I had the privilege to attend the Black Catholic Congress (BCC) this past summer in the Washington D.C. area with a number of parishioners of The Basilica. I was deeply moved by this experience and inspired by the faith of those who gathered. The Black Catholic Congress takes place every five years and includes an action plan for Black Catholics and others to take back to their respective dioceses and parishes. The vast majority of the attendees were Black Catholics, so for Janice Andersen and me we were afforded the opportunity to accompany our sisters and brothers in Christ and to view a glimpse into a unique and vibrant Catholic culture. I for one come away from this experience enriched, grateful, and inspired and share below my reflections. I offer my reflections during Black Catholic history month where we honor and celebrate the rich history of Black Catholics, including the compelling resilience our brothers and sisters have manifested historically in response to injustice, exclusion, harm. There are several Black Catholics on the road to sainthood and I hope you will hear about their amazing lives of faith soon at The Basilica.
The Catholic Church in the United States is more vibrant than in many parts of Europe. Notwithstanding this relative comparison, there is a significant decline among young Catholics and others who consider themselves disaffiliated from organized religion. There are a number of factors which contribute to this dynamic in the United States and globally. Time does not permit me to more fully explore this reality here, but it should be noted that this reality was also mentioned several times during the listening sessions held at the parish earlier this year. Added to this dynamic, I also note the pernicious polarization that afflicts our American society and the Catholic Church. So what would renewal of the Catholic Church in the United States look like? Given what I witnessed at the Black Catholic Congress in July, I believe Black Catholic spirituality provides a template for a broader Catholic renewal in the United States. Below, I briefly describe several characteristics that I witnessed at the BCC which I believe manifest light and wisdom for the broader Catholic Church.
Many in our society and younger Americans yearn for authenticity and belonging. When faith leaders and institutions do not live up to their ethical standards and values, the credibility of the faith is diminished in the eyes of those within the faith community and outside. Authenticity and intentionality were manifestly present at the BCC. The gathering represented 3% of Black Catholics in the United States. Black Catholics have experienced the sting and harm of exclusion and injustice inside the Church and in society – they know the harmful effects when Catholic leaders and others of faith betray the values that Jesus taught his disciples. The group gathered in July was so intentional and authentic in living their faith – the feeling was electric and inspiring.
Second, I was struck by the sense of joy that accompanied those who gathered for the BCC. This was a joy that flows from the deep reservoirs of faith and closeness to Jesus – a savior who also suffered injustice, violence, and exclusion. The faith on display in the gathering was so Christ-centered – it was a beautiful thing to witness and experience. This joy reached a crescendo at the opening Mass we celebrated at The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. There was an extraordinary hymn sung during communion which communicated the joy and gratitude of all for having received the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist. It is a scene so beautiful and pure that I will not soon forget it.
Finally, I was struck by the rich humanity of those gathered for the BCC. In addition to the deep faith, joy, and Chris-centered messages mentioned above, there was a rich humanity which manifested itself in good humor and a lack of ideological sorting. I did not get the sense that those gathered agreed on all of the pressing and controversial issues of the day. Rather, it seemed clear that the most important thing on tap was the shared faith, shared identity and experiences, and the common humanity that we all share. Presently, politics seems to be the cultural religion of the people and most conversations often recede into the political milieu which seems to dominate conversation and many social interactions. This seemed to be a group that was rightly ordered according to first principles: our faith in God, our love of Jesus, and our shared Catholic communion. If we happened to disagree on particular political or social issues, this was certainly not a game changer for those gathered for the BCC. What is more, I really don’t remember these issues coming up at all.
I look forward to learning from, being inspired by, and accompanying in faith Black Catholics at The Basilica of St. Mary and in the Archdiocese for years to come. In the meantime, the characteristics I witnessed and experienced last July provide a potent template for reform and renewal in the Catholic Church: intentionality and authenticity, an abiding joy borne of faith, closeness to Jesus and his passion, wonder and gratitude in response to the gift of the Eucharist, and a rich humanity which emphasizes what we share rather than what may divide us.
Fr. Daniel Griffith