Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Priscilla A. Greear - Florida Catholic
CORAL GABLES | At a Mass kicking off Black Catholic History Month, Archbishop Thomas Wenski invited Catholics of every race and ethnicity to learn from the exemplary faith, leadership and contributions of African Americans despite oppression throughout Church history the United States.
This year’s liturgy, sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministry, took on added poignance following the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans and subsequent racial justice protests. Yet above all the Mass celebrated their integral experience in American Catholic history and historic achievements: Archbishop Wilton Gregory of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., will become the first African American cardinal on Nov. 28, 2020, and the next six American Catholics on the road to sainthood — after recently beatified Father Michael McGivney — are African American.
The Nov. 8, 2020 Mass was held on the feast day of St. Martin de Porres, the first Black saint of the Americas who transcended racial barriers in 1600s Peru to enter the Dominican Order and care for the sick and poorest. On the rainy Sunday, the interparish choir uplifted the congregation with jazzy Gospel songs complete with drums, from “Standing in the Need of Prayer” to “This Little Light of Mine.”
Flanked by a statue of St. Martin de Porres and a painting of a Black Madonna, Archbishop Wenski acknowledged the regrettable “sting of racism” of Church history while also noting that Catholic schools empowered many Black Americans. But as one example, Black Bahamians had to sit in the last pews and receive Communion last at Miami’s Gesu Church.
“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,” the archbishop said.
But that’s “not the end of the story of African American history,” he noted, listing crowning achievements despite overwhelming obstacles, from the invention of the modern traffic light to the math that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon.
“Would American moral leadership be as strong without Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther king Jr. or Thurgood Marshall?” the archbishop asked.
Locally, he highlighted Catholic civil rights hero Athalie Range and the many Black Catholic leaders in the archdiocese today. In the saintly pipeline are Servants of God Sister Thea Bowman, a noted evangelist; Julia Greeley, a former slave known as Denver’s angel of charity; and Mother Mary Lange, who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore. Three declared venerable are Mother Henriette DeLille, who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans; Father Augustus Tolton, the first U.S. Black ordained; and Pierre Toussaint, a former slave turned hairdresser in New York who was beloved for his charity.
These Church heroes point the way for every Catholic. “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,” Archbishop Wenski said.
Katrenia Reeves-Jackman, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry, thanked the archbishop, the people of St. Augustine Church, and the parish's administrator, Father Richard Vigoa, for hosting the “wonderful” celebration. “They’ve made us feel so good about coming out and being with you today,” she said. “We, like you, are proud to be Catholic and we were Catholic yesterday, today and tomorrow.”
Susan Aguilar of Miramar said she felt inspired by the liturgy and the courage of the future saints. As for Archbishop Gregory, “it was exciting to know he will become a cardinal. Especially with what is going on, we have a voice.”
Dorothy Mordica said she appreciated the honesty about the racism Black people have struggled to overcome to stay Catholic. “It was good to show people the reality of what went on and to be doing something about it.”
Estrella Cordero loved the “very joyful” liturgy, adding that it was especially meaningful after having studied Catholic social justice teaching with St. Augustine’s young adult group. Cordero’s friend, Rachel Mpanu-Mpanu, a medical student, initiated the study on the U.S. bishops' most recent pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.” They started meeting virtually after the pandemic.
“We’ve had a space to share our experiences of being Black and Catholic in the United States. And we started meeting with Father Vigoa about making the parish more open to Black people and being anti-racist,” said Mpanu-Mpanu.
Hispanic parishioners Christopher and Marianna Carrasco loved the Mass. “It was a wonderful experience. I think it’s extremely important for us to encounter another type of spirituality within our community,” Christopher Carrasco said.
“And it’s beautiful how a minority can help the world encounter salvation, inspire salvation,” he added. “It’s a beautiful invitation for us to grow in our identity to become saints where we can.”
A Venezuela native, Marianna Carrasco agreed. “It’s beautiful to see how diverse our Catholic family is, our human family. And the importance of learning about our siblings in the faith, in our Catholic family. It’s important to know one another and what makes us special, unique and important. It brings that richness to the family.”