice with our students and their families."
Catholic schools "have the unique ability to take our current events and help our students to see these current events through the lens of the Gospel," he added.
While Catholic schools and parents are charged with bringing the good news of Jesus to students and catechizing them, Archbishop Gregory said that both "are also entrusted to help them form their conscience and morality in light of the teachings of the church."
Noting that Catholic schools "form children in academic subjects -- and do a very good job of it -- the primary purpose of the Catholic school is to evangelize," he said.
"The teachings of the Catholic Church have always affirmed the dignity of every person precisely because all people are made in the image and likeness of God," he continued. "As marginalized communities across the United States began to stand up for their rights, the church also stood in solidarity with them. ... While we have made progress from the early days of our founding, we still have much more work to do."
He told educators that Catholic schools are "a privileged environment for the formation of the whole child" but that such schools "were never meant to be for only the privileged."
"Our students must see themselves and others as created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore recognize the dignity that comes from being sons and daughters of God," he said. "Different races and cultures must be seen as gifts for the enriching of society and to be celebrated within our school communities. We must help our students and their families realize that each human experience is unique and just as valuable as any other."
Because "no one culture should be viewed as uniquely perfect, but instead, each should be celebrated and appreciated for the richness they bring to our society as a whole," Archbishop Gregory said that "celebrations of cultures and different races have to move beyond a particular heritage 'month,' and should become a regular part of the fabric of the school."
People from different races and cultures, he said, also "must be represented in the leadership of our schools, not only in paid positions, but also in the leadership and membership on our school advisory councils and home and school organizations.
"When members of different racial and cultural communities have a voice at the decision-making levels, they can share the important visions and perspectives they have to serve better not only their subset but also the whole community."
He called on Catholic school administrators, teachers and staff to "not be afraid to stand against, and eradicate, any racial prejudices that may be found to exist anywhere in our Catholic school communities so that all may feel welcome in our institutions."