Father Josh Johnson, one of the narrators in the compelling documentary “A Place At the Table: African Americans On the Path to Sainthood,” says he never saw a Black priest when he was growing up. He didn’t see role models for the priesthood who looked like him. Still, he responded to God’s call and now serves as vocations director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and in campus ministry at Louisiana State University.
The six Black Catholics featured in the documentary (see story on Page 1) led exemplary lives and are deserving of canonization. This month is a perfect time to become acquainted with their stories and the stories of other exemplary Black Catholics, including Father Johnson. The Catholic University’s Cultural Engagement website notes, “November marks a time when the Church prays for all saints and souls in loving remembrance, as well as a time to recall the saints and souls of Africa and the African Diaspora” (https://tinyurl.com/2v3ufx3v).
In 1990, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus voted to designate November as Black Catholic History Month, in part, because of dates important to Catholics of African descent. The Catholic University identifies these dates:
Nov. 1: All Saints Day: an opportunity to review the lives of the hundreds of saints of African descent in the first 300 years of the Church.
Nov. 2: All Souls Day: a time to remember Africans lost to cruel treatment in the Middle Passage crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
Nov. 3: The feast day of St. Martin de Porres. The first black American saint, he was canonized by Pope John XXIII in 1962. St. Martin de Porres exemplified God’s love for all people.
Nov. 13: The birth of St. Augustine in 354 A.D. A Doctor of the Church, he was from North Africa.
Nov. 20: The death of Zumbi of Palmares in Brazil. He was the South American founder of a free state for Blacks.
Given Father Johnson’s experience growing up, it might be surprising to learn there are 3 million African American Catholics, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That number includes seven active American bishops, including one cardinal and one archbishop, and five retired bishops. There are 250 African American priests, 437 deacons, 75 men of African descent in seminary formation for priesthood in the United States, 400 African American religious sisters and 50 religious brothers (https://tinyurl.com/3zrtzc8f).
Also of note, the African American population in the U.S., estimated at just over 41 million people, is expected to grow to 62 million by 2050. How might we welcome more African Americans into the Catholic Church and into the priesthood in our dioceses? At present, nine priests from Africa currently serve in our diocese. Two of them are incardinated here. They fill a vital role in our diocese, which like many other dioceses has a shrinking number of U.S.-born priests. However, the majority of these African priests will return, eventually, to their home countries.
Black, white or brown, we are the one body of Christ called to go out and make disciples. The adversity endured by the six African Americans on the path to sainthood should never recur. The possibility is worrisome because of the atmosphere of animosity in our nation today.
“Black Catholic History Month provides us opportunities to learn and share the whole history and rich heritage of Christian Catholicism,” says Thomas A. Mason IV, who leads the St. Martin de Porres Society of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. The society invites all of us to celebrate Black Catholic History Month “as we strive for racial unity in today’s society through education, love and prayer.”
Some suggestions for fostering education, love and prayer:
• Attend the Feast of St. Martin de Porres liturgy today at 5:30 p.m. at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, featuring an African Choir. After Mass, participants will make a candlelight procession around the cathedral grounds and gather at the shrine of St. Martin de Porres for reflection. Light refreshments will be served afterwards in the Sears Diocesan Hall.
• Visit The Catholic University Cultural Engagement website (https://tinyurl.com/2v3ufx3v) for information on Black Catholic History Month.
• Visit the National Association of Pastoral Musicians website (https://tinyurl.com/2r5bcw6m)
• Visit the Black Catholic Messenger website, which offers a list of in-person and virtual events celebrating Black Catholic History Month.
• Learn more about the documentary “A Place At the Table: African Americans On the Path to Sainthood” (www.blacksaintsmovie.com/mem).
• Pray the short prayer against racism (https://tinyurl.com/ync9fs6r).
• Read “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, A Pastoral Letter Against Racism” (https://tinyurl.com/2p8se9ma).
Let us pray that young Catholic men respond to God’s call to the priesthood and have role models who look like them.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor