'A prophetic mission toward justice'

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Marie Kenyon has hit the ground running in her new role as director of the archdiocesan Peace and Justice Commission.

She officially started her duties on Feb. 16, but unofficially began working in the role and gathering information not long after Archbishop Robert J. Carlson named her to the position Jan. 6.

While also clearing up her case load from the Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, she's devoted numerous nights and weekends to attending events dealing with the systemic racism to which Archbishop Carlson referred in establishing the commission in August.

For example, Kenyon attended the daylong Pax Christi workshop on March 14 at the Catholic Student Center at Washington University. The next afternoon and evening, she was at St. Louis University's Busch Hall for the "Sacred Conversation on Race + Action," which was the followup action portion of the Sacred Conversation she attended the previous weekend at Sts. Teresa and Bridget Church. Then, March 17, she attended a prayer service at St. Augustine Church with Howard University students in town for service on Alternative Spring Break.

Kenyon simply describes her role early on "as just getting around and talking to people in the archdiocese about what already is going on, what actions parishes already are taking in peace and justice."

To that end, she has met with 10 pastors in just over a month's time.

"It's important to see their neighborhoods and what they're dealing with, then to support the pastors when they do this work in their parishes," she said. "That's where this change is going to happen -- in the pews. ... It's all about human connection and relationships."

Kenyon also has been a regular in the archdiocesan Office of Archives and Records, researching the origin of the Human Rights Commission. Cardinal Joseph P. Ritter formed the commission in 1963.

"I've been going back to his original documents because there's no use reinventing the wheel," Kenyon said. "A lot of the same circumstances back then have caused us to be in this situation we're in now. It's been really interesting to see how Cardinal Ritter responded back then and what we can take from there."

Cardinal Ritter is an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. He desegregated Catholic schools in the archdiocese in 1947, a full seven years before the Brown vs. Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 made it the law of the land. He also put together the group of clergy and religious from St. Louis who traveled to Selma, Ala., to march in the aftermath of the "Bloody Sunday" Voting Rights march.

If Cardinal Ritter were alive today, he'd echo Pope Francis' recent remark that racism is a sin.

"The Holy Father has sort of given us our marching orders, Kenyon said. "You don't have to ask where he stands. He's made it very clear."

Cardinal Ritter basically said as much in the early '60s. In a vintage 1964 pamphlet, "The Time Is Now," he quotes from John's epistle, "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar."

"He tells pastors in very blunt language what they should be preaching about and to not have segregated parishes," Kenyon said. "At that time, those were really bold, brave statements to make."

Cardinal Ritter also spoke out against "white flight," which is white families moving out of neighborhoods because black families were moving in. He advised pastors what to say when white families sought counseling whether to stay or go.

"I'd say, 'Stay. Don't be a coward. Don't run away,'" Ritter wrote. "Someday this senseless procedure of running away is going to have to stop."

More than a half-century later, his words are applicable today as they were then.

"We must bring our own people to the full acceptance of civil rights for all," he wrote. "We have many apologies to make for being neutral in this, for not fulfilling our religious ideals. We Catholics have gone along with the pattern of the rest of the people. We have failed in our prophetic mission toward justice."

Archbishop Carlson has picked up this mantle of justice and has entrusted Kenyon with leading the charge. Still in its early stages, the commission will have about 20 members. The focus now is on parishes in north city and north St. Louis County, but will expand.

"My next group is outstate parishes; it's very important this commission not be about just Ferguson," she said. "We have to see what's going on with our folks down in St. Genevieve, Perry County and St. Francis County. They have issues the Church needs to be addressing, too."

No votes yet