It’s called ‘taking a knee’, and many professional athletes around the United States have made the gesture publicly to protest police brutality.
Lately, even police officers showing solidarity have kneeled around the country before those protesting the 25th May killing of George Floyd, who died after being filmed pinned to the ground with a knee to his neck, constrained by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Until 1st June, no Catholic bishop had publicly participated in the gesture but that day, Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, became the first. Surrounded by priests from his diocese who also kneeled with him and holding a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign, he put both knees on the grass at El Paso’s Memorial Park, where a protest had taken place a day earlier and closed his eyes.
Was he nervous?
“Oh, yeah,” he said in a 3rd June interview with Catholic News Service. “It’s difficult to know what a bishop should do. But I’ve had some excellent advisers, people and priests. I tried to listen to them, listened to my heart. Sometimes, you just have to take the leap into the unknown.”
The photo of him kneeling went around the world via Twitter and ended up on an Italian website for the Diocese of Rome. Perhaps it was there that his boss, Pope Francis, saw it.
On 3rd June, shortly after the bishop finished with his daily Mass in El Paso, the pontiff gave him a ring.
“I answered and a voice said in English that he was the Holy Father’s secretary,” Bishop Seitz said. “The Holy Father would like to speak with me. Would I like to speak in Italian or Spanish?”
He chose Spanish.
“The Holy Father said that he wanted to congratulate me for the words I am saying. He also called Archbishop (Jose H.) Gomez (of Los Angeles),” Bishop Seitz said, recalling the phone call. “I told him I felt it was very important at this time to show our solidarity to those who are suffering. I told him I had just come from Mass at which I was praying for him and I always do. He thanked me and said that whenever we celebrate Mass, we are praying together, he where he is and me at the border. I told him that I am very honoured to serve here.”
The phone calls to prelates in the US shows “that the Holy Father is aware of what’s happening in this country and is anxious for the Church to be responsive in a pastoral way to participate in the response, in solidarity with those who have experienced racial discrimination,” he said.
In a public statement released on 4th June on the killing of Floyd, he reflected of an image he saw on video of “a young white woman at a protest near the White House who put her body in front of a young kneeling black teenager as police officers in riot gear approached”.
“As Jesus said, ‘No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,'” he said. “It’s a scene of solidarity and self-giving that has played out across the country so many times in the last week. Here in El Paso there were two young police officers who knelt down with protesters here during our protest and it helped diffuse some tension. There is something profoundly eucharistic about that and I’m so inspired by our young people. They are teaching us something.”
Picture: Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, kneels at El Paso’s Memorial Park holding a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign on 1st June 2020. After ‘taking a knee’ during that demonstration in solidarity with George Floyd – an unarmed black man said to have spent several minutes under a Minnesota police officer’s knee before becoming unconscious and later dying – Bishop Seitz received a call from Pope Francis. (CNS photo/Fernie Ceniceros, courtesy Diocese of El Paso).