The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a passionate preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and example and a martyr for justice. However, he was not a Roman Catholic and he is not a canonized saint, so we Catholics do not celebrate a feast day in his honor at the Eucharist or in the Liturgy of the Hours as we do for saints in our liturgical calendar. Today is, nevertheless, an important day for us to remember all that Dr. King did to advance civil rights in our country.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was fatally shot outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
King is remembered as the most visible leader of the civil rights movement, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and as the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But he was first a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and remained active in pastoral leadership throughout his life.
On the day after King was killed, Pope Paul VI expressed remorse during his Angelus address, saying that the civil rights leader was “a Christian prophet for racial integration.”
Shortly after King’s death, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, the Synagogue Council of America, and the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in the Americas released an interfaith statement, mourning their colleague in ministry.
We “bow together in grief before the shameful murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a unique apostle of the non-violent drive for justice, [and] affirm that no service of remembrance or local memorial is equal to the greatness of his labor or the vastness of our national need.”
The faith leaders also applauded the efforts of Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968, encouraged Americans to support measures favoring integration, and pled with government officials to fund legislation aimed at fighting poverty.
We “affirm that only through massive contributions by the American people can this nation duly honor the life-offering of Martin Luther King, Jr. and responsibly lift up the burden of the poor and oppressed in our land.”
The statement also promised to implement coordinated efforts among religious communities to fight poverty.
We “declare our intention to take immediate steps to develop a coordinated sacrificial effort on the part of the American religious community to help the disadvantaged,” the statement read.
Lord our God, see how oppression and violence are our sad inheritance, one generation to the next.
We look for you where the lowly are raised up, where the mighty are brought down.
We find you there in your servants, and we give you thanks this day for your preacher and witness, Martin Luther King Jr.
Fill us with your spirit: where our human community is divided by racism, torn by repression, saddened by fear and ignorance, may we give ourselves to your work of healing.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.