A woman and her dog carry the anti-racism message at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on June 5. Michael Swan

Racism: ‘It exists everywhere you go’

  • June 11, 2020

Racism isn’t just a sin out there in the world, nor just a problem on American police forces, said Fr. Obinna Ifeanyi.

“There is no doubt that racism still exists. It exists in the Church. It exists in schools — I work for the Catholic school board. It exists everywhere you go,” said the Spiritan priest from Nigeria, who serves as chaplain at the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

It concerns Ifeanyi that African missionaries in many Canadian parishes are not always received as a gift of the one, universal Church.

“They are not received the way we received the missionaries when they came (to Africa),” he said. “Growing up, we had tons of missionaries in Africa, tons of missionaries who came to Africa to work.

“My grandma couldn’t speak English, but she was so excited to work with the white priest. Anything they were asked to do, to come and work in the church, they were always so happy — because for them, they were working for God.

“Now that things have changed, it is us Africans now coming to the Western world.”

DePaul University professor of Catholic studies Fr. Stan Chu Ilo spent a substantial part of his priestly life in Canada before moving to Chicago. He left Nigeria for studies in Rome, France and the United Kingdom before landing in the Peterborough, Ont., diocese and publishing Discover Your Divine Investment with Catholic Register Books. Throughout his 30-year journey through the West, Ilo has experienced racism in the Church, he said.

“Institutional racism within the Catholic Church in Canada and the U.S. exude the same mindset and the same pattern — the pattern of stereotype, the pattern of bias, the pattern of treating African priests differently than they would treat white priests,” Ilo said. “However, in the U.S. this is more institutionalized, this is more explicit than in Canada.”

Ilo points out that the only bishop of colour in Canadian Church history remains Toronto Bishop Vincent Nguyen, ordained in 2009.  Bishops are named by the Vatican.

Ilo also wonders why black men are not better represented when it comes time to appoint priests to diocesan priest councils, priest personnel boards and other decision-making bodies.

“I have found ordinary Canadian Catholics more open and accepting of inclusivity than the white priests and bishops of Canada,” he said. “But comparatively, the pattern is worse in the U.S. I mean, they have the same pattern, but it is more egregious.”

“Racism may be expressed and embodied differently in Canada than in America but that doesn’t mean it’s not a significant reality in this country,” said Dominican Fr. Darren Dias, a theology professor at St. Michael’s College.

“Perhaps the reflex to dismiss racism as an American problem is the most dangerous aspect of racism in Canada. We imagine we don’t have a problem and so we don’t have to address it.”

It’s not as if the Catholic tradition doesn’t have the tools to confront racism, according to Dias.

“Catholics have a long tradition of self-reflection or examination and now is a moment to be honest with ourselves before God,” he said. “What conversations are being had around racism, power, exclusion, violence (in Catholic churches)? Very few, if any, I imagine.”

As protests occur in cities across Canada, Catholics should recognize “this is also a moment for solidarity with those who are victimized or marginalized,” Dias said.

Toronto’s Catholic schools are taking this moment of global protest for racial justice seriously, said Toronto Catholic District School Board manager of community services and government relations Shazia Vlahos.

“Anti-black racism is real. We have to face the truth that anti-black racism exists in our city and in our schools,” said a June 2 statement signed by director of education Rory McGuckin and board chair Joseph Martino.

“The greatest problem for us Christians is what? Pride and selfishness,” said Ilo. “That pride can become personal, it can become institutional — because we want to preserve the power that has nothing to do with beauty and God’s kingdom.”

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