One of the blessings of my life as the pastor of Saint Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Philadelphia is to minister in our school. We have over 400 children who keep the principal and faculty very busy. This past Lent I led every homeroom on a "Church Tour". You can imagine the questions and comments I received as these inquisitive children entered this great House of God. Our Church is a huge gothic styled building over 100 years old. Over and over again I was asked, "what's that'? But one question really inspired me…. "Father Steve, who are those people in the window"? My immediate answer was, "They are the saints!" Then an innocent response came back to me… "What is a saint"? Inspired by the Holy Spirit, I simply said, "A saint is one who lets the light shine through and you and I are called to be saints".
Indeed, that is exactly what the eleventh National Black Catholic Congress was all about. We are ALL called to be saints…holy laity, holy consecrated religious women and men, holy seminarians, deacons, priests and bishops.
We gathered in Indianapolis, Indiana for Congress from July 19-21 at the JW Marriott Hotel. Over 2500 came to pray, learn, and discuss our theme: "Faith Engaged: Empower. Equip.Evangelize". What a challenge for us to have our Faith truly be engaged and enlivened that we might invite others to share our joy as Catholics and become saints.
A driving force for this Congress was the National Black Catholic Survey, which both inspired and challenged us. The Survey offered good news that African Americans Catholics are engaged in their Faith. However, we must do more. The Survey led to many discussions before the Congress as many Dioceses led a Day of Reflection. The results of the Days of Reflection and the Study Sessions at Congress led to a draft of Pastoral Plan.
As Catholics, the Eucharist is the "source and summit' of our worship and our faith. That being the case, the Celebration of the Holy Mass was a major part of our Congress experience. So many people were inspired to see so many deacons, priests and bishops in the procession. The Mass Choir, under the leadership of Aaron Thompson, had us all singing and clapping. The Opening Mass was celebrated by Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois. In his homily Bishop Braxton challenged us to pray, study and act as faithful Catholics in the Church and the world. The Second Mass was offered by His Eminence, Cardinal Daniel Di Nardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston. The Closing Mass celebrated the youth and the vitality of the African American Catholic community, as the youngest African American Bishop, Bishop Shelton Fabre, Auxiliary Bishop of New Orleans was the celebrant. Father Christopher Rhoades, a newly ordained priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville was the homilist. Bishop Fabre was joined by young deacons, seminarians and altar servers. What a powerful way to end Congress!
Other major highlights of Congress were the General Sessions. Father Reginald Whitt, OP, PhD, spoke on the "Challenge to be Black and Catholic." Another powerful moment at Congress was the Keynote Speech, which featured Immaculee Ilibagiza. This world renowned speaker challenges us to forgive and love as God loves us. Her testimony of survival and forgiveness from the genocide in Rwanda inspired us all. The workshops and other presentation filled our minds and kept us busy all day. Our evenings were filled with a Gospel Concert and a powerful Healing Service. The Healing Service, led by Father Joseph Ssemakula, was a spirit-filled event that touched many hearts and souls.
Congress XI marked the 25th Anniversary of the renewed Congress movement. Many have participated in all six of the Congresses since 1987. In a spirit of celebration, Congress XI offered the first ever "Servant of Christ Award" to dozens of outstanding leaders in the African American Catholic community. Their stories of service and charity were so powerful and inspiring. Bishop Terry Steib of Memphis led the Ceremony and was joined by Valerie Washington, Executive Director of the NBCC as each recipient receive a very handsome crystal award.
Not only was Congress a time to celebrate, pray and learn, we also left Indianapolis with a draft of a Pastoral Plan, which was enthusiastically affirmed by all participants on Saturday. The young people of Congress also developed a Pastoral Plan and presented it to the assembly. After some final edits and reviews from the people of Congress, the Pastoral Plan is ready to use a framework, a guidepost for evangelization in the African American Catholic community. All of us all called to take this Plan to heart and apply it our particular diocese, parish, school and community. It is a good document, which offers great insights to pastoral issues of our Church and Community. (View the Pastoral Plan)
A person who attended Congress XI from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia described her experience like the moment of Transfiguration in Gospel. She said, "Father, it was truly good to be at Congress, it was a great spiritual experience, but now we must come down the mountain, walk with our Lord and do some work!"
We are Black and Catholic. We are a gift to the Church. We are called to be saints!
Reverend Stephen D. Thorne is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and currently serves a Pastor of Saint Martin de Porres Catholic Church. He has participated in all of the Congresses since 1987.