I’ve spent most of my 22 years of priesthood ministering in African-American parishes in Washington, D.C.
I want to say that I have received rich blessings from the heritage of African-Americans, whose culture still retains deep roots in the sacred, and draws richly upon biblical norms of trust, liberation from sin, justice and, most importantly, the lively experience of God’s immanent presence.
I would like to share a few of the things I have learned over the years. I will focus primarily with the liturgical experience. I do not claim that what I share is true of every African-American Catholic, but collectively, as a community, these are widely shared values.
Great expectations are brought to the liturgical moment. Most of my parishioners come to Mass expecting to be moved and transformed. It is expected that God, the Holy Spirit, will show up and that he will do great and wonderful things. Before Mass there is an air of anticipation as the parishioners gather. They look forward to the songs of praise that are about to be sung, and are prayerfully expectant of a good sermon where they will “get a word” from the Lord.
All about God
Gospel music is a central facet of most African-American parishes. Yet, to be clear, a wide variety of music is sung in most such parishes — spirituals, traditional hymns, classical music and both traditional and modern gospel music. One of the glories of musical repertoire of the African-American parishes is that it is almost exclusively focused on God and what he is doing. Modern Catholic music is often too focused on us, who we are, and what we are doing. Not so in the gospel music tradition, where God is invariably the theme.
Primacy of joy
A serene and joyful spirit is at the heart of African-American worship. The Church is a bride, not a widow, and God is good! Even in difficult times we ought to praise the Lord. An old African-American saying goes: “Praise the Lord anyhow!”
Joy is manifest in many ways: clapping during the singing, stepping and swaying, uplifted hands, spontaneous acclamations, even an occasional stamping of the foot!
Now, to be sure, people manifest piety in different ways. Even in the African-American parishes not everyone is on their feet as the choir sings powerfully. But in the end we ought to manifest some glimmer of joy rather than to look like we’ve just sucked a lemon.
This is God’s time. Earthly time is largely suspended in the African-American experience of the Mass. Masses often go substantially longer than the average Catholic parish. At the African-American parishes I have served, the “High Mass” usually goes two hours. Even the Low Masses run at about an hour and 15 minutes.
Most African-American congregations are also famous for lingering after the service. Here an expression comes to mind: “Take your time leaving.” In the end, Mass is one of the highlights of the week. Why rush through it? Savor the moment. A song says, “We’re standing on holy ground.”
Freedom in the Spirit
African-American Catholic worship is careful to follow the norms for Mass but exhibits an appreciation for creativity and docility to the Holy Spirit. This is especially evident in music. It is rare that a soloist sings the notes of a song exactly as written. There is deep appreciation for this spontaneity, and it is seen as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit interacting with the gifts in the community.
A gospel song says, “Over my head, I hear music in the air, There must be a God somewhere!” There is also a history to this that stretches back to slave times. Those who were enslaved enjoyed very little freedom. But on Sundays they would gather in hush harbors and secluded locations. They would often take up the hymns they had heard from the European tradition, but adapt them. In so doing they expressed their freedom in the Lord.
All of this creativity leads to a great pregnancy and expectation in the liturgy. Who knows what God will do?
It also gives a different understanding to the presence of applause in the liturgy. Many rightly lament that, in certain settings, applause creates the notion of performance rather than worship. But in the African-American setting applause is an act of praise to God, thanking him for this manifestation of the Spirit.
The preaching moment
Sermons are usually longer in the African-American parishes. At the High Mass the sermon is usually a half-hour. There is great expectation on the part of the congregation in terms of the homily and a great interest in spending time with the Word of God. It is expected that the preacher will not only seek to inform the congregation but celebrate the liberating reality of the Word that is proclaimed. The Word of God does not just inform, it performs and it transforms. The preacher is expected not just to preach the “what,” but also the “so what,” and the “now what.”
These expectations have surely challenged me over the years to be powerfully aware of the majesty of God’s Word and to look deeper into its meaning and experience its truth and reality in my life. Only then can I really preach with the power and authority that God’s Word deserves.
And I am not alone. One of the glories of the African-American preaching tradition is that the congregation has a central role in the preaching moment. It begins with their expectation. I know that they are praying and supportive of me as I begin. They really want to hear a word and spend some time with it. There is very little of the tense, looking at the watch, “let’s get this thing over with” attitude that is sometimes manifest in parishes. This is a moment to be savored.
Jesus is here right now
There is a profound sense in African-American Catholic worship of the presence of Jesus Christ in every liturgy. Most traditional Anglo-Saxon Catholics prefer to express their faith in the true presence through silent adoration, bowed heads and folded hands. But the African-American tradition also expresses this faith through exuberant joy in the Lord’s presence and cultivates a celebratory experience that this is holy ground, that I am in the Lord’s house and that he is here.
It is a stereotype to think that every African-American likes only gospel music, wants to shout out at homilies and get excited at Mass. There is a whole range of personalities expressed and experienced at Mass. A wide variety liturgical expressions exist. At my parish we have a monthly traditional Latin Mass that is well attended, followed by Adoration.
What makes African-American worship diverse and expressive is the concept of permission. Not everyone is required to clap rhythmically at songs, but there is permission to do so. Not everyone is responsive during homilies, but there is permission.
A key theme of the African-American culture is trust in God. This has come from a long history of oppression, but also the experience that God can make a way out of no way and do anything but fail. Gospel music and the spirituals are replete with calls to a trusting and confident faith.
These songs of trust and assurance were very important for me when I suffered a nervous breakdown and slipped into a major depression. This parish literally helped sing me back to health.
Sober about sin
Some of my brother priests are surprised when they hear my homilies, and say to me that they could not get away with saying some of the things I do in their parishes. This is especially true with frank discussion about sin. But good, solid, biblical preaching is appreciated in the African-American tradition, and it is understood that the Lord has a lot to say about sin that is plain and unambiguous.
These are just a few lessons I have learned from my parishioners over the years. African-American Catholics have important gifts to share with the wider Church. I want to be sure to express my gratitude for the this gift of culture and tradition and for the gift that every parishioner has been to me. I have learned far more than I have ever preached and come to know by experience that encountering Christ does not just happen from the priest to the faithful, but also from the faithful to the priest.
Msgr. Charles Pope is pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and blogger for the Washington archdiocesan website (blog.adw.org), where this article first appeared in longer form.