Black Catholic Ministry

Earlier this year the nation took time to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. The occasion provided an opportunity not only to remember an important moment in history, but also to reflect upon the current status of civil rights in our country.

The next few years will give us many opportunities to continue the reflection and the conversation. We have coming up the 50th anniversaries of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. In between those there will be other events of the 1960s civil rights movement that will be remembered and talked about.

As we all know, the 1960s marked an important time for our Church as well. This time also marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. The proceedings of that Council changed our Church as dramatically as the civil rights movement changed our country.

It wasn’t long before these two historic events intersected. As black Americans were finding a new voice in the direction of our country, black Catholics were finding a new voice in the direction of our Church. In 1968, two groups came into being that continue to have an effect on our Church to this day. A group of priests, religious brothers and seminarians met together and formed the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus; and a group of religious sisters met together and formed the National Black Catholic Sisters’ Conference.

The Momentum Grows

Over the past 50 years the momentum continued to grow in ministry to black Catholics as can be seen in the development of such things as: the National Black Catholic Seminarians’ Association, the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons, the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators, the National Association of African–American Catholic Youth Ministers, the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, the re-emergence of the National Black Catholic Congress and the establishment of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies based at Xavier University in New Orleans.

In addition to that, a number of conferences have been developed to address issues in ministry to Black Catholics such as: the Lyke Conference and Unity Explosion for liturgy, the Interregional African–American Evangelization Conference, Sankofa for youth, the Black Catholic Men’s Conference and the Black Catholic Women’s Conference to name a few. Besides these, there are many efforts that are happening on the parish, diocesan and regional levels too numerous to mention here.

So, as we are now 50 years removed from these historic events, this is a good time to do some reflecting as to where we are in our ministry to black Catholics in the United States. Some may wonder if we still need to give so much special attention to this issue. Here we can take a lesson from history. We know that if we do not stay vigilant we can easily slide back into old ways.

Look at what happened after the Civil War. Because of Reconstruction, blacks began to move into all aspects of society. Blacks were even elected to state legislatures and to the United States Congress. When Reconstruction was ended, with some thinking that we had moved beyond the ways of the past, Jim Crow laws took over, and segregation became the way of the land and lasted for another 100 years.

And we don’t have to go so far back in history to see this at work. Just recently the U.S. Supreme Court struck down one of the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act under the thinking that the country had changed. Within a few hours of that decision we saw some states beginning to implement voter suppression laws. If there is something we want to achieve, we have to be constantly striving for it or else we begin to lose ground.

Pushed to the Background

This is true for the Church in regards to ministry to black Catholics as well. If we want our Church to be strong in the black community, we need to be constantly working at it. If we let up, we will lose ground. We have our own historical precedent for this.

Following the Civil War, Rome was concerned about the evangelization of the freed slaves. They even proposed ways in which the Church could accomplish this. But the nation’s bishops told Rome that they would take care of this on their own. Well, shortly thereafter, the large wave of European immigration took place. With so many of these immigrants being Catholic, the bishops’ attention soon turned to taking care of them and the evangelization of the freed slaves was pushed to the background. A major opportunity was missed.

After the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, there was once again attention given to the Church’s efforts in evangelizing the black community. Much was said about what needs to be done. Then again, shortly thereafter, our country saw another large wave of immigration. This time it was from Latin America, and then later on from Asia and Africa. With many of these immigrants also being Catholic, many in the black community feel that once again ministry to black Catholics has been pushed to the background while we tend to the needs of new immigrants.

Pastoral Plan of Action

Now, 50 years after the Second Vatican Council, what are the most pressing needs in ministry to black Catholics in the United States? For this we can look to the National Black Catholic Congress XI which was held in July 2012 in Indianapolis. That Congress issued a Pastoral Plan of Action based on the National Black Catholic Survey taken in 2011 by the University of Notre Dame. Examining the Plan, these are the things we need to address:

• Parishes and Schools – Around the country the Church seems to be in the mood for consolidation. This is a reality that has been brought about by current financial situations. But it is also brought about by the current situation of numbers of priests. Whatever the motivation, numbers play a big part in the decisions that are being made.

