Resurrectionist Father Manuel Williams of the Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala., suggested pilgrims participating in the third annual Pilgrimage for Racial Justice Sept. 24 turn to the late Sister Thea Bowman to address injustices today.
“Our country and church are in crisis,” said Father Williams. “Her voice and ministry can serve as a challenge and example to us in what we can do.”
He spoke to a group of about 30 members of the faithful and clergy, including Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, in Presentation Academy’s gymnasium on South Fourth Street. His address followed a morning prayer service at the Cathedral of the Assumption and a walk from the cathedral to Presentation on the final day of the Sept. 23 to 24 pilgrimage.
Father Williams serves as director of Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South. He said he met Sister Bowman as a young man before he’d discerned the priesthood.
She spoke to him about his discernment at the time, telling him, “ ‘Please pray about it and do it,’ ” said Father Williams. He and Sister Bowman developed a friendship that lasted until her death in 1990, he said.
Sister Bowman joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 1953 at age 15, becoming the only African American member of the community at the time.
Sister Bowman has been declared a Servant of God, the first step toward possible canonization.
Father Williams told the pilgrims gathered at Presentation Academy that injustices have left the country and church in crisis — and Sister Bowman can help.
“If there’s ever a time we need her witness, it’s now,” he said.
The racism that has become evident in society over the past few years is also evident in the church, he said. He also pointed to the separation of children from their parents at the nation’s southern border and recent reports that millions of dollars from a federal welfare program — meant for needy families in Mississippi — went to projects that benefitted wealthy individuals. Something similar is happening in the Archdiocese of Mobile, he said, where the archdiocese keeps opening Catholic schools in “prosperous” neighborhoods.
All these events have left him wondering, “What would she (Sister Bowman) say? How would she challenge us?” asked Father Williams.
He went on to say that Sister Bowman would probably say that “our mission is rooted” in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
Sister Bowman would have been at the southern border, said Father Williams. She would have said of those children, “ ‘We have a place where we can care for them.’ ”
He also shared a few insights he believes Sister Bowman would give leaders of the Catholic Church and members of the faithful if she was alive today.
- What the church needs today is the “gift of proximity”: “The resurgence of rampant racism across the country is rooted in the fact that people don’t encounter each other,” said Father Williams. “If we’re to defeat these forces, we have to encounter in real-time in real spaces people who aren’t like us.”
- Sister Bowman would challenge the church to show compassion: “We need to have moments of encounter and compassion, acknowledge the hurt and injustices but find the Christ-like ability to forgive,” said Father Williams. The gifts of proximity and compassion are needed to “defeat white supremacy, systemic and personal racism in the church and country.”
- Sister Bowman would challenge the church to “pray with authentic fervor”: She would say the gift of prayer that carried African Americans through 400 years of slavery is a gift for the whole church, said Father Williams.
- She’d encourage the church to remain hopeful and true to their baptismal vows: “She’d say ‘keep being apostles of Jesus,’ ” said Father Williams.
The day also included small group discussions, as well as presentations from students of Sacred Heart Academy and Presentation Academy about steps their schools are taking to address racism.
The pilgrimage began on Sept. 23 with a pilgrims’ blessing prayer service.