When the Italian community first moved into Woonsocket, these newcomers were allowed to offer their own Mass in the basement of St. Charles Borromeo Church in that city, but not at the main altar in the upper church where the Irish parishioners worshipped. Of course a generation or two earlier, Irish immigrants faced discrimination when placards reading “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply) were placed in storefront windows. On a much more egregious level was the enduring discrimination against Blacks largely in the American South. Readers who took a vacation touring Mount Vernon or Monticello or the Shenandoah Valley can easily recall “Whites Only” signs at gas station lavatories and water bubblers in public buildings. Jews, Asians, Native Americans, Latinos and every other minority settlement has had to deal with bias and bigotry. Happily, measures have been taken to eliminate much, if still not all, prejudice from American society.
Notable among these efforts is the removal of statues and images of historical figures who, while making some notable contributions to society, might also have made some allegedly regrettable decisions. The removal of the Christopher Columbus statue, formerly on Elmwood Avenue, is a local example of this trend to reassess America’s historical ancestors. Questions about Columbus’ dealings with Caribbean natives had arisen. Saint Junipero Serra, missionary to California, has been looked at askance by those who think he too swiftly dismissed Native American culture to encourage Christianity. A statue of St. Louis in the Missouri city named after him was threatened because the French king had participated in the crusades against advancing Muslims. And of course, San Francisco even considered eliminating the names of forty-five historical figures, including American presidents, from its public buildings since historical studies have uncovered some regrettable decisions made by these notables.
While some criticism of America’s history is certainly justified, much blame is generated by a notion of “White Supremacy,” insisting that the white race has had altogether too much influence over human society in general, much to the detriment of the other races. Now there have been times in the past when mighty empires like Rome, Greece, Persia, China, the Incas and the Aztecs and cultures like Islam and Buddhism controlled vast segments of society, sometimes for weal, sometimes for woe. Lately however, it is certainly true that Western European nations and their North American settlements have largely determined the course of world events. White Supremacy certainly has some foundation and Western society’s failure to notice and encourage the talents of other races should be acknowledged.
However, while giving every race and every culture and every society their due, Christians must recognize and defend the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, racially a Semite, a Caucasian from Asia Minor. No other race, culture, or society can boast an incarnate Son of God among its members. Jesus is indeed exceptional and his followers must not shrink from announcing him just because his Church has over the past thousand years been so associated with Western culture. As St. Peter declares in this Sunday’s first reading, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” Jesus himself was very concerned that his saving message be brought to every race and culture. Sunday’s Gospel reads, “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep, and mine know me. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
The zeal of some to recognize the potential of all races and cultures must not lead Christians to ignore or downplay Jesus Christ. God, in his mysterious providence, chose that his Son should be born at a certain time, into a certain people and within a certain culture. His environment truly made Christ human. And the obscurity in the ancient world of the people into which Christ was born should make him even more acceptable both to minorities and majorities. Social rebuff was certainly part of Jesus’ own experience: “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.” Christians must furthermore acknowledge that the catholicity of the Christian Church which flourished first in Asia Minor and North Africa and then in Europe and lately worldwide is indeed providential.
The universality of the Christian Church is not the result of white supremacy; God’s wide mercy made available through the Church is the plan and gift of Divine Providence. Both Christ and his Church, whose original roots were obscure, are divinely destined for worldwide recognition and universal acceptance.
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