Victoria Betsill and Thomas Reiter: Black Catholics’ faith inspires in challenging times
What do novelist Toni Morrison, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, basketball coach John Thompson, gymnast Simone Biles and acclaimed Pittsburgh jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams all have in common?
If you guessed they’re black, you’ve got it half right.
The correct answer is that they, together with approximately 3 million other Americans, are black Roman Catholics. Rich in history and blessed with uncommon faith, this community of black Catholics has much to offer the church in these challenging times.
Black Catholics are a diverse group encompassing African-Americans, Caribbean-Americans and recent immigrants from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and Central America as well as South America. They actually outnumber better-known black religious denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).
The army surgeon general and highest-ranking female graduate of West Point, Nadja West, is a black Catholic. The recently appointed archbishop of the Washington, D.C., archdiocese, Wilton Gregory, is black. A number of black Americans are on the journey to potential canonization, including Venerable Augustus Tolton and Sister Thea Bowman (namesake of the Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg). But, the famous, the prominent and the “some day” saints do not fully capture the day-to-day black Catholic experience.
Black Catholics have lived in our country since at least the 1600s. For many years thereafter, they adhered to their faith, with little ecclesial support or pastoral care. Some religious orders even owned slaves.
Beginning in the 19th century, black Catholic churches began appearing in numbers. The first such church in the Diocese of Pittsburgh is generally understood to date back to 1889. Founded by the Holy Ghost Fathers of Duquesne University, it survives today as St. Benedict the Moor, adjacent to Freedom Corner, in the Lower Hill District.
The church, a historic landmark, is perhaps best known for the 18-foot statute of St. Benedict the Moor, welcoming arms extended, atop the church steeple.
Largely black but also of other ethnicities, parishioners reside in the Hill District, other parts of the city and the suburbs; many travel considerable distances to attend weekly Mass. The other predominantly black Catholic church in our region is St. Charles Lwanga, Mother of Good Counsel Church, in Homewood, established in 1992 and served by the only African-American priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
For much of our country’s history, black Catholics have encountered not only the discrimination common to all black people, but also a church whose hierarchy, traditions, iconography and membership were overwhelmingly white.
Black American Catholics thus were a minority within the country, within the family of black Christians and within their chosen church. Yet, reflective of its name, the Roman Catholic Church always has defined itself as “catholic” — that is, worldwide and universal, welcoming believers of any ethnicity.
Many black people embraced this inclusive vision of Christianity, which was embodied in Catholic teaching, practiced by dedicated priests and religious sisters, and manifested through a network offering Catholic schooling, social services and community activities.
Most black American Catholics nowadays belong to racially mixed parishes. Nonetheless, a sturdy pillar of American Catholicism remains the predominantly black church — Catholic, faithful and resilient.
Always orthodox, worship at these black Catholic churches naturally varies. Many, however, share features that both uplift their congregations and delight, inspire and educate those fortunate to visit: an unconditional and enthusiastic welcome to all, regardless of ethnicity; an emphasis on and reverence for Scripture; a receptivity to divine grace; beautiful and heartfelt singing, often with a “gospel” or “spiritual” sound; joyous interaction between the congregation and the celebrant, such as clapping and praise responses; a communal sign of peace, continuing for 10 or more minutes; and, perhaps most remarkable, the fact that services last about twice as long as at other Catholic Masses and no one leaves early.
In some black churches, a new element is found: the charism of African culture and spirituality within a Catholic setting, as offered by recent African immigrants and their families as well as by African priests.
Today, the Catholic Church in America finds itself attacked for numerous failings, real and perceived.
A disengaged and demoralized laity results. At this perilous moment, the church can count on, as it always has, its faithful black women, men and children.
More than that, the extraordinary communities of ordinary black Catholics, through their genuine, warm and celebratory religious spirit, offer an inspiration and a beacon — a precious gift lovingly bestowed on, and made available to, all.