We, too, sing America! We are gathered around this altar for the celebration of the Eucharist, the great gift of the Lord Jesus by which all of us, with the whole Church, are nurtured on God's living Word and transformed by the Eucharistic Banquet. We - bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and members of the Christian faithful - assemble here for the eleventh National Black Catholic Congress under the banner: "Faith Engaged: Empower, Equip, Evangelize" to become what we hear: Christ; and to become what we consume: Christ.
In the reading from his First Letter, St. Peter has given us the guiding vision we need for our days together. "Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the suffering of Christ, so that when His glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of God rests upon you." (1 Peter, 4: 12-14).
Jesus of Nazareth's disturbing words recorded in Matthew's Gospel go even deeper when He instructs the Twelve. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword." (10:34) The Prince of Peace announces that he has come to set family members against one another because of the truth of the Gospel. Let us turn over the words of these Scripture passages in our hearts during our days together that will surely enrich our lives and renew our ministries.
Let us begin by looking to our past.
I. The First Congress and Father Augustus Tolton
We, too, sing America! In 1889, Daniel Rudd prophetically convened the first National Black Catholic Congress in Washington, DC just twenty-four years after the end of the catastrophic Civil War (1865), a "trial by fire" for our nation during which sons were set against their fathers and daughters against their mothers. That first Congress was twenty-six years after President Abraham Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), in which he declared:
"[O]n the first day of January, in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State… shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States… will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons…in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom." Obviously, everyone wasn't listening to the words of this revered Republican President!
Father Augustus Tolton, the Servant of God, whose cause for Beatification and Canonization is under consideration by the Holy See's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, was the celebrant and homilist for the opening Mass of that first Congress in 1889. He was the first priest of African descent born in the United States and ordained to serve the Church here. His canonization would be a milestone in the Catholic history of the United States.
Unfortunately, Augustus Tolton's life is all but unknown to most American Catholics, including most African-American Catholics. They do not know the many ways in which he was 'insulted for the name of Christ." He was a man beset on all sides by racism and its tragic consequences. Yet, he dared to believe that no door can be kept closed against the movement of the Lord and the power of the Spirit. "Those who suffer in accord with God's will hand their souls over to a faithful creator as they do good." (1 Peter 4, 19)
He lived his brief life of forty-three years (1854-1897) during a terrible period in American history. This was the dark age of the "Middle Passage" when Christians from Europe made their way on cargo ships to West Africa and, presuming they had the right to enslave free human beings, transported them across the Atlantic Ocean by the thousands in chains and stacked on top of one another and "sold" them to plantation owners. The ships returned to Europe filled with tobacco and cotton cultivated by African men, women, and children under the lash. Augustus was born before God as a free man, but before men, a slave of slave parents who were all baptized as Catholics at the request of the Catholic families who "owned" them and sadly did not see the obvious contradiction between their faith in Christ the Liberator and their assumption that they could "buy and sell" fellow human beings. Since Catholic institutions also "owned" human beings, the Church was not in a position to be outspoken in opposition to the slave trade. Eventually, Augustus's mother, Martha Jane Tolton, having accomplished a harrowing escape from those who "owned" her and her children, found a path to liberation via the Underground Railroad.
As a young man, Augustus showed signs of a vocation to the priesthood and, after overcoming many obstacles, he was ordained to the priesthood in Rome on April 24, 1886 at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. His superiors thought he should serve as a missionary in Africa. However, his mentor, Giovanni Cardinal Simeoni, challenged the Church in the United States to accept Father Tolton as its first African-American priest saying: "America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see if it deserves that honor." He returned to his home Diocese of Alton, Illinois, which once embraced the Dioceses of Springfield and Belleville. He was assigned to St. Joseph Church, the designated "Negro Parish." Many local priests counseled their parishioners to stay away from his parish. When White parishioners went to Father Tolton's parish to receive sacraments and counsel from him, a neighboring Catholic Pastor and Dean of the area ordered him, in no uncertain terms, to restrict himself to serving the "colored people."
