Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What We Have Seen and Heard

For all the attention that surrounded last week's triennial General Convention of the Episcopal church in Indianapolis, it's worth noting that a gathering is afoot this weekend in the same place for another faith-group with a million more members than the Episcopals... and a Catholic one, to boot.

Surely, your Full-Salaried Media's told you all about it. Or, per usual, maybe not.

Indeed, today in Indy -- likewise the site of last month's Catholic Media Convention -- brought the opening of the quinquennial Black Catholic Congress, at which some 3,000 delegates will represent the 3 million-plus African-Americans of the Stateside fold.

The roots of the Congress date to 1889, when a Washington gathering was believed to be the first national gathering of Catholic laity in the US. This time around, meanwhile, the four-day event is slated to celebrate a belated 25th anniversary of what's known in the community as "The Pastoral" -- What We Have Seen and Heard, the landmark 1984 letter issued by the African-American bishops of the US.

Its focus on evangelization, the legendary document came amid what's been termed a second "Golden Age" for Black Catholicism on these shores, following its first boon in the late 19th century, which saw the emergence of figures like Fr Augustus Tolton and the illustrious Healy clan. Yet these days, while its famous zeal remains, the ebullience of the '80s has been replaced in at least some quarters by a sense of being "lost in the shuffle" amid the recent ascendancy of Hispanics in the American Catholic orbit, and the sizable growth in numbers of Catholic emigres from Africa -- above all from Nigeria -- who've come with an ecclesial style and emphases distinct from the classic Black Catholic experience.

While the community's signal leader now presides over a juggernaut archdiocese of a million members and another of its prelates serves on the executive of the US bishops, perhaps the most telling evidence of a different era is that it's been nearly six years since an African-American priest has been elevated to the nation's episcopate. Still, amid what could be seen as a "crossroads" moment, though, it seems fitting to mark the Congress with the words of the community's most iconic figure of modern times -- the preach given by a weakened, wheelchair-bound, but still mighty Sister Thea Bowman to the US bishops at their 1988 summer meeting, as the saintly Franciscan who "made doers of watchers" entered the final stages of the bone cancer which would claim her two years later at 52....

Now, if Thea were still with us, it seems a safe bet that this whole LCWR eruption would be stitched up and defused in about ten seconds. And should anyone doubt that, well, Michael Pfleger and Bernard Law clearly won't be having church together at your funeral like they did at hers.

Seriously, she really was just that good. And it's our shared loss and shame that, 22 years and so many rough seas later, anyone who even comes close in our midst remains conspicuous by their absence.

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With cultural diversity being one of the five super-priorities indicated by the US bishops over recent years, as the Black church gathers in the Midwest, this weekend in Albany likewise brings the annual Tekakwitha Conference -- the lead convocation of the Stateside fold's roughly 600,000 Native American Catholics, who comprise a fifth of the nation's total aboriginal population.

Of course, this year's edition of the event is even more prominent than usual given the upcoming canonization of its patroness, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, in Rome on October 21st. (Kateri's feast -- at least in the States -- was last Saturday, 14 July. In Canada, she's commemorated on April 17th.)

Even if it's a coincidence, the group's meeting in upstate New York -- where the Mohawk convert and catechist lived for many years before her death in present-day Quebec at 24 in 1680 -- likewise evokes the more recent American likewise cleared for sainthood come the fall: the Syracuse-bred Mother Marianne Cope, whose fame of sanctity was secured by her work on Molokai, the Hawaiian leper colony where she aided and eventually succeeded the now-St Damien de Veuster as its principal caretaker.