The bishops of Virginia offered prayers for peace and a renewed sense of human dignity ahead of the one-year anniversary of a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
“Racism is a sin. As the U.S. Bishops wrote in 1979 – ‘a sin that divides the human family,’” said Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond in a statement.
“Prayer – individually and as a faith community – is a start in addressing racism and to help heal from the effects of racism, but it cannot be an occasional act and it shouldn’t be confined to one day,” the bishop said.
“I pray that during this time when we are challenged by divisions that we commit to praying, listening, learning, thinking and working for peace, justice and an end to racism.”
On August 11-12 last year, a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., was planned to protest the city’s removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a local park – one of several Confederate monuments removed throughout the country after a 2015 church shooting in Charleston.
The rally drew white supremacists including neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members. A counter-protest, including a diverse coalition of religious leaders and members of the Antifa and Black Lives Matter movements, was formed. At least 30 people were injured in clashes between the protesters and counter-protesters.
On Aug. 12, a man linked to white-supremacist groups drove a car into the counter-protest, injuring 19 and killing one, 32-year-old Heather Heyer of Charlottesville.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the incident “does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute,” and promised to “protect the right of people, like Heather Heyer, to protest against racism and bigotry.”
Catholic bishops denounced the violence but also explicitly condemned the racist ideology amidst the “Unite the Right” gathering.
Shortly after the violence in Charlottesville, the U.S. bishops announced the creation of an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism to respond to ongoing social tension. The committee was formed to explore ways the Church can address the root causes of contemporary manifestations of racism, and to hold public conversations about racism and race-related problems.
Unite the Right is planning an anniversary rally in Washington, D.C. this weekend.
Bishop Knestout voiced his hope that the one year anniversary of the events in Charlottesville “will not be approached with provocative rhetoric but provide an opportunity for prayer and dialogue about racism, and the action needed to overcome it.”
“It is my sincere hope that all remain safe in these coming days and throughout the weekend, and may the Holy Spirit be a source of strength and comfort for the families and friends who continue to mourn the loss of a loved one,” he said, encouraging members of the diocese to pray for the intercession of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Patroness of the United States, for unity and peace in the country.
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington also issued a statement leading up to the Charlottesville anniversary.
“I call upon all Catholics and people of good will to pray for peace in our nation, and for an end to the division that is caused by racism and prejudice,” he said.
“We must shine a light on injustice, be advocates for those who are victims of discrimination, and continue to affirm the dignity of every human person as we are all created in the image and likeness of God,” the bishop continued.
“We pray to our Lady, Queen and Peace, for unity and harmony in our communities, in our nation, and our world, recalling that it is only through her Son, Jesus Christ, that true healing and peace are ours.”