Top Bishop Predicts Pope Will Address Racial Justice In U.S.

"He will encourage us not to leave the public square."
Pope Francis will visit the U.S. in September for the first time as pope.
Pope Francis will visit the U.S. in September for the first time as pope.

Pope Francis is expected to address climate change, poverty and other hallmark issues during his first visit to the United States in late September. But will racial justice be on the agenda?

The archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, believes it will. "The challenge of racial harmony" is likely to come up during the pope's visit, Most Reverend Joseph Kurtz, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told reporters at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association held in Philadelphia in August. 

"He will encourage us not to leave the public square," Kurtz said. "[To] make sure our faith is put into action and that we do so in a way that is consistent with our Catholic beliefs."

Wilton D. Gregory, the archbishop of Atlanta, said he has "sincere hope" that Pope Francis will urge the American public "to bring about a greater spirit and atmosphere of racial harmony and justice in our nation."

"We have recently seen far too many examples of the unfinished work of racial justice in the brutal deaths of Black men and women to believe that the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement have been accomplished," Gregory said in an email to The Huffington Post.

In 2001, Gregory became the first African-American bishop to lead the USCCB, a position he held until 2004. In 2005, he was installed as the archbishop of Atlanta -- the hometown of Martin Luther King Jr.

"The hostile language that has become commonplace in too many venues is clear indication that much work has to be done to achieve the society that Dr. King and his co-workers challenged us to establish in this country," Gregory said. "The economic and educational disparity that still inflicts the Black and Immigrant communities is an injustice that cries out for a response that is both overdue and necessary. We have made progress but not nearly enough in the area of racial social justice to rest from that struggle."

Pope Francis has spoken out against racism in the past, focusing his attention on undocumented immigrants and religious minorities. But so far his statements have fallen short of decrying the widespread racism toward black Americans that has been part of the fabric of U.S. culture and society for centuries.

Racial injustice has long been a concern of American bishops, though. The USCCB addressed it in a 1979 pastoral letter on racism titled "Brothers and Sisters to Us."

"Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church," the letter began. It went on to address the country's tragic history of racism and violence toward blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans and other racial and ethnic minorities. It added that although racism has become politically incorrect in modern times, it still "flourishes" in covert ways.  

The letter was a "call to action" for Catholics everywhere to engage in dialogue about race and for churches to "combat" the "evil of racism" at all costs. Bishops continue to do that work today in various ways.

The USCCB held its annual spring meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, in June. During the meeting, Kurtz delivered a statement on race relations, saying:

Our efforts must address root causes of these conflicts. A violent, sorrowful history of racial injustice, accompanied by a lack of educational, employment and housing opportunities, has destroyed communities and broken down families, especially those who live in distressed urban communities.

He proposed five ways the Catholic community can work toward ending racism and promoting justice, including increasing efforts to encounter people of different racial backgrounds with whom they live, work and minister.

It remains to be seen if Pope Francis will take cues from these American bishops and use his visit as an opportunity to tackle racism and injustice head on.

Also on HuffPost:

Pope Francis's Most Prophetic Statements