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Pope’s visit warmed some Black catholics, chilled others

By Avis Thomas Lester/Urban News Service
On October 25, 2015

Pope Francis kisses a child inside Our Lady Queen of Angels School in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City during his U.S. visit last month.
Credit: Stephanie Keith-Pool/Getty Images

While Donna M. Moore was eager to see Pope Francis, Martina Callum decided to stay away.

Moore, of Glenn Dale, Maryland, and Callum, of Baltimore, both were born into Catholicism and raised in families close to the faith. Both still attend the churches where they were baptized, took their first communions, and celebrated confirmation. Moore worships at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in southeast Washington and Callum at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Charm City, the nation’s oldest African-American Catholic congregation. 

Moore believes Pope Francis covered the themes relevant to Black Catholics during his recent visit to the United States; Callum believes Blacks largely have been locked out of the church, an issue she believes the pope failed to address.

“I didn’t look at his trip as the time for him to address issues about Blacks. I looked at it as he was coming to see us all as Christians,” said Moore. “He talked about us looking out for each other. He talked about poverty, homelessness, and the environment. He talked about Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. He didn’t speak specifically to African Americans, but he touched on a lot of our concerns.”

As the pontiff was feted by legions of the faithful during visits to Washington, New York City, and Philadelphia last week, many African Americans were among the throngs.

During his Sept. 24, speech to a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis cited Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, which, the pontiff observed, King led to “fulfill his dream of [attaining] full civil and political rights for African Americans.”

Michael P. Davenport, 53, a security expert from Bowie, Maryland, was among 28 honor-guard members who led the procession for the Papal Mass at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“I thought things should be colorblind and positive,” said Davenport, who was confirmed while attending boarding school in England. “I’m an optimist. My dad was a postal worker in one of the richest parts of D.C. He told us all about segregation. We heard it from our grandparents, too ... King said: ‘We shall overcome.’ We have overcome – knowing and not forgetting that we have a way to go.”

Although Black contributions to the Catholic Church often have been “silenced, forgotten, overlooked, or ignored,” Blacks were excited about the arrival of Pope Francis, said C. Vanessa White, director of the Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union.

Vera Patterson, former chair of the Black Catholic Advisory Circle at the Archdiocese of Seattle, said she believes the Catholic Church has done a poor job of retaining Blacks and recruiting African-American priests.

“And for the few who come, there is little support for them,” said Patterson, whose own son, after growing up Catholic, became a minister in the Church of Christ.

However, Francis is supported by many Blacks, Patterson observed. “He said in one of his speeches in Washington that the church’s relationship, historically, with people of color, has not been one of respect. That was a positive message for African Americans to hear.”

According to the National Black Catholic Congress’ website, the late Father Cyprian Davis, author of The History of Black Catholics in the United States, wrote that slavery “touched every part of the Catholic Church.”

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI condemned slavery, although “Catholic slaveholders did not consider slavery immoral, since the Bible did not forbid it,” concluded Davis. “Many priests and religious sisters owned slaves. So did some bishops. Even some African-American Catholics had slaves.”

Pope John Paul II apologized for Christians’ involvement in the slave trade during a 1985 stop in Cameroon. “ ... We ask pardon from our African brothers who suffered so much because of the trade in Blacks,” reported The New York Times.

Today, Xavier has fewer than 1,000 members, and she attributes that decline partly to a lack of connection that many Blacks feel with the Catholic Church.

“We are still on the sidelines as African-American Catholics,” said Callum.

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