The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Pope Francis’s silence on black America may soon end

Pope Francis arrives for the weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican this week. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

When the monsignor in the pink room said he wanted to talk about the pool party, Traci Blackmon realized Pope Francis was serious about racial justice in America.

It was June, Vatican City. Blackmon, a St. Louis County reverend who was one of the most visible religious organizers during the Ferguson protests following the death of Michael Brown, had just arrived in Rome to discuss the racial tension roiling the United States. The pope’s advisers, in anticipation of his first trip to the United States this month, had wanted to meet with grass-roots advocates who could explain the country’s fraught relationship with race. So Blackmon went to the Vatican expecting to talk basics — slavery, Jim Crow, Ferguson.

But then, according to two people who were present in the meeting, the Missouri reverend walked into a room painted pink to meet Monsignor Peter Brian Wells, the assessor for general affairs of the secretariat of state. Wells wanted to know about the pool party where an onlooker had recorded a white cop wrestling to the ground a black 14-year-old girl in a bikini in the Dallas suburbs.

[Here’s why black Catholics want recognition from Pope Francis]

“I was very shocked,” Blackmon said. “It did catch me off guard. And when we were there, [the pool party] had just happened. This wasn’t a case where anyone lost their life, and to ask about it was a way of saying, ‘We are paying attention. We do know what’s going on. And we’re looking deeper than the surface.’ ”

That discussion, which Blackmon said was intended to prepare Pope Francis for his trip to the United States, marks some of the clearest evidence yet that the pontiff may address topics of racial justice during his trip here next week. There’s already wide belief that Francis will advocate for climate change, inequality and broader protections for immigrants, but speculation is mounting that Pope Francis could also wade into the contentious issue of race in America.

If so, it would end Francis’s silence on black America. Francis harshly criticized U.S. border policies last summer at the height of the unaccompanied minor crisis at the Texas border, calling them indicative of “racist and xenophobic attitudes.” And yet Francis, who often speaks broadly about global racism, hasn’t specifically addressed the racial tension in the United States that has inflamed debate over police shootings, mass incarceration and urban decay in African American communities.

But prominent bishops predict that could change next week. “I suspect what will come up will be the challenges of racial harmony,” said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, last month at a Philadelphia conference after fielding a question about whether the pope will speak about gun control. “And being just to people, especially to people who are living in very poor circumstances, I think that will come up.”

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, the first black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the economic and educational divide between black and and white communities an “injustice that cries out for a response that is both overdue and necessary.” He added: “I sincerely hope that Pope Francis does strongly exhort us in the U.S.A. to continue our efforts to bring about a greater spirit and atmosphere of racial harmony and justice in our nation.”

Such sentiment echoes the position that American bishops have held for decades. In 1958, the U.S. bishops released a statement that held that “segregation cannot be reconciled with the Christian view of our fellow man.” Then in 1979, the bishops called racism an “evil.” “As economic pressures tighten, those people, who are often black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian — and always poor — slip further into the unending cycle of poverty, deprivation, ignorance, disease and crime,” their Pastoral Letter on Racism said.

Those assessments are emblematic of what Shannen Dee Williams, a professor at the University of Tennessee, called the Catholic Church’s complicated legacy on race in America. The Vatican, she said, has roots in the institution of slavery — one 15th-century pope parceled out slaves to his friends — but has since adopted a much more progressive stance. Pope John Paul II, who in 1985 apologized to African leaders for the involvement of white Christians in the slave trade, later called racism “a plague” on the United States during a 1999 trip to St. Louis.

Leaders of the Black Lives Matters movement suspect Pope Francis will employ similar language to address communities that seem little changed since John Paul’s visit nearly two decades ago. Francis has already shown a willingness to stake out strong positions on other divisive debates, said Shaun King, a leading voice in the movement.

“It would mean a lot if he used some of his time in the United States to address police brutality and racial injustice,” King said. “I’d stop short of calling it a wasted trip if he didn’t, but it would be a disappointment.”

So that’s perhaps why Blackmon had so many audiences with the pope’s advisers during her week at the Vatican last June. They came one after another — so many, she said, that she has difficulty clearly remembering them all. “We met with people who were intricately involved in planning this trip” to the United States, she said. She added, “We met with eight different Vatican representatives, and in every conversation, this was the tone: It was a sense of urgency that we must get these messages out and get them known.”

And what of this pool party in Texas? she said Monsignor Wells suddenly asked one day.

“I told them it was indicative of racial discord that permeates America, that’s always been here, and it manifests in various ways in the history of our nation and that we’re at a critical moment.”

Wells, she said, nodded at her. And Blackmon realized that Pope Francis could soon become a very public — and very powerful — ally in her quest for racial equality. “The history of Pope Francis’s remarks indicates that he wouldn’t come to the United States and not address the issue that’s most pressing. And here, that’s race.”

Correction: The original post incorrectly identified Shannen Dee Williams’s university. She’s a professor at the University of Tennessee. 

Stay up to date on the papal visit. Sign up here to follow Washington Post stories about Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, and we’ll e-mail you as they’re published.

Want more stories about faith? Follow Acts of Faith on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter.

This popemobile parade is probably your best bet at seeing Pope Francis in D.C.

Congressman: U.S. has ‘disrupted’ a threat before Pope Francis’s visit

There are more atheists and agnostics entering Harvard than Protestants and Catholics