By ASHLEY MORRIS, Th.M. | Published November 26, 2020
ATLANTA–Black Catholics across the United States and the world gather each November to celebrate Black Catholic History Month. Designated a moment of remembrance and commemoration by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States in 1990, this annual observance of the contributions of women and men of the African diaspora to Roman Catholicism is vital to the faithful’s collective understanding of the universality of our faith.
Much more than a 30-day recounting or retelling of a series of little-known church facts, Black Catholic History Month is the perfect opportunity for us to reflect upon and uplift God’s movement within communities regularly overlooked in our narratives. Subsequently, this intentional reflection affords us the chance to assess how we value and acknowledge the gifts and presence of Black Catholics in the church today.
Living with the novel coronavirus while embracing a renewed energy in fighting the sin of racism makes this Black Catholic History Month especially significant. Our quarantining and social distancing place us in quiet moments where deep reflection, introspection and vast amounts of easily accessible information at our fingertips become gifts from God if we use them as such.
We can reflect on the life of Mother Henriette Delille, foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, Louisiana, for inspiration on God’s movement among us amid a deadly epidemic. We can look inward while considering the life of Sister Mary Antona Ebo, FSM, a pivotal figure during the civil rights movement who proudly professed her culture, Catholicism and constitutionally guaranteed rights as a United States citizen.
We can also consider more deliberately Venerable Father Augustus Tolton’s cause for canonization, specifically asking for his intercession in our individual and collective anti-racist responses of reconciliation and restoration. As the first recognizable African American Roman Catholic priest ordained for the United States, Father Tolton’s ministry exemplified what we would call today an exemplary ecumenical and intercultural witness of God’s love for all.
Discerned contemplation of how Father Tolton was able to bring together Black, White, Catholic and Protestant parishioners in a post-Reconstruction Era society speaks volumes of his lived commitment to the Gospels. Father Tolton’s life and ministry is just one story among many from within the Black Catholic community that inspires and empowers us today. It remains our duty to seek out those stories and open wide our hearts to the restorative messages contained within.
Considering the gifts of people of color
This form of critical assessment is important to the Gospel call of evangelization, to “… Go and make disciples of all nations …” as Black Catholics have more often than not expressed great despair, frustration, anger, and disillusionment from a lack of inclusion and enthusiasm regarding our active participation in the life of our local and global Catholic Church. Frankly speaking, we tend to present the experiences and expressions of Black Catholics as outliers within our faith. The storied and detailed accounts we recall from sacred Scripture, within homilies and religious education curriculum, and even from the lives of saints often look beyond or around the presence and participation of people of color. Many stories regarding Black Catholicism begin with enslavement in the United States or from some foundational point of struggle or suffering that, while synonymous with key moments in our salvation history, do not represent the totality of what people of color have historically contributed to our 2,000 plus year old tradition.
African thought and sensibilities are of no consideration when we learn of Joseph’s coat of many colors, Moses’ tenure in the Egyptian high court, or the Holy Family’s flight from the savagery of King Herod’s persecution. We rarely share the significance of Simon of Cyrene’s taking up Christ’s “yoke” during his crucifixion. We do not consider the influence, intelligence, wealth, political power and potential religious affiliation of the Ethiopian court official in Acts of the Apostles as the basis for robust conversation regarding encounter, evangelization and empowerment.
We dilute the culturally significant insights and leanings of St. Augustine, St. Monica, Sts. Felicity and Perpetua, Moses the Black, Anthony the Abbot, Pope St. Victor I, Pope St. Miltiades, Pope St. Gelasius I, and St. Mary of Egypt by constantly reminding ourselves of their lives and witness in “Roman” Africa. Sadly, these are just the instances occurring well before we consider scratching the surface of the aforementioned stories of Black Catholics in our modern church memory.
What treasures of our spirituality are missing when we exclude these stories? How are we inviting one another to full, active engagement in the life of the unified Body of Christ when we deny the presence of certain cultures in our salvation history?
We establish a dangerous precedent for the future of our church by sporadically referencing, discounting, or casually ignoring our non-European sisters and brothers in the faith. This says to the unified body of Christ that there is little to glean from lives and contributions of individuals not hailing from Western European countries. It conditions us to pay little attention to the current realities of the faithful in Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. It leaves us with an incomplete vision of the unified and universal Body of Christ, where God loves and values all as he authentically created us.
The exclusion of Black Catholic memory and history in our preaching, teaching, and catechesis creates an indifference that greatly inhibits the faithful from living two key components of our Catholic identity: loving one another as God loves us and we love ourselves, and spreading the Gospel to all nations, all peoples.
As we transition from our observation of Black Catholic History Month into the Advent season, it remains a priority for us to consider more frequently the gifts to the church offered by our sisters and brothers of the African diaspora. Our national and local efforts to fight systemic racism and cultural supremacy, to nurture intercultural competency development of ministry leaders and to bear witness to the image and likeness of God found in all peoples and cultures will fail if we do not take seriously the call to encounter and accompany one another on the path to salvation. Let us pray that our preparations for the birth of our Lord and Savior remind us of seeing the light of his face reflected in everyone we meet, and our faces reflecting that very same light as well.
Ashley Morris is associate director of the Office of Intercultural Ministries of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He may be reached by email to firstname.lastname@example.org