In a unique religious service today, the Catholic Church in metro Detroit is seeking to atone for sins it says it has committed over the years — racism, neglecting the poor, abuse of children by clergy and not spreading the faith.
Called Mass for Pardon, the service will talk about the various sins committed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, which has about 1.3 million Catholics in southeastern Michigan. It's modeled after a public expression of repentance in 2000 by Pope John Paul II, who asked for God's forgiveness for the sins of the Catholic Church as it marked the new millennium. Also, Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
The Mass for Pardon comes six weeks before the Archdiocese of Detroit has a gathering called Synod 2016 — the first of its kind in Detroit since 1969 — where leaders will chart the future of the church in the six-county region.
Speaking to the Free Press, Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron said that racism was an important topic, given that the city of Detroit is 79% African-American, the highest percentage of African Americans among big cities in the U.S., and because of the history of racism toward them.
"It's very important" to atone for racism, Vigneron said. "A very significant part of the dynamic of our history and our current community, not only because of such a large African-American community, but because of traditions of discrimination and racism."
"Here in southeastern Michigan, the sinful acts of racism have been committed by members of our community and in some ways have gotten embedded into the life of our community through habits and social culture."
Vigneron said he was told by a Catholic layman who is African American and wanted to be a priest that a Catholic nun had dissuaded him when he was younger from being a priest because of his race.
"That sort of thing is part of the history, and we have to ask God to to heal so we can move forward," Vigneron said.
He also said the Mass for Pardon is also for "the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the failure of those of us in leadership to do enough to root out this fault."
Other sins the mass will address, he said, include failing to share the church's teachings with zeal and neglecting the poor, especially in Detroit. The city has the highest poverty rate, 40%, among all big cities in the U.S., according to Census figures released last month.
The Archdiocese of Detroit has been using social media tools to spread the message of the Mass for Pardon, including a live discussion on Wednesday with Vigneron on Facebook.
"It's going to unleash the Holy Spirit in a way we can't imagine," Nick Jorgensen, regional coordinator of evangelization for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said in a promo video for the Mass for Pardon. "It's going to provide an opportunity for all of us to experience the Holy Spirit in a way not possible before. ... It's a humble and beautiful prayer to our Lord."
The Synod, which starts in November, will be a way for the church in Detroit to address its challenges and emphasize a message of spreading the gospel. It will include about 500 leaders, both clergy and laypeople.
Like other organized faiths, the Archdiocese of Detroit and the Catholic Church in general are facing declining membership and fewer parishes. In February on Ash Wednesday, the Archdiocese announced an "Unleash the Gospel" effort to encourage spreading the good news of the faith.
Vigneron said Friday's Mass — at Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, the seat of the Catholic Church in Detroit — will have elements similar to Good Friday Mass, held the Friday before Easter Sunday.
"There will be a long litany of sins, to ask God to forgive us, naming particular things," Vigneron said. "Then, after the preaching, a more-articulated, fuller prayer naming the roots of some of our sins, things like pride, envy, laziness, which traditionally are called the capitol sins."
Then, the Eucharist will be offered, "which we believe is that by which Christ atones for our sins."
"While we can try to somethings to try and make right what we do wrong ... only God can really heal what we've done," Vigneron said. "We need His mercy."
In a note in his parish newsletter, the Rev. Duane Novelly of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Detroit urged Catholics to attend.
"We may not have personally participated in this sinful behavior; but, like Christ, we take on the sins of the community simply because we are part of the community," Novelly wrote. "How many people have looked down upon us as Catholics because of something another Catholic, bishop, priest, or layperson did."
"We, as an institution, repent for our sins to move forward with a renewed grace and hope so that we indeed can, with a clean conscience, 'Unleash the Gospel' for a New Evangelization.'"