May 9, 2014

New Black Catholic program seeks to create lay evangelization leaders

By Natalie Hoefer

Redemptorist Father Maurice Nutt held nothing back in his comments to the predominantly black Catholic group.

“Our current situations and circumstances as black Catholics are not the best,” said the newly named director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, La. “We are constantly declining in number of parishioners, numbers of parishes [and] numbers of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.”

As parish life coordinator of the primarily black-member St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, Deacon Kerry Blandford sees the need for trained lay Catholics to minister in African-American neighborhoods as a way to reverse that trend.

“We need more informed and well-directed lay people in the Church,” he said. “It starts with folks in the pews. From there, we reach out into our neighborhoods and bring more of those people into the pews.”

Preparing and producing such lay people are the goals of the newly formed archdiocesan Father Boniface Hardin Black Catholic Theology and Spirituality Program, developed and sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Intercultural Ministry (formerly known as the Office of Multicultural Ministry).

The program celebrated its kickoff with an evening of song and prayer on May 2 at the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis, with Father Nutt serving as the keynote speaker.

Franciscan Sister Jannette Pruitt, archdiocesan coordinator for Black Catholic Ministry, introduced the new program before Father Maurice’s address.

“This certificate program prepares and supports Catholic catechesis of men and women of all races and backgrounds for black Catholic ministry in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis,” she said. “Anyone who wants to develop their ministry skills is encouraged to enroll.”

The yearlong program includes such topics as Black Biblical Studies, Black Catholics in the U.S., African Spirituality, African-American Spirituality, Pastoral Issues in the Black Community and more.

Classes take place on Thursday nights, and seminars will be held on one Saturday each month.

“We have gotten some of the best professors,” said Sister Jannette. “Most of them have taught at Xavier University’s Black Catholic Institute.”

The program has been in the works for nearly a year and reflects one of the goals of Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, said Franciscan Brother Moises Gutierrez, director of the Office of Intercultural Ministry.

“When we talked to the pastors about this program, they were very excited,” he said.

“With the archbishop’s vision of our global Church, we really want, as the Office of Intercultural Ministry, to embrace his vision, to really respond to the needs of the different cultures that exist in the archdiocese.”

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, who led the opening prayer, acknowledged the need to increase evangelization efforts in the black community, and the importance of the new program to that endeavor.

“There’s a need for [the program], especially if we’re serious about the work of evangelization,” Bishop Coyne said. “We have a very strong and vibrant African community and African-American community here [in the archdiocese], but the numbers are small.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for us to engage many people of good faith within the neighborhoods so as to help them come to see what the Catholic Church can offer in the way of the works of social justice, but also in the way of salvation.”

In an interview with The Criterion, Father Maurice explained what makes the black Catholic culture unique.

“I don’t believe that any human being is just a human being,” he said. “We are influenced by our culture, our experiences, our traditions, our ancestors. I believe all of that plays a part of informing my faith as a Roman Catholic.

“I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and preaching and healing and responsibilities as gifts to the Church.”

Father Maurice identified two strategies needed for evangelizing African-Americans.

“We have to debunk the myths out there about the Roman Catholic Church in the black community,” he said, listing as foremost “the myth of the Roman Catholic Church as a white institution.

“The Catholic Church has its roots in northern Africa,” he explained. “In Acts [of the Apostles] chapter 8, the first person baptized by Philip, the disciple of Jesus Christ, was an Ethiopian eunuch. The great St. Augustine of Hippo is from northern Africa.

“[Black Catholics] have very strong and long roots in Roman Catholicism. If we begin to share our place and our role not only historically but currently in the Catholic Church, I believe that people will find a home in the Catholic Church.”

A second point to make in evangelizing blacks, he said, is to stress the Catholic liturgy.

“African-Americans and Africans by nature are ritualistic people,” Father Maurice explained. “Our signs, our symbols, our gestures speak to the heart of the faith. It would be wonderful for us to begin to emphasize that and to engage others in our liturgy, so they know that they have a home in the Catholic Church.”

During his address, Father Maurice expressed concern for the declining number of black Catholics.

“We need a wake-up call because our parishioners are running to Protestant churches in droves. Or worse yet, our parishioners are just sitting at home and have become members of ‘Bedside Baptist Church,’ ” he said.

“My hope for this institute is that it will allow people locally to be equipped in their faith and in their knowledge of their faith and their knowledge of their culture, so they can be fully functioning Catholics within the Archdiocese of Indianapolis,” said Father Maurice. “That they be involved, that they be evangelistic, going out, bringing others to the faith. That they teach our children and share the faith with them.

“I hope that they learn what they need to equip themselves and to grow the Catholic Church in the black community.”

(For more information or to register, contact Sister Jannette Pruitt, coordinator of Black Catholic Ministry, at 317-236-1474 or 800-382-9836 ext. 1474, or by email at Although the first class began on May 8, applications are still being accepted.)

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