We come from families whose Black Catholic roots go back many generations. We spent most of our youth in the Catholic Schools, where we were never taught that there was diversity in the Church. Revelation 1:15 describes a vision of a glorified Jesus, “…his feet were like bronze.” That Holy Scripture was enough for our grandparents to tell us; not only was Jesus made in the image of the priest and nuns who taught us, but He was made in our image as well.
In the month of November, Catholics celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day. We observe Saint Martin de Porres’ feast day (November 3) and Saint Augustine’s birthday (November 13). So in July 1990, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States designated November Black Catholic History Month to celebrate and remember the heritage of Black Catholics.
This November would be a perfect time for our Catholic Schools to follow the urging of the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) Pastoral Plan of Action 2012 by adding the historical relevance of Black saints to their religious curriculum.
In Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic letter “Porta Fidei” (13), he announced the Year of Faith, and said: “One thing that will be of decisive importance in this Year is retracing the history of our faith.” As we have retraced the steps of our forefathers, we feel called by Christ to evangelize that in our Church we have a sense of identity and pride in being Black Catholics.
Hebrews 11:1 tells that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. We had faith that Black people were a part of, and had contributed to the richness of Catholicism, although we were never taught so in school. Through research and sources like the NBCC website www.nbccongress.org we found our belief to be true. Retracing the history of our faith we learned the information was right there in Holy Scripture, and in the history of the Church.
Black Catholic history began as told in Acts 8:26-40 with the conversion by Philip of the Ethiopian Eunuch. In the first four centuries of the Church there were three Popes who were born in Africa; Saint Victor I, Saint Miltiades, and Saint Gelasius. The early Church also had Black saints like Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo, who were Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and they shaped the church into what it is today.
The Portuguese missionaries brought Catholicism to Sub-Saharan Africa in 1491, when they converted King Nzinga-a-Nkuwu Mbemba of the Kongo. In 1518 Pope Leo X consecrated the king’s son, Henrique, Titular Bishop of Utica.
In 2 Timothy 4:5, scripture tells of a solemn charge to endure suffering, and perform the work of an evangelist. The stories of the early Black Catholics in the United States should give all Black Catholics a sense of pride, and serve as demonstrative evidence to all Catholics of the contributions Blacks have made to our great Church. Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853) born a slave, became a philanthropist in New York City and was instrumental in raising funds for the first Catholic orphanage and the city’s first school for Black children. Mary Lange (1784-1882) founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious congregation of women of African descent. Venerable Henriette DeLille (1813-1862) founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, for free women of color. Servant of God Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) was the first Catholic priest in the United States publicly known to be Black when he was ordained in 1886. These holy men and women and many more that are left unnamed, witnessed and kept the faith through adversity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 158 says, “Faith seeks understanding.” Please take some time to learn more about the history of our Church; Black Catholic history.
Editor’s Note: During the month of November, as we celebrate the final days of the Year of Faith, we’d like to feature stories from YOU about the blessings and fruits you’ve experienced during this year. How did you celebrate? What did you do to grow in faith? How did your relationship with Christ and His Church deepen?
Send us your stories and reflections to firstname.lastname@example.org along with your contact information, and your reflection could be featured here on the blog in November!
Submissions should be under 500 words; deadline for submissions is October 31st.