In 1990, the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus dedicated November as Black Catholic History Month, highlighting the presence and contribution of people of African descent in the Universal Church.
“Nothing good comes out of Africa” was unchallenged narrative until recently. The introduction of Christianity to Africa was only credited to European missionaries. We must peel off layers of historical assumptions to counter this fallacy.
Calling Africa “The Dark Continent” meant different negative connotations to different people. The powerlessness of people of African descent around the world gives credence to stereotypes that Africans cannot do anything on their own. The implicit and explicit racism carved literal and figurative space for Africans as their place and destiny. Countering this false narrative is met with fierce resistance, including from academia.
In the last 50 years, the West constructed political division, splintering the continent between North and sub-Saharan Africa, reinforcing the false narrative. Such dichotomy negates sub-Saharan Africans participating and contributing to the Egyptian and North African civilization. In order to counter such a political construct, we have to unite North Africa with the rest of the continent. Ancient historians like Herodotus did not witness such divisions.
The physical resemblance of Egyptians and Ethiopians (Nubians) was an accepted fact. After the social construct of racial divisions, Western scholars were preoccupied with the phenotype of ancient Egyptians as non-blacks. Their approach contradicted the one drop of blood theory to become non-white. Yet, ancient Egyptians always claimed that their ancestors came from Ethiopia, the abode of their gods. Ancient Egyptian and North African languages belong to the Afro-Asiatic family that originated in sub-Saharan Africa, effectively neutralizing the false narrative.
The conquest of Egypt by Greeks and Romans followed at the rise of Christianity. Egypt was the melting pot of its time. Hellenistic influence was undeniable. However, Alexandria as the intellectual center predates the Greek conquest, which inherited the world’s biggest library from Egyptian dynasties. Even Greeks credited their knowledge and religion to Egypt, sending their children there to learn. When Greek became the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean Basin, the Septuagint Bible was translated from Hebrew in Alexandria, and became the canonical Bible of the Church early on.
Many Alexandrian elites converted to Christianity and started systemizing its teaching, contributing to the Church’s theological and catechetical development. St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) is credited with initiating such an approach. Origen of Alexandria (185-254) introduced the systematic method of Biblical interpretation, coining the phrase “Divine Word.” St. Anthony the Hermit (c. 251-356) founded hermitic monasticism, known as Anchorite tradition. St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order, got his inspiration from the life of St. Anthony, and was introduced to the West by St. Athanasius the Great. The monastic traditions in the West became the light during the Dark Ages, when the marauding vandals destroyed civilization.
St. Moses the Ethiopian (330-405), a former bandit converted to Christianity, became one of the greatest Abbots of the desert fathers. These are only a few of the African saints and doctors of the Church. St. Pachomius the Great (292-348), the founder of the Cenobite Monastic tradition, pioneered the communal life of religious orders. St. Athanasius the Great (296-373) was a young theologian at the Council of Nicaea I. He was principal architect of the Nicaean Creed, the doctrinal summary of the Christian faith. St. Athanasius ordained St. Frumentius as the first bishop of Axum (current Eritrea and Ethiopia). Christianity became the state religion of the Axumite Empire. Axum became the first to mint its currency with a Christian symbol, the cross. St. Cyril of Alexandria (376-444) was a main player at the Council of Ephesus, where Mary was declared, “Theotokos – Mother of God.” These Church fathers are prominent in Eastern Christianity. However, their influence in the West (Latin Church) is no less important. Egypt, being the intellectual center of its era, had its share of heretics, too.
Another critical African influence on Christianity was North Africa from today’s Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Until the conquest of Islam, the region had vibrant and dynamic Christian communities.
Prominent Christian scholars and saints came from here. Among the best-known were Tertullian (c. 155-220), who was a Christian thinker and coined the saying, “The blood of martyrs, seed of Christians.” St. Cyprian (c. 200-258) was a bishop and martyr, who protected the unity of the Church. Saints Perpetua and Felicity were a mistress and a servant, martyred together. However, St. Monica (c. 322-387) and St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), mother and son, are best known in the West. St. Augustine is the spiritual and theological father of the Latin Church. His theology and spirituality were and still are foundational for Catholics and Lutherans. Additionally, three African popes are little known: Pope Victor I (189-199), Pope Miltiades (311-314) and Pope Gelasius (492-496). These African Church fathers and mothers gave the shape and the texture of Christianity as we know it. Such presence, influence and accomplishments are historical facts that should enthuse Africans to name and claim their role in the history of Christianity.
African-American Catholics in the United States were more familiar early on with St. Cyprian, St. Augustine and St. Monica because of their prominence in the Latin Rite tradition. Recently, St. Moses the Ethiopian became popular because he was identified as Black. This could be misleading. There was no skin color line or hierarchy of races in the early Church. Whenever they built their own, African American Catholics chose African patron saints for their churches. A couple of examples are St. Augustine in Washington, D.C., and St. Monica in Chicago. Every United States diocese has churches named after African saints; however, they are not recognized as such. The only exceptions are St. Benedict and St. Martin de Porres. In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, St. Monica, St. Augustine, St. Anthony the Hermit and St. Catherine of Alexandria are a few examples. Unfortunately, there is no apparent connection to their African heritage. It is critical that the Church be intentionally inclusive to achieve true universality; especially, the Church has to strive to right the wrongs of history made in its name.