Bishop Perry’s response to injustice was to love


“And so you remember me.”

 

Those were the last words Father Tony Ricard heard from Bishop Harold Robert Perry, a Lake Charles native who served as auxiliary bishop of New Orleans from 1966 until his death in 1991.

Father Ricard keeps those words close to his heart, because he will always remember the man who was his pastor, his role model and his friend. He will always remember the man who, as the first African-American bishop of the 20th century, faced hatred and discrimination with steadfast faith and quiet courage.

Father Ricard, campus minister at St. Augustine High School, was the keynote speaker for the Bishop Harold Perry Evangelization and Vocation Conference, held Nov. 3 at Xavier University. Father Ricard shared many stories, including the story of his last conversation with his hero, which took place in 1991, on the occasion of Perry’s 25th anniversary of ordination as bishop.

“I told him, ‘I am a seminarian, and you are the reason why.’” Bishop Perry’s response, Father Ricard said, “made me realize how important it was to him that we remember him.”

Honoring a peace-filled man

And that is why the Bishop Harold Perry conference was organized – to honor his memory and encourage others to follow in his footsteps of faith, perseverance, peace and love.

In her letter to conference participants, Office of Black Catholic Ministries director Dr. Joyce Gillie Cruse said she did not know the bishop, but in the course of preparing for the conference learned about his many gifts, adding: “To me his greatest gift, his legacy was his choice to allow love to be his armor and the Holy Spirit to be his sword.”

That message of peace and justice was echoed by many as the conference began.

“I welcome this day, which gives honor to a very important man,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond said. “He served as auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of New Orleans for 25 years with love and distinction. He truly was a man of faith, a quiet man, a strong shepherd of God’s people. He persevered; he was a man of courage and a man of hope. … I pray that we can be as courageous and faith-filled as he was.”

Standing firm in faith

Father Ricard began his keynote speech with song, telling the story of how the African-American people were bought and sold as property in this country – but how they endured with dignity. “Not all the brave were free … but somehow they stood firm in faith; something gave them courage to do what they had to do for the sake of the kingdom.”

He mentioned Venerable Henriette Delille and other “strong people” who taught children to sing in the face of discrimination and eventually had an entire nation singing, “We shall overcome.”

“They knew we were the children of God and no one could take that away,” he said. “As my mama used to say: ‘As long as there’s a God in heaven, everything is gonna be all right.’ ”

Father Ricard spoke lovingly of the man who spent his life trying to make everything all right. Bishop Perry was Father Ricard’s pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in New Orleans, “a man who formed my image of the priesthood.”

Father Ricard told the story of how he and his brother were cutting up while preparing to serve for Mass when the new pastor arrived. “He walked up to us and put his hands on our shoulders and he said, ‘I’m Bishop Perry, what are y’all doing to get ready for Mass?’ From that moment, I was in awe of a phenomenal man.”

A college interview

Father Ricard told the story of how he had to write a final paper for a class called Heroes in American History at Loyola University. He interviewed an aging Bishop Perry, who was battling Alzheimer’s disease but joyfully shared stories of his journey, stories of humor and challenges, all faced with faith and hope.

“He was a strong man of faith and courage,” Father Ricard said, citing an instance when Bishop Perry had the task of delivering a paper to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1968 on race. Years later, Father Ricard said, “I read that statement and realized how courageous Harold Robert Perry was … It begins with the sentence: ‘The Roman Catholic Church in the United States of America is a white racist institution.’”

Even while joining the fight for racial justice, Bishop Perry was always a priest, not a politician, Father Ricard said. The bishop spoke of everything in terms of discipleship to Jesus; his advice to youth, in fact, was to be peaceful, to “be the best student … and create a Christian life.”

“I asked him to sum up his life in a statement,” Father Ricard said of his interview with the bishop. “This is what he said: ‘When through a man’s life, the world has a little more love, a little more goodness, a little more light and truth, then a man’s life has meaning.”

Bishop Harold Perry’s life was filled with meaning, Father Ricard said, and his legacy calls others to follow him. “Part of our challenge is to ask ourselves how we are responding to the life he lived … we are called to be God’s disciples on this earth.”

The Bishop Perry Conference helped those attending learn how to respond as Bishop Perry did, learn how to live and spread the Good News and listen and respond to God’s call.

A variety of workshops covered several topics: Building Parish Evangelization Teams with Dr. Greer Gordon; Preventing and Resolving Conflicts, with Msgr. Doug Doussan; Covenant of Love Marriage Ministry with Julie and Greg Alexander; Living Out Our Call in Christ with Tom Costanza and Nick Albares; Fostering a Vision for Vocation in Your Family and Church, with transitional Deacons Gary Copping, Jonathan Hemelt and Travis Clark; Listening for God’s Voice in a Busy World with Dominican Sister of Peace Dorothy Trosclair; and Adult Faith Formation with Vincent Scozzari. There were tracks for young adults with Rachel Longest and tracks for Hispanics with Maria Vadia and Martin Gutierrez.

The conference ended with Mass in the St. Katharine Drexel Chapel on the campus of Xavier University, a fitting way to end a day dedicated to remembering a man of God and teaching others to follow his way of discipleship.

Karen Baker can be reached at kbaker@clarionherald.org.

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