Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the Nov. 20, 2014 issue of the Catholic Herald. It is being reprinted in advance of the Nov. 8 Black Catholic Summit at the Cousins Center, St. Francis.
November is dedicated to commemorate Black Catholic History. It gives us an opportunity as a local church to acknowledge the contributions of African-American Catholics to our local church as well as to celebrate the historical foundations of Africa to the Catholic Church in our tradition.
We often possess a myopic vision of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, we see only as far as the limits of our local parishes and we often believe the church is just like our local parishes.
The ethnic divisions of the recent past caused us to build churches that were no more than blocks apart in many urban settings. Even in small towns, each ethnic group wanted its own church.
Immigrant Poles, Germans, Italians and Irish built their churches and the division among the communities was painfully obvious. They brought their own prejudices with them. The prejudices were manifested in the different languages and customs.
The African-American Catholic faced a different type of prejudice that stemmed from his or her skin color. This runs deep in the practice of the society and in our churches.
I am sure many would be surprised the tradition of the African-American Catholic dates to the Acts of the Apostles with the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip the deacon. Most European communities trace their Christian roots to 1,000 or 1,200 years ago. Yet the Ethiopian eunuch was a member of the royal court, an educated individual reading from the prophet Isaiah.
Philip interprets for him the passage from the prophet and how Jesus is the fulfillment of all that is written. “As they traveled along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?’ Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and he baptized him. When they came out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, but continued on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8: 36-39).
The African Church is replete with leading figures who contributed to the spiritual, intellectual and evangelical development of the early years of Christianity. St Augustine of Hippo (Nov.13) is an African and responsible for the theological development of doctrine. Much of what we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church can be attributed to St. Augustine.
Remember in the last papal election many speculated an African might be elected pope. There were several leading candidates and commentators stated we might have our first African pope.
However, there were three African popes in the early church: St. Victor I (186-198), St. Miltiades (311-314) and St. Gelasius I (492-496), which emphasizes the influence of the African Church in early Christianity.
I mention the contributions of various Africans to the church because we can forget its influence predates many of our European cultures.
The exploitation of Africans in the slave trade was the great wound in the life of Christianity and in western civilization. Slavery was often the booty of war. But there was a shift in the commercialization that accompanied the discovery of New World and the need for labor.
Human beings were treated as economic property to be bought and sold, families were destroyed and persons forcibly separated from their native land. These human injustices created scars that would be embedded in the psyche of the African people for generations, especially in the United States.
It’s remarkable Christianity was so strongly maintained in the slave culture of the Americas in this climate of inhumanity. It is a mark of the strong spirituality of a people that suffered to witness to the faith.
We admire saints like Martin de Porres (Nov. 3) who ministered to the slaves of Peru or the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, who despite being forced to the back of the Communion line and not permitted to enter a church, took his own savings as a businessman and philanthropist and bought freedom for a number of slaves and even helped build the Church of Old Saint Patrick in New York.
He now rests in St. Patrick Cathedral in a community that often rejected him because of his race.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Spe Salvi,” chooses to highlight St. Josephine Bakhita (1869) who, at the age of 9, was sold five times on the slave market, physically abused and emotionally mistreated. She was finally sold as a domestic to Italian merchants. In Venice she came to know God and the true “padrone,” master above all other masters.
She chose to serve this master, was baptized and took her vows in the Canossian Daughters of Charity. She spent her whole life witnessing her liberation that she received from her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ and spreading the “hope” of redemption.
The African-American Catholic community in Milwaukee is a product of the rich soil that grows from a faith filled with hope in the redemption and joyful acceptance. In our African-American Catholic churches one finds a hospitality and acceptance rarely encountered by others, despite the experience of racism and intolerance which has dotted the Catholic landscape here and elsewhere.
Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop in Chicago and a Milwaukee native, whom I have had the pleasure to share ministry, is promoting the cause of the canonization of Fr. Augustus Tolton. An African American priest and former slave, Fr. Tolton’s life was spent in works of charity and evangelization. A recent miracle has been offered to further his cause. Let us pray we will be celebrating another victory for the Catholic Church.
African American Catholic ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has been furthered by the work of the Black Catholic Commission. In collaboration with the Intercultural Ministries for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the commission advances the implementation of the National Black Catholic Pastoral Plan.
Ministers are educated and empowered to do the work of catechesis and community service. I had the privilege of commissioning members for ministerial service in their parishes.
The first parish I visited in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, when I became archbishop, was St. Martin de Porres, an African American Catholic community.
There is a power in a faith that has been born in suffering and embraces the cross. May our African American Catholic community help us carry our cross in faith expressing the Hope of our Salvation.