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Cover story

African-born seminarians on the increase in United States

NCR Staff
Charlotte, N.C.

At first glance, the numbers for black Catholic vocations look fairly constant -- about 200 seminarians today, roughly the same as in 1972.

The distinction is that more than half of today’s seminarians are Africans, not African-Americans, explained Sidney O. Speaks III, president of the National Black Catholic Seminarians’ Association. While the majority of the African seminarians are ordained for their home dioceses in Africa, said Speaks, the number of Africans ordained for the United States is increasing.

The Black Catholic Clergy Caucus now has its first African-born board member, Tanzanian Fr. Callist Nyambo. He is a priest of the St. Petersburg, Fla., diocese.

At the Joint Conference there was serious discussion regarding the vocations dropout rate for minority seminary students in a nonreceptive system. Speaks, who will be ordained next year as a Josephite priest, is in a supportive environment at the Society of St. Joseph Seminary in Washington. The order has many black priests and serves the African-American community. He comes from a solidly black parish, St. Veronica’s in Baltimore, went through Catholic grade and high schools, describes himself as “people-oriented” and hopes to work in a parish and develop as a preacher.

Norman Fischer Jr., third year theology student at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, never saw a black priest while growing up in a tiny rural community with a 25-family church. He kept his vocation hopes to himself, involved himself in mentoring programs, in college set his mind to becoming a pediatrician and was surprised when, in 1992, a delegation from the only black parish in Lexington, Ky., arrived on his Danville, Ky., college doorstep.

They had come to invite him to that year’s Black Catholic Congress in New Orleans and, once they’d met him, asked him to attend as a youth delegate.

Fischer, who will be ordained for the Lexington diocese, finds himself visiting black parishes nationally at annual youth days giving personal witness to black vocations. He would like, after ordination, to work with youth -- perhaps as a high school chaplain -- and in vocations.

That type of outreach is what Divine Word Fr. Chester Smith has been doing for three years through “Kujenga” conferences. These are weekend leadership development programs that invite black high school youth and young adults to become active and remain in the church.

It is a revival and retreat ministry that lately has taken him to Chicago, Atlanta, New York and Nashville, Tenn.

What do young black Catholics ask?

Smith said they want to know, “ ‘What would Jesus do if he was 14 or 15 or 16?’ Or, they say: ‘Tell me about my history, tell me about my God, instill in me some values so I can survive in this confused world.’ ”

Is there any hope in the confusion?

Spiritan Fr. Albert McKnight sees the confusion as hope. He has his own chaos theory.

“Black folks have become so disenchanted with what has happened in the past 30 years that their seeking becomes, for me, a sign of hope. They’re asking ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ ”

McKnight’s answer is that the country needs an African-American cultural revival movement. “The civil rights movement was an external movement, trying to change white folks. The African-American cultural revival will be internal, changing ourselves, a realignment of our values, attitudes and behavior, re-educating ourselves to who we are.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998