NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – About 3,000 Black Catholics from around the country attended the National Black Catholic Congress July 20-23 in the Washington D.C., area where they examined their role in the Church, how to share their unique gifts and rise above ongoing challenges.
Even with the large number of participants filling the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, the gathering seemed in many ways like a get-together of friends as people greeted each other in the hallways, groups posed for photos, and conversations continued long after presentations were finished.
“We are members of a proud Catholic family of enduring and unshakable faith, and this gathering always feels something like a family reunion,” said Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory in the opening keynote address July 21.
He told the group, representing 80 dioceses across the country, that the last time they had met in Washington was in 1987 at The Catholic University of America. “We have come a great way, but we have so much farther to go,” he said.
His words echoed the expression: “We’ve come this far by faith,” a theme frequently mentioned during the congress, emphasizing the strides U.S. Black Catholics have made, often followed with a recognition of challenges that remain.
Cardinal Gregory, the nation’s first African American cardinal, spoke from a podium alongside large banners of the six African American candidates for sainthood, including two with direct ties to the congress: Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, who celebrated Mass at St. Augustine Church in Washington at the inaugural Black Catholic Congress in 1889 and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who spoke at the 1987 gathering.
The cardinal said the courage of these men and women can guide Black Catholics today because they show that “with prayer, perseverance and acceptance of the divine gift of the Eucharist, we shall not perish – we have hope!”
He noted that Black Catholics have “overcome generations of anguish, suffering, and injustice. We have kept the faith even when many could not understand why or how.”
But he also emphasized, as did several of the workshop and session speakers, the importance of passing on faith traditions and lessons learned.
“Our vision must include transmitting that same help and hope to those who will follow us,” he said, adding that he had witnessed the faith of many of the young people at the congress the previous night at the town hall session.
“Don’t be fooled by the notion that our youth are the future, the church of tomorrow; indeed, they are the energetic, thoughtful, passionate church of the now. I daresay we have so much to learn from them, as they from us,” he said.
Several youths from the Diocese of Brooklyn attended the congress as junior ambassadors for the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns, including Adriana Dorner, who co-moderated the July 20 town hall.
“The youth are the next generation of the Church, so just to be a part of growing and helping other youth be able to connect with their faith is really important to me, and what I want to take back is just the experience of meeting others, networking, connecting, just getting more into my faith,” Dorner said.
In some of the workshops, young adults said they wanted to take a more active role in the Church.
At a workshop that looked at the nearly 40-year anniversary of the U.S. bishops’ document: “ ‘What We Have Seen and Heard’: A Pastoral Letter on Evangelization from the Black Bishops of the United States,” a young adult co-presenter, Ali Mumbach, said young Black Catholics want to be seen and heard in the Church today but they do not always feel welcome.
Mumbach, who is studying for her master’s degree in sociology at Howard University in Washington, where she works in campus ministry while also pursuing a master’s degree in theology at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, said it was great for Black Catholic young adults to be part of the congress, but she said they also need to be involved at the diocesan and parish levels.
And more broadly, that Black Catholics of all ages need to “have a seat at the table,” was one of the take-aways from the congress for Michèle Guerrier, a parishioner of St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in East Flatbush. Guerrier, who is Haitian, is a member of the advisory board of the Vicariate for Black Catholic Concerns of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
She told The Tablet the day after the congress that she was reinvigorated by the event and “ready to work.”
She was particularly impressed that Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn attended, as one of more than two dozen bishops at the congress. She said it was an important sign for the diocese, which has more Black Catholics than any other U.S. diocese.
Guerrier said one challenge is to find a way to bring Black Catholics back to the Church, particularly after many left during and after COVID. “It’s up to the people in the pews,” to bring them back, she said.
This role of evangelization was mentioned several times during the congress.
“We must continue the work of evangelizing our people,” said Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis, Tennessee, one of the authors of the 1984 pastoral on Evangelizing Black Catholics. He said the document, in many ways, seems like it was just written because similar challenges remain.
He said Black Catholics need to reclaim their roots, recognize their unique gifts and “proclaim it from the mountaintop.”
To that end, Congress participants were urged to complete a survey after the congress sharing ideas that will be formulated into a national pastoral plan for Black Catholics in the U.S.
In previous gatherings, these plans have included: enabling Black Catholics to enhance their Afrocentric spirituality, increasing awareness of Black saints, creating opportunities for lay leadership in the church, identifying and eradicating racism, and increasing prison ministry and outreach.
Some of the changes Guerrier would like to see would be for more Black clergy and Black lay leaders to have roles in Church decision making and for priests, Church officials, pastoral leaders and school staff members to receive cultural sensitivity training about the needs of the Black Catholic community.
Reiterating a theme from the congress, she said she understands her part in bringing the unique gift of being a Black Catholic into her faith community, her parish and diocese.
“It’s a collaboration. We know we have to push forward and try to build our Church and our diocese,” she said.