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Te sermon that, 62 years ago, denounced discrimination

Editor’s Note: The following is the text of a sermon denouncing racial prejudice at Saint Louis University, delivered by Father Claude H. Heithaus, S. J., on Feb. 11, 1944, and published in The University News on the same day.

It is a surprising and rather bewildering fact, that in what concerns justice for the Negro, the Mohammedans and the atheists are more Christ-like than many Christians. The followers of Mohammed and of Lenin make no distinction of color; but to some followers of Christ, the color of a man’s skin makes all the difference in the world.

Our Lord and model, Jesus Christ, commanded His followers to teach all nations. He founded one church through which all were to be saved. He prayed that all might become one in Him. He incorporated all races and colors into His Mystical Body. He died that all might be united in the happiness of the Beatific Vision.

APOSTLES DID NOT DISCRIMINATE

Following in His footsteps, the Apostles taught these doctrines to all races and to all colors. One of their first converts was a Negro. But some people say that these doctrines do not apply to the Negro. If he is taught the religion and morality of Christ, it must be under conditions that are humiliating or financially impossible.

St. Paul says very explicitly, in letters which he wrote to three different nations, that in the Mystical Body of Christ, to which all Christians belong, there is absolutely no difference between one race and another. But some people say that if Negroes are members of the Mystical Body, they are only nominal members.

WHAT THE SAINTS DID

Other great saints, such as Jesuit St. Peter Claver, carried sick Negroes in their arms and even kissed their festering sores, because they believed Our Lord when he said that whatsoever we do to the least of His brethren we do also to Him. But some people say that it is wrong to nurse a Negro in a Catholic hospital or educate a Negro in a Catholic university.

The Catholic Church, denouncing race discrimination in its encyclicals, has said that “those who enter the Church, whatever be their origin or their speech.have equal rights as children in the House of the Lord.” But some people say that Negroes have only those rights which the white men condescend to grant them.

POPE MADE NEGRO BISHOPS

The Vicar of Christ upon earth, the great and enlightened Pope Pius XII, made black men bishops of Christ’s church and invested them with all the sublime powers and dignities which the Son of God gave to the Apostles. But some people say that it is wrong to have a Negro play the organ in this University Church.

The Blessed Trinity is pleased, and the angels in heaven rejoice, when a Negro is united with Our Lord in Holy Communion. But some people say that it is indelicate to kneel beside a Negro at the Communion railing.

CHRIST DENOUNCED INJUSTICE

Jesus denounced injustice in the highest places, and He threatened the oppressors of the downtrodden with hell-fire; but some people say that the Society of Jesus should connive at a wrong that cries out to heaven for vengeance.

Now you, who are the followers of Christ, you, who have been specially trained to walk in His footsteps, must make a decision. And I warn you that it is a very important decision, upon which a great stake in the Kingdom of God depends. You must decide today, this very hour, who is right.

CHRIST OR THE CRITICS

Is Our Lord right? Is the Catholic Church right? Are the Apostles and saints right? Is the Vicar of Christ right?-If they are right, then those other people, whosoever they may be, are wrong. If Jesus Christ is right, then whosoever is unfair to a Negro, even in his own mind, is wrong.

To some people this may sound like a very hard doctrine. Perhaps it is. But did Christ ever say that His doctrine was easy? He said, “If anyone wishes to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me.” Those who cannot bring themselves to take up the cross should stop calling themselves Christians.

Now who are these people who think that the Society of Jesus should snub and insult the Negro members of Christ’s Mystical Body? Are they princes perhaps, or members of the great nobility? If I am not mistaken, their ancestors, like mine, came over to this country as poor immigrants.

WAS NEGRO CHAPLAIN

Unworthy as I am, I yet belong to the Society of Jesus, and the only nobility which I honor is spiritual nobility. Like Jesus, my Master, I find much that is noble in the lowly, and I count it as a great honor that I was once the confessor of Negroes in our in our city jail. For among them I found some whose spiritual nobility humbled me in the dust.

I hate this snobbery against the Negro because it springs from the pride and prejudice which Christ hated. It is the heartless pride of Cromwell and his self-righteous bullies, who proved their superiority over the defenseless white Catholics of Ireland by selling them into slavery with the Negroes of the West Indies. It is the stony prejudice of psalm-singing New England, where Catholics, even those French Catholics who won independence for us in the Battle of Yorktown, were despised just as the Negro Catholic is despised today.

