Friday, January 24, 2020 - Updated: 2:18 pm
What do novelist Toni Morrison, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, basketball coach John Thompson, gymnast Simone Biles and Pittsburgh’s acclaimed jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams all have in common? If you guessed they’re black, you’ve got it half-right. The correct answer is that they, together with approximately 3 million other Americans, are black Roman Catholics.
Rich in history and blessed with uncommon faith, black Catholics has much to offer the church in these challenging times.
Black Catholics are a diverse group encompassing African-Americans, Caribbean-Americans and recent immigrants from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, Central America and South America. They actually outnumber better-known black religious denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Army surgeon general and highest-ranking female graduate of West Point, Nadja West, is a black Catholic. The recently appointed archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, is black. A number of black Americans are on the journey to potential canonization, including Venerable Augustus Tolton and Sister Thea Bowman (namesake of the Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg). But the famous, prominent and “someday” saints do not fully capture the day-to-day black Catholic experience.
Black Catholics have lived in our country since at least the 1600s. For many years thereafter, they adhered to their faith with little ecclesial support or pastoral care. Some religious orders even owned slaves.
Beginning in the 19th century, black Catholic churches began appearing. The first such church in the Diocese of Pittsburgh is generally understood to date back to 1889. Founded by the Congregation of the Holy Ghost from Duquesne University, it survives today as St. Benedict the Moor, adjacent to Freedom Corner in the Lower Hill District of Pittsburgh. The church, a historic landmark, is perhaps best known to Pittsburghers for the 18-foot-tall statue of St. Benedict the Moor, welcoming arms extended, atop the steeple.
With a largely black membership, but comprising other ethnicities, parishioners reside in the Hill District, other parts of the city and the suburbs. Many travel considerable distances to attend weekly Mass. St. Mary Magdalene Parish’s Mother of Good Counsel Church in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood is the other predominantly black church in our city. Black Catholics also belong to many other parishes in the diocese.
For much of our history, black Catholics have encountered not only the discrimination common to all black people, but a church whose hierarchy, traditions, iconography and membership were overwhelmingly white. Black American Catholics thus were a minority within the country, a minority within their chosen church, and a minority within the family of black Christians, most of whom were Protestants.
Yet, reflective of its name, the Roman Catholic Church always has defined itself as “catholic,” that is, worldwide and universal, welcoming all believers of any ethnicity. Many black people embraced this inclusive vision of Christianity, which was embodied in the Catholic faith and teaching, practiced by dedicated priests and religious sisters, and manifested through a vast network offering Catholic schooling, social services and community activities.
Most black American Catholics today belong to racially mixed parishes. Nonetheless, a sturdy pillar of American Catholicism remains the predominantly black church — Catholic, faithful and resilient. Always orthodox, the worship experience at these black Catholic churches naturally varies. Many, however, share features that both uplift their congregations and delight, inspire and educate those fortunate to visit.
Such features include: an unconditional and enthusiastic welcome to all, regardless of ethnicity; an emphasis on and reverence for Scripture; a receptivity to divine grace within the communal celebration; beautiful and heartfelt singing, often with a “gospel” or “spiritual” sound; joyous interaction between the congregation and the celebrant, such as clapping and praise responses; a communal sign of peace, as people walk up and down the aisles exchanging hugs and spiritual good wishes; and, perhaps most remarkable, the fact that services last about twice as long as at other Catholic Masses and no one leaves early.
In some black churches, a new element is found: the charism of African culture and spirituality within a Catholic setting, as offered by recent African immigrants and their families as well as by African priests.
Today, the Catholic Church in America finds itself attacked for numerous failings, real and perceived. A disengaged and demoralized laity results. At this perilous moment, the church can count on, as it always has, its faithful black women, men and children. More than that, the extraordinary communities of ordinary black Catholics, through their genuine, warm and celebratory religious spirit, offer an inspiration and a beacon — a precious gift lovingly bestowed on, and made available to, all.
Betsill and Reiter are members of St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.