Preparing Black shepherds for the rank of bishop

January 10, 2017

Recently at a gathering, some fellow brother deacons observed that we need some more Black bishops. I have been grappling with this concept for quite some time, and I made my thoughts and feelings publicly known to those within the Episcopal ranks of the Church in the United States.

While employed in corporate America, I had a mentor whom I loved deeply, and he provided me with some valuable insight that helped to advance my career. One of the lessons he shared with me on advancing is one that I still remember to this day and one that served me well. He said, “In order to be ready for advancement, you must do two things — prepare yourself in advance for the next position and then prepare one of your subordinates to take your present position.” 

My mentor’s thought process included staying late after the work day, coming in on weekends to learn the advanced position that I desired, and doing the same for a subordinate. His argument was based on the concept that management would have difficulty denying me the promotion if I were fully prepared for that enterprise and if I had prepared someone to step into my previous assignment without any delay or further preparation. That scenario served others and me beautifully during my 25 years in corporate America.

To address my brother deacons’ declaration about more Black bishops, I tried to apply that same theory. Of the eight active African American bishops currently ministering in the United States, two will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 within three years, three will be mandated to retire within six years, and two will tender their letters of retirement to His Holiness within 12 years. Finally, Bishop Shelton Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, our baby bishop, will retire within 21 years. A reality and certain truth is the Church of Rome in the United States needs more Black shepherds now and in the very near future. 

Numerous priests of African descent are ready, prepared and qualified now to serve as an auxiliary bishop or Ordinary of a diocese in the United States. However, to address my confreres’ concern, we must examine that reality from two distinct points of view. 

First, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) must mandate that our priests of African descent be afforded every opportunity to be prepared and appointed to the episcopal rank within Holy Mother, the Church. 

Second, before ordination, priests of African descent must make their aspirations clear to their Ordinary or Religious Superior that they wish to pursue further studies in preparation for a position as judicial vicar, chancellor, vicar general and rector of seminary. These roles of the Church are where our bishops are currently being called, and these positions provide the expertise and counsel needed to guide a diocese. 

If all a candidate has on his curriculum vitae is that he is a well-traveled preacher, he cannot make much of an argument for not being elevated to the rank of bishop. Preaching is a very important ministry within our Church because it follows the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ, but we must also recognize the global mission of the Church. 

As a seminarian, he must declare in a concise and concrete manner that his desire is to pursue advanced degrees following ordination in Church studies, such as Canon Law, Liturgy, and Church history. He must be provided opportunities to teach and be a member of the formation faculty at the diocesan seminary. He must also be promised the possibility and opportunity of working within the perimeters of the Tribunal and Chancery Office. 

Concerning a man’s work and calling, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” 

Let us pray that The Master will bless us with men of African descent willing to serve Him and His Church as priests who are Spirit-filled and joyfully dedicated to becoming well-versed in the daily administrative operations of shepherding God’s people as a bishop. 

Let us also pray that the members of the USCCB delegated with submitting potential candidates to His Holiness for elevation to the rank of Bishop will be opened to the workings of the Holy Spirit and see the grace, worthiness, and dedication of their brothers of color. And may we now and forever remain In His Light. 

Deacon Leonard Paul Lockett is the vicar for Catholics of African Descent.