The Sorrowful Mystery of Racism

Person holding rosary beads

Praying the rosary to find strength and support is common. This man prays the rosary for an end to racism.

“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'”—Matthew 16:24-25

I wasn’t always a rosary person. But now, the rosary bookends my day. Every morning when I run, I am praying the rosary. Every evening (well, most of the time), I pray the rosary with my wife, Lynne. And sometimes I throw in an extra decade or two somewhere during the day. But, despite all of this, I still think of myself as an amateur. You see, I came to it out of desperation—and without any training.

Early in our time as parents, almost 30 years ago, I discovered that I had no idea what I was doing or how I could keep doing it. Postpartum depression seemed to hover over our family. Our daughters struggled to sleep at night, and poor Lynne suffered. In order for her to get any rest, I would take the crying child out in a stroller and walk the neighborhood streets at 1 or 2 or 4 in the morning, walking and singing lullabies and then, after I’d run out of songs, praying even. The only prayers I knew were the Our Father and the Hail Mary. So I prayed them. Over and over. I’m pretty sure I had never prayed an actual rosary before. Heck, I didn’t even own one. And I certainly didn’t know the mysteries or that any other prayers were involved—or how many! But I was desperate. So, I prayed.

At first, I just made up my own mysteries. Since my knowledge of Jesus consisted mainly of Christmas and Easter, there was usually some mixture of birth and death, Nativity and cross. They were mysteries of desperation and longing; later I would discover that most of them fit into what are traditionally called the sorrowful mysteries.

A New Priority

My daughters are now in their 20s, so I have a long history of making up my own variations and meditations for this very traditional devotion. And recently my meditations have taken a new turn, shaped by a new desperation. With the seemingly constant headlines about young black men and women being killed by the police, and the constant reports of protest marches and counter-protesters, I knew I needed help. I couldn’t make sense of this on my own.

So again, I brought my anxiety, my fears, my confusion, and laid them at the foot of the cross and asked Mary to help me. And so, perhaps inspired by her, I began praying the sorrowful mysteries for an end to racism.

When I pray the sorrowful mysteries, every Tuesday and Friday morning, I pray special intentions for all those who suffer under the weight of racism and bigotry. As Christians we definitely need& to pray for healing and forgiveness from this sin. We need to be praying daily that, if it is possible, God will take this cup away from us. Until I figure out something better, this is one thing I know I can do to help heal our country and to heal my own heart.

The five sorrowful mysteries recall events from Christ’s passion, and to meditate on the pain and suffering he endured is quite fitting for this purpose. Here is how I pray for an end to racism.

1. The Agony in the Garden. Are we not living in a garden of plenty—especially here in the United States, this land of abundance to the point of waste? And yet so many of our brothers and sisters live in want and desperation, in an agony of poverty, fear, and anxiety-—always afraid of who might knock at their door, stop them on the street, question them in a store.

I pray for all those who feel the anxiety and dread of the suspicious eye, the distrustful glance, the fearful gaze of a clerk in a store, a police officer driving by, or a stranger crossing the street, always reminding you that you don’t fully belong. I pray for those who never feel fully welcome in this garden we call home.

2. The Scourging at the Pillar. The scourge of racism, prejudice, and bigotry is physical, psychological, and emotional. The constant slights and dismissals are a true scourge perpetrated by a society that refuses to see you as anything but the “other” and refuses to recognize your God-given value.

Even more frightful, though, are the physical abuses: the unnecessary restraints and beatings by those with sanctioned power and authority. Abuses by police, security guards, and hate groups evoke a long and horrifying history of lynch mobs and the slave master’s whip. I pray for those who suffer the oppressive scourge of the physical and emotional abuse of racism.

3. The Crown of Thorns. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote of the feeling of being seen not as a person but as a problem. He describes how this affects a person’s self-image and how one can begin to measure worth by the standards society imposes. What is it like to live under constant suspicion, to live with the knowledge that much of your world sees you only as “other,” as a threat, or, at best, as a problem to be dealt with?

Constant self-doubt and self-recrimination are nothing less than a psychological crown of thorns. It is a persistent, painful, nagging sensation—a reminder that something is wrong, that there is a problem, and that the problem is you. This is the message that the world has always given to the victim, the “other,” the scapegoat. This crown of thorns leaves its marks far more than skin-deep. I pray for those forced to wear it, those crowned with fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and suspicion.

