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Black Catholics having their say

Special to National Catholic Reporter

The conference of black Catholics had an auspicious, if unusual start: a promise by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago that black Catholics could have their say.

He assured them that he would be listening. “There is here in this convocation no hidden agenda ... except ... to try to see what God is calling us to do ... and to prepare for that moment in 2002” when the National Black Catholic Congress gathers in Chicago, said Chicago’s archbishop Cardinal Francis George during the opening Mass.

The Black Catholic Convocation -- some participants described it as the first gathering of its kind in the history of the U.S. Catholic church -- brought together more than 2,000 African-American Catholics of the Chicago archdiocese on Nov. 3 and 4. The turnout at the De La Salle Institute was double the most optimistic projections.

Forty-three all-black parishes and 27 predominately black parishes sent delegates.

The convocation had no firm agenda. That would come later. Its purpose was to sound out the people on five issues: parish closings, schools, evangelization, tithing and vocations. In the past, decisions on such matters were usually arrived at behind closed doors at the archdiocese’s pastoral center and handed down after only cursory contact with the faithful. Now, delegates to this convocation were given an opportunity to discuss and “vote” on recommendations related to the five areas.

The issues are complex and serious. Black Catholics have inherited aging churches that often received little preventive maintenance, some for as long as 100 years. The huge buildings, erected to accommodate congregations of over 1,000, now have as few as 250 registered parishioners. The parish schools are equally tired and now devoted more to the education of non-Catholics than Catholics. Black vocations are few. The vetting process for future priests simply doesn’t mesh with black culture and experience. While black Catholics are proportionately more generous than whites, parish coffers can barely support the parish priest, let alone repair the leaky roof.

What was distinctive about the conference, participants said, is that such gatherings have been marked by clerical commandments and control. While clergy were very much in evidence at this convocation, all voting was in the hands of the laity. The clergy were there in a supportive role only.

The 19-member steering committee for the convocation will become part of a permanent advisory board to implement the recommendations. “At the parish level, we can start work now,” said Joan Neal, a management consultant and trustee of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “We can implement the recommendations on tithing, evangelization and vocations.”

Neal’s reference was to three of the five concerns that were addressed and voted upon by the delegates to the assembly. The remaining two concerned parishes and schools and had earlier been voted upon by the pastors of the involved parishes. The pastors’ votes were tabulated but not revealed. They voted on whether to subsidize or close specified parishes and schools.

Within the next few weeks, results of conference votes will be placed on the cardinal’s desk, together with results of votes of the clergy. More important, results of the consultation will be made public.

Delegates were asked to quantify recommendations as “top goals,” goals of “minor importance” or goals that they “could not support.” Thus, on the issue of Catholic schools, delegates could vote to support the schools, retain the schools but only for a majority of Catholics, re-map the schools or get out of the schools altogether.

Sheila Adams, director of African-American Ministries for the archdiocese and co-chair of the convocation, reminded participants that the “lay resolutions will determine the direction of archdiocesan policies.” Discussions with rank-and-file delegates suggested that the administration would have to make adjustments that would permit the lay voices to be heard even as the process went forward.

“We must empower the [parish] community,” Thyra Clark said, with Faye Russell nodding enthusiastically in agreement. Both are lifelong Catholics from St. Felicitas Parish. “We would like to see a directory for all parishes, listing services and producers of products, so that we could patronize them and recycle money in the community,” Clark said. It was just one of the specifics that delegates hoped would come out of this vast listening session.

The cardinal’s pledge of no hidden agenda drew generally favorable support. However, it was received with a measure of cynicism. Some delegates felt that the forthcoming national black congress in Chicago will put the local efforts on hold because the congress will put a further drain on local resources. Others thought that, in spite of the recommendations, the local church would not share power in future planning.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” one older delegate, who is a grandmother of 39, said. “It’s a surprise. I think that the cardinal is sincere but I also think the decisions have already been made.”

The convocation grew out of an effort in 1995 that began with a series of meetings and dialogue among three separate groups of African-American lay Catholics, gatherings that attracted the support of former Auxiliary Bishop George Murry, S.J., now bishop of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. By 1998, a formal group was created. Murry’s successor was Bishop Joseph N. Perry, a Chicago native, who had been a pastor in the Milwaukee archdiocese.

“There is no preconceived plan,” Perry said. “We are shaped by our past.” He reminded participants that black Christians dated to the first part of the fourth century in Ethiopia. “These are issues we have talked about for years. We have decided to give you first place in the discussion. Our programming will meet the needs of the community, non-practicing Catholics in particular.”

At the parish discussion tables, the issues became more specific. Some 80 percent of black Catholics are in mixed marriages. Many are converts, often through the influence of their spouses and their children enrolled in Catholic schools. There are problems of divorce and remarriage and numerous issues involving annulments, issues that don’t quite fit the Western European model of Canon Law. Basically, they called for a church that is less confining.

“This is our church. We belong,” said Sr. Anita Baird of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, who is director of the Office of Racial Justice for the archdiocese. “We are proud of being black and proud of being Catholic,” she said with a cadence that brought the crowd to their feet.

Although Chicago was birthplace of such groups as the Catholic Interracial Conference, this was the first gathering devoted to listening and recommending on the part of black laity in the archdiocese. The convocation may have initiated a model for lay participation in developing structures for a future church, one in which laity are the leading participants. Observers were already talking about a similar model for Latino Catholics, who are far more numerous in U.S. parishes than black Catholics.

Further, the convocation was marked by the overwhelming participation of women in leadership roles.

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000