The first archdiocese-wide prayer event to take place at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist should have been a joyful event.

Instead, it was a moment of lamentation.

“This evening, we lament the evils of racial injustice, separation and isolation,” said Mary Words, chairperson of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Black Catholic Ministry Commission, addressing the congregation at the beginning of the service on Thursday, June 25. “Lamentation is also our prayer that expresses hope. That the way things are now are not the way they always will be.”

The prayer service, which was entitled “Together in Christ: Prayer for Racial Justice,” incorporated themes of justice, oppression, deliverance and redemptive suffering. In attendance were ecumenical leaders, representatives of law enforcement and members of the public.

“I needed this,” said Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki during the service. “I needed to be able to take a look at what is transpiring among us and to call us to be focused on the One who brings us together and not divides us — the One who calls us to understand our dignity in and through him and our solidarity as one family. I needed to pray together, and not just with empty words but prayer with a sense of our confidence in God.”

The archbishop relayed a story of how, as a young man, he once watched an episode of the talk show “Geraldo” that featured a confrontation between white supremacists and four Black ministers.

“One big, bulky individual went up right in the face of this poor, aged minister, saying vile things,” recalled the archbishop. “And as he ran out of energy in his attempt to smear and throw verbal trash on this man, as he ran out of energy and couldn’t gasp for his breath, the old, aged minister looked at him and said: ‘No matter what you do or say, you cannot stop me from loving you in Christ.’ Holy cow.”

The archbishop said he had hesitated about whether or not to share that story, not wanting to highlight division or to imply that racism is always quite so obvious. “Racism is subtle in the way it’s executed, in the indifference (in which) it’s shown,” he said. “Subtle forms of racism are embedded in a lot of activities. They’re embedded in some of our institutions, our preferential choices.”

What this moment in history requires, he said, is the kind of “unconquerable” love shown by the minister on that show all those years ago.

“What do we do to put our arms around the moment so we can go forward together?” he asked. “We hold up the cross.”

“Seize this as a moment and challenge our institutions, ourselves, our own lives,” he said. “How have we fostered a harmony? A family sense among our brothers and sisters? What have we done to foster and fashion that? And do we understand the hope that’s extended to us?”

At the conclusion of the prayer service, bells were rung for eight minutes and 46 seconds, in acknowledgment of the time that a Minneapolis police officer spent kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, resulting in his May 25 death. Attendees lit candles and processed into the night.

“This is a service of lamentation,” said the archbishop. “Lamentation — pain. We suffer. Lamentation — frustration. Lamentation — notice us, Lord. That our cries should be heard not only by our God … but by our brothers and sisters — calling us to be together, calling us to be different and knowing we can, with the power of his love.”

A video of the service can be seen at this link: