A congregation prays the rosary at a metropolitan cathedral in Curitiba, Brazil, in this 2014 file photo. (CNS / Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters)
Sao Paulo – Pope Francis’ response to a letter on racism in the Catholic Church, sent to him by a group of Brazilian priests and bishops, has been received with hope by black Catholic activists across the South American country.
The letter was sent to the pope on June 19 by the group of Padres e Bispos da Caminhada (roughly, Pastors and Walking Bishops), which includes many of Brazil’s progressive clergy.
It was signed by 83 priests and five bishops and discussed themes such as alleged abuse of black seminarians and barriers to black priests seeking to become bishops.
The group’s official letter begins with an excerpt of several verses from a long poem written by Brazilian abolitionist Castro Alves, entitled “The Ship of Slaves”. Published in 1870, it described the horror of the transatlantic crossing of captured Africans being brought to America.
Pastors identify themselves as “descendants of African mothers” and mention the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, attributing it to their own experiences.
“To the point, we, black pastors, to answer the call of Jesus Christ, our Lord, as His Harvest workers, felt that during our formation our educators knelt against our necks,” the letter said. “We know what the scream ‘I can’t breathe’ means.”
Priests say they have been “ridiculed” and “belittled” during their formative years, always remaining “silent” and “choked up,” fearing they may not be approved to take sacred orders.
The group also questioned the country’s bishop selection process, claiming that the Vatican embassy, officially known as apostolic nunciature, “operates without proper consultation with local churches, even bishops who will be replaced because of their age.”
“In a black country [populational] majority, I hope we have more black bishops, “the priests asked.
“Why can’t black priests become bishops? Is that choice linked to white supremacy?” the pastors went on, saying they were tired of “vain and careerist diplomats.”
The Pope opened his response, written by hand and dated September 9, with praise for Alves’ verses, which are widely seen in Brazil as a sign of his commitment to the fight against racism.
Pope Francis said he would consider what Brazilian priests said and he felt “close” to them.
“I will discuss it with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops,” said the Pope. “I understand what you are saying about Nunciature and how to elect a bishop candidate. Now a new nuncio has arrived and I will also speak to him.”
The new ambassador, or ambassador to the Vatican, is Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro. Francis moved him from India at the end of August to replace Archbishop Giovanni D’Aniello, who has been transferred to Russia.
David Santos (Courtesy of Universidade Federal de Pelotas)
Francis’ message is celebrated by many Black Catholic activists, who consider it historic.
“He avoided the bureaucratic route and answered with a black priest’s hand,” said Fr. David Santos, longtime Black Liberation activist in Brazil who heads the non-governmental organization Educafro.
David Santos (Courtesy of Marcos Santos / USP Images)
Santos said one of the group’s motivations for writing a letter to the pope was a public statement issued by Pastor Black Fr. Geraldo Natalino in June. In social media boom, Natalino described the Brazilian church as “structurally racist.”
Natalino said that throughout her pastoral education, she had only white professors. He also said he spent 10 years in a parish but had to ask the local bishop to be confirmed as the new vicar. Recently, he claimed another bishop had blocked his way to become a professor at a Catholic university, regardless of his qualifications (he holds a doctorate).
“Natalino and I had the idea to report some elements of racism in our daily reality to the Conference of the Bishops of Brazil and the Pope,” said Santos. “We are pleased that Walking Priests and Bishop have paved the way with this document.”
Granted, Natalino’s grievances were anything but strange among black priests and nuns.
“Based on my experience, I can say that racism is the rule for most black people in the church,” said Fr. Ivanil Pereira da Silva, one of the signatories to the letter. “I’ve been there. It happens, but we usually try to ignore it and move on.”
However, complaints of racism committed within the church are not uncommon. “The love we have for the institution makes us deal with it internally,” said da Silva.
Sr. Telma Barbosa (Photo provided)
Sr. Telma Barbosa, a black artist and activist, said racism was traditionally covered up in churches because of victims’ experiences of helplessness in the church’s hierarchical structure.
“Usually victims don’t have the courage to tell others about the problem,” Barbosa, a member of the Ingolstadt Franciscan Sisters, told NCR. “Sometimes, we want to avoid the idea that we are ‘agitators’. We usually have to forgive the person and keep quiet.”
However, Barbosa said she always took a straightforward attitude when she experienced discrimination.
She cites many cases in ecclesiastical life: from a colleague who uses derogatory words in relation to her hair, to the case of an outside visitor who felt insulted when she, a black woman, asked her to stop destroying the houseplants of a sister’s house.
“He insulted me and threatened me. After that, he and a friend attacked me physically on the street, ”said Barbosa. A fighter of karate and capoeira (a manifestation of Afro Brazilian culture that combines dance and martial arts), Barbosa reacted and hit one of the attackers with his leg.
Joana Raphael (Photo provided)
Joana Raphael, a black woman living in Rio de Janeiro, said she was a sister for seven years in the 1980s. His childhood dream was to work as a communicator in a religious congregation and that was what he finally did in 1987, when he was suddenly expelled.
“At the time, I was very involved with black activism and my boss was always criticizing me about it,” he told NCR.
Raphael has published two books on the theme Afro Brazil, is a well-known organizer of the black social movement and frequently provides interviews to the press.
“My boss once told me: ‘You can go down as fast as you go up,'” says Raphael, commenting: “Successful black people are annoying.”
After leaving the congregation, Raphael rebuilt his life and got married. Several years later, he left the Catholic Church and became a Baptist missionary. “I somehow wanted to answer that call,” he said.
Fr. Lázaro Lourenço, who also signed the letter to the pope and heads the Instituto Mariama, a national association of black bishops, priests and deacons, said racism in the Brazilian church was a direct fruit of the country’s history of slavery, which has touched every area. Public.
Lázaro Lourenço (Photo provided)
“Racism defines every social relationship, including in the Catholic Church,” said Lourenço. “But the exceptions aren’t always explicit.”
In many parishes, says Lourenço, there are “certain views and a certain mentality of disrespect with regard to black priests like us.”
“One of the consequences of such a situation is the very low number of black bishops in the country,” he added.
But this is changing, said Archbishop Feira de Santana Zanoni Demettino Castro, who is also in charge of the Afro-Brazilian Pastoral Commission in Brazil.
“We now have about 40 black bishops in the country and they chair several bishop commissions with a high awareness of their ancestry,” he told NCR. There are about 480 bishops in Brazil. More than 56% of Brazil’s population of around 210 million identify as Afro.
One of the main challenges of the Afro-Brazilian Pastoral Commission is to promote the inclusion of Black culture as an integral aspect of evangelization, given the presence of a very large African element in Brazilian social dynamics.
“This is not something separate from the church,” argued Castro. “We have to be based on our concrete reality.”
Archbishop Zanoni Demettino Castro (Courtesy of the conference of Brazilian bishops)
The letters The Walking Bishops and Priests were also signed by dozens of white priests, some of them European-born missionaries in Brazil. Such empathy should set an example for society as a whole, says da Silva.
“First of all, they are humble enough to admit that they are racist too,” said the priest. “That is a fundamental step: understanding the pain of others and showing solidarity.”
“I am very hopeful about change,” said da Silva. “The pope’s gesture of answering by hand is a true landmark.”
[Eduardo Campos Lima holds a degree in journalism and a doctorate in literature from the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Between 2016 and 2017, he was a Fulbright visiting research student at Columbia University. His work appears in Reuters and the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.]
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