July 27, 2012

'Authentically black...truly Catholic'

More than 2,200 gather in Indianapolis for National Black Catholic Congress

Melba Myers, from left, Barbara Parks and Grace Okonta, all of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., sing and clap their hands at the beginning of the opening Mass of the National Black Catholic Congress at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis on July 19, which was attended by approximately 2,200 black Catholics from across the country. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Melba Myers, from left, Barbara Parks and Grace Okonta, all of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., sing and clap their hands at the beginning of the opening Mass of the National Black Catholic Congress at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis on July 19, which was attended by approximately 2,200 black Catholics from across the country. (Photo by Sean Gallagher) Click for a larger version.

By Sean Gallagher

Hands were raised in prayer and Gospel music echoed in a large ballroom at the JW Marriott on July 19 as some 2,200 people from across the country gathered for the start of the National Black Catholic Congress XI in Indianapolis.

At the beginning of the congress’ opening general session, a roll call was taken of the dioceses across the country that were represented.

As each diocese was named, groups large and small, often wearing colorful T-shirts, stood up and cheered.

(Click here to see more coverage, including photos, from this event)

The congress in Indianapolis was the first one attended by permanent Deacon Lawrence Houston, who ministers at St. Peter Claver Parish in New Orleans.

He said his positive experience during the congress’ opening session “started with the music.”

“It just touched my spirit,” Deacon Houston said. “And just to be among so many African-Americans who know who they are as Christians, and … are not afraid to let people know that we are black and we are Catholic and that there’s no separation in that was a powerful thing.”

The congress was founded in 1889, and met several times until the late 1890s. It did not meet again until 1987 in Washington, D.C., and has convened every five years since then.

Dominican Father Reginald Whitt, a law professor at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn., gave the opening address.

He spoke about the early meetings of the congress in the late 19th century when they discussed how black Catholics should respond to racism in the broader society and the Church, and to the need for better education for their children.

“Some of those issues persist,” Father Reginald said. “Some assert themselves anew. And black Catholics must constantly and repeatedly confront them.”

He then reflected on the re-emergence of a distinctly black Catholic identity following the Second Vatican Council, especially with the U.S. black Catholic bishops issuing in 1984 the pastoral letter “What We Have Seen and Heard,” which showed that black Catholics “had come of age in the Church.”

“We were authentically black,” Father Reginald said. “We were truly Catholic. And, hence, we were called to evangelization. Thus, began the current era of the Black Catholic Congress.”

Father Reginald also reflected on the fact that black Catholics are a small minority within the larger black community in the U.S., making up approximately 5 percent of the black population.

He pointed to the many blessings that blacks receive through the Church, especially in the sacraments and particularly in the Eucharist.

“The sacrifice of the Mass is the highest form of worship we can offer on Earth to God,” he said. “But it’s not just us on Earth. When we offer unleavened bread and wine to the Father, and recall the Passion and the resurrected glory of his Son, the angels fall down in awe and the saints dance for joy and sing ‘Alleluia!’ and our beloved dead shout, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’

Father Reginald said that some in the black community wonder why black Catholics remain in the Church. He had a quick and forceful answer to such a question.

“We are the mystical body of Christ,” he shouted. “Why stay Catholic? Why in the world would we want to be anything else?”

In speaking about contemporary issues in society that affect black Catholics, Father Reginald said that laws passed some 50 years ago to protect their civil rights “are never secure” and need vigilance to protect them.

He also said that black Catholics “rejoiced” when President Barack Obama signed into law a comprehensive health care reform bill in 2010.

“Nevertheless,” he said, “we must express shock and, frankly, offense that, in recognizing one right, the government tries to deny us the right to freely practice our religion in accord with its moral teachings.”

Father Reginald also encouraged congress participants to work to strengthen and restore Catholic schools for black Catholic children.

Likewise, he called for black Catholics “to develop a national curriculum for black Catholic religious education from womb to tomb” to help black Catholics of all ages better understand their faith.

“We’ve got a couple of generations of Catholics who don’t know the simplest things [about their faith],” he said. “And it’s really hard to love what you don’t know.”

The challenges facing black Catholics in 2012 are much like those that faced their forebears who met at the first congress in 1889, Father Reginald said.

“All of the issues of this sort that are part of our legacy as black Catholics,” he said, “God grant that we address them with the same determined ambition and persistence and audacious initiative as those who have gone before us because that’s part of our legacy, too.”

