Thursday, November 03, 2011

"To Be Black and Catholic"

For the 50th time, today the church universal marks the feast of St Martin de Porres, the Peruvian Dominican who became the first Black American to be raised to the honors of the altar on his canonization by Bl John XXIII in 1962.

And to celebrate the day -- in a fusion of cultures the likes of which the Stateside church has still to experience -- on his home turf, this feast sees statues of the saint literally danced around:

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Closer to home, meanwhile, today's memorial is widely held as the patronal feast of the US church's 3 million strong African-American bloc -- a community that often doesn't get the spotlight it deserves... especially considering that, on their own, there are at least a million more Black Catholics on these shores than the entire national membership of the Episcopal church.

To be sure, its profile was quite different not all that long ago. A century after the Brothers Healy, Father Tolton and Mother Drexel, the 1970s and 80s would come to be a second "Golden Age" for the Black church among us as its own were given the forums to captivate the mainstream and, to an unprecedented degree, take their place in institutional leadership.

In the years since, though, many leaders and layfolk in the community have expressed discouragement over a diminishing tide born of two convergent domestic trends: a shift of the national church's wider focus toward the booming Hispanic population, and the prominent emergence of a fresh immigration from Africa, above all from Nigeria and Ghana, whose impact has been most powerfully felt in the South.

Along those lines, it is indeed conspicuous that next month will mark five years since an African-American priest was last named to the episcopacy, after a decade that brought the appointments of no fewer than six others. Yet lest anyone forgot, "increas[ing] the Catholic community’s understanding and acceptance of cultural diversity in the church" has been one of the USCCB's five national priorities in the conference's most recent cycle of at-large concerns.

Accordingly, the timing of St Martin's Day sets the backdrop for the US' annual Black Catholic History Month, which has been observed since 1990. So to mark the community's long walk and its blessings on life of the whole, we'd be remiss to not turn to one of the most luminous figures of the African-American journey among us.

Still remembered widely for a contagious spirit that "portrayed the face of Christ," "made doers of watchers" and served as a powerful force of joy, unity and inspiration in the church, months before her premature death from bone cancer at 52, already confined to a wheelchair, the great and mighty Sister Thea Bowman delivered an address on the Black Catholic experience to the American bishops at their 1989 June Plenary, held in the gym at New Jersey's Seton Hall University.

While their accommodations for the Spring Meeting have markedly improved over two decades, odds are the bench has not seen as electrifying, candid and soulful a speaker since.

Presented that day with the qualifier that she "needs no introduction," it'd seem that many of this generation could use precisely that -- not only to the woman, but to the story, and to a lived experience of the faith that is one of Stateside Catholicism's richest and most unsung treasures.

Ergo, church, without any further ado, one of our all-time greats....

To end on a fairly related note, less than a year after that memorable preach -- having been awarded the American church's most venerable prize on her deathbed -- Thea Bowman's lead champion in the hierarchy, himself a front-line fighter of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, offered the following tribute on her death:
"At a time of much division in the church, Sister Thea possessed the charismatic gifts to heal, to bring joy to the church.

She had no time for useless, destructive arguments. She was too busy celebrating life. 'Be woman. Be man. Be priest,' Sister Thea would say. 'Be Irish-American, be Italian-American, be Native-American, be African-American, but be one in Christ.'

She was poet, preacher, master teacher and blessed with an extraordinary voice. She challenged us to own our individuality, yet pleaded for us to be one in Christ. This was her song, and no one sang it more eloquently than Sister Thea Bowman."
Tomorrow, said patron marks his 80th birthday, bringing his Curial memberships and vote in a conclave to their close.