Nevertheless, he became well known around the country as the first visible Black Catholic priest, renowned for his preaching, public speaking abilities, and his sensitive ministry to everyone. He was often asked to speak at conventions and other gatherings of Catholics of both races. At that time, a fledgling African-American Catholic community in Chicago needed a priest. Archbishop Patrick Feehan, aware of Father Tolton's painful experiences in the Alton Diocese, received him in Chicago in 1889. He opened a storefront church in Chicago and later built a church for the growing African-American Catholic community.
Father Tolton became renowned for attending to the needs of his people with tireless zeal and a holy joy. He was a familiar figure in the littered streets and dingy alleys, in the Negro shacks and tenement houses. He had the pastoral sensitivity needed to bring hope and comfort to the sick and the dying, to bestow spiritual and material assistance, and to mitigate the suffering and sorrow of an oppressed people.
Like most poor People of Color, then and now, Father Tolton lacked adequate health care. In July 1897, a terrible heat wave with temperatures soaring to 105 hit Chicago, during which many people died. He suffered a heatstroke under the daily scourge of heat and collapsed on the street. Doctors at Mercy Hospital worked frantically for four hours to save his life. But like St. Paul, Augustus had run the race, kept the faith, and fought the fight. He died at 8:30 in the evening of July 9, 1897. Large crowds of priests and laity participated in his Funeral Mass, singing his favorite hymn, "Holy God We Praise Thy Name."
The life story of Father Tolton carries great significance for each of us, for all African-American Catholics, and for the Church in the United States. His canonization would be a powerful sign for those who often begged God for one amidst our "trial by fire." In his September 22, 1906 "Litany of Atlanta," W.E.B. Du Bois gave voice to those pleas. "Bewildered we are, and passion tossed with the madness of our mobbed and mocked and murdered people; straining at the arm-posts of Thy throne, we raise our shackled hands and charge thee, God, by the bones of our stolen fathers, by the tears of our dead mothers, by the very blood of Thy crucified Christ: What meaneth this? Tell us Thy plan! Give us the sign! Keep not Thy silence, O God!" Let us pray often for Father Tolton's canonization. Let us imitate his heroic virtues. Let us live by the grace of our Baptism so that we too can be God's sign.
Ninety-five years after Father Tolton addressed that first Congress and a quarter of a century ago, on September 9, 1984, the feast of St. Peter Claver, the then nine African-American Catholic Bishops echoed the spirit of the Congress when they spoke in one voice about evangelization within the African-American Catholic community in their Pastoral Letter, "What We Have Seen and Heard." They wrote, "Within the history of every Christian community there comes a time when it reaches adulthood. This maturity brings with it the duty, the privilege and the joy to share with others the rich experience of the 'Word of Life.' Always conscious of the need to hear the Word and ever ready to listen to its proclamation, the mature Christian community feels the irresistible urge to speak that Word … We write to you…brothers and sisters, because each one of us is called to a special task. The Holy Spirit now calls all to the work of evangelization."
The Bishops reminded us of the words of Pope Paul VI in Kampala, Uganda, "You are now missionaries to yourselves…You must now give your gifts of Blackness to the whole Church." They reminded People of Color of the richness in the African-American experience that must be shared with the entire People of God. The African-American Bishops stressed the unique contributions African-Americans were making to the Church and to the world because of what we have seen, and heard, and felt with eyes, ears and hearts shaped by the dreaded "Middle Passage," the burden of oppression, and the transformation wrought by faith, hope, and love. "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10:39)
Let us continue by looking at our present.
