Catholic bishops across the country and Illinois today marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Baptist minister and civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) joined the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., in tolling the shrine's bells 39 times to honor the years King lived before he was shot by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968.
In a January statement recognizing this year's annual national Martin Luther King Jr. Day, USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo asked for courage and commitment to defeat and overcome the sin of racism that still pervades our country. Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston recalled the words King wrote in a 1958 essay: "Along the way of life, someone must have the sense enough and the morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives."
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago also asked all parishes and schools to ring their bells 39 times, beginning at 6:01 p.m., the approximate time of King's death. The Cardinal led an ecumenical prayer service at St. Rita Cascia Shrine Chapel in Chicago, featuring rousing gospel songs and excerpts from King's speeches. During his homily, Cardinal Cupich noted the current discord that is rattling the country, and urged attendees to continue King's work towards peace.
"Let us be clear. We gather not to give a belated eulogy. This is not a victory rally. It is not a stroll down memory lane," Cardinal Cupich said. "This is a prayer of thanksgiving for all those who have done so very much, but it is also a summons by God to make that turn in the road, to embrace a new life, a life, which five centuries ago Martin Luther said 'is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.'"
Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville issued a reflection in which he pondered the reaction of King to today's world if he had lived, commenting on the need for action over words in confronting racial strife.
"… He would caution that Catholics, like Protestants, must make sure that their challenging, gospel-inspired statements are studied by the faithful and actually implemented at every level of the community," Bishop Braxton wrote. "He might say the churches do not so much need to say more; they need to do more."
Bishop David Malloy of Rockford referred to the USCCB's January statement, adding, "Let us pray that the life of Dr. King continues to inspire us and future generations in seeking His Will for all God’s people."
In the Diocese of Joliet, Bishop R. Daniel Conlon released a statement also recognizing the polarization of society, noting that King's message of unity should "serve as a challenge for us today in a society so marked by divisions, walls, and identity politics.
"Let us take up that challenge, whatever the risk, whatever the cost," Bishop Conlon wrote. "Let each of us ask, who is the person below me who needs lifted up? Who is the person beyond me who needs brought in? What is the oppressive force around me that must be challenged and changed through non-violent action? Let us, like Dr. King, commit to live a life of such high calling that it is worth the risk of losing."