After Father Reginald’s presentation, congress participant Vicki Lott of the Diocese of Austin, Texas, said that she likes attending the congresses to share fellowship with black Catholics from across the country who have both enjoyed the blessings of the Catholic faith, but also suffered from racism of some members of the Church.

Lott said there have been occasions when she has offered her hand at the sign of peace at Mass only to have other people turn their back on her.

“I thought I was the only one who had experienced that,” Lott said. “It’s gotten much, much better in the past 10 years in my opinion. But it’s good to know that I wasn’t experiencing that pain alone.

“I also learned that maybe some of it was me. Maybe I should do more to reach out, to be more proactive.”

Ajani Gibson came to the congress from his home in New Orleans. He will be a sophomore at The Catholic University of America in Washington this fall, where he is majoring in philosophy.

“It’s always a positive aspect to see so many black Catholics come to celebrate and to worship,” Gibson said. “It gives me hope because I see so many young people.”

He agreed with Father Reginald’s assessment that black Catholic youths and young adults need to have their Catholic identity strengthened. He hoped to contribute to that effort by serving as a speaker to young people in sessions at the congress on social media and the new evangelization, and on spirituality for young men.

“We need to focus on getting our young people into church,” Gibson said.

“As we’re going into this Year of Faith and as the Holy Father is pushing the new evangelization, it’s important for us to have the young people know who we are as Catholics.

“There are so many other things going on in the Church that we’re worried about that we forget to teach our young people who we actually are. And that’s why they don’t come.”

Following Father Reginald’s address, the opening Mass was celebrated by Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill., the principal celebrant and homilist, with several bishops and scores of priests concelebrating.

In his homily, Bishop Braxton reflected on the past of black Catholics in the U.S. He especially emphasized the story of Father Augustus Tolton, the first publicly recognized black priest in the U.S. who was the celebrant and homilist at the first congress in 1889.

Father Tolton died in 1897 at age 43. His cause for beatification and canonization is now being promoted.

Bishop Braxton encouraged his listeners to “pray that we too might imitate his heroic virtue because in baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist we, too, are called to be saints.”

In reflecting on the present state of black Catholics in the U.S., Bishop Braxton reviewed some of the findings of the “2011 National Black Catholic Survey” (see related story on page 3), which in many instances showed that black Catholics are more engaged in the Church than their white counterparts.

For example, he said that the survey showed that 62 percent of black Catholics find that their “spiritual, emotional and social needs are being met by their parishes,” and that 48 percent of them attend Sunday Mass each week. On the other hand, 40.5 percent of white Catholics say that their parishes meet their needs and only 30.4 percent of them attend Mass weekly.

In turning to the future of black Catholics, Bishop Braxton looked to the 2012 presidential election.

He noted that both President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney “are imperfect human beings” shaped by their personal histories, their “contradictory visions of the future of the United States,” the base of their political parties and their campaign donors.

“The American political system does not produce saviors of the nation or knights in shining armor who will fulfill all of our hopes and expectations,” Bishop Braxton said. “Neither President Obama nor former Governor Romney espouses positions consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church on important moral, social and economic issues.”

Bishop Braxton then laid out the cases that various “voices” make for black Catholics to either vote for Obama or Romney or to not vote at all.

He called the last option “the most dangerous of all.”

“If we listen to these voices, we abandon our central responsibility to participate in the democratic process and become a part of the sad statistic of nearly 45 percent of the Americans who are eligible to vote but do not vote,” Bishop Braxton said. “No matter what you think of Mr. Obama, no matter what you think of Mr. Romney, I urge you to be informed. Think, read, discuss, pray, examine, re-think and vote.”

He especially encouraged his listeners to pray about the issues involved in the upcoming election.

“They are issues that we should place before the Lord for guidance,” Bishop Braxton said. “They are issues about which we should search the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, to search our consciences and our hearts deeply … ”

After the Mass, Gibson, who, as an 18-year-old, will be eligible for the first time to vote in a general election this November, said he appreciated Bishop Braxton’s comments about the election.

“To stand in front of his own people, and to challenge them to reflect and pray and to think about their faith and what we believe and where our country is going—that was the most profound thing,” Gibson said. “That’s something that I haven’t seen … It’s important that he did that.” †

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