Proposal: A day of prayer and penance in reparation for racism

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 justice, but if not, I would like to propose it.

While one could argue that there are already Mass formularies in the present Roman Missal 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.

Here is a “Pray Service in Penance for the Sin of Racism and to Promote Racial Justice” recently held at the cathedral in St. Paul, MN in which I participated and which inspired my thoughts on this topic.

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


  1. While we are at it, might we also consider a day of penance and reparation for destruction of the natural environment? Climate change threatens all life on the planet as rising seas, storms, and fires proliferate. Upsetting the balance of nature is a sin calling for collective repentance and communal acts of reparation. Sadly, we are still in denial over our collective sinfulness with respect to care for creation. If more reasons are needed: The costs of climate change are global and disproportionately affect the poor. As a prosperous nation, which uses a disproportionate amount of the world’s energy resources, America has a special responsibility to repent and commit to change.

  2. BTW, the texts are strong, but I would raise two cautions. One concerns the expression “different from us” — this seems to presume a homogeneous collective (us) to which others are outsiders (them). This issue came up in discussions around the bishops’ pastoral letter on racism entitled “Brothers and Sisters to Us.” As one black Catholic critic noted, who is “us”? The title marginalized the very people whose dignity they were concerned to advance. Worth a second look, from the vantage point of “How does this sound to the person who is the most likely target of discrimination?” In this same vein, I’d suggest you ask ordinary Latin Americans how they feel about the term Latinx. It’s a gender-neutral neologism that has become standard in academe and among elites, but Pew research found that only 3% of Latinos actually use it to describe themselves and only 23% even know what it means. If a vast majority of ordinary folk do not identify with it and some actually find it offensive (“It sounds like a disinfectant!”) you have to ask who you are talking to.

  3. Decades ago Gabe Huck called for retrieving and updating the Ember Days, not tied to agriculture, but social sin. The social justice committee at Ascension Oak Park IL experimented with 3 out of a planned four back in 2015-16 (if memory serves): fasting all day and an evening rite of penance (based on rite IV, Rite of Penance) for sin against human life (abortion, death penalty, poverty, gun violence) in October; for sin against the Earth and all creation, in April—including a blessing of the very productive parish garden of fresh vegetables donated to a Chicago food dessert; for sin against community (racism) in January. The fourth one would have been penance for sin against humanity (the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). I do not think these events were repeated, but it was a good try. Participation was slight. Catholics still think of sin (and racism!) as personal attitudes and actions, not systems that are nobody’s fault yet everybody’s. My current parish work in anti-racism formation hits the same obstacle: “I’m not racist! Why should I be sorry?” “My ancestors arrived after the Civil War and never owned slaves! I’m not paying any reparations!” (These are literal parishioner quotes.) So a national day of penance for racism is absolutely necessary, with heavy and effective catechesis on social and systemic sin and our baptismal vocation to penance and reconciliation. Thanks, Michael. And thanks for your comments, Rita.

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