Four months after a blackface scandal involving a local Catholic school, Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez of Philadelphia has penned a new pastoral letter on racism, meant to coincide with Sunday's feast of Corpus Christi.
Entitled “We Are One Body,” the letter—released on Wednesday—acknowledged both the history of and the ongoing struggle with racism in the Catholic Church, including in the City of Brotherly Love. The document comes just weeks after the archbishop’s Commission on Racial Healing premiered a new bilingual film on racism ahead of Pentecost Sunday.
This month’s new letter includes an ode to several Catholic saints connected to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and who were known for fighting racism and discrimination, including St. Katharine Drexel, an heiress-turned-nun who dedicated her fortune to the betterment of African Americans and the Indigenous. Even so, Pérez notes that there is much work yet to be done.
“Despite their monumental efforts and the work of so many others, this evil continues to poison our souls, our Church, our relationships with one another, and with God,” he wrote.
“Racism shreds the fabric of our communities, hinders our unity, and impedes the building of God’s kingdom on earth.”
Pérez cites various Church authorities on the issue, including “Nostra Aetate” from the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”
Calling racism “an offense to the presence of God within each of us,” Pérez also connected his letter to the ongoing 2023 Synod of Bishops, which has called for radical listening across the global Catholic Church, with special attention to those on the margins. Last fall, Philadelphia was one of several dioceses to release a local synod synthesis featuring comments on the issue of racism, borne from listening sessions held across the region in the preceding year.
“Pope Francis has called us to listening, dialogue, prayer, and discernment as we walk together to build the Church of tomorrow. Let us direct these same actions toward eradicating racism,” Pérez wrote this month.
Not shying away from the controversial intricacies of the topic, the prelate specifically refers to “structures of sin” and institutions infected with prejudice and discrimination, evoking the idea of systemic racism—which remains a hot-button term, and a concept rejected by many who may claim to oppose individual racism.
Pérez also offers a sweeping apology for racism in the Catholic Church, which has been a longstanding request from many Black Catholics concerning the hierarchy, including both the U.S. bishops and the Vatican.
“I echo the sentiments of many Church leaders over the years by extending a deep apology to all who have been wounded by racist words or deeds—subtle or overt, intentional or unintentional, sins of commission and omission—particularly those committed by members of our faith community,” the prelate wrote.
“Like the Prodigal Son, we have sinned against heaven and against you, and we ask your pardon and God’s. With God’s help, we resolve to do better.”
In a call to action near the end of the letter, the archbishop specifically mentions the need for anti-racist action in Catholic schools, which has been an issue of concern in Philadelphia. Earlier this year, a social media scandal rocked St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls when a group of White students went viral with anti-Black videos and pictures posted online during Black History Month, sparking international outrage. The archdiocese saw a similar incident involving White students at Archbishop Ryan High School in 2021.
The two incidents are not mentioned in Pérez’s new letter, but he notes that Catholic schools, churches, and other organizations must possess “a spirit of belonging, where everyone feels welcome and valued.”
Pérez also called for the Prayer of the Faithful at local parishes to include a petition against racism, and for priests to include the topic in their homilies.
Highlighting the theme of action and encounter, Pérez said the Commission and the larger work of eradicating racism in the Church will come down to intentional dialogue and a willingness to endure the pain of facing the past and the present—in view of a brighter future.
“Our Catholic community must foster a culture where open and honest conversations about race can happen,” he wrote.
“Only through dialogue can we witness the pain that racism has inflicted, the barriers we must raze, and the stereotypes we must root out. Then, and only then, can we begin the healing that Jesus commands us to undertake.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.