As our schools observe Black Catholic History Month this November, they honor a centuries-old history of spiritual strength drawn from our Church and sometimes tested by its failings.
Rich Clark offered an example of one of those failings last week—a basic refusal by some at times even to see Catholics of color—when he shared that the first prayer card where he encountered of St. Martin de Porres, the first Afro-Latino saint, illustrated him as white. Yet seeing and celebrating Blackness in our Church is important not just because it is factual, but because it can help us answer the central invitation and challenge of our faith: to see the image and likeness of God in ourselves and others, and to act in light of that truth.
According to the National Black Catholic Congress, Black Catholic history goes back in this land at least to 1738, when enslaved individuals of African descent in Florida were offered freedom and their own town with at least one condition: that they convert to the Catholicism of their Spanish slaveholders. Others date that history back as far as 1536; the first English Catholic parish, St. Ignatius in Maryland, was founded in 1641, and its Jesuit priests both ministered to and enslaved Black people, a history the Jesuits have openly grappled with in recent years.
So there were Black Catholics in our land almost fifty years before there was any Catholic Church in New York City (St. Peter’s, 1785) and over one hundred years before there was one in Cleveland (1826, Our Lady of the Lakes), the two cities in which the Partnership runs Catholic schools with deep roots in historically Black neighborhoods.
We are a tradition-loving Church that relies on an inheritance from the past to make our way in the modern world. The belief articulated by novelist William Faulkner that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past” is embodied in our churches each Sunday, when we spend a lot of time reliving three years in the life of a man—our Savior—who lived two thousand years ago. For many of us, faith is also entwined with memories, particularly of the grandparents and parents and teachers who passed it on to us, and whose quirks—the prayer cards and rosaries they carried, the songs they liked—retain an emotional punch that makes them near-sacred to us.
Black or white, if we broaden our emotion-charged sense of the past to include diverse Catholic experiences, including those of Black Catholics, then perhaps all of us may see a present and a future for our Church that does not simply include Black people, but embraces a wide range of liturgical forms and spirituality informed by Black Catholics—a tremendous inheritance of faith to pass on to us.
A powerful encounter with one dimension of that inheritance comes in the form of a short documentary, available on YouTube, called Black Faith Matters. In it, Dr. Ansel Augustine explores the Black Catholic community of Treme in New Orleans, and how reckoning with their personal histories of a Church that has both sustained and marginalized them impacts young adults in his community. In it, an interview with Dr. Augustine’s mother points to the most important reason why embracing Black Catholic history is important for Catholics of all backgrounds.
She comes to it as she explains that when her family moved to a new parish, “They had two pews that were marked off ‘black-only’ in the back of the church, so that’s where we sat. And they would serve communion to everybody before they came to serve communion to everybody in the two pews in the back. That was hurtful…”
She goes on to say, “We are all from the same God. Amen?”
“Amen,” her son replies.
If all of us do not deeply embrace our “Amen” to our full brotherhood and sisterhood with fellow children of God—if we don’t embrace the truth that God is thus Black—and Latino, and Asian, and European, and Native American—then we risk the most common temptation of faithful Christians—to frame God in our image in a way that diminishes both us and the God we claim to worship.
The integral presence of Catholics of color is not just a subject for historical and spiritual reflection in Partnership Schools; it is central to our work. Toward the end of Black Faith Matters, Dr. Augustine shares that the Catholic school connected to his parish has closed, and the strain of losing that vital part of the community is visible on his face. Partnership Schools exists in part to prevent that from happening in other communities.
We know the powerful role our schools can play in strengthening the faith practice of our Catholic students and in welcoming non-Catholic students into a positive encounter with our Church. We are not the least surprised, for example, that the first Black American elevated to the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, discerned his vocation to the priesthood at a Catholic elementary school in Chicago—before he was even Catholic.
To walk the historic and lively halls of our schools can make our hearts, as James Weldon Johnson wrote, “sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us/ sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us.” And by honoring the Black Catholic history our schools are a part of, we can strengthen our resolve to keep them a vital part of the future for our Church and our communities.