Dedicated to improving the lives of Black Catholics across the United States
In describing Black culture here, the focus will be on the culture of those of African descent and roots in the United States of America. This excludes African Americans who are of Caribbean descent, as well as those native to Africa. The following are some of the defining features of the African-American Catholic culture, as identified by Black bishops and theologians. African American culture is informed by faith. Regarding the relationship between faith and culture, the Second Vatican Council says, "The mystery of the Christian faith furnishes [man] with excellent incentives and helps toward ... uncovering ... a meaning which gives human culture its eminent place in the integral vocation of man,'? The Christian faith gives meaning to human culture which in turn leads men to Christ. One of the great gifts of African American culture is precisely this. According to the Black bishops of the United States, it is the sharing of "Blackness" with the Church that enriches the Church and vice-versa: "Just as we lay claim to the gifts of Blackness, so we share these gifts within the Black community at large and within the Church. This will be our part in the building up of the whole Church.?" Black culture values freedom. In many ways, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of freedom: "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (In 8:32 RSV). For Black Catholics, there is a deep appreciation for the gift of freedom in Jesus Christ. They have a strong remembrance of slavery, racism, and oppression. They understand well the meaning of freedom in Christ because they know the sadness of being denied freedom. "Even before emancipation they knew the inner spiritual freedom that comes from Jesus ... They left us the lesson that without spiritual freedom we cannot fight for that broader freedom which is the right of all."4 In gratitude for the gift of freedom given by God, Black culture seeks to proclaim and preserve freedom. Finally, the Scriptures are deep in the hearts and minds of Black Catholics. In the days of slavery, the stories of the Bible were told and retold through preaching and spirituals. These stories nourished and sustained the people in times of oppression and pain. The story of Israel - as a story of bondage and liberation - resonates deeply in the hearts and memories of Black Catholics. But more importantly, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus offer hope in the face of tragedy. This has led to a deep reverence for the Word of God and a longing to hear the Good News proclaimed.
While generalizations always fall short of capturing the full dynamism of what isdescribed, it seems necessary here to outline a few general characteristics that seem to describe Black spirituality. This will be necessary in later defining some ofthe challenges and opportunities in Black Catholic ministry. These characteristics of Black spirituality are drawn from materials written by Black theologians, pastors, and bishops. One of the defining aspects of Black spirituality is joy. According to the Black bishops, "Joy is a hallmark of Black Spirituality."? In the midst of slavery, oppression, and the difficulties of ordinary life, Black men and women have historically found great hope and joy in the Christ who frees them. This joy is often expressed in song, dance, colors, and prayers of praise and thanksgiving. It is an expression of their faith in the Good News, and it is a gift they offer to a world that is increasingly surrounded by disconnect and sadness. It has already been stated here that Black culture is steeped in the Scriptures. But without preaching, the Scriptures would never have taken root in the hearts of men and women. Black culture grows out of a strong preaching tradition: "Preaching sustained and nurtured them during the days of slavery. "6 Even today, there is a longing for the Word of God to be proclaimed in a way that is applicable to daily life. There is a longing for an encounter with Christ in the Scriptures, not only through the readings at Mass, but also through the homily which should open up the Word. Preaching in Black communities, therefore, must be done with cultural consciousness and it must be dynamically Scriptural.
Finally, there is in Black spirituality a deep love for community. African cultures have traditionally valued the community over individuality. This is a value that is still present in African-American Black culture and spirituality today. It can be seen in the liturgy and worship of Black communities, but it extends even into family life as "each one supports, encourages and enriches the other and is in turn enriched, encouraged, and supported."? The inherent communal aspect of Black spirituality is in many ways a fruit of, and seed for, life in union with the Trinity (which is the eternal Communion of Persons).
A debt of gratitude is owed to those who have nourished the faith of Black men and women from the beginning of the United States' history. Today there are over three million Black Catholics in the United States and this would not be the case if it were not for the work of so many faithful men and women committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A particular mention must be made of the Black religious orders (i.e. The Josephites and the Oblate Sisters of
Providence), those involved in the National Black Catholic Congress, and the bishops of the United States who have, in recent years, promoted Black ministry through The National Black Catholic Pastoral Plan.
