Black Catholics from the dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre joined as one family to celebrate their shared faith, heritage and culture at a Black History Month Mass of thanksgiving, Feb. 19.
The gathering was coordinated for a second year by the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns of the Brooklyn Diocese and the Multicultural Diversity Office of the Rockville Center Diocese.
More than 300 people filled the Immaculate Conception Center’s main chapel in Douglaston for an afternoon of lively music, dance and prayer in joyful thanksgiving for the achievements and legacies of their forebears in faith and spirit.
“We applaud our ancestors for their Christian witness, for they believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Ill., who was the guest homilist.
“What is it that we believe in,” he then asked the congregation.
Challenges to Holiness
Among the challenges to believing in and following Jesus in today’s world, he pointed to the pervading influence of secular society, disordered families, laid-back values and the pseudo-wisdom of the streets. Those factors contribute to a sense of despair felt among young people.
“Too many of our young people sense they have no future,” the bishop said. “Without a religious grounding in morals and ethics, people turn violence on themselves and others.”
Noting the call to holiness in the day’s Scripture readings, he said living a holy life isn’t easy, and may not even seem logical when others seek an eye for an eye.
“To be holy means we think and do as God thinks and does, and that can be a little scary,” he said.
“It means absorbing the assaults and onslaughts of popular culture that would degrade the faith we have, attack the hope that anchors our lives and throw back in our faces the love we give away so generously.”
He encouraged those present to strive for holiness anyway.
Pointing to the examples of Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the relatives of those killed in the Charleston, S.C., church shooting in June 2015, he said love and forgiveness can break the cycle of violence.
“We are not asked to like those who harm us; we are asked to love them,” he explained. “The Gospel of Jesus Christ understands there is a difference.”
Further, he told the faithful that living a holy life is “the finest tribute we can give to our slave ancestors, to our parents, grandparents and great grandparents, who walked the gauntlet of segregation, discrimination and annihilation, and who did so in heroic Christian fashion.”
Speaking Their Names
Many of those ancestors were recalled by name during a brief program of song, liturgical dance and a libation ceremony prior to Mass.
Auxiliary Bishop Neil Tiedemann, C.P., diocesan vicar of ministry to black Catholics, was the main celebrant of the liturgy, and thanked those present for their gift of faith.
“One of the gifts of being a priest is that we have the blessing of gazing upon you during the Eucharist, to look into the depths of your hearts, to hear your voices, to hear your proclamation of faith,” he said. “You bring us closer to God.”
Rockville Centre Auxiliary Bishop Andrzej Zglejszewski was a special concelebrant along with retired Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq of Brooklyn and Father Alonzo Cox, diocesan vicar of ministry to black Catholics.
Members of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver were among the congregation along with young adults from the Kujenga Alumni Association, like Charlyne Sainrose from St. Thomas Aquinas, Flatlands, and teenage ambassadors from the diocesan Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns.
The Sister Thea Bowman Mass Choir from Rockville Centre provided vibrant music, while Julia Primus of St. Martin de Porres, Bedford-Stuyvesant, adorned the worship space with richly hued African fabrics. Many attendees dressed in African garb, and the prayers of the faithful were said in Igbo, Creole and English.
Marion Ogbuli of Our Lady of Lourdes parish, Queens Village, was honored to offer the petitions in her native Igbo, and be part of the celebration.
“Mass is always inspiring, but today was really special because you could feel the spirit,” she said, noting that priests and deacons on the altar were clapping, singing and seemed to have “more spring in their step.”
“To be with priests and bishops from both dioceses for Black History Month, to give thanks for our ancestors, means everything,” said Darcel Whitten-Wilamowski, coordinator of ministry for Catholics of African Ancestry in Rockville Centre.
“We are not the most united people right now in this country so whenever we can come together, give thanks to God and be one united people, it’s a blessing,” she said. “Hopefully, that blessing and all the prayers go out from here and help to bring us all together again, across the line. We need that.”
She appreciated how Bishop Perry “spoke so beautifully about some of the negative things that have transpired and how we need to love.”
“Black history is American history,” she said, “and one of these days, I hope to look up at a Black History Month celebration and see a completely multicultural congregation, not just black Catholics, but Catholics in general, coming together to give thanks.”