In many cases, since the size of predominantly black parishes and schools is small, many of them are being closed, merged or consolidated. While we are well past the day when black Catholics are expected to attend certain parishes, we can’t lose sight of the advantages that having a predominantly black parish has to a diocese. By having a predominantly black parish, the diocese has a way of staying in touch with what is going on in the black Catholic world.

Whether that be with liturgical trends, social issues, lives of the saints or Church history, there are many things that a black parish can bring forth that you will not find in parishes that are more diverse. Also the development of black leadership can happen more frequently in those parishes. In addition, the Congress declares that our schools continue to be critical means of evangelization.

• Liturgy – The celebration of the Eucharist is central to our liturgical life as Catholics. The expression of that celebration is vitally important. Today many black Catholics are drawn to an expression of liturgy that springs from their historical roots. That includes the songs that are sung, the instruments that are used, the environment of the worship space and the preaching.

The move to make all Masses everywhere look and sound the same ignores this reality. Over the years we have developed our own liturgical composers and our own style of preachers. However without the availability of black parishes, the opportunity to use their gifts would be extremely limited.

• Evangelization – In the 50 years since Vatican II we have become ever more aware of our Gospel calling to spread the Good News to all people. Like the first disciples, that means going to the people wherever they are. In our day we have taken more a position of opening the doors and saying to people to come on in.

In reality we have to be willing to go out of those doors ourselves with the message of the Gospel and bring them in. In order to do that we need to know more about the issues that the black community faces. We need to know more about the continuing effects of racism and discrimination in our society and be willing to show the people how the Catholic Church can address those issues.

To come to people and say that you should be concerned about this, without talking about what they are actually concerned about, will not bring about an openness to our message. We have to know what’s going on in the community so that we can be effective evangelizers of the Gospel.

• Vocations – Missionaries have long said that the Church never takes hold in a land until it develops an indigenous clergy. We can say the same in regards to the black community of the United States. It is no secret that the number of clergy and religious are down throughout our country. And many decisions are being made based on the number of clergy and religious that are available.

So if we are talking of increasing the black Catholic community, we need to working toward the growth of black clergy and religious. This not only means getting more people to enter seminary or formation, but it also means giving them the support they need to make it to ordination or vows. As Congress points out, this is the job of every Catholic, not just the job of vocation directors.

• Youth — Reaching out to the next generations is a concern of all communities. At Congress XI, the youth who were involved issued their own plan. They want to be involved in parish life, they want to stay strong in faith, they want to grow in the spirit. The Church needs to help make that happen by addressing the concerns that they have, realizing that they face societal issues that are unique to them while they also face the issues that all youth face.

We must remember that we have not completely defeated racism, discrimination and hatred. And our youth see this in the form of incarceration rates, graduation rates and job opportunities.

• Marriage — This is another issue that is affecting society as a whole but the black community in a particular way. The Congress Pastoral Plan states:

As African–Americans, however, our urgent concern is that men and women are not committing themselves in Holy Matrimony. Historically, close family ties have been the foundation of African–American life, so we lament that today in the United States, more than 45 percent of black men and women have never married, more than 70 percent of African–American babies are born out of wedlock, more than half of black children live in a single-parent household, and only 28 percent live with their biological and married parents. These staggering numbers are a clarion call to our entire community.

When advertisers want to target a certain population to buy their product, they do things to let that population know that “we want you.” They will use faces and language and situations directly from the populations that they target.

In the Church we tend to do the opposite. We will put out one message and say this is for all people. When we do this, many in the black community will say “they are not talking to me.” As Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 16, we can learn from the sly people of the world. If those who seek to make money can do so from targeted advertising, we can be as successful in spreading the Gospel from targeted evangelization. But that also means doing whatever is necessary to know and understand your audience. And that is the great challenge for the Church in the United States today.

FATHER TAYLOR was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis on May 20, 1978. He is pastor of Holy Angels Parish, Indianapolis, dean of the Indianapolis West Deanery, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Multicultural Ministry, and president of the National Black Clergy Caucus.