Diocesan News

Local Catholics Mark Black History Month

Nigerian-born Gladys Onyechere, above, far left, was among hundreds of black Catholics who attended a Feb. 9 Mass of Thanksgiving at St. James Cathedral-Basilica, Downtown Brooklyn, in honor of Black History Month.
Nigerian-born Gladys Onyechere, above, far left, was among hundreds of black Catholics who attended a Feb. 9 Mass of Thanksgiving at St. James Cathedral-Basilica, Downtown Brooklyn, in honor of Black History Month.

Jesuit Father Gregory Chisholm says local black Catholics must strengthen their families, churches and communities so that their light may shine more abundantly in Brooklyn and Queens.

Father Chisholm, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church, Harlem, was the homilist at the diocese’s 34th annual Mass of Thanksgiving in honor of Black History Month at St. James Cathedral-Basilica in Downtown Brooklyn, last Sunday, Feb. 9.

The diocesan Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns (VBCC) organized the 3 p.m. Mass, which was followed by a fundraising dinner and cultural program, featuring songs, music, dancing and poetry to benefit the vicariate’s youth and young adult ministry.

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq, vicar of black Catholic concerns, presided. Special concelebrants included Father Alonzo Cox, VBCC coordinator, and Father Jean Yvon Pierre, director of the National Center of the Haitian Apostolate. Several deacons and seminarians assisted on the altar.

Bishop Sansaricq warmly welcomed the diverse congregation – an exquisite mosaic of individuals spanning generations and representing various nations, languages, parishes and apostolates. Many wore traditional African garb with intricate patterns in an array of colors. They enjoyed hearing their native tongues spoken as part of the intercessory prayers.

“Today, we come to celebrate the Lord with one voice and one heart on the occasion of Black History Month,” the Haitian-born bishop told the faithful.

Father Gregory Chisholm, S.J.
Father Gregory Chisholm, S.J.

As one body, the congregation raised their voices in heartfelt prayer and joyful song with a Caribbean twist, courtesy of the Troupe Eclat Choir from St. Jerome, East Flatbush.

Following readings from Isaiah and First Corinthians, Deacon Joseph Dass from St. Gerard Majella parish, Hollis, proclaimed the short but powerful Gospel passage from St. Matthew, in which the faithful are compared to salt and light in the world.

Father Chisholm preached powerfully on that theme, lamenting the prevailing culture of self-centeredness and how it contributes to the breakdown of faith, families and communities.

In his homily, he took the faithful on a brief journey through American history, presenting figures from Absalom Jones to Rev. Charles T. Walker, and Nat Turner to Harriet Tubman.

“If you want to know how their stories could bring an entire nation to face its evil truth (slavery),” the priest said, “then understand that they could do anything through Jesus Christ.”

“Through our struggle and through our faith we have been a light to this nation … Our lives have declared – not in the wisdom of words, but in the power and spirit of our very lives – Jesus Christ to this country.”

However, Father Chisholm also reminded the faithful about Jesus’ words in St. Matthew’s Gospel about salt that loses its flavor and light that languishes under a bushel basket.

“Church, I have to admit I’ve been worried about us,” he said. “I’ve wondered if our salt has begun to lose its taste quite frankly.”

Forgotten the Kingdom

Our Lady of Charity Dancers
Our Lady of Charity Dancers

“We’re so worried in our churches these days about abundance. … I wonder sometimes if we have forgotten about the coming of the kingdom of God. …

“We can be so interested in what makes me stronger, what makes me healthier, what makes me better looking, that I wonder if we just forgot Jesus Christ altogether, church.

“Our strength, our ability to provide light to this nation has depended on … our family strength, our congregational strength, our communal strength. In the last 40 years, many of us have stopped caring about us. We didn’t stop caring about me; we stopped caring about us.”

To heal those wounds and amplify their light, he urged the faithful to make a conscious effort to “let the words of our mouth and meditations of our heart be acceptable in God’s sight.”

“What we really must do is rededicate ourselves, rededicate our families, rededicate our churches, rededicate our community … to strengthen us – us – for the future.”

To further strengthen the faithful in this undertaking, Father Cox led the congregation in the prayer for the African American and the African family composed by Father Jim Goode, O.F.M.

Marion Ogbuli, a native of Nigeria, who now resides in St. Gerard Majella parish, smiled as she left the cathedral-basilica.

“This celebration has been so rich,” Ogbuli said. “It is an affirmation of who we are as black Catholics – we are all one, and there is unity in our diversity. That is something that is recognized and appreciated in our diocese.”