Local Black Catholics At National Meeting

by Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq, far right, gathered with the Brooklyn-Queens delegates at the National Black Catholic Congress for Mass in Indianapolis. (Photo courtesy Donna Leslie)

A choir of a hundred souls led over 2,000 other souls in song proclaiming “We Have Come This Far by Faith” as they inaugurated the 11th National Black Catholic Congress in Indianapolis.

Thirty-two Black Catholics from Brooklyn and Queens, including Father Caleb Buchanan, diocesan coordinator of the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns, made the trip. Delegates from dioceses all over the country filled the Royal Ballroom of the J.W. Marriott Hotel.

Our diocesan delegates joined as the Congress kicked off this “Year of Faith” decreed by Pope Benedict XVI. The theme of the Congress, titled “Faith Engaged: Empower, Equip, Evangelize,” though chosen over four years ago, was prophetic and promising.

Michael Stephenson, from St. Matthew’s, Crown Heights, was inspired by the Congress theme, commenting that “We are called to holiness by Jesus, and no matter what we do, if this is not our goal, then we cannot be engaged to live and spread the Gospel message.”

In the Congress Hall, one could count some 20 bishops, most of them African-Americans; more than 100 priests and deacons; at least 60 consecrated religious women and men; and more than a 1,500 laymen and women, all of them deeply involved in ministry at the national, diocesan or parochial levels. Approximately 200 teens enjoyed a special track of conferences and sessions.

Dennie Foster, a veteran Congress delegate from St. Teresa of Avila-St Anthony of Padua, South Ozone Park, found that this year’s Congress “has challenged me to engage in my faith to go forth and evangelize black Americans in my parish, my neighborhood and other areas of our diocese to keep the church viable and alive.”

“My second focus from Congress XI was the awareness to pray for vocations and to encourage young adults about the need for vocations in my parish community,” Foster said.

Brooklyn diocesan delegates Compton and Carroll Mendonca, also from South Ozone Park, were inspired by Father Christopher Rhodes, a newly ordained priest who delivered a marvelous homily that drove the “Faith Engaged” theme home. Three categories of activities filled the three joyful days of the Congress.

The liturgies and the moments of prayer featured first-class musicians, superb male and female soloists, and a 100-member choir provided the sacred music of the liturgies. Black American music forged in the furnace of slavery exudes a power of religious expression rarely matched by other cultures. It grabs you in all the fibers of the body and soul. It makes you cry; it makes you jump to your feet; it makes you dance and also makes you pray with incredible intensity. You have to be there to witness it. The poignancy of the melodies penetrate every fiber of the inner self.

Pope Paul VI was right when he told the Africans some 40 years ago: “Bring to the Church the gift of your African cultures.”

Douglas Ollivierre, a young adult parishioner from St. Teresa of Avila-St Anthony of Padua, was moved by a Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church, Indianapolis, which I celebrated for the diocesan delegation.

He shares that “it was just beautiful to see four black priests and Bishop Sansaricq on the altar celebrating Mass in a parish that was not their own. …We have a come a long way. …It was just overwhelming. Our group’s spaghetti dinner afterwards was not bad either.”

Facing Today’s Challenges

The general assemblies brought to the forefront great speakers who exposed the challenges of this age and the importance of being totally black and totally Catholic.

Silma Thorpe of St. Gregory the Great, Crown Heights, “loved Atlanta’s Bishop John Ricard and the way he roused the 2,000-plus delegate crowd in the opening session.”

Immaculee Illibagiza from Rwanda, who survived the 1994 genocide that took place in her country, delivered a transforming address. The Hutu tribe mobilized by vicious politicians rose en masse and assassinated some 500,000 Tutsis in three months. That very Catholic young lady was hidden for three months in a small bathroom. During those 12 weeks of horror, she spent her time praying and had a moving spiritual experience.

Tessa King-Shepherd of St. Jerome’s, East Flatbush, reflects that it is “while reciting the rosary that Immaculee and we too came to understand the sufferings of Jesus and the crucial importance of forgiveness.”

We cannot fail to mention the beauty of the awards ceremony when 50 people were recognized and honored for their achievements as “Servants of Christ” in their ministry at the national, the diocesan and the parish levels. Our own seminarian Dwayne Davis received one of these awards. We are so proud of him as he led the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association and handled the master of ceremonies duties for all Congress liturgies. It was like attending a parade of heroes. Some of the awardees were judges, military men, social workers, nurses or organizers; some were young, and others were quite old. All were witnesses to the Gospel.

More than 20 workshops were offered on a wide variety of topics such as marriage and family, family planning, parenting and relationships with teenagers, faith formation, group organization, spirituality, prayer groups, political and social involvement, health care and poverty.

Attending the Congress was an exceptionally uplifting experience. The value of love and self-discipline in response to the Gospel was constantly emphasized.

The Church is at the same time both one and diverse. The recognition of one’s particular cultural identity is not a threat to unity. On the contrary, it reinforces it as each part brings forth the particular gift that makes the entire body whole, integral and fully healthy and beautiful.

Janet Paul of St. Gregory the Great Church said it best: “Yes, we are Roman Catholic; we are also black – and it all works together!”

If you have never attended a Black Catholic Congress, don’t miss the next one in 2017. You will have an insight of the apocalyptic vision of the Lamb on His throne welcoming in His Eternal Kingdom “people of every race and tongue of every nation and tribe.” Alleluia! Our Church is truly Catholic! No one is left out! Everybody is at home in the shadow of God’s mighty wings!

As Julia Primus of St. Martin de Porres, Bedford-Stuyvesant, said, “Our presence is a unique gift to the world.”

Also at the convention, Brooklyn seminarian Dwayne Davis, accepts the National Black Catholic, Servant of Christ Award for outstanding leadership among black Catholics. (Photo courtesy Douglas Hunter)