Black and Roman Catholic: ‘A people of His own’

November 25, 2014

HOUSTON — “It is only through the grace of the Almighty’s Holy Spirit that we are here this evening as members of the Roman Catholic Church and Black Americans!” Those words still echo as they were proclaimed several years ago by a Black Roman Catholic priest during a parish mission. 

It is estimated there are in the world today 270 million people of African descent in the Roman Catholic Church. 

A February 2013 report, released by The Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned through The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, noted that there are three million people in the United States who identified themselves as Black and Roman Catholic. 

A staggering figure since the Black population in the United States is estimated to be more than 36 million people (13 percent of the total United States population), a figure and percentage worthy one would think that merits strong inquiry and analysis beginning in Vatican City to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and to each one of us who profess to be a member of the Church of Rome, regardless of our ethnicity. 

In July 1990, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States voted to establish November as Black Catholic History Month in order to give honor and thanks to all the holy men and women from the African diaspora who embraced and nourished the Catholic Faith. The month of November was selected because of the many significant feasts people of African descent celebrate. 

On Nov. 1, the Solemnity of All Saints, the faithful pause to elevate the lives of all the saints, especially those 701 recognized saints of African descent. Nov. 2, The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls), the faithful offer in humble remembrance to all their ancestors destroyed by the inhuman conditions they endured in crossing the Middle Passage to this “New World.” 

The humility and love expressed by St. Martin de Porres to the poor and downtrodden commemorated on Nov. 3, the date of his death, and the birth of St. Augustine of Hippo, the revered father and doctor of the Church remembered on Nov. 13.

Like any history of a people, the narrative as Blacks and Roman Catholics is filled with many achievements and events. 

It was Blacks (both slave and free) who helped to find the oldest European town in the United States, St. Augustine, Fla. 

In 1693, the Spanish government offered freedom in Florida to slaves who convert to Catholicism. In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade as the “inhuman traffic in negroes.” 

Vatican City overshadowed the United States in race relations between the 17th and 20th centuries. However, far too many times the papacy endured fierce opposition from members of its own hierarchy and religious orders in the United States with the acquisition and possession of slaves and their acquiesce to slavery. 

In January of 1889 almost 100 Black Catholic men met with President Grover Cleveland on the last day of the First Black Catholic Lay Congress in the history of the United States. 

Daniel Rudd, a journalist from Ohio and founder of the American Catholic Tribune, became a leader for the Black laity in the Church. Fiercely proud of the Catholic Church, Rudd claimed the Church of Rome as the one place of hope for Black people. 

Rudd recruited delegates to the first Black Catholic Congress, hoping to let them exchange views on questions affecting their race; then uniting on a course of action, behind which would stand the majestic Church of Rome. 

The delegates’ statement calls for Catholic schools for Black children, endorsed temperance, appealed to labor unions to admit Blacks, advocated better housing and acknowledged the ministry of several Religious Orders for aiding Blacks. 

Rudd also helped organize the first lay Catholic Congress for the entire United States in 1889, where he insisted that Blacks be treated as part of the whole, not as a special category. 

At the fourth Black Catholic Congress in 1893, the Congress called attention to the Church’s failure in its mission “to raise up the downtrodden and to rebuke the proud.” 

Thus, Black Catholics made the social implications of Catholicism into a primary feature of the faith — a new and bold approach for its time. 
The National Black Catholic Congress was re-established in 1985 as a coalition of Black Catholic organizations. 

The first renewed Congress, Congress VI (the first five took place in the 1800s), took place in May of 1987 in Washington, D.C. The most recent Congress was held in Indianapolis, Ind., in 2012.