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Family gathering


In a year when the U.S church has been badly battered, some 3,000 of its African-American members met Aug. 24-Sept. 1 and unabashedly proclaimed their Catholic identity in word, song and dance. Some wore T-shirts that expressed the unofficial motto of the event: “Black Catholic born, Black Catholic bred, when I die I’ll be Black Catholic dead.”

The ninth National Black Catholic Congress, held at Chicago’s Hyatt-Regency Hotel, was marked by a sustained call for new solidarity between black American Catholics and their brothers and sisters in Africa.

Despite the serious tone and purpose, the congress seemed at times more like a down-home family reunion, a description Bishop Wilton Gregory applied in remarks to a reporter. “This is, after all,” he said, “a family gathering.” People gathered in ever-expanding clusters, hugging old friends, renewing acquaintances and prompting conveners like Jesuit Fr. Joseph Brown to good-naturedly scold the crowd for having too good a time.

But when they got down to the broad issues, people worked. During eight seminar sessions on two days, participants identified areas most deserving attention and action during the next five years. Among these were more aggressive education on racism and its effects on society, an emphasis on increasing the number of black priests, a renewed assault on poverty at the local level, and increasing the awareness of the dangers of HIV/AIDS.

Lively discussions during these sessions frequently criticized the institutional church and the Catholic community at large. In the seminar session on racism, Msgr. Leonard Scott, a canon lawyer from Camden, N.J., cited a host of experts who called racism still the most “virulent national disease” and “most contagious addiction.” People in this country are born “with an inclination to white supremacy,” he said, an especially insidious affliction because it is most often undetected and unnoticed.

Although the U.S. bishops recognized the problem in their documents, “Brothers and Sisters To Us” in 1979 and in “What We Have Seen and Heard” in 1984, Scott said the writings remain “the best kept secrets” in the church. He called on congress participants to “shock or shame” priests, bishops, catechists and others to speak out. Unfortunately, he said, there are still few African-Americans in positions of influence in U.S. dioceses. And he added, “If in any diocese the Office of Black Catholic Ministry is the only agency dealing with racism, then it’s certain racism is not a priority in the diocese. It’s only window-dressing.” The seminar group was virtually unanimous in urging an apology by the U.S. bishops for the church’s participation in racism. A similar apology was presented by the hierarchy to Native Americans in 1992.

Zero tolerance for racism

Comments by participants in the seminar indicated frustration over a lack of progress. “Priests are not delivering information they should to the people,” said one man. Declared another, “If we have zero tolerance on some issues, why not zero tolerance for racism?” A woman who had returned to the church after a 20-year lapse said she has “noticed an insidious tendency by priests and other church leaders to marginalize anyone who questions or challenges anything.” Somehow, said Scott, there must be “a greater commitment to listening in the whole church.”

The first National Black Catholic Con-gress was held in Washington in 1889 and attended by 200 delegates. It came about at the insistence of Daniel Rudd, a layman and son of slaves. He argued that black Catholics must speak out on the lack of black priests and sisters, the denial of religious education to black children, and Catholic acceptance of racist bigotry and segregation. Four more congresses were held in the late 19th century, but none was convened thereafter until their renewal in 1987. The similarity between the concerns of 2002 and those of 112 years before was noted in passing by many at the congress.

Gregory, bishop of Belleville, Ill., and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, received a standing ovation when he addressed a plenary session. He mentioned the failure of “some bishops” to address the priest abuse phenomenon, adding, “I assure you we are making every effort to address shortcomings.”

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, the most visible symbol of the hierarchy’s failure to curb abuse, received warm applause as his presence at the congress was officially acknowledged.

“No one should be surprised at that reaction,” Sr. Anita Baird, president of the National Black Sisters Conference, told NCR. “Black Catholics have long memories. Law was one priest in the 1960s who spoke out for us in Mississippi. He has come to all four of our congresses [held every five years since 1987], and he’s a friend to the black community.” Baird, a member of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, said black reaction to Law’s problems is like their reaction to those of former President Bill Clinton. “It doesn’t mean we condone wrongdoing or don’t think people should be held accountable,” she said. “But when Clinton was being clobbered by Congress and by most of the nation, we remembered all the people he put into positions of authority and the black leaders who had access to him. As a matter of fact, he is still our president.”

Besides, she said, the black Catholic community has issues that are broader. “There’s too many of our boys and women who are dying or going to prison,” she said. “That’s foremost in our minds as black Catholics. The aim of this congress is to set an agenda for the next five years, because no one is going to create an agenda for us but us.”

One item never before addressed became a major subject at this year’s event: Africa.

