The International Union of Superiors General of Women Religious (UISG) had a rough couple of days at the end of July, after they published a “call to prayer” they originally titled: “I can’t breathe”.
If you’re wondering what’s wrong with that, the answer is: Nothing. The somewhat longer answer would be: Nothing, so long as it was a call to prayer for strength to fight the sin and wicked scourge of racism, especially in our institutions and our culture. “I can’t breathe,” was one of the last things George Floyd said on this earth. He gasped it out repeatedly during the eight minutes and 46 seconds Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee remained on his neck.
“I can’t breathe” has become a rallying cry for persons appalled by Mr Floyd’s death, many of whom continue to agitate for police reform and for the dismantling of structural, institutional, and systemic racism generally.
The problem was: the UISG Call to Prayer was not about racism, but the global coronavirus emergency. Yes, you read that right.
“We have changed the title of the prayer for 23 July,” a statement of the UISG website reads. “The heartbreaking words ‘I Can’t Breathe’ uttered by George Floyd are now clearly associated with highlighting racism in the United States. Many found their use in the context of this Covid-19 prayer inappropriate and insensitive,” the statement continues. “We sincerely apologise.”
The nearly 77-minute-long virtual prayer event was the result of a joint effort by the UISG, the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Religious (CLAR), and the US-based Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).
The new title is: “You are invited to participate in a worldwide prayer for all those affected by Covid at this moment.” In other words, the UISG did not so much change the title as drop it, which one supposes is fine under the circumstances.
Vatican News described the online event as “an invitation to all men and women of goodwill to participate in a worldwide prayer for all those affected by Covid-19 and by injustice”.
The Vatican News piece quoted the Superior General of the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles, Sister Mary Barron, who said the prayer event grew out of a desire “to bridge the sense of solitude and isolation” that people in different circumstances are feeling around the world – especially keenly during lockdown – and “to support each other and to reinforce a sense of sisterhood” among women religious.
Sister Barron also said the prayer sought particularly to highlight “the injustice that many people around the world experience especially with this pandemic, where they don’t have adequate treatment and healthcare”. She noted, however, that the original title “is very, very striking”. Sister Barron said, “[I]t was chosen specifically to be striking.”
“This is about solidarity,” Sister Barron said, “[about] sharing that solidarity across the world with our sisters; coming together to pray, in sisterhood; praying for our world and especially for those most affected.”
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