A week ago Wednesday, on February 1, Abbot Matthew Leavy, O.S.B., preached a homily on the readings of the day (Hebrews 12 & Mark 6:1-6), incorporating into the homily an inspiring narrative on one of the first alums of Saint Anselm College, Joseph Rummel, Archbishop of New Orleans (1935-64).
1 February 2017
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Celebration
And Jesus said to them: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house” (Mark 6:4)
These words of tonight’s Gospel describe well the lot of a prophet – as expressed by Jesus in his words and exemplified by his experience.
From the time of Jesus to the present day we have countless examples of prophetic men and women continuing to announce the Good News, both in season and out of season.
In connection with our campus celebration devoted to civil rights, I offer for your reflection the example of one particular Anselmian who preached boldly and practiced even more boldly, the long overdue cause of civil rights in his home territory of New Orleans, at a strategic turning point in the history of our country and of our Church.
Joseph Francis Rummel was born in 1876 in Baden, Germany and came to America when he was six years old, settling in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan’s East Side, the then German/Hungarian quarter. Presumably because of the German connection, young Joseph came to study at Saint Anselm and graduated in 1896, in the College’s second graduating class. He went on to become a diocesan priest in New York, then was made bishop in Omaha, Nebraska in 1928, and then the archbishop of New Orleans in 1935. There he labored faithfully until his death in 1964 at age 88.
As pastor, he saw his flock through The Great Depression, World War II, post war immigration, and most significantly in the post War era, he led his flock through the struggle for Civil Rights by desegregating his Archdiocesan seminary, parochial schools, churches, and all other organizations associated with the Catholic Church under his care.
New Orleans always had a large population of black Catholics, served by the Church according to the prevailing laws and customs of racial segregation. Blacks took the back seats in Church as elsewhere in society. There were separate Catholic schools for black school children.
In 1948 Archbishop Rummel admitted two black students to Notre Dame Seminary. He then ordered the removal of “white” and “colored” signs from churches in 1951. And in 1953, he issued “Blessed are the Peacemakers” the pastoral letter that officially ordered the end to segregation in the entire Archdiocese, declaring, “the utter unacceptability of racial discrimination.”
“Ever mindful, therefore, of the basic truth that our Colored Catholic brethren share with us the same spiritual life and destiny, the same membership in the Mystical Body of Christ, the same dependence upon the Word of God, the participation in the Sacraments, especially the Most Holy Eucharist, the same need of moral and social encouragement, let there be no further discrimination or segregation in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings, just as there will be no segregation in the kingdom of heaven.” (Rummel, “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” Pastoral Letter, 1953.)
In some places there were even separate ciboria in the tabernacle holding sacred hosts – one for “whites” – the other for “colored”. I know it’s hard to imagine, but it existed – and not that very long ago.
Meeting with resistance, Rummel found it necessary to reiterate his beliefs in later Pastoral Letters:
“Racial segregation as such is morally wrong and sinful because it is a denial of the unity and solidarity of the human race as conceived by God in the creation of Adam and Eve.” (Rummel 1956)
Strong resistance initially came both from within and without the church community, but Rummel stood firm, approaching this potentially explosive issue with pastoral sensitivity, while at the same time acting with great vehemance when this right and just cause was threatened to be undermined. He even took the bold step of excommunicating three Catholics who, in open defiance, tried to derail the integration process.
He has been called the “unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement”, a disciple of the Lord, an Anselmian of whom we can be rightly proud and whose example provides both comfort and challenge to us in the face of other forms of discrimination, civic unrest and confusion which are present in our own day.
I believe that the closing lines of tonight’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews captures well the prophetic work of the once immigrant Joseph Rummel, and our own:
“Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one be deprived of the grace of God, that no bitter root spring up and cause trouble, through which many may become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14-15)
Let us pray for our country and all its current inhabitants – that the grace of God may bring us all that peace for which we strive and sacrifice, and in which we are united in solidarity with each of our brothers and sisters. For, as Joseph Francis Rummel expressed it, “There will be no segregation in the Kingdom of Heaven”. May we work and pray that there be none here as well.
Abbot Matthew, OSB
Saint Anselm College