II. The 2011 National Black Catholic Survey
We, too, sing America! We should all reread "What We Have Seen and Heard" through the lens of the 2011 National Black Catholic Survey sponsored by the National Black Catholic Congress and the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. This remarkable document, the most comprehensive study ever made of African-American Catholics, should be studied with care by anyone concerned about the Church in this country and about evangelization of African-American people. Some of the results are surprising and challenging to many readers. Keeping in mind that surveys are always imperfect snapshots of a given moment, these are among the key findings of the survey:
Significantly, 62% of African-American Catholics believe their spiritual, emotional and social needs are being met in their parishes and 48.2% participate in the Eucharist each week. Only 40.5% of white Catholics say their needs are being met in their parishes and only 30.4% of them participate in the Eucharist weekly. 82% of African-American Catholics feel that they are spiritually uplifted by participating in Sunday worship. For 79% of them, weekly Mass is important because they need to hear the Word of God. Only 61% of white Catholics feel spiritually uplifted by the weekly Eucharist and only 56.6% of them attend because of a need to hear the Word of God. The sense of a deep spiritual obligation to gather for the Liturgy each week is low in both groups. While 31% of African-Americans feel a strong obligation to do so, only 20.5% of white Catholics feel such an obligation. If you are unfamiliar with this survey, I urge you to get it. As we study and reflect on the findings of this first of its kind document, we will surely glean insights that will help us strengthen our pastoral ministry as we empower, equip, and evangelize.
Let us conclude by looking to our future.
III. The Upcoming Presidential Election
We, too, sing America! We are examining this thought-provoking profile of African-American Catholics at a unique moment in American history. In less than five months, the American people will be asked to exercise their great responsibility by participating in the democratic process and voting for the next President of the United States. This is a responsibility for which People of Color have a deep appreciation since we were deprived of it for so long - and, quiet as it is kept, still are, in some quarters. This year, as in the past, both candidates are imperfect human beings. The American political system does not produce saviors for the nation or knights in shining armor who fulfill all of our hopes and expectations. Neither President Obama nor former Governor Romney espouses positions consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church on important moral, social, and economic issues. Both candidates are shaped by their personal histories, their starkly different visions of the role of government and the future of the country, as well as intense pressure from the base of their political parties and major donors.
There are voices that suggest that, as African-Americans, we are all good Democrats and will most certainly vote in huge numbers for the re-election of "one of our own," the first Black President. It is argued that we will do this even if, as committed Catholics, we are profoundly disturbed by positions taken by the President on fundamental issues such as the dignity of every human life, the immutable nature of marriage, and the right of the Catholic Church to enjoy the free exercise of religion in the public square, without being encumbered by a narrow definition of what it means to be a religious institution and mandates that violate our consciences and the clear moral teachings of the Church. These voices suggest that we will vote as Democrats because we see the President's efforts to bring the nation out of the greatest recession since the depression, his unrelenting efforts to increase the level of employment, his tireless efforts to end deadly and unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his bold efforts to eliminate terrorists. We will vote for him, it is contended, because we see the urgent need for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to provide coverage for the millions of poor Americans who are uninsured - a scandal in the wealthiest nation on earth. We will vote to re-elect the President holding out the hope that somehow the administration will see the wisdom of withdrawing the Department of Health and Human Services mandate that Catholic institutions must provide what it calls the "preventive services" of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs for its employees. We nurture the hope that the clear voices of Catholics during the Fortnight for Freedom will be heeded. Finally, they say we will vote for President Obama not only because he is a likable person with a lovely wife and family, but because we instinctively feel that he cares about our plight. He is, at some deep level, on our side!
However, there are other voices. There are other voices that suggest that this view of African-American Catholics is implicitly racist because it suggests a blind allegiance to a candidate because of his racial background, while disregarding the question of character, integrity, and the strong, even aggressive positions that the President has taken that are in direct conflict with Catholic teachings. These voices remind us that the American Bishops have forcefully opposed the Health and Human Services mandate and that forty-three Catholic entities have taken the unprecedented step of filing lawsuits against the federal government because this mandate poses fundamental challenges to the Catholic Church's First Amendment right not only to freedom of worship but also to the freedom of conscience that is central to religious liberty. Furthermore, it is argued, the President is, in fact, bi-racial. Even though he has embraced an African-American identity, he is European-American through his mother. Though he is indeed African through his Kenyan father, his lineage does not connect him directly to the African-American drama of the "Middle Passage."