Pastoral Challenges and Opportunities
There are many challenges in ministry to Black Catholics today, as well as opportunities. The opportunities are often subsumed in the challenges themselves. I will highlight here four areas for consideration. (Most of what follows in this section has been gathered from the Pastoral Letter on
Fr. Cyprian Davis wrote six books, including The History of Black Catholics in the United States, published in 1990. He was working on a revised edition of the book at the time of his death in May 2015. The publication was released in November 2016. He also had written what is considered the definitive biography of Mother Henriette Delille, the black foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family in antebellum New Orleans. Her sainthood cause was opened in 1988, and she was declared venerable in 2010.
Born Clarence John Davis on Sept. 9, 1930, in Washington, he joined the Catholic church as a teenager. He studied at St. Meinrad Seminary from 1949 to 1956, was invested as a novice monk in 1950, professed simple vows in 1951, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1956.
Davis received a licentiate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America in 1957 and a licentiate and doctorate in historical sciences from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, in 1963 and 1977, respectively. He began teaching church history at St. Meinrad in 1963, and in 2012 became the school's first professor emeritus.
Davis was an archivist of the archabbey. He also belonged to the American Catholic Historical Association and the Society of American Archivists. He also served as archivist for the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, of which in 1968 he was a founding member. Davis contributed to the second draft of "Brothers and Sisters to Us," the U.S. bishops' 1979 pastoral letter on racism, and helped write the initial draft of "What We Have Seen and Heard," the 1984 pastoral letter on evangelization from the nation's black Catholic bishops.
His other books include Christ's Image in Black: The Black Catholic Community Before the Civil War, To Prefer Nothing to Christ, and The Church: A Living Heritage. He was co-author of Taking Down Our Harps: Black Catholics in the United States with Georgetown University theology professor Diana Hayes and Stamped With the Image of God: African Americans as God's Image in Black with Sr. Jamie T. Phelps.
About Fr. Cyprian Davis
Evangelization from the Black Bishops, and from Mary Leisring of the Black Catholic Ministry Office of the Archdiocese of Denver):
1. Vocations to the priesthood. In many dioceses, such as the Archdiocese of Denver, there are few, if any, African-American priests. It is often the case in dioceses that predominantly Black parishes are given Anglo pastors, simply out of necessity. This has created a deep desire in the American Church for more African-American vocations. The Black Bishops remind us that "in this matter of vocations, so crucial to the cause of evangelization in the Black
community, we need the collaboration of the entire American Church" and the encouragement of priestly and religious vocations "must have the highest priority."8 It has been suggested that some parents do not encourage such vocations in their children because of a desire for grandchildren. Another issue may be the reality that time in a seminary or house of formation can create for a Black student "a period of cultural and social alienation."9 So the challenge of fostering Black vocations is a responsibility of the entire American Church, both in terms of planting the seeds of a vocation, and in nurturing its growth.
2. Cultural gaps. In dioceses with few Black priests, predominantly Black parishes are occasionally given African pastors - Black priests native to Africa who are currently serving in America. Unfortunately, in these cases there is a cultural and experiential gap between the priest and the community. Even the Anglo pastors, who may identify better with the broader experience of being American, often do not fully understand Black culture. The United States
bishops admit, "Too often, White ministers engaged in pastoral ministry among African Americans come into the community with willing hearts but inadequate formation.''"10 African pastors and Anglo pastors may not be an ideal situation but it is often the reality. In response, the encouragement for historical and cultural training for priests has been repeated for decades by bishops, theologians, and laity. "Anyone being assigned to a Black or predominantly Black parish ... should receive training in Black history and culture" participating in "inculturation and immersion programs."11 Such formation will help the pastor know his congregation so as to better love and serve the faithful.
3. Youth. The youth are a great hope in the Church. But, as with all youth, the youth of Black communities face particular pressures. Due to economic conditions, many Black youth in urban areas are exposed to "despair, desires and drugs, passion and poverty."12 Therefore, youth ministry that is geared toward Black youth is essential. The United States Bishops have encouraged a greater commitment to inner-city Catholic schools. Youth groups and Catholic schools provide the support structure and faith community needed to preserve the light of faith. Another growing problem is an increasing alienation of Black youth from older generations. In the current technological and post-modem era, Black youth do not value Black history and culture in the way their parents and grandparents did. As they grow older, sometimes "they are swallowed up by lifestyles which are increasingly individualistic, hedonistic, materialistic, and atheistic" because "they have forgotten that they stand on the shoulders of countless others ... who fought not just in order to survive but, in time, to thrive."13 The evangelization of Black youth, then, requires an understanding of their particular culture-within-the-culture, which is increasingly disconnected yet desperate for liberation and meaning.
