When the U.S. bishops decided to continue with their annual fall meeting despite a pandemic, they took it online, shortened its length but also its scope, leaving only the most essential matters on the to-do list.
And at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2020 fall meeting, racism was part of that essential business.
As U.S. cities and towns across the country clamored for justice this summer following more killings of Black men and women at the hands of authorities, there was hardly a diocese that wasn't touched by widespread calls against racism.
Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, who is chair of the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, reminded the group gathered online that as a body of bishops they approved in 2018 a document on racism, "which among many other things unequivocally declares that racism is a life issue," he said Nov. 17, the last day of the two-day online meeting.
It certainly was a life issue for Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, who recalled how a racially motivated mass shooting in his diocese left 23 people dead and as many injured.
Authorities said the suspected gunman who opened fire targeted Latinos at a Walmart in El Paso Aug. 3, 2019, and had been looking to shoot "Mexicans." He allegedly wrote a manifesto that spoke of the "Hispanic invasion" of Texas.
"It really brought home the fact that white supremacy is not a harmless fringe ideology but that it is death-dealing ideology," said Bishop Seitz, speaking to the bishops gathered online. "And it also reminded us that words matter. Words that denigrate immigrants and other people of color really matter and feed into these ways of thinking."
Other bishops spoke of racism in its various forms in their respective communities.
Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu spoke of the racism Micronesian migrants in Hawaii face, working at essential jobs during the pandemic but receiving little economic benefit.
That circumstance also has put them at-risk because many have infected their families since they have to work as well as risk exposure and can't afford homes where members can isolate while they have the virus, he said.
"To think that (some) people can be (considered) expendable," he said.
Many such communities fly under the radar, "and I think sometimes that can be a problem that we don't notice," Bishop Silva said, reminding prelates to look around their communities for those who might be facing such issues.
Bishop Fabre spoke of events that, after the summer of 2020, could no longer be ignored or were no longer flying under the the public eye's radar.
"We could watch on the screen numerous killings of African Americans and that these killings would spark worldwide peaceful demonstrations and protests," he said, as well "reprehensive" violence in some places.
COVID-19, too, has highlighted the disparities among communities of color by the sheer devastation of their populations it has caused, he said.
Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California, said that while many dioceses and parishes may want to address the topic, it's not always easy.
"I would have to say that a very common experience was that there was resistance in many parishes and schools to introduce this topic about racism," he said. "The common idea was that somehow ... we were over this issue or that it wasn't really important."
But as Sacramento began to experience racial unrest and other difficulties in the summer of 2020, others could see the need for it, he said.
"There was a lot of hurt, a lot of pain that came to the surface, and that was uncomfortable," Bishop Soto said.
It was uncomfortable for clergy who always want to be positive and steer conversations toward the light, he said. But by talking about it, the uncomfortable dialogue bore fruit, he said.
"There was a certain sense that the cards are on the table, that people were beginning to speak frankly and more honestly and, as the level of confidence, the level of trust grew ... so did the candor and so did the honesty."
He said even though it might feel uncomfortable, "be prepared for that ... and welcome it because, I think it doesn't feel like progress, but it actually is."
He said such conversations teach the need to listen to others respectfully and to make a deeper examination of conscience "of our own hearts, and an examination of our own institutions."
Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of St. Louis said he spent time meeting and listening with various groups and also took a tour of Ferguson, Missouri, and stopped and prayed where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by police in 2014.
He said changing hearts when it comes to racism "is one of the biggest challenges," but it's important as Catholics to "plant the seed and leave it to the Holy Spirit."
Archbishop Alexander K. Sample pf Portland, Ore., whose city experienced some of the most explosive protests in the country but some that didn't represent the true spirit of peace of the people of Portland, said he was moved to meet with African American Catholics in his community and learn about Oregon's history of racism.
"Some might not think that the KKK would have been so strong and forceful in a state like Oregon in the Northwest but they were and in fact the state of Oregon was admitted to the union with exclusion laws on its books, excluding Blacks from being able to settle here permanently. It's rather shocking," he said.
Archbishop Sample said he listened to the African American population and that prompted him to think about all the other communities of color in the archdiocese and how they have experienced racism.
Portland has a significant Asian community, he said, and one that in the wake of the coronavirus has experienced "the blaming, you know, for China ... and this overflowed onto a lot of our Asian population here who felt very much in the crosshairs here, shall we (say)."
He said he encouraged parishes to form study groups and to read and discuss the issue, not as an academic exercise but to truly convert people and "eliminate the remnants of racism that are still present among us, and also to move us to action on behalf of justice for all, especially those who are oppressed."