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They knew the sting of racism but kept their lamps shining brightly

Archbishop Wenski's homily at Mass marking the start of Black Catholic History Month

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily during a Mass Nov. 8, 2020, to mark the start of Black Catholic History Month. The Mass was celebrated at St. Augustine Church and Catholic Student Center in Coral Gables.

Today, I am here with the archdiocesan Office of Black Catholics to observe Black Catholic History Month which since 1990 is celebrated every November. You might have missed hearing about this – since the news media have been distracted by other stories, I guess. You might ask, why we observe Black Catholic History Month in November – probably because November 3rd was the feast day of St. Martin de Porres. And you also might ask, what are we observing Black Catholic History Month here at St. Augustine? And certainly, I could have gone today to either St. Philip Neri or Holy Redeemer Parish, two historically Black Catholic parishes in the archdiocese. Of course, your patron saint, St. Augustine of Hippo, was African – born in what is now modern-day Algeria. But, perhaps, the main reason to come to this parish and not Holy Redeemer or St. Philip Neri is that they already know something about Black Catholic History – and those of us who are not African Americans could profit from a greater appreciation of the contributions of Black Catholics to the life of the Church here in the United States.

Of course, the history of the African American experience is a history of some lights and lots of shadows. And, today, racial prejudice and animus is still real – it would be foolish to ignore or deny this. Some fear that acknowledging racial prejudice risks unleashing corrosive resentments and anger – or that conceding the problem in our nation or in our Church would put into question the legitimacy of America’s founding or the truth of our Catholic faith. But to deny or suppress the truth about racism does nothing to heal racial tensions; embracing the truth can allow us to realize the universal call of each one of us to holiness and thus renew and strengthen all our institutions, national and ecclesial.

To speak of the experience of African Americans in the Catholic Church brings us, of course, to the point of Black Catholic History Month. Black Catholic History recalls a history with many bright lights. For example, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks of the positive influence of Catholicism in his early life, especially the access to education the Church provided to him. Our Catholic school system has helped generations of Black Americans – both Catholic and non-Catholic. But, this history has too many dark shadows: for example, early in the last century, the first Blacks in Miami, many of Bahamian origin, worshipped at Gesu Church, but they had to sit in last pews – and only receive holy Communion after the white people did. Such incidences were regrettable but unfortunately one could recount many more wrong and hurtful ones.

We cannot change history or the impact that it had on past generations. But we should learn from it. And while we must fully acknowledge, lament, mourn and grieve those sad chapters in the history of Black experience in America, we also need to ALWAYS remember this is not the whole story of African American history.

African Americans have contributed to the economic, academic, social, cultural and moral well-being of this nation. Without African Americans, some of America’s crowning achievements would never have been possible.

Would American moral leadership be as strong without Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. or Thurgood Marshall? Would American literature be as prolific without the giants of the Harlem Renaissance and the writers and poets of our generation? Would American music have conquered the world without pioneers like Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson and James Brown? Could we claim America as the most innovative nation on earth without the invention of the modern traffic light, the perfection of the carbon filament or the use of the mathematics that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon? – to name only a few inventions. In government, law, science, industry, education and more, African Americans have given us tremendous leadership in this country.

And the same is true of African American Catholics and their contributions to our Church and our community. Last week, Pope Francis named Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., a cardinal – the first African American so named – although we have had African cardinals for some time. And here in the archdiocese we revere the memory of Mrs. Athalie Range, a Catholic and early civil rights hero of Miami. Black Catholics continue to contribute here to our Church and community – as teachers, principals, priests and deacons, just to mention a few roles.

You might have also heard that the founder of the Knights of Columbus, Father Michael McGivney, was beatified last week by Cardinal Tobin in Hartford, Connecticut. He wasn’t African American – he was Irish American. But did you know that the next six Americans in the “pipeline” towards sainthood are all African Americans?

Three are in the first step, having been recognized as Servants of God: Sister Thea Bowman, a noted evangelist and nun who died in 1990; Julia Greeley, born a slave, known as Denver’s Angel of Charity, who died in 1918; Mother Mary Lange, born in Cuba of Haitian parents, founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore; she died in1882; the other three have already been recognized as having lived lives of heroic virtue and are called Venerable: Mother Henriette DeLille, a free woman of color who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, she died in 1862; Father Augustus Tolton, after overcoming many obstacles placed in his way, including being refused admission to a seminary in the U.S., became the first Black ordained in the U.S.; he died as a parish priest in Chicago in 1897; and Pierre Toussaint, a former slave from Haiti who worked as a hairdresser in New York, known for his charity, especially among the victims of yellow fever. He died in 1853 and is the only non-bishop buried in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

They knew the sting of racism even within the Church – for then as now while the Church is in the world, too much of the world is in the Church. You may remember Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares (or weeds) that grow together in the field until harvest time.

Like the wise virgins of today’s Gospel, these notable African American Catholics prepared themselves for the coming of Christ not by living down to the biased expectations of those around them but by doing what the Lord expected of them, namely by living the Gospel. Like St. Martin de Porres before them, they lived lives of holy humility – and, remember, humility means not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. Practicing heroically the virtues of faith, hope and charity, they kept their lamps burning brightly so as to welcome the Bridegroom who is Jesus Christ. They were resilient, they were constant, they were wise.

Today’s Gospel parable has a sobering message, for the foolish bridesmaids are excluded from the wedding feast. A judgment awaits us all. But since we do not know “the day or the hour,” Jesus encourages us to “stay awake.” In other words, Jesus encourages us to accumulate the oil we will need for our own definitive encounter with the divine Bridegroom. Jesus – through his Word and his Sacraments – wishes to show us how to distill drop by drop the oil of fidelity and devotion into the lamps of our hearts. These future saints point out the way for us. For as we heard in the first reading: “Resplendent and unfading is wisdom, and she is readily perceived by those who love her and found by those who seek her.”

Comments from readers

Gustavo - 11/08/2020 10:44 PM
The month of November is dedicated to the poor souls in purgatory. 1: A plenary indulgence, applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted to the faithful (1) who, on any and each day from November 1 to 8, devoutly visit a cemetery and pray, if only mentally, for the departed; (2) on All Souls’ Day (or, according to the judgment of the ordinary, on the Sunday preceding or following it, or on the solemnity of All Saints), devoutly visit a church or an oratory and recite an Our Father and the Creed. 2: A partial indulgence, applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted to the faithful (1) who devoutly visit a cemetery and at least mentally pray for the dead; or (2) who devoutly recite lauds or vespers from the Office of the Dead or the prayer Eternal Rest.

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