Over the summer, the Catholic Church in America has been reflecting on the priceless gift of religious liberty and the protection of conscience. In a statement, my brother bishops and I wrote that “we are sadly aware that religious liberty in many parts of the world is in much greater peril. Our obligation at home is to defend religious liberty robustly but we cannot overlook the much graver plight that religious believers, most of them Christian, face around the world….assassins, bombings of churches, torching of orphanages—these are only the most violent attacks Christians have suffered because of their faith in Jesus Christ” (Our First Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, April 12, 2012).
The death of nineteen Christians in Nigeria who were shot while participating in worship services this week is the most recent example. Here in our own country a suspicious fire burned to the ground a mosque in Joplin, Missouri. Six people were killed in a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. In light of these events, it should be reiterated that intolerance toward any people is the concern of the whole community.
We learn in the story of Genesis that “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female, he created them” (Genesis 1:27). The human race is rooted in the loving, created action of God, who made us and called us to be family—all God’s children—made in God’s image and likeness. There is no basis for asserting that some are made more in the image of God than others. In whatever form, intolerance of other people because of their race, religion or national origin is ultimately a denial of human dignity.
The events of this week remind us that religious intolerance and racism will not go away without a concerted effort on everyone’s part. Regularly we must renew our commitment to drive these things out of our hearts, our lives and our community. That commitment begins with prayer, and in the face of despair we are called to be witnesses to hope.
In the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral message following September 11, 2001, we wrote, “For believers, hope is not a matter of optimism, but a source of strength and action in demanding times. For peacemakers, hope is the indispensable virtue” (A Pastoral Message: Living with Faith and Hope after September 11, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 14, 2001). To have peace, humankind needs most of all a profound change of heart. “Let us not be deceived by a false hope. For unless enmities and hatreds are put away and firm, honest agreements are concluded regarding universal peace in the future, humanity, which is already in the midst of a grave crisis, although endowed with marvelous knowledge, will perhaps be brought to that mournful hour in which it will experience no peace other than the dreadful peace of death. But while it says this, still the Church of Christ, standing in the midst of the anxiety of this age, does not cease to hope with the utmost confidence” (Gaudium et Spes).
We pray that the work of peace and healing can begin for the communities so deeply hurt this week.