MILWAUKEE — Violence stems from a breakdown in communication, Fr. Bob Stiefvater told more than 450 people gathered at All Saints Parish, Milwaukee, for a Mass of Peace on Thursday, Aug. 18, five days after fires raged in an area of the City of Milwaukee during unrest following the killing by police of an armed man during a traffic stop.
And people need look only as far as their smart phones and computers to see that breakdown, said Fr. Stiefvater, who told the Catholic Herald following Mass that his homily was inspired by the prisoners with whom he meets regularly.
“We live in a time in which we kind of separate ourselves out, sometimes by where we live, but an awful lot through our electronics,” he told the congregation, challenging them to look at their phones and computers at their last 10 texts, phone calls or emails.
“My guess is they were from people who look like you, who think like you, who live like you, who pray like you,” he said of the messages. “We have isolated ourselves and we have lost the power of conversation across these boundaries that we have made throughout our country and in this place and in this city.”
Fr. Stiefvater said God is calling us to take a look at how we communicate and with whom we communicate and how we communicate or not, “because I think when communications break down, we turn to violence and when communications are almost impossible, we divide ourselves completely into us vs. them.”
Catholics are facing a “holy moment” where they are called to bridge the gaps, he said admitting it will be tough as bridges are walked upon from either side, but “God calls us in our baptism to do this.”
“As we respond to God’s call to be here today, we have to nuance how we communicate with one another,” he said. “We need to go back home and take a look at those texts and phone calls and emails and decide we are going to go beyond the circle and go beyond those who like us or have unliked us and communicate across. We at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have a holy moment in which we are called to bridge the gaps, whether they are real or imagined in our society. We can do this. We are the ones who are called to be bridges.
He called people to step out of their comfort zones to get to know their neighbors. “We are called to truly be the local presence of Christ through us, our gathering of the church in Milwaukee,” said Fr. Stiefvater.
The Mass, presided over by Fr. Tim Kitzke, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s vicar general for urban ministry at the request of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, was concelebrated by several priests, including Fr. Stiefvater, Fr. Peter Patrick Kimani, All Saints associate pastor, Fr. Rafael Rodriguez, vice rector of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary and Capuchin Fr. Michael Bertram, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, Milwaukee.
Admitting the church and city are hurting, Fr. Stiefvater opened the Mass by inviting participants to wash their hands and face in the baptismal font.
As members of the congregation processed to the font splashing water on themselves, the choir sang the words from Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart.”
Acknowledging the diversity of the gathering which drew participants from many of the archdiocese’s 198 parishes, Fr. Stiefvater said those in attendance represented the 600,000 members of the archdiocese.
It’s been five days since the shooting and outpouring of violence in the city, said Fr. Stiefvater referring to the Aug. 13 rioting sparked by the death of 23-year-old Sylville Smith by a Milwaukee police officer.
Two evenings of rioting and protesting followed in the Sherman Park area of Milwaukee, when protesters burned six businesses leaving damage expected to exceed several million dollars, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Aug. 17.
“These five days have been for us a ‘holy ground.’ God present even in those fires, even in that the anger. even in that chaos,” he said, adding this is a holy time for us and God has called you to be here.
Shortly before the closing prayer, Fr. Kitzke reminded the gathering they must springboard from prayer to action.
“Let’s put our hearts and our heads and our minds together that we can. Thanks be to God for the rich tradition in social teaching our church has given to us. Now, everyone, let’s get to work,” he said.
Reine Assana, a member of Blessed Savior Parish, Milwaukee, was anxious to see that action begin.
“Action after prayer. Let’s get into action, because this community is really hurting and we need to find ways to bring it together,” said Assana, explaining she attended the Mass for Peace to pray and show support for the community.
Gezae Gebre, a member of All Saints Parish, agreed with Fr. Stiefvater that in any healing process, it will be important for people to reach out of their comfort zones to take action. Horrified by the violence in the community last weekend, Gebre said he was thankful for the opportunity to come together in prayer with others to pray for peace.
Former Milwaukee resident for 65 years, Judith Gregor drove nearly two hours from Baraboo to attend the Mass.
Now retired and a lay associate with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Gregor, a member of St. Joseph Parish, Baraboo, in the Madison Diocese, said her heart is in Milwaukee.
“I worked in Milwaukee as a visiting nurse; I knew so many wonderful people, I grew up in the inner city, I still love St. Michael where I went to grade school. I just feel committed to the city,” she said, adding she prays for peace and God’s guidance in helping people work toward good.
“This was such a wonderful gathering,” said Gregor of the standing-room-only crowd that filled All Saints. “Hopefully now we can move forward and see improvements in the city. It’s such a rich culture in the city, so many wonderful people, I just want to see it progress.”
Rozanne Schmidtlein did not travel nearly as far to attend; she’s a member of St. Robert of Newminster Parish, about three miles east of All Saints.
“I am concerned about peace and justice and I want (outreach to) be more visible and for us to actually be evangelizing like we (are called). Our last synod gathering instilled in us to do that. I really thought this is where we belong and we need to reach out with our arms like Father said in his sermon so that people know that we care, that people know we want to join with them. We need to break down all of the barriers and build more bridges.”