Racism: A Liturgical Response

As a Catholic priest who is also a United States citizen, I am well aware that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated 22 January as a day of prayer and penance for the legal protection of unborn children. This day has been graced with various liturgical and devotional resources, including two Mass formularies found among the “Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions” in the third post-Vatican II edition of the Roman Missal intended for use in the dioceses of the United States, formularies entitled the “Mass for Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life,” as well as readings appointed for this Mass found in a supplement to the second post-Vatican II edition of the Lectionary for Mass.

I do not know if there has been a similar movement among our United States Catholic bishops to designate a day of prayer and penance in reparation for the sin of racism and to promote racial dignity/harmony, but if not, I would like to propose it. While one could argue that there are already Mass formularies in the present RM that could be used for such intentions (e.g, “29. For the Progress of Peoples,” “30. For the Preservation of Peace and Justice”), the same could be said for the creation of Mass formularies and readings concentrating on the legal protection of the unborn, yet our bishops felt the topic was of such importance that it warranted an addition to our liturgical calendar.

Some might argue that direct action affirming the dignity of all races and challenging whatever exhibits racial prejudice in our society and church is more needed at this time than designating a day of prayer and penance, but I would argue that without a foundation in prayer such direct action may not sustain itself. The very project of creating a list of readings, presidential prayers and chants for such a liturgical celebration could be part of the healing process if experts in scripture studies, liturgical texts and church music could join with members of the praying community in formulating, assessing and testing these liturgical elements.

I would be very interested to read the insights of readers of Pray Tell on this proposal.



  1. There was this collect for Human Rights from the 1998 ICEL Sacramentary.

    God of justice,
    you adorned the human race with a marvelous diversity,
    and you clothed each of its members
    with a dignity that may never be diminished.
    Instill in us respect for that dignity,
    that we may always champion for other the justice we seek for ourselves.

  2. Excellent idea. Given the recent opinion pieces and interviews by Rev. Brian Massingale on racism, he notes that the USCCB 2018 pastoral on racism “…..was not only a missed opportunity, it is now so inadequate as to be useless.”
    US Churches continue to be one of the most segregated areas of our culture. Given this reality, it would be appropriate for the USCCB to address today’s events with an updated pastoral on racism accompanied by the liturgy and/or prayers you are suggesting. White nationalism and white privilege harm the common good, destroy solidarity, and make the church something other than the body of Christ. As Massingale highlights, the history of the US Church about racism takes a passive approach – it is white people writing to make white people comfortable about public sin. So, we could use a liturgy that speaks to power used to exert control over *the other*. But, will it be a liturgy that makes us uncomfortable?

  3. A wonderful idea. The 1998 missal had a similar one. Never saw light of day sadly. What worries me, unlike the usccb total obsession with abortion, I feel there would be disent and that is maybe what we need. We to call out bishops who support racist ways governments and leaders. But I truly feel most bishops, as in the the sex abuse issue, have look out for each other still. A sad commentary where we are as church.

  4. Psalm 37, in some form, should be part of the Lectionary or Antiphonary for this observance:

    R. (6b) The Lord will make the justice of this cause like the noonday sun.

    The wicked one plots against the just
    and gnashes teeth against them;
    but the LORD laughs at the wicked,
    sees that the day is at hand.

    The wicked draw the sword, bend their bows,
    to slaughter the poor and needy,
    to slay those whose ways are upright.
    Their sword shall pierce their own hearts,
    and their bows shall be broken to pieces.

    But from the LORD comes the salvation of the just,
    their stronghold in time of distress.
    The LORD helps them and rescues them,
    rescues and saves them from the wicked:
    because they take refuge in him.
    (12-13, 14-15, 39-40)

    1. I always appreciate your gift of bringing the scriptures to bear on our struggles, Todd. This is a fantastic Psalm for praying in the time we are in right now.

  5. This is a start. However part of the racism that saturates the Catholic Church in the U.S. is the Eurocentric standard imposed on so many non-verbal signs and symbols inherent to the liturgy: for example, who leads, who represents in ministries, who plans it and how, architecture, music, iconography, bearing, vestments, gestures, silence or lack or it, even a sensibility of time. Mass formularies and lectionary readings are good but can also ring hollow if everything that people of color see and feel in the context of the liturgical action still screams that anything not based on European white cultural standards is inferior.

  6. Since racism is a sin against justice, we need to have study and catechesis about what a just society in our United States will be, and most importantly, how it will take shape in our little corners of it. This means that we have to understand how power works in our neighborhoods. Considering the fact that the American Catholic project is in large part a quest for power and agency in competition against other groups seeking the same, notably Black Americans, we can’t be naive about the nature of our success. We shoved a lot of people who were here longer aside to get our place at the table.

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