4. Liturgy. The Black bishops noted that the liturgical celebration within the Black community should be authentically Black and truly Catholic. This requires an awareness and integration of legitimately African-American cultural elements, expressed "in music, in preaching, in bodily expression, in artistic furnishing and vestments, and even in tempo."14 At the same time, the liturgy is not an expression of only a particular community or culture; rather,
the liturgy is the worship of the universal Church. So cultural idioms, while very important, should not distract from the total sacramental experience. Rather, cultural idioms serve to enhance the community's experience of liturgy. For this reason, it is important that pastors in predominantly Black parishes become familiar with the riches of Black culture and incorporate them into the liturgy. 15
Where we are going
The Black bishops concluded their pastoral letter saying, "We ask that you heed the opportunities that are ours today. Let us not deprive the Church of the rich gifts that God has granted US."16 The Lord has granted many gifts to the American Church through Black Catholics. In the Archdiocese of Denver, they are a minority. This brings to the forefront the challenge of integration within the Archdiocese so that the riches of Black culture and spirituality enrich our local Church. Also, there are currently no African-American priests or seminarians in the Archdiocese. This presents a particular pastoral challenge in meeting the needs of Black Catholics in the Archdiocese. What is required for these priests and seminarians is real exposure to and appreciation for Black history and culture. Through the efforts, then, of pastors, bishops, and the faithful, the Church will be able to express its true Catholicity - one that preserves the particular features of different cultures while uniting in one voice, "We believe ... "
Fr. Scott Bailey is the Priest Secretary to Archbishop Aquila in Denver, and has been ordained a priest for almost four years.
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Making a 'joyful noise unto the Lord,' these congregants testify to the energy and devotion and earmark Black Catholic spirituality.
Black Catholic Histories by Fr. Cyprian Davis
Ministry in the Black Catholic Community
By: Rev. Scott A. Bailey
Maryland was one of the first colonies settled in what is now the United States of America. This colony was settled by Catholics, and named after our Blessed Mother. In this way, the Church was planted in America where it took root "among Indians, Black slaves and the various racial mixtures of them all."1 These groups are the oldest lines of Catholicism in our nation today. An honest telling of the story of the American Church must recognize the vital role Black men and women have played in the building-up of the Church from the beginning. Despite betrayal and mistreatment at the hands of other men, they have shown deep and personal faith in Jesus Christ their Hope. Emerging from a long history of slavery and segregation, Black Catholics today maintain and cherish many aspects of their rich heritage, namely Black culture and spirituality. These two realities of the Black Catholic experience will be examined here, followed by some considerations of current challenges and opportunities in Black ministry.
9. Ibid., 23.
10. National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here I Am, Send Me: A
Conference Response to the Evanglization of African Americans and
The National Black Catholic Pastoral Plan (Washington D.C.: United
States Catholic Conference, 1989).
11. Diana Hayes, "Black Catholics in the United States: A Subversive
Memory," in Many Faces, One Church, ed. Peter C. Phan and Diana
Hayes, 63 (Lantham: Sheed & Ward, 2005).
12. What We Have Seen and Heard, 27.
13. Hayes, 59-61.
14. What We Have Seen and Heard, 31.
15. Cf. Here I Am, Send Me.
16. What We Have Seen and Heard, 34.
1500's to 1900's
1500's to 1900's
Timeline of U.S. Black Catholic history
by Cyprian Davis, from uscatholic.org
The History of Black Catholics in the United States (1990)
From Publishers Weekly: "The story of the black Catholic community in the United States begins with the story of the Catholic church in Africa." With this historical overview, Davis, professor at Indiana's St. Meinrad School of Theology, begins his task--"to retrieve a mislaid memory" of the black Catholics in the United States for the last 300 years. The issue of slavery--including the uneasy responses of America's first bishop, John Carroll, in the late 18th century, and the pro-slavery views of John Hughes, outspoken archbishop of New York during the Civil War--is positioned within the political and social fabric of those centuries. Yet, as shown in this masterfully concise history, the faith flourished among such black Catholics as Pierre Toussaint, the 19th-century New Yorker now proposed for sainthood. Davis's groundbreaking research should pave the way for further exploration of the growing black Catholic community.
Watch the video presentation by Fr. Davis below.
History of Black Catholics
1900's to Present
1900's to Present