In 1984, the 10 Black bishops of the United States composed a pastoral letter reminding the Catholic community that Black Catholics, like the newly baptized Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles, are called to evangelize their faith and serve as witnesses to the risen Christ.
The document came during a second “Golden Age” for Black Catholics in the United States, following its first gains in the late 19th century, which saw the emergence of figures like Fr. Augustus Tolton and the Georgia Healy family, born into slavery with most becoming prominent leaders in the Church.
The 24-page letter, titled What We Have Seen and Heard, is important not only to the Black Catholic community, but to all Catholics, explained Cecilia Smith-Robertson, Faith Formation Director at All Saints Catholic Church.
“It is a universal letter by the black bishops to cultural norms and specific to the universal Church,” she said. “There are quotes from the Pope at that time and the letter speaks to that. I happened to find the copy of the study guide that went with the pastoral letter when I was in seminary and thought it was wonderful, but I put it in my archives and forgot about it.”
Three years ago, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee hosted the Synod, the focus centered on evangelization. This spurred Smith-Robertson to find the letter and study guide as she recognized it coincided with Archbishop Jerome Listecki’s call for evangelization.
“Part of my goal as faith formation director is to provide forums for catechesis in the area of African Heritage history among Catholics in the world and the U.S.,” she said. “This document was perfect for a workshop in the archdiocese, not just for All Saints, but open to all in the community.”
Working with Celia Jackson of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission, they hosted a series of nine monthly Saturday workshops that began in January to discuss and work through the pastoral letter. There is no cost for each half-day session that features a presenter and includes breakfast.
July’s workshop focused on vocations with Fr. Peter Patrick Kimani, Sr. Callista Robinson, OSF, Sr. Vicki Chambers, SSND, Deacon Edward Blaze and Deacon Troy Major presenting.
“They talked about experiences, their calling and the reason they made the decision to take this journey on,” said Smith-Robertson. “We also had a panel of people involved in lay ministry.”
Attendance varies, but usually 20 to 30 people of varying cultures attend the workshop. Upcoming workshops in September and October include topics on evangelization opportunities, youth, Rite of Christian Initiation and Catholic Education, and Liturgy-Proper Preparation and Excellence in Execution, Ecumenism and the African Diaspora.
The pastoral letter brings with it responsibilities for all Catholics to know their calling, and it doesn’t have to be the priesthood, said Smith-Robertson.
Now that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is focusing on evangelization and bringing faith to others in the world, Smith-Robertson hopes that by sharing who we are as Catholic Christians, that young people should be proud of who they are and be proud to share their faith.
“We need to be aware of how we treat others,” she said. We can’t just come in and say we believe in Catholic Social teachings and now believe all of what Jesus asked us to be. I really hope that those who come to our workshops will continue learning about the Catechism and Church history, scripture and how to break open the Word. The more opportunities we have to learn about why we do what we do and our responsibilities as children of God.”
This is what we proclaim to you;
What was from the beginning,
What we have heard,
What we have seen with our eyes,
What we have looked upon
And our hands have touched—
We speak of the word of life.
(This life became visible;
we have seen and bear witness to it,
and we proclaim to you the eternal life
that was present to the Father
and became visible to us.)
What we have seen and heard
We proclaim to you
So that you may share life with us.
This fellowship of ours is with the Father
And with his son, Jesus Christ.
Indeed, our purpose in writing you this
Is that our joy may be complete.
1 John 1:1-4 – quoted in What we have Seen and Heard Pastoral Letter.