A precious witness

Catholics in the United States of America will in the not too distant future witness a most edifying blossoming of the faith. It is a blossoming of a tree whose roots go back as far as the mid-16th century Florida. In more recent years its development has prompted the categorical pronouncement of the U.S. bishops that: “The Catholic Church is not a “White Church” nor a “Euro-American Church.” It is essentially universal, hence, Catholic. The Black presence within the American Catholic Church is a precious witness to the universal character of Catholicism.

It is estimated that there are today three million African American Catholics in the United States. According to the USCCB website, there are around 800 Roman Catholic parishes which are considered predominantly African American.

The story of African American Catholics in the United States merits constant retelling for it is as little known as it is inspiring. It can be found at the website of the National Black Catholic Congress (www. nbccongress.org) and at the website for USCatholic.org. How many of us know about the black Catholics, both slave and free, who helped found St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, or the growing black Catholic population in Maryland in the early eighteenth century as a result of Jesuit evangelizing? Who among us has read about the Oblate Sisters of Providence established by a handful of women from Baltimore’s Haitian refugee community in the early nineteenth century or the Sisters of the Holy Family founded by black women in New Orleans a few decades later? Many perhaps have heard of Pierre Toussaint, the saintly New York hairdresser from Haiti whose cause for beatification has been opened in Rome. Graduates of Georgetown University may have learned that their alma mater’s 19th president, the Jesuit Father Patrick Francis Healey, was – by definitions then current – “black.”

The African American Catholic presence has continued to grow. In 1889 Daniel Rudd, a black Catholic journalist from Ohio, championed the Catholic Church as the one place of hope for black people. Rudd organized the first lay Black Catholic Congress for the entire country. It was, significantly, the first national gathering of lay Catholics in the United States! (After almost a century in abeyance these Congresses would resume in 1985 and are now held every five years). The Knights of Peter Claver were created by the Josephite Fathers in 1909 as a parallel to the Knights of Columbus. More developments followed in the first half of the 20th century. A highpoint was certainly the first Black Clergy Caucus in 1968 and, as mentioned above, the reestablishment of the Black Catholic Congress in the 1980s.

It is estimated that there are today three million African American Catholics in the United States. According to the USCCB website, there are around 800 Roman Catholic parishes which are considered predominantly African American. Ten of the 16 African American bishops remain active. There are 250 African American priests and 400 religious sisters and 50 brothers. How does this relate to the blossoming of the faith?

In our increasingly secularized and putatively multicultural society, it is difficult for any culture to sustain itself. The Catholic Church, like “my Father’s house with many mansions” accepts many cultures. Indeed, not only does the Church not threaten any participating culture with the syncretizing and homogenizing tendencies of modernism, it offers a sheltering home for these cultures so that they can flourish within its respectful and protective embrace (the racism of the past aside). African Americans who are committed to their faith tend to be committed to their culture and therefore concerned for its preservation. As they find their ways of worship being compromised more and more by time and “popular culture,” they will be drawn not just to the compatible religious vibrancy of Catholicism but also to its protective and celebratory embrace of diversity.

What’s more, anyone who has participated in a religious service in the African American culture, Catholic or otherwise, has experienced the elevated level of vibrancy that exists in their worship. One can only wonder how this heightened capacity for responsiveness would react to a genuine understanding and acceptance of the True Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist! What an example it would be for many of us “mainstream” acculturated Catholics!

As the late Pope John Paul wrote, we’re in the springtime. The Kingdom continues to advance.

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  1. Thanks Dana.

    At St. Augustine Catholic School in Washington, D.C., founded in 1858 when it was illegal to educate black children in the city’s public school system, 19 school children were received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 2010. This is a blossoming of faith! St. Augustine Catholic Church is the mother church of African American Catholics in our nation’s capital.

  2. I appreciate the perspective of this writer. At the same time I am aware of the racism that AFrican American Catholics have experienced within the Roman Catholic Church as well. That, too, is a tale that needs to be told. I recall my surrogate father asking me “Why is it that I had to be in the back of the line to go up to receive Communion?” Thank God we are Catholic in the fullest sense of that word. May our faith deepen our inclusiveness more and more…this is the Holy Spirit’s work!

  3. Thanks for a good article and for highlighting the work of the National Black Catholic Congress, which works year-round to promote full inclusion of African Americans in the Church and society.

  4. Thank you for this article! We, at the National Black Catholic Congress, appreciate you sharing our history with others. May God be praised in the work that we do and in all the work which is done for building the church. Keep up the good work and thanks again.

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