Bishop's Interview: Ending the violence: From pain, to prayer, to action
Editor: Lately in our country and abroad we have seen so much violence and hatred. What has been your personal response to these events?
Bishop Vásquez: Like many, I have been disturbed by the on-going acts of violence taking place in our country and around the world. We have seen lives being taken with little or no regard for the dignity of human beings. Watching these scenes in the media has been devastating. In times such as these, we begin to question where God is in all of this pain. We wonder why people commit such horrible acts. We wonder how we ourselves can refrain from responding with acts of violence or hurt. I must admit that my first reaction to these tragic events is usually one of pain and disbelief. But then I turn to prayer because I know that these acts of violence do not define humanity. In times like these, we must turn to God who is our hope and our refuge.
One sign of hope is the memorials that people create in memory of the lives lost in these tragedies. Flowers, prayer cards, crosses and notes expressing gratitude and support for those who have died and their families. These are signs of people coming together in hope despite tragedy and the loss of life. There is a longing for God, and trying to make sense of what seems to be senseless violence. This is a recognition that the dignity of the human person is inviolable, and even in these horrific acts, we can come to a deeper level of understanding for the dignity of all human beings.
Editor: What do you think is the best course of action for Catholics?
Bishop Vásquez: Prayer gives us strength to move forward and act to change the violence in our society. Finding our strength in God, we can then open ourselves to dialogue. We must reach out to our brothers and sisters –– religious leaders, law enforcement officials, different organizations, elected officials and civic leaders, so that together we help create solutions to end the violence.
This is challenging. Dialogue takes time and patience and a willingness to listen to others. We have to be willing to understand and be open to different points of view. When this is done in a mutual and respectful manner, then we can discover solutions to the underlying issues that breed violence. Racism, poverty, inequality, economic instability, mental health and gun violence are the top issues that need to be addressed. Finding solutions to these issues requires the involvement of many and cannot be entrusted to just a few.
Editor: How is the Catholic Church addressing these issues and the recent violence?
Bishop Vásquez: The church in our country has been able to call people together and convoke people of different faiths, backgrounds and ethnicities to look at the issues. In response to the most recent tragedies, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has appointed a task force to help dioceses around the country promote peace and healing. We must come together to address these issues. We must ask the tough questions: What are the underlining issues of the violence? How can we respond to them? How do we partner with others to be able to effectively respond?
Archbishop Kurtz has invited all dioceses across the country to unite in a Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities on Sept. 9, which is the feast day of St. Peter Claver. On that day, I will celebrate Mass at St. Austin Parish in Austin at 8:15 a.m. All are invited to attend.
St. Peter Claver is the patron of African missions and of interracial justice. He was a Jesuit missionary who worked with African slaves coming to the New World. When a slave ship would port, he would immediately go to the slaves to give them food and water, to care for the sick and then instruct them in the faith and administer the sacraments. In fact, he baptized more than 300,000 slaves.
We also continue our monthly series of discussions called Courageous Conversation on Race organized by Holy Cross Parish in Austin, St. John Neumann Parish in Austin, Pax Christi Austin and the diocesan Office of Life, Charity and Justice and the Office of Black Catholics. These sessions began more than a year ago to discuss the root causes of racism. All are invited to attend these sessions. For more information contact Johnnie Dorsey, the diocesan director of the Office of Black Catholics, at (512) 949-2449.
In 1979 the U.S. bishops wrote a Pastoral Letter on Racism entitled “Brothers and Sisters to Us.” The letter (which can be found at www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/african-american/brothers-and-sisters-to-us.cfm) encourages us to recognize that racism is evil and it is a sin that must be confronted head on.
“Worldwide, the church today is not just European and American; it is also African, Asian, Indian, and Oceanic. It is western, eastern, northern, and southern, black and also brown, white and also red and yellow … Therefore, let the church proclaim to all that the sin of racism defiles the image of God and degrades the sacred dignity of humankind which has been revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation. Let all know that it is a terrible sin that mocks the cross of Christ … For the brother and sister of our brother Jesus Christ are brother and sister to us,” the U.S. bishops state in the letter.
Therefore, we must be proactive in responding to these acts of violence that are happening more often. Perhaps until recently we have seen the violence as sporadic, but now we must take the lead in gathering with local communities and neighborhoods to stop the spread of more violence. What are we doing to help alleviate poverty in our neighborhoods? What are we doing to get to know our neighbors? What are we doing to make changes in our world? Our Christian faith calls us to speak out against injustice and evil. When we choose to remain silent, we risk being complicit or allowing those evils to take place and not working to change them.
Editor: How should people respond in this time when violence often begets violence?
Bishop Vásquez: We must remember that Christ himself underwent crucifixion, a brutal act of violence. Jesus chose the way of nonviolence instead of fighting those who would harm and eventually kill him. In the end through Christ’s great act of love on the cross, he overcame the evil of violence. With the same love, we too can overcome this violence and bring peace to our world, but this can only be accomplished through love and respect for every human being.
We must also remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s example of employing Christ’s teachings to resist and counter the social sins of prejudice and racial discrimination. Dr. King was a man of deep faith and was deeply inspired by the teachings of Christ. He was also committed to nonviolence. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil,” he wrote in 1967.
Editor: What is your prayer as we seek a more peaceful world?
Bishop Vásquez: I pray that God would touch our hearts and heal them. I pray especially for those who have suffered tremendous loss in the recent tragic events. I pray that God would indeed heal hearts, restore dignity to each person and help us work together to build a community of peace, justice and protection for all. My prayer is that we would be ever mindful of our role in not only welcoming, but also embracing and helping the stranger among us.