I hang my head in shame when I see that some Catholics, who do not know the history of this country and have forgotten what terrible wrongs were endured by their ancestors in Ireland and Protestant England, have had the full strength of their Catholic convictions diluted by mingling with the descendants of their persecutors. I am horrified to find that some Catholics have been infected with this diabolical prejudice against the Negro. Self-deluded fools that they are, they cling with blind obstinacy to the idea that the time has not yet come to give justice to the Colored children of God.

Let them give ear now and be warned. Not I, but the gentle and loving Jesus says to them, “I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in. Since you did it not to these least ones, you did it not to me. Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.”

CALLS IT A LIE

Now some people say that if the Society of Jesus gives Catholic Negroes the Catholic education which the Church wishes them to have, our White students will walk out on us. Is this true? I deny it. I say it is a lie and a libel. I challenge the whole world to prove that even one of our Catholic students will desert us when we apply the principles for which Jesus Christ suffered and died.

I will go further and prove the opposite. I will prove it here and now. Catholic students to whose welfare I have dedicated my life and all that I have, listen to me. St. Louis University admits Protestants and Jews, Mormons and Mohammedans, Buddhists and Brahmins, pagans and atheists, without even looking at their complexions. Do you want us to slam our doors in the face of Catholics, because their complexion happens to be brown or black?

SCHOLARS KNOW NO COLOR

It is a lie. I see that you repudiate it with indignation. You scorn it all the more because you know that some of the very people who disseminate this lie have themselves sent their sons to Harvard and Yale, where they were glad to sit in the same classrooms with Negroes. These people bow in reverence before Oxford and Cambridge, the University of London and Sarbonne, but if they ever attended these great universities, as I have, they would soon learn that in the world of scholarship there is neither White nor Black, Brown nor Yellow.

Ignorance is the school of race prejudice, and provincialism is its tutor. Its memory is stuffed with lies, and its mind is warped by emotionalism. Pride is its book, and snobbery is its pen. All the hatreds and fears, all the cruelties and prejudices of childhood are perpetuated by it. It blinds the intellect, and it hardens the heart. Its wisdom is wonderful and fearful; for it never learns what is true, and it never forgets what is false.

STUDENTS ARE LOYAL

To those who say that our students will desert us, let me give a good piece of advice. Let them ask our students first before they tell us what is in their minds. They will learn something that will put them to shame. For our students not only will not desert us, but if anyone tries to prevent them from continuing at St. Louis University, they will fight tooth and nail for the only University in this state that teaches the practices and the religion of Christ.

For 125 years this University has been operated for the greater glory of God, and for that sole reason the bounty of God has kept it in existence. But what is for the greater glory of God in a particular instance is not always self-evident. When such situations arise, we do not act rashly, but we employ prayer and wise counsel to clear up the obscurities. After our doubts are cleared up, and the will of God becomes evident to us, we act without fear or hesitation, leaving the consequences to God, whose will is our sole guide, whose glory is our only ambition.

And now I ask you Catholic students to look at the Blessed Sacrament and answer this question. Will you not do something positive right now to make reparation for the suffering which this prejudice has inflicted upon millions of your fellow Christians? Because of it they are making a way of the cross that only the suffering Christ can understand. Like Him, they are hated and feared. Like Him, they are humiliated and despised. Like Him, they endure injustice and persecution. Like Him, they suffer meekly and in silence.

ACT OF REPARATION

For the wrongs that have been done to the Mystical Body of Christ through the wrongdoing of its colored members, we owe the suffering of Christ an act of public reparation. Let us make it now. Will you rise please? Now repeat this prayer after me. “Lord Jesus, we are sorry and ashamed for all the wrongs that white men have done to Your Colored children. We are firmly resolved never again to have any part in them, and to do everything in our power to prevent them. Amen.”

I know that there is very little of this prejudice among you. What little remains, you can easily remove with prayer and the sacraments. But among adults, and perhaps even among your own parents, there is still very much of it. Must Christ wait 50 years until all these adults are dead, or will you speed the dawn of justice for the Negro by eradicating this prejudice wherever you find it?

GRAVE RESPONSIBILITY

Your responsibility is very great, so great that it almost frightens me. Do you realize that if the Negroes are snubbed by the followers of Christ, they will turn in despair to the followers of Lenin? Do you realize that Communist agitators, specially trained at Moscow, have already made more than a hundred thousand converts among them, and are pouring out the vials of their wrath upon the Catholic Church, accusing it of being indifferent to the wrongs of the Negro?

Who can fight this fire of hatred and indignation against Christ and His church? Who can stop it form becoming a conflagration that will consume us all? Only Catholics can do it. Catholic leaders, White and Black, thoroughly grounded in Catholic principles and trained in Catholic universities, where the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ is taught and practiced, and there is neither White nor Black, but all Christians are equal in Christ Jesus.

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