Over the past month, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales have mourned the loss of two of our leaders in the cause for justice in our world and Church today. In this space today, I would like to remember Fr. Joseph Travers, OSFS, a champion of justice for people in the United States and abroad. In particular, Fr. Travers worked for racial equality in a number of his ministries.
From the early days of our founding, the Oblates have worked in the missions. One of our first areas of missionary activity was in South Africa, a country that for much of the time of the Oblates’ presence was under apartheid. Fr. Travers was an outspoken critic of the injustice of apartheid during his missionary period there because he was convinced of the dignity of all human beings as children of God, regardless of their skin color. While the injustice of this system seems obvious to us now, Fr. Travers’ opposition to apartheid did not always make him a popular person in South Africa.
Fr. Travers’ concern for racial justice showed in his parochial ministry in the United States as well. In remarks at the funeral for Fr. Travers, Oblate provincial Fr. Jim Greenfield, OSFS, recounted two reactions of people in response to a homily Fr. Travers preached after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Fr. Travers was a gentle, enlightened pastor. Three days after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Joe preached a challenging homily on the social injustice of racism in our country, a message some of his Philadelphia hearers were not excited to hear. He received a stormy letter from a lawyer involved who worked as a political official for the city. While the letter was strong and fierce—calling into question Fr. Travers’ theology, including his respect for the Eucharist, Joe’s gentle response was to type a letter and offer to meet with the man to discuss the issues.
He also received a letter from a woman that weekend thanking him for his homily. She reported that her Jewish neighbor was filled with hope that Catholics are not racists and that important issues of the day are preached in Catholic churches.”
Fr. Travers was a gifted theologian (he also taught at LaSalle University for a number of years) who understood that the Christian life flows from our celebration of the Eucharist, and that we cannot say we are all one in Christ in our sharing of the Eucharist when we treat people of other races as less than human. His gentle response to someone who attacked his prophetic stance demonstrated how the Salesian spirit of gentleness and humility had taken hold in his life. Fr. Travers’ openness to dialogue with people who were critical of him is a powerful example for us to follow, rather than retreating into camps and refusing dialogue with those who disagree with us. His courage to preach against injustice to a congregation in which some members were not prepared to hear the message has inspired many other Oblates to follow his lead on many other issues of injustice in our world.
The Oblates and all of the Church are grateful to God for the gift and challenge that Fr. Travers’ ministry was for the Church throughout his years of service. We pray that the Lord will continue to inspire men and women in the spirit of Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal to be pillars of gentle strength in the face of the injustices of our world.