FRANK BRENNAN SJ. ‘I can’t breathe.’

Martin Luther King said ‘in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard’. 

I was at Boston College in 2014 when Eric Garner died at the hands of police uttering those now piercing words, ‘I can’t breathe’. This led to a statement by 456 Catholic Theologians for Police Reform and Racial Justice. They wrote: ‘As Eric Garner’s dying words “I can’t breathe” are chanted in the streets, and as people of faith, we hear the echo of Jesus’ breathing on his disciples, telling them, “Peace be with you.”  His spirit-filled breath gives his disciples, then and now, the power and obligation to raise our voices about the imperative of a just peace in a fragmented and violent world.(’

In January 2015, I attended the US Society of Christian Ethics Conference in Chicago where one of the key authors of that statement Fr Bryan N. Massingale, who describes himself as ‘a black man, a Catholic priest, and a professor of moral theology at a leading university in the United States’ spoke passionately challenging the largely white audience of moral theologians.

Today, Massingale has published an article in the London Tablet saying, ‘To understand what is happening in the United States, I would ask you not to fixate on the videos of burning buildings, broken windows, and engulfed police cars. Listen instead to the grief, the anger, and the lament that too often goes unheard and unheeded.  Hear the fury of being told too often and in too many ways, “You don’t belong”. And stand in solidarity with those of us who continue the slow, frustrating, painful, and even dangerous work of trying to make this country the beacon of justice that it professes to be.’

The learned Fr Massingale from Fordham University commenced this week’s article with one simple vignette: ‘I arrive at a suburban parish whose members are overwhelmingly white to celebrate Mass for a fellow priest who had suddenly taken sick. I ask the usher to direct me to the sacristy. He hesitates and asks, with suspicion, “Why do you want to know?” I explain the situation to him, thinking my visible Roman collar is already a complete explanation of why I am here. He interrogates me. “You’re a priest? Who sent you?” After explaining yet again who I am and why I am here, he responds, “Well, why didn’t he send us a real priest?”’

When confused and troubled about what to make of race relations in the USA, I, like many of you, often turn to Martin Luther King. In a speech at Stanford University on 14 April 1967 entitled The Other America, he said that ‘in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard’. Here is a fuller expression of what he said and meant:

‘Many in moments of anger, many in moments of deep bitterness engage in riots. Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. …But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. [O]ur nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.’

This Trinity Sunday, let’s thank God that our God, who is a mystery and always will be, is with us and is within us – creating, liberating and sustaining us, here in Australia as in the United States, gracing us with ‘the power and obligation to raise our voices about the imperative of a just peace in a fragmented and violent world’.

These are extracts from a homily by Frank Brennan SJ, Rector of Newman College, Melbourne on 7 June 2020.


Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia and the Rector of Newman.

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8 Responses to FRANK BRENNAN SJ. ‘I can’t breathe.’

  1. Avatar Michael FURTADO says:

    Profuse thanks, Frank, for your passion as well as your gift of eloquence, placed first and foremost at the service of the powerless. As an Australian of colour, I salute you!

  2. Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

    I was shocked but not surprised to read of the treatment of that African American Priest. I am shocked but not surprised by the mistreatment of our “First nation” people and the out of touch comments by our politicians who just don’t get it! I was shocked but not surprised by the violence metered out to people based on the colour of their skin by Police and Prison Officers in the United States and Redfern. I was outraged but not surprised by racist remarks made to my wife , an Australian of Filipino heritage, by two Caucasian males in recent weeks. Unfortunately I was not present at either incident but she was able to stand her ground.What is happening to our society?

  3. I read this extract from Frank Brennan’s homily with very mixed feelings.
    Lives disrespected, gravest harm done to the vulnerable, the denial of legitimacy, the silencing and disbelieving and blaming of “the unheard”, the refusals to fully honour those who suffer rather than protecting the institutions of power and the people who most benefit: all of these are grotesquely familiar behaviours of the conservative and some mainstream “branches” – human beings – of the Catholic Church.
    Yet where do we hear of the profound reformations needed? Where do we hear of a global institution looking at its own history of racism – and of homophobia, and of sustained, systemic sexism of the most fundamental and insulting kind?
    I am not doubting Frank Brennan’s sincerity (I have no interest at all in doing that). But I am urging that those with a bigger, more generous view within the Catholic Church – especially when they have power and a public voice – to see that in this pivotal moment of genuine racial justice outrage, the racism and systemic, highly-protected, highly-defended sexism of the global Church surely must also be acknowledged, without reservations or excuses. For the Church to become a living vital place of hope for all, those with the power and courage to do so – those men so sure of their rights to be “in charge” – must, please, ensure that the structures themselves are actively and consciously undone and the toxic power structures not simply “tinkered with” but transformed. (The power structures themselves are so contrary to everything that spirituality should allow and bring…but that’s for another day.)

    • Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

      Like you I read Frank’s homily with very mixed feelings. I am a “tribal” Catholic with a strong Irish heritage. As I have written an earlier P&I I sometimes wonder why I continue in lay ministry, which remains exclusively male, as Acolytes have been for centuries.Women in my Parish serve on the Altar as Servers or “Special Ministers of the Eucharist”.That only came about in recent years, thanks to a very progressive Parish Priest.
      I live in hope that the ‘toxic culture’ – clericalism ,which resulted in the sexual abuse scandals worldwide in the Catholic Church can be properly addressed by the Plenary Council and ultimately the Vatican.

    • Avatar Trish Martin says:

      Well said Stephanie, the power of Catholic clergy survives at the expense of the laity and all women, particularly those who are graced and gifted to be much more than what the patriarchal church recognises. The notion of divinely given status and power is as abstract as the idea that priests are ontological beings.
      Jesus would have condemned it all and given women equal status.

  4. Avatar Kevin Liston says:

    Thank, you, Frank. History keeps on repeating itself. How do we break the cycle? What is it that we are not doing? How do we shift to a different way?

  5. Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

    Frank also quotes the following from Martin Luther King in his homily: “. . . in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard”. I am disturbed by so many Australians blithely condemning the weekend’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests , particularly the PM and his Finance Minister. Of course we should be concerned at the breach of social distancing requirements and the consequent risks to the community. That concern however pales by comparison with the continuing maltreatment of our First Nations people and our utter failure to ‘close the gap’, let alone the horror of so many deaths in custody.

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