ColumnsNational/ InternationalRespect Life/Social Justice

Engaging in a ‘racial examination of conscience’


“Mindful of its duty to be the advocate for those who hunger and thirst for justice’s sake, the Church cannot remain silent about the racial injustices in society and its own structures. Our concern over racism follows, as well, from our strong commitment to evangelization…We would betray our commitment to evangelize ourselves and our society were we not to strongly voice our condemnation of attitudes and practices so contrary to the Gospel.”

— ‘Brothers and Sisters to Us,’ USCCB

This is a two part series on racial issues in the United States. The first part is below also.

By Mark Schmidt

Special to The Witness

Last week I introduced you to my mentor and spiritual director, Father Cyprian Davis, OSB. I spoke of his work and his advocacy in helping our society heal from the sin of racism. This week I offer a simple “racial examination of conscience” to help each of us reflect on how we may grow as persons and children of God in our hospitality, love and mercy for all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of race or religion.

This “racial examination of conscience” is not intended to implicate anyone as a racist. It is not a “test” to see how racist you are or are not. It is offered in all charity and humility as an opportunity to reflect on our daily lives and how we may be unaware of the impact that our everyday decisions have on ourselves, members of our community, nation and world. Just as an examination of conscience before going to the sacrament of reconciliation is not intended to demean or shame anyone, neither is this particular examination of conscience.

When we approach the confessional it is through our honesty and our sorrow that we are offered mercy from God and help to restore not only our personal relationship with God, but to offer restoration to a world we have harmed through our actions, even those of which we are unware. Research shows that many of us act toward others based on implicit, or unknown, bias. Most of us believe in the equality of all people and assume that such a belief is enough. There are many studies done regarding implicit bias, one such study by researchers at Northwestern University show clear findings that implicit bias does shape how we act toward others especially when it comes to our perception of others as threats. This type of research shows us that even those of us who believe all people are truly equal, other factors, especially those unknown to us, can lead us to act in a way that does not truly reflect our personal beliefs. This list of questions is not exhaustive but may be a good start in discovering our biases in ourselves, bringing them to the light and then working to correct them so that our actions mirror our personal beliefs.

Do I interact with people who are different from me outside of work or school?

Do I read books or stories written by people of different ethnic or religious heritage than myself?

Have I taken the time to listen to the voices of others who don’t look like me or have a different background and life experience than me?

If in a supervisor role, have I included people of various cultural or ethnic backgrounds when developing professional guidelines and/or dress codes?

Have I ever said the following phrases or something similar: “she’s pretty for a black girl,” “he’d be handsome if he wasn’t so dark,” “that little girl would be cute if her mom did her hair,” or made other judgments on beauty and acceptance.

Have I ever asked someone about their heritage or ethnicity by asking “so, what are you?”

Have I ever seen someone on the street and made a judgement based on how they dress, how their hair is styled, how they walk, how they speak?

Have I ever participated in or laughed at jokes or comments that belittle or denigrate people who don’t look like me or practice a different faith than me?

Do I blame the victims who suffer poverty and/or oppression for their plight?

Do I try to come up with excuses for things I do or say that are perceived as racist or harmful by others?

Do I dismiss the concerns or observations of others as simply being “overly sensitive” or being “PC”?

Do I ask someone that I am an acquaintance with in social or professional settings to speak for their entire culture? Do I use a friend or family member who is of a different background than my own to “prove” that I have said or done nothing wrong?

Have I ever said “I’m not racist, but…” Do I always speak to others from different backgrounds with respectful tone and language?

Do I automatically associate negative attributes to an entire group of people?

Do I use dehumanizing language about others, referring to them as “thugs, animals, illegals,” etc.

Do I categorize other ethnicities into groups like “good” and “troublesome”?

When trying to show a broad ethnic representation for my community or institution do I randomly place minorities in advertisements?

Do I ask for input on how advertisements may be perceived outside of my own culture?

Do I take the time to learn and listen to the stories of others’ lives in order to better understand them and the challenges they may face that I do not? Do I see Jesus Christ in each and every person I encounter every single time?

Do I love each and every person regardless of their heritage, the choices they have made, their status in society or the perception I may have of them?

Once you finish praying and reflecting upon these questions, I invite you to read “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity” a document by the U.S. Catholic bishops on our relationship with migrants and refugees in our midst. It can be found online at the U.S. Catholic bishops’ website. Let us all seek peace and harmony in our communities and see each and every of our brothers and sisters as Jesus Christ in our midst. And let us pray to the saints to guide us and our nation towards healing.

