Baltimore archbishop's letter touts King's nonviolence principles as message for Lent

Archbishop William E. Lori called on Catholics and others Wednesday to reflect on and continue applying the principles of nonviolence that guided the civil rights work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In a 28-page pastoral letter released on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian season of Lent, Lori reminded readers of the principles of nonviolence King set forth in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and other writings.

He noted that Baltimore suffered historic violence last year, and that the world will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in 2018.

“Dr. King’s wisdom is more necessary than ever in our violent and fragmented society,” he wrote. Such wisdom “is both timely and important for our family of faith, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and indeed for our whole society.”

In the Catholic Church, a pastoral letter is an official letter from a bishop to the clergy and lay members of his diocese. They’re frequently disseminated at the beginning of an ecclesiastical season such as Lent, when Christians are encouraged to pray, fast, read Scripture and repent to sharpen their sense of God’s presence and power and prepare for Easter, the holiest day in the Christian year.

Lori cited what King called the three principles that make nonviolent action an effective means of bringing about social change: the conviction that nonviolence is the path of courage; the belief that nonviolence is about winning friendship, not winning battles; and the idea that nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people.

Those principles, Lori wrote, can help Baltimoreans address the entrenched problems that plague the city — handgun violence, fractured relations between law enforcement and residents, and “the sin of racism that continues, sometimes overtly but often subtly, to insinuate itself in our relationships, institutions and communities of faith” — as effectively as they helped King and other civil rights leaders of the mid-20th century combat the injustices of their day.

Archdiocesan Vice Chancellor Sean Caine said the letter was meant to become part of a wider conversation about racism and injustice, and that the focus on King’s ministry and methods — and their enduring relevance — is very much in keeping with the themes of Lent.

“It’s a time of the year when we are focused on our own sinfulness, on repentance and on healing relationships,” he says.

Lori has long been active in addressing racism. He formed an archdiocesan task force on the subject in 2017 — the group is preparing a report for his review — and serves as a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Committee on Racism.

Copies of the pastoral letter have been distributed to clergy throughout the Archdiocese of Baltimore as well as to U.S. Catholic bishops and to civic, community and interfaith leaders in the Baltimore area. It may also be viewed online.

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