Just down the street from where I study and serve in my home Archdiocese of Baltimore is our nation’s first Catholic cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption, a visible testimony to the faith of the first Catholics in the newly formed United States of America. Yet every time I visit that holy place, I’m reminded by the physical space that for many years worship was segregated and black Catholics were required to sit in the balcony. Our family of faith in Baltimore included heroic individuals and communities like that of Mother Mary Lange (1794-1882), founder of the first African-American religious order, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and the ministry of the Josephites. Their creative witness and ongoing presence in our communities today serve as a constant reminder that their mission lives on and has work yet to do.
Since 1990, the Church in the United States, through the work of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC), has designated November as Black Catholic History Month. In a special way, the testimony of black Catholics reminds us all that as disciples of Christ, we live by memory. Celebrating this month reminds the Church just what it is that we are responsible for remembering. The act of remembering is a moral and spiritual task, part of the Church’s call to combat the sin of racism and seek new forms of reconciliation with sins of the past. Additionally, I’d like to suggest that memory lies at the heart of the Church’s celebration of word and sacrament, and briefly reflect here on why remembering our Church’s black history is so important for faithfully celebrating God’s word and sacrament each and every day.
Those who attend or have attended a parish with a strong black Catholic presence will often recognize the power of the proclamation and preaching of God’s word. In particular, this tradition of preaching reminds Catholics that our Church preaches and teaches a truly liberatory word. Jesus Christ came to deliver God’s people from all forms of bondage and oppression, restoring us to freedom.
Our biblical faith makes clear that participation in the Exodus event is intrinsically connected with our participation in the Passover. As Catholics, this means we are fed by God’s word and sacrament, particularly the Eucharist. At the Institution of the Eucharist at his Last Supper, Jesus instructed his Apostles to “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). The sacrifice of the Mass is an act of remembrance, called anamnesis, that re-presents Christ, making Jesus truly present here and now in the species of bread and wine. (I invite you to read Father Raniero Cantalamessa’s reflection.) That act of remembering is the basis for our act of thanksgiving (literally, “eucharist”). But it is impossible for us to give thanks for what we cannot remember.
Does Christ’s presence at the altar then lead us onward to become more aware of Christ’s presence in our brothers and sisters who remain subject to forms of injustice and oppression elsewhere? To this end, our bishops offer resources on how to respond to sins of racism, an important way to publicly live out the interior transformation we receive in the Eucharist.
While we live by memory, we do not simply live in the past; we are called to faithfully live out of our past. We live by memory as a sign of our hope that since God gave us a past, he promises us a future. Black Catholic History Month serves as a reminder that we have a history worth remembering and celebrating, so that we may go on living in the freedom to which Christ daily calls us.
For more resources, we invite you to visit our Cultural Diversity Resources page and scroll down to the section on African American/Black Catholics.
We invite you to read Cardinal Wuerl's Pastoral Letter, The Challenge of Racism Today, by clicking here.
Questions for Reflection: How does remembering the past help us to live more faithfully and hopefully in the future? How have you seen our Church benefit from the diversity of its members?