The Catholic Church thinks a lot about the past, the present, and the future. It’s not always clear which of the three is the focus of thought in a secularized society that rejects God. Such a culture loses the chance to unite people and transcend the whole human timeline through a religion that pursues enduring truth, justice, and compassion. God’s not finished with us yet, and too many of us can’t see God at work in one’s neighbor.
November is Black Catholic History Month in the U.S., thanks to an idea advanced by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in 1990.
As we seek out stories of Black Catholic history, we can become more aware of the contemporary hunger for justice that can split races apart but which can also promote strong fellowship.
What makes it possible to flip from separation and resentment toward empathy and cooperation? One transcendent factor seems to be the ability always to see God in the other person. Those values and virtues consistently cherished by Catholics need to be seen in all people — and in the noblest aspirations of our communities. We need also to see them in our experience of communion around the altar, where our “amens” bring us together and worshippers take in the humble hospitality of Christ who feeds us. We can expand on this unity through the parish experience, with homilies, music, prayer services, and candid discussions which recognize fraternal friendship.
Another transcendent factor is the Communion of Saints, where we can find examples of God’s total goodness shining through people’s lives. These stories must be told.
Our shared awareness of the saints already canonized will rightly build our curiosity about saints not already declared. They too are reflections of us and our journeys — folks we all can root for. This is the case of Catholic Black Americans who are on the path to declarations of sainthood. There are six Black Americans for whom canonization “causes” have been initiated, and they represent not only a chance for rooting together but celebrating together.
Their stories are fascinating — tales of selfless individuals, some of whom shook off the bonds of slavery and transitioned to work tirelessly to improve the lot of the disadvantaged. Others immersed themselves so deeply in their faith that they earned the title, “Servant of God” or “Venerable” — steps toward consideration for beatification and canonization. These are extended-family heroes for whom love must replace any thoughts of separation or harm.
Perhaps the best sources of the message of these six deserving candidates to be the first African American saint are the black Catholic congregations themselves, congregations that, with growing numbers, can do much to amplify that message. So the question is: Can more black Catholics be encouraged to come to church, and how?
Pope Francis has issued a call to heed the needs and aspirations of the marginalized — plus their wisdom and closeness to God. It’s remarkable how this accompaniment, requiring trust, sacrifice, and healing joy brings people together.
We need to be on the lookout for the openings where the Church can offer discipleship that expands people’s limited views on time and tribe, disillusionment, and hope.
Black Catholic History Month means a lot in a place like this.