4. Carrying the Cross. The cross of racism—the crushing weight of prejudice and the burden of bigotry—is borne by the victim who stumbles exhausted under its crushing weight. Society, cultural norms, and fear and anxiety about differences put it so easily upon the shoulders of the “other.” For some of us, it may be completely unconscious: We don’t know we are doing it and don’t intend any harm. We are following cultural rules, doing what someone said was right. We just don’t know how to be different or realize there is a problem.

We are like the Roman guards, simply following orders, traditions, habits. Or maybe we are more like the crowd in the streets of ancient Jerusalem: We watch the spectacle as it passes, looking on for a moment, but then go back to our own worries. Yes, it looks terrible, that poor man carrying that cross, but we don’t know what to do. Anyway, it’s none of our business; it doesn’t really affect us. And those in charge must know what they are doing. Our leaders wouldn’t just crucify a man for no reason.

But in my prayer I ask myself: Why don’t we see the Lord in this moment? Why don’t we see the face of Christ in the victim of racism? In George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, or Eric Garner?

Christ was a victim too. He was accused of criminal behavior. Were his abuse and death not sanctioned by those in authority? Was he not hung between two thieves?

In our prayer, let us look at the victim crushed by the cross of racism and bigotry and ask ourselves: Who do we see? Whose bruised and scourged face do I see? And, instead of turning away, let us stop and help, like Simon of Cyrene. Let us not be afraid to pick up that cross and follow wherever God leads. Because the cross of racism crushes all of us.

5. The Crucifixion. The death of Christ on the cross was a sacrifice for the sins of the world. And yet how do we repay Our Lord when we treat our brothers and sisters not as fellow beloved children of God, but as something less? We make a mockery of his gift, of his death. We repay his sacrifice with sin. The victims of racism are crucified with Christ every day in little and big ways, crucified by injustice, crucified by cruel words or unfair treatment. And too often we are complicit by our consent or willful ignorance.

If we claim to revere the cross, if we claim to love the one who died for our sins, then we must not turn away. We must always walk toward it—toward the outcast, toward the victim, toward the abused and the marginalized. Because, as Christ himself told us, that is where we will find him. That is where we are called to follow.

Every day, we are called to go to the cross, to seek it wherever we find ourselves, and to bear witness there—at the foot of the cross—to the one who loved us enough that he died for us. We must understand that he laid down his life for all of us. To bear witness to his sacrifice, to his life, to his love.

A Continuous Support

There is a long history of praying the rosary for a variety of causes. Many people have prayed for peace, for life, for healing, even for victory in battle. Let us never tire of turning to Mary and this most powerful prayer, asking always for healing from the sin of racism, for victory over our own weakness and prejudices (conscious or unconscious), for peace in our hearts and in our nation, and for life in a world free from bigotry.

As I walk in the quiet of the morning, my rosary in hand, my prayer is that I will have the courage to go toward the cross of racism wherever I see it and to stand with the crucified wherever I find them and say to the world: “No more! This is my brother. This is my sister. And this must stop. Now.”

Isaiah 53:4-5 reads, “Yet ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he was carrying, while we thought of him as someone punished, struck down with affliction by God; whereas he was being wounded . . . crushed because of our guilt.”

man holds a bible in prayer

Prayer to Overcome Racism

Lord, help us.
We are in turmoil.
The sin of racism continues to plague our nation and world.
George, Ahmaud, Breonna—and so many others who now rest in your arms—serve as a witness to both what we have done and what we have failed to do.
We mourn while we struggle for answers.
We turn to you for direction so that we can escape this dark place of hatred.
For far too long, many of your children have cried out for your help, feeling forgotten, abandoned.
Help them remember that you are there, walking with them in their struggles, leading them toward the light of equality.

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1 thought on “The Sorrowful Mystery of Racism”

  1. I too have written social justice rosaries- for myself and other Catholics who seek to see our faith more connected to the issues of our broken world. As a woman of color, it has never occurred to me to pray one entirely dedicated to racism and I appreciate this resource very much. I will share it with my justice minded parents who pray daily. Thank you for this valuable and beautifully crafted resource. What a gift.

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