By Lynnea Mumola
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Flanked at the front of the sanctuary by six large portraits of Black Americans whose faith-filled lives placed them on the road to possible canonization by the Catholic Church, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr. celebrated Mass Feb. 6 to mark Black History Month in the Archdiocese of Washington.
“Celebrating Black History Month not only enlightens us to the contributions of Black Americans, but reminds us of the work toward justice and equality that is still in front of us,” said Bishop Campbell during the Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
“Only when every person in this nation sees everyone else as equal to them — sees everyone as a child of God — can justice and equality be achieved,” he said. “Then we will have peace, and love will flourish.”
Some of that work includes official recognition of Black Americans’ faith witness through sainthood, sharing stories of Black American role models and a more balanced representation in leadership and other roles, he said.
In his homily, the bishop pointed out that although Blacks make up 14.3% of the American population, currently only 3% of U.S. senators are Black.
Quoting Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, the first Black American cardinal, from a recent local interview, Bishop Campbell read: “It is vitally important that we annually celebrate and collectively examine the lessons given us by African Americans who contributed and pursued greatness frequently in the face of rejection and hostility because of their race and their heritage.”
“Black History Month is that opportunity for all of us,” the cardinal said. “In our archdiocese we celebrate Black history every month by sharing the many good stories of our people and parishes that serve our Black Catholic communities.”
Bishop Campbell, who is president of the National Black Catholic Congress, urged participants to learn more about prominent African Americans including Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks as well as those who are lesser known, such as Julia Greeley, a freed slave from the Midwest who eventually devoted many years ministering to the poor in Denver spending whatever she could to assist poor families.
To avoid embarrassing anyone receiving charity, Greeley often worked in the middle of the night. In 2016, Greeley’s cause for canonization was opened.
She joined five other Black Catholics on the road to sainthood: Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration; Mother Henriette Delille and Mother Mary Lange, who founded, respectively, the Sisters of the Holy Family and the Oblate Sisters of Providence; layman Pierre Toussaint; and Father Augustus Tolton, the first Catholic priest ordained in the United States known to be Black.
Portraits of all six were displayed in front of the altar flanking the bishop as he spoke.
While Greeley and the others are becoming more known, Bishop Campbell noted there are “far too many people not of the majority racial profile of this nation who still suffer the indignities to their human identity that their forebearers suffered as enslaved people who were considered less than human.”
The prelate added, “They lived and labored in obscure and unjust servitude only to die as just another Black person not even worthy of having a headstone to mark their graves and they had no acknowledgment that they too were children of God.”
Black History Month is a time for the faithful to learn and grow, he said. “Too often we underestimate seeing the image of God in one another — the power of touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment or the smallest act of caring,” Bishop Campbell said.
These gestures all “have the potential to turn a life around. People come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Embrace all equally and we embrace God’s love for us.”
Bishop Campbell said for Americans, Black History Month is a time to honor African Americans for their love. “When we strive to be our best and share our gifts with one another out of love, we will honor Black Americans — and all Americans — every month of our lives.”
In her welcoming remarks before Mass began, Wendi Williams, executive director of the Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach for the archdiocese, noted the goal of uniting the archdiocesan families to “celebrate the beauty, identity, richness and importance of the diversity in our cultures.”
Williams greeted the congregation and those viewing the livestream video thanking them for marking “the beginning of Black History Month.
“The Lord has called each of us to be here today,” she said, “to share, learn and celebrate our unique gifts and varied experiences so that from many diverse voices we raise up in a united chorus in praise and thanksgiving.”
“We come together today at this Mass,” Williams added, “to give God thanks for the gifts brought to life by the courage, strength, perseverance, and talents of our African American brothers and sisters.”
Begun in the United States in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson, a period of one week was set aside to honor the contributions of African Americans and raise awareness of Black history.
Woodson originally selected a week in February to correspond with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, an African American writer and abolitionist, and President Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 and the idea has spread to other countries including Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.
Msgr. W. Ronald Jameson, rector of St. Matthew’s, and Father Robert Boxie III, Catholic chaplain at Howard University, concelebrated the Mass.
Describing Black History Month as a time for “taking a hard look at the many and manifold contributions of African Americans in this country,” Father Boxie said African Americans formed part of the story of the United States even before the country began — making the United States what it is today.
“Black History Month celebrates those accomplishments and achievements” in the country’s history and to African Americans “as steadfast witnesses of faith that should be celebrated by all,” he said.
“African American history is American history,” added Father Boxie, who accompanied 11 students from Howard University to the Mass.
Mumola writes for the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.