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Black Catholics see need to meet, be heard


In the midst of all the discussion as to whether lay Catholics, apart from or in company with Catholic religious and clergy, have the right or responsibility to come together within organizations to discuss or even critique the church and its actions or failures to act, I would like to introduce a little bit of American Catholic history.

This history will be celebrated over the Labor Day weekend in Chicago. More than 3,000 black Catholic Americans are expected to come together to celebrate what it means to them to be truly black and authentically Catholic in a church and society where to be both is still too often seen as somewhat paradoxical.

Black Catholics will be celebrating their Ninth National Black Catholic Congress. Ironically, or perhaps sadly, many of the topics of discussion, keynotes and workshops will be very similar to those that were raised and discussed at the first such Congress held in 1889 in Washington. Daniel Rudd, editor of the American Catholic Tribune, the first paper published by, for and about black Catholics, conceived of the Congress and the four that followed (1890 to 1894) as an opportunity for the “general public to see the large numbers of black Catholics in existence,” something still important today when black Catholics are often miscounted -- or undercounted -- except when they are in predominantly black parishes.

Equally important, both then and now, is the prospect of black Protestants becoming better acquainted with the black Catholic presence. In addition, black Catholics themselves can become aware not simply of their numbers (approximately 3 million), but also of their diversity and of the many issues confronting them then and in today’s society.

In an article that I wrote for the study guide for the upcoming congress, I noted several of these issues, including: the apparent (to others) need for constantly authenticating the black presence in the church; the need to teach Catholic church history in its fullness, encompassing the presence as well as the contributions of persons of African descent, from popes to laity; and also the need to develop a stronger Catholic presence in black communities where the parents are seeking better educations for their children.

This latter issue will be of critical importance now that the Supreme Court has affirmed the voucher system for education. Will black (and other children of color and poor children regardless of race) find our church opening the doors to one and all as once they did for the immigrant children of Europe? The countries of immigration have changed, but the needs of the children remain the same. They are in need not just of minimal education but also of the best that can be offered in this highly technological age. But this is a topic for another column.

The Negro Catholic Congresses of the 19th century were active and vocal. Participants raised critical questions about the church’s role in perpetuating and tolerating racism and segregation, questions that remain with us to this day. They were predominantly lay led as there was only one ordained black priest, Fr. Augustus Tolton, who was recognized as such at the time. Bishop James Healy of Portland, Maine, and Fr. Patrick Healy at Georgetown University were of African and Irish descent but never publicly self-identified as black. The congresses had predominantly male attendees.

The last congress was held in 1894, after which the organizers apparently lost the support of the hierarchy, perhaps for being too vocal in their calls for an end to the racism within the church and the fuller recognition and affirmation of the black presence as a gift rather than a burden.

Today’s congresses are seen as the continuation of the earlier congresses. They began again in 1987 in Washington, as the result of efforts of black Catholics at every level of the church who recognized the need for a forum where they could confer and freely discuss what the church means to them and what they themselves offer to the church.

At this and following congresses, both men and women participated fully. They are not intended to be exclusive but are specifically aimed at issues that affect black Catholics in particular. Held every five years, the National Black Catholic Conference, as was the first, is an opportunity to meet and greet, to exchange perspectives, to discuss experiences and to highlight the persistent presence of blacks in the church since its earliest beginnings.

The Ninth Congress will be especially significant because of the presence of Bishop Wilton Gregory, the first African-American bishop to be elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Though engaged in the serious work of engaging in dialogue on the critical issues of race, class and gender oppression in both church and society and the means to counter them, on youth ministry, on the evangelization and catechizing of black Americans, and on Catholic education, these congresses have also revealed the holistic spirituality of black Americans. The celebration of God in Jesus Christ in music, song and dance highlight the four-day event as does a marketplace displaying colorful African garb, the work of black Catholic and other black Christian authors, and statuary and paintings depicting the sacred in hues and features that reflect those buying and selling.

The National Black Catholic Congresses are an avenue through which black Catholics can meet and exchange ideas with black and other attending bishops as well as black scholars, musicians, liturgists, artists and each other. It is an opportunity to voice concerns and to be listened to in a setting that is not confrontational but familial and communitarian. In a church that is still reeling from recent events, black Catholics have a venue where they can speak out and be heard.

Similar venues are certainly needed for all Catholics. We all need the opportunity to come together at regular intervals to raise issues and concerns, to take part in dialogue, to share and even to disagree respectfully with our fellow Catholics at whatever level of the church they or we may be. This should not be seen as a threat to anyone’s authority, nor is it a weakening of the church’s structure or tradition.

Surely it is simply recognition of the truth of Jesus’ teachings on the Great Commandment. We come together as a family to break bread and share our love of God as the beloved community of God in which all share equally regardless of race, gender, class or status. Perhaps the Black Catholic Congress can serve as a model for the entire church of the common ground we can and do share as Catholics in the United States.

Diana L. Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University, Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002