History, Heritage, and Truth
people lambast Christianity as "a white man's religion." Worse yet, there
have been Christians, Black and White, Protestant and even Catholic, who
regard Catholicism as a "white church." Amazingly enough, these myths and
misconceptions remain entrenched in some people's minds.
On July 24, 1990, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United
States designated November as Black Catholic History Month to celebrate the
long history and proud heritage of Black Catholics. Two commemorative dates
fall within this month, Saint Augustine's Birthday (November 13) and Saint
Martin de Porres' Feast Day (November 3). More importantly, November not
only marks a time when we pray for all saints and souls in loving
remembrance, but also a time to recall the saints and souls of Africa and
the African Diaspora.
Some people forget that Christianity did not originate in Europe and even
express surprise when they learn that Black Catholic History began in the
Acts of the Apostles (8: 26-40) with the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch
by Philip the Deacon. This text is important for several reasons. First, it
chronicles the conversion of the first Black African in recorded Christian
history. Second, the text suggests that the man was a wealthy, literate, and
powerful emissary of the Nubian Queen and also a faithful, practicing Jew
prior to his baptism. Clearly, he was not an ignorant heathen. Third, the
Ethiopian Eunuch's conversion predates the conversions of Saints Paul and
Cornelius. Most significantly, many cite this conversion as the very moment
when the church changed from a Hebrew and Hellenist community to the truly
Universal and Catholic Church.
Black Catholics trace their faith history back to Christian antiquity long
before other nations heard the "Good News." Christian Africa was indeed a
"leading light" in early Christendom. Black Catholics point to three popes
who were born in Africa: Saints Victor I, Melchiades, and Gelasius I. All
three shepherded the early church through tough and tumultuous times in
history. Black Catholics claim many Black Saints like Saints Cyprian, Zeno,
Anthony of Egypt, Moses the Black, Pachomius, Maurice, Athanasius, Pisentius,
Mary of Egypt, Cyril of Alexandria, Monica of Hippo, Augustine of Hippo,
Perpetua, Felicitas, and Thecla. Some of these mystics, monastics, ands,
martyrs literally made the church what it is today.
Not many people know that King Nzinga-a-Nkuwu Mbemba (Afonso the Good) of
the Kongo and his subjects made their profession of faith thanks to the work
of Portuguese missionaries one year before Christopher Columbus made his
famous voyage in 1492, or that Pope Leo X consecrated the king's son,
Henrique, Titular Bishop of Utica in 1518 which was one year before Martin
Luther nailed his list of ninety-five theses to the Church in Wittenberg.
Bishop Henrique was the first native bishop of West Africa. However, he died
in 1531. The Congolese Church and the hopes for an indigenous clergy died
with him. Finally, the genocidal slave trade killed true evangelization in
sub-Saharan Africa for several centuries.
Notwithstanding the moral crimes of chattel slavery, the French and Spanish
missionaries ministered to their free and enslaved African population within
their respective colonies. This ministry laid the foundation for Black
Catholic communities within the United States, i.e. Mobile, Alabama; New
Orleans, Louisiana; and Saint Augustine, Florida. It is important to note
that many African-American Catholics cherish a certain Peruvian Dominican,
Saint Martin de Porres, the only Black Saint from the Western Hemisphere to
Tragically, the American Catholic Church did not seriously commit its time
and resources to minister to the African-American population during the
ante-bellurn or post-bellum periods. However, God made a way!!! In spite of
insuperable obstacles and opposition, African-American Catholics created a
remarkable movement of faith and evangelization. Many courageous people
played pivotal roles within church history like Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange,
Mathilda Beasley, Daniel Rudd, and the Reverend Augustus Tolton. They
witnessed their faith, ministered to their people, and left lasting legacies
in the face of prejudice, ignorance, and indifference. One cannot read their
stories without feeling tremendous joy, sorrow, and inspiration. They are
truly heroic accounts!
Black History Month provides opportunities to learn and share the whole
history and rich heritage of Christian Catholicism. Ubi Victoria Veritas!
The Victory of Truth!
For more information about Black Catholic History, please read
of Black Catholics in the United States by Cyprian Davis.