We all have an opportunity to take prayerful action in September as a faith community. Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has called for a National Day of Prayer on Sept. 9, the feast of St. Peter Claver, to heal the racial divide in our nation. Find out more and how you may participate at the USCCB website:



Father Cyprian Davis and racism in America


“[the country] has yet to solve the question of race; that has been America’s tragic flaw. We have never really come to grips with race. We went through the civil-rights movement, but here we are in 1993 with young people who never knew racial segregation, never knew the civil-rights movement, and all of a sudden on college campuses you have a tremendous amount of racism. There’s still an awful separation between people. It isn’t only against blacks. It involves Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Not that other countries don’t have the same problem. The church for a long time did not take a stand. It has started to.”

— U.S. Catholic Magazine quoting Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB

By Mark Schmidt

Special to The Witness

Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB was my professor, mentor, and spiritual director. He was a Benedictine monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey whose passion was his monastic vows and his faith in Jesus Christ. He was also a Black Catholic, staunchly proud of his African American heritage. Fr. Cyprian was ordained a priest when Black American priests were few in number.

I fondly remember sitting in his classes and hanging on his every word. He was a storyteller. His voice had gravel in it, his stance was slightly bent over, and his eyes lit up as he recalled stories of the past. He also had a wonderful humor that brought those stories to life in a way that few can. I always imagined that around a campfire he would be king for no one could match his ability to speak of things that happened hundreds and even thousands of years ago as if they were modern day events. He literally put you as a bystander into those stories.

Naming Grace in the Domestic Church Post Image
Father Cyprian Davis, OSB

His detailed history of Black Catholicism is the seminal work on how truly diverse our faith is, and how our Catholic faith has never been nor will it ever be a “European” religion. Holding a doctorate in history he wanted to study the Church Fathers but upon returning to the United States and the country in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement he realized that his contribution to the movement was to highlight the gift that black folks had offered to the Church and the nation. But he was not simply a bookworm. He was a man of action. He marched in Selma across the Edmund Pettis bridge and was one of many who faced down state and local law enforcement in the fight for equal rights. He personally placed himself in the midst of violence against an unjust system to demand he and all people of this country be treated as equals, to have his and others’ dignity recognized.

In addition to being a student, I had the blessing to have him as a spiritual director. There is an intimacy that comes with a spiritual director, a fraternal bond that allows not only the spiritual director to see into the heart of the directee but for the the directee to see deeper than the casual interaction between professor and student. It required me to humbly open myself up to his wisdom and guidance and to listen. I will always remember his voice the day he called me “friend”; I felt unworthy of the honor.

I trusted him and saw a prophet before me on religious, political and social issues of today, particularly those connected to racism in America. Over the last couple years after I graduated from Saint Meinrad his health began to decline and so it was difficult to keep contact with him; entering eternity in 2015. I have wondered over the past couple years since the protests in Ferguson, NYC, Chicago, Minneapolis and elsewhere what he would have had to say about the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenge our nation faces with the racial division that never went away but was only masked over the course of the 5 decades since the Civil Rights Act. I know he would be disheartened by the injustices in our system but not surprised by what is transpiring in our nation. He would also offer hopefulness. This man who faced down the segregationists alongside Dr. King in Selma, confronted the violence and knew that things can be better. As he taught about historical and contemporary prejudice and racism in society I never heard bitterness only a passion to effect change. He challenged us all to examine how we may be contributing to injustice and how we may find our path to helping overcome it. He offered that challenge to dig deeper into resources and histories of America and of the Church. It was Fr. Cyprian’s way of giving voice to the stories often left untold in a culture dominated by a “whites only” voices.

As Catholics the Sacrament of Reconciliation is where we not only confess our sins, but discern how we may grow from our personal shortcomings and place ourselves at the mercy and love of God to help us learn from our sins. In the examination of conscience that we do to prepare for confession we open ourselves up to discern ways in which we may not be living up to the call of the Gospel and that examination helps us to discover things to work on for our own betterment of which we may not even be aware. In the spirit of Fr. Cyprian and his compassionate but challenging expectation for Catholics to address the sin of racism, next week we will have a “racial examination of conscience” to help us all become more aware of how we may grow in understanding and compassion for one another.

In the mean time, please consider reading the US Bishops’ document “Brothers and Sisters to US” which can be found online at:



Schmidt is the director of the Respect Life/Social Justice Office of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. This is the second in a two-part series on issues of race in the United States.