SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
When a priest friend became ill, he called Fr. Bryan Massingale S.T.D., former Marquette University Theology Professor, to celebrate Mass for him at his suburban Milwaukee parish. Wearing clerics and carrying his vestments in one hand, he approached the usher, introduced himself and asked for directions to the sacristy.
“The usher looked at me suspiciously and asked me who I was again,” said Fr. Massingale. “I told him, and added that Father had taken sick and I was here to celebrate Mass for him. He looked at me again and said, ‘You are a priest? Who sent you?’”
After explaining once again, the usher finally led him to the sacristy with the caveat, “At least they could have sent us a real priest.”
If this had been an isolated incident, it would have been unfortunate; however, it mirrored experiences the 63-year-old priest said he has endured since his earliest memories of growing up black in Milwaukee.
“This usher at the church was likely a good Catholic exercising his ministry in the Church, but this points out how race functions in the Church and the assumptions of normative whiteness,” Fr. Massingale said. “Many believe that Catholic equals white and if you are not white, then you are Catholic by exception or by toleration. If you think of it, we have Catholic music that is predominantly European music with a European cultural product and European people, and all others are by permission or toleration or exception. You may see a gospel hymn due to Martin Luther King Jr. weekend or Spanish music in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe — the attitude is that white people are the real Catholics and the standard normative measure of Catholicism.”
Fr. Massingale credits his parents and the witness of his family for teaching him the realities of what it was like to be black in Milwaukee, as it was and continues to be one of the most racially segregated cities in the U.S.
“My dad was insistent that you can’t let anger or outrage at how we were being treated to override our obligations to contribute. I had to keep two things in mind: that I had to realize things were unfair or unjust and also realize that I can’t let those obstacles stop me from making the contributions I was called to make,” he said. “When I was 14, my dad told me in the kind of way that sometimes adults say, ‘Bryan, there are lots of backward people in this world and you have to decide if you are going to run your life or let them run it for you.’ I have never forgotten this, and it is a wisdom that has carried me through my encounters with raw naked racism like in that parish and in more daily acts of insensitivity.”
Ordained for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1983, Fr. Massingale, a professor and James and Nancy Buckman Chair in Applied Christian Ethics, as well as the Senior Ethics Fellow in Fordham University’s Center for Ethics Education, remembers that expectations differed for him over the white seminarians. He was associate pastor at St. Sebastian, Milwaukee, from 1983-86, and was a moral theology professor at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary from 1991-2004 and at Marquette University from 2004-16.
He explained there was little in his seminary experience that spoke to him as a black man.
“The seminary prepares men for suburban ministry to enter into working with predominantly white parishes and in the suburbs and urban areas that are not racially diverse, and has not done a good job of preparing ministers for a multiracial and multi-ethnic church,” he said. “When I was ordained, ministry to Hispanic areas was considered a specialized ministry and that term tells you so much, that the normative is white suburban ministry. I also remember being explicitly told that I could not expect to spend my priesthood in black Catholic parishes, that I was ordained for the whole archdiocese. I understood that and wanted to be ordained for the whole archdiocese, but I don’t believe the white seminarians were not told that they could not expect to spend their priesthood with only white Catholics. My suspicion says this was normative whiteness.”
To combat what Fr. Massingale refers to as white privilege and systemic racism, he encourages the Church to become leaders in changing the mindset and hopes that pastors will step up and speak of the sin of racism from the pulpits.
“I have been a priest for 37 years and have heard many confessions in that time. I have never had a confession where someone has confessed that they were racist or acted in a racist way. I have heard confessions about sexual sins but never racism or prejudice, and part of this is the Church’s fault,” he explained. “The vast majority of Catholics have never heard a homily dealing with racism or racial injustice in the past three years, which is the entire lectionary cycle. I know the reason: we don’t train priests on how to preach on racism or difficult topics. Our two weakest seminary courses are on preaching and Catholic social teaching. We have to look at our training programs for priestly formation and diaconate formation, and how is racism training and awareness present in programs and ministerial formation.”
While he admits the slogan Black Lives Matter can sound off-putting to most because all lives do matter, Fr. Massingale explained that Black Lives Matter is one of core beliefs that is no different from Catholics saying we have a preferential option for the poor.
“That is, God dwells with those who suffer most, and we must take better care of them than we take of ourselves. If we can go to the border and care for brutalized immigrants, we must go to the protest line and fight for justice for black people,” he said. “Both communities are suffering from the same entrenched, racialized myth that people of color are not fully human.”
Fr. Massingale encourages whites to learn about the history of racism and sit in the discomfort the hard truth of racism brings.
“Stay in the discomfort, the anxiety, the guilt, the shame, the anger. Because only when a critical mass of white folks are outraged, grieved and pained over the status quo, only when white people become upset enough to declare, ‘This cannot and will not be,’ only then will real change begin to become a possibility.”
Fr. Bryan Massingale S.T.D. is a member of the board of directors of the Society of Christian Ethics and serves on the editorial board of Theological Studies, one of the premier Catholic journals of theology. He is the author of Racial Justice in the Catholic Church.