By Patricia O’Connell
FITCHBURG – Growing up in the Bronx, Mickey Guzman did not feel the sting of racism.
“The community was completely diverse,” he explained.
However, moving to Illinois to attend college, he realized that not everyone viewed him in a favorable light, due to the color of his skin.
On campus, he was only one of five Hispanic students. “We didn’t know where we belonged, because we didn’t belong anywhere,” he recalled, noting that he was viewed as neither black nor white.
“It took me two years to finally be accepted,” said Mr. Guzman, a social worker at the Spanish American Center in Leominster.
Also, Mr. Guzman gave an example of how racism hasn’t entirely disappeared in America. “I have people say, ‘I hate Latinos, but you’re okay.’”
Last Friday, Mr. Guzman, along with dozens of other community leaders, and Bishop McManus, came to Fitchburg for the annual Stand Against Racism, a nationwide movement spearheaded by the YWCA. In Fitchburg, this was marked by a luncheon at the Three Pyramids on Day Street, followed by various talks. Bishop McManus was the keynote speaker.
Bishop McManus told the audience that he was there as the spiritual leader of the diocese, and not as a politician.
“Racism is a moral evil, a serious sin,” he said, stressing that this is a Church teaching with Biblical roots.
He then explained the basis for this teaching, noting that, “All of us have been created in the image and likeness of God. … All of us, in the sight of God, are brothers and sisters.”
Bishop McManus then said that God sent Jesus into the world as a Savior, for all of mankind. Engaging in racism, he noted, “contradicts this fact.” Also, said Bishop McManus, human beings are the only creatures on earth whom God created to join him in heaven. “He wants each of us to spend an eternity with him in heaven.”
He said another reason the Catholic Church teaches that “racism is a great sin” is because its individual members are the people of God, joined to the Body of Christ through the “great sacrament of baptism.”
Bishop McManus said the Church discriminates against no one. He also pointed out that Pope Francis recently named a number of new cardinals, among them prelates from Africa and Asia. For many generations, he added, the College of Cardinals consisted of a group of white men of European background.
That’s “not the case anymore,” he stated.
Although the Church has always taught against racism, in practice, especially in the United States, this teaching, unfortunately, has not always been put into practice, according to Bishop McManus.
He noted that in previous years, some Catholic school systems in the South were racially segregated. He said this same trend was even noted in religious communities. Bishop McManus also related the story of Bishop James Healy of Portland, Maine, who was denied entrance to seminary studies in America because his mother was of African descent.
However, despite this blatant racism, he was eventually ordained (in Europe), to serve as a parish priest in Boston, and then later became a the first African-American bishop in the United States.
The Catholic Church in America, he explained, underwent a “moral awakening” in the 1940s and 1950s. The theology of the Church being against racism “was not always lived out,” he stated.
Documents since then, published by the USCCB, have strongly condemned any form of discrimination based on one’s ethnicity, he said. “Brothers and Sisters to Us, A Pastoral Letter on Racism,” was published in 1979.
Bishop McManus noted that we’ve come far, but there’s still a ways to go. He said because of the increased awareness of the evil of racism, to be “publicly accused of racism is a great shame.”
However, he warned against existing racism “under the radar screen.”
Stand Against Racism at Three Pyramids was partially organized by Barbara Nealon, who works in Catholic ministry at Heywood Hospital in Gardner and who also serves on the diocesan school committee.
Adrian Ford, host of the event, also took the opportunity to thank the many people, not of color, who have stood against racism through the years.