It was the main point of Gregory’s speech in which he made an appeal for black Catholics to reach out in new and creative ways to the peoples of Africa. The U.S. bishops’ 2001 statement, “A Call for Solidarity with Africa,” should not be regarded “as just a policy option but as a moral obligation for black Catholics,” he said.

In a trip to Africa last year, Gregory said he observed how the bishops of Sudan have stood with the people, seeking to heal the rift among the ethnic communities during a 20-year civil war “that has consumed 2 million innocent lives.” He also witnessed, he said, the Catholic response to the AIDS pandemic in Uganda where great numbers of Catholic caregivers wait patiently day and night on the sick and dying. “I was moved by the depth of the faith and the love of the church in Africa,” he said.

Commitment to Africa

Gregory said that as a result of the 9/11 disaster, concern for homeland security has led Congress to tighten spending for social justice needs and humanitarian concerns both at home and overseas. He urged black Catholics to deepen their commitment to their ancestral homeland in a number of practical ways: through twinning arrangements between American and African parishes or dioceses, through exchange programs involving students and teachers, by inviting newly arrived Africans into full parish life, and by pressuring multinational corporations based in the United States to cease unjust labor practices in Africa.

Gregory’s appeal was carried forward by Bishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Ghana. “Africa is a song of woes and wars, but it is a continent of hope and good news, too,” he told the congress. Catholicism is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world, he said, rising from 54 million members some 25 years ago to 130 million today, from 432 dioceses to 601, from 17,000 priests to 27,000. Nevertheless, Palmer-Buckle lamented, Africa is still regarded as “an irrelevant appendix on the world.” Of the 16 richest countries in the world, he said, the United States gives the least to Africa in development grants. “We don’t want the crumbs that fall from the table of the rich,” he said. “We want worldwide co-responsibility.”

Palmer-Buckle became emotional when he discussed the issue of African priests working in U.S. dioceses. He bowed his head and said, “We have so many priests, and I don’t think you want them!” There were murmurs of denial in the assembly, so he asked, “Do you want them?” There followed a burst of “yes!” from the crowd, but it was not unanimous.

After his talk, a collection for AIDS victims in the United States and Africa netted $24,000.

The concentration on Africa was raised several notches by Precious Blood Fr. Clarence Williams, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in Detroit. Globalization was first experienced in Africa, he said, when the slave trade in the early 16th century began treating blacks as commerce, eventually spreading them throughout the New World from Alaska to Argentina. There are 200 million Catholics of African descent in the world today, Williams said, and he asked, “What could happen if all those black Catholics, united in doctrine, devotion and discipline, realized their solidarity in action?” Of all black Catholics, those in America are without question the wealthiest, the most educated and the most traveled, said Williams, suggesting it is they who should take leadership in any united black Catholic initiative. On the other hand, he noted, “we are black Americans” and thus inclined “to get all we can and can all we get.” That is the stumbling block, he said, for all “Ameri-Cans.”

Williams urged assembly members to educate themselves about the history of black Catholicism, to engage in anti-racism programs, and to preach openly about the evils of abortion. In the past 30 years, he stated, “17 million black fetuses have been aborted -- that’s more black lives than were lost in the slave trade.” Perhaps, he suggested, black Catholics should consider making reparation for such a loss by adopting black orphan children from Uganda.

Resistance to African priests

Baird, who is an ex officio member of the congress’ board of trustees, told NCR this striking concentration on solidarity is the result of new developments since the previous congress in 1997. First, she said, is the growing number of African priests and sisters in North America. Baird acknowledged that African priests working in parishes have met some resistance, since they come from a culture that puts priests on a pedestal and does not view women as equal. But the problem will be solved by inculturation, she predicted. The African priests and sisters “will adjust when they understand that just being black is not enough.”

Secondly, Baird said the idea of a pan-Catholic black solidarity is a reality that has come of age; this year’s congress was attended by black Catholics from Britain and Brazil who intend to organize similar congresses in their own countries. More black Catholics are visiting Africa, she noted, and they are thereby becoming aware of the their deep ancestral connections to the continent as well as its place in the world today.

Finally, the Africa emphasis is viewed as a way to help black Catholics better understand who they are. “We’re still playing catch-up on our history,” said Baird. Many still think of Catholicism as an Irish religion, she added, and are unaware that much of Africa was Catholic centuries before St. Patrick was born.

On the closing day, Memphis Bishop J. Terry Steib told the assembly to carry the ideas and enthusiasm of the congress into their parishes and communities. “Now comes the homework,” he said.

Robert McClory is a special report writer for NCR.

Related Web sites

National Black Catholic Congress

U.S. bishops’ “A Call to Solidarity with Africa”

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002