Thus, these voices suggest, it is one thing for us as African-American Catholics to appreciate the historic significance of the fact that a terrible racial barrier fell with the 2008 election. Nevertheless, in 2012, we must realize that it would be morally irresponsible for African-American Catholics to cast their ballots for this President's re-election, even though we admire his historic achievement. According to these voices, we should vote for Mr. Romney because his positions are more consistent with the teachings of the Church on the sanctity of developing human life in the womb. Further, he should be our choice because of his proven record as a successful businessman and generator of wealth, his experience as Governor of Massachusetts, his detailed plans for reining in the spiraling deficit, his agenda for restoring confidence in the nation, his promise to increase our military strength, and his vow to strike down the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on his first day in office because it is clearly unconstitutional in spite of the much-debated 5-4 ruling of the Supreme Court to uphold its constitutionality. These voices suggest that the argument - that he is the better candidate - which he made recently before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was persuasive, since maintaining a low tax rate for the wealthiest Americans will ultimately generate more jobs for the poor and unemployed. More than that, his religious commitments seem deeper and more authentic than those of the President and he, too, has a lovely wife and family.
But there are still other voices. These voices suggest that we should find it just as difficult to vote for Mr. Romney. They argue that it is impossible to know his true position on many of the most critical issues because he seems to have changed his positions on them when it was politically opportune. More than that, his views on economic reform in a time of crisis, his understanding of how capitalism works, and his unwillingness to raise the taxes of our wealthiest citizens seem to favor those who enjoy his exceptional level of wealth and penalize the middle class and the very poor, who are often African-American and Hispanic. This seems to show very little empathy for the neediest Americans. These voices also suggest that the modern Republican Party embraces members who seem to support or tolerate positions that reflect a bias against People of Color, that are only slightly concealed as they embrace policies that turn back the clock and attempt to disenfranchise so-called "minorities." These voices feel certain that the Governor is not on our side.
Finally, there are voices, perhaps the most dangerous of all, that suggest that there is no point in voting at all. Neither candidate is deserving of our vote. The American political system has become so corrupt that it really does not matter who is elected President. Nothing will really change for the average person, the common man, since the federal government is paralyzed by the intransigent positions of the leaders of both parties, making it impossible for them to work together and develop reasonable compromises that will be beneficial to the well-being of all citizens, especially the most needy and vulnerable. If we listen to these voices, we will abandon our essential participation in democracy and become a part of the sad statistic of nearly 45% of Americans who are eligible to vote in a presidential election and abdicate this important civic and Christian duty. No matter how flawed you may think the candidates are, you have an obligation to participate. Make sure you are registered to vote. Take the time needed to study carefully the positions of the contenders. Read, think, discuss, dispute, decide, read think, discuss, debate some more, pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance, reconsider your decision and VOTE.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, in November the American people will place the reins of government in the hands of President Obama or President Romney for the next four years. And that will be that. But ultimately, our lives and our country are not in the hands of either of them. Ultimately, our lives and our country are in the hands of God. It is by His power that we have come this far by faith. I have deliberately raised these themes concerning our past, present, and future for our reflection within the context of the Sacred Liturgy. In truth, they are not simply topics for discussion. They are issues over which we should pray and about which we really should ask the Lord for guidance. They are the stuff of our faith engaged by which we can empower, equip and evangelize ourselves and our sisters and brothers. As we African-American Catholics prepare to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, recall the words of one more voice, the great voice of the Harlem renaissance, Langston Hughes:
We, too, sing America.
(Adapted from Langston Hughes, "I, too, sing America")