Overcoming economic and interracial injustice through empowerment

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PROVIDENCE — Sister Patricia Chappell, SNDdeN, calls them “Hmmm” moments.

There was, for instance, the time that Bishop George V. Murry, one of the few African-American prelates of the Church, was mistaken for the gardener when visiting a seminary in plain dress.

Or the time that an EWTN commentator reporting on the visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia dismissed a musical presentation by a local historically black parish as “an over-preening display of multicultural chatter” during a live broadcast.

Moments like these may not represent intentional, overt racism in the Church — but they still have the effect of making the more than three million Catholics of color in the United States feel somewhat alienated from their brothers and sisters in Christ.

They are, in other words, moments that ought to make us say “Hmmm.”

Fighting “Hmmm” moments, according to Sister Chappell, a Notre Dame de Namur Sister who currently serves as the executive director of Pax Christi USA, begins with reminding black Catholics of their valuable contributions to the tradition of American Catholicism, and encouraging them to become more active both in their parishes and in the national Church.

That was the goal of the Day of Empowerment, held on Saturday, October 14, and hosted by the Diocesan Office of Multi-Cultural Ministry, of which Father Nolasco Tamayo serves as the director and Patty January serves as the coordinator of the Office of Black Catholics.

The event brought together roughly 50 Catholics of color from parishes throughout the state, and featured keynote speakers from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and Xavier University’s Institute of Black Catholic Studies.

For seven hours, participants joined in prayer and discussion in the gym of St. Patrick’s Church in Providence, opening with a traditional African Libation Ceremony. The ritual consists of pouring water out onto a living plant while calling out the name of certain ancestors to be honored; the congregation responds to this by calling out “Ase” (pronounced “Ah-shay”), a Yoruba word that corresponds to the Hebrew “Amen.” Representatives from Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in New Bedford led the Libation Ceremony. One of these parishioners, Jack Livramento, supplied the plant used in the water-pouring ceremony.

The focus of the first half of the day was a discussion of Catholic social teaching, one which Sister Chappell said was designed to “lift up those of us who are not only black Catholics, but who are about peace, and justice, and liberation — because that’s what the Gospel is all about.”

Sister Chappell was joined by fellow Sister of Notre Dame Anne-Louise Nadeau. The two emphasized the need for all Catholics to commit themselves to “economic and interracial justice in the US, and to dismantling racism … because we believe in the social teachings of our Church.”

The other keynote speaker of the event was Therese Wilson Favors, a professor at Xavier University in New Orleans. Her presentation explored the rich history of African American Catholicism, which she referred to as a “history that empowers us.”

“When we look back at the response our ancestors had to racism in their time,” Favors said, “we can find ideas that will give us strength and help us to craft our own stance.”

Father James Ruggieri, pastor of St. Patrick’s, said the church was honored to have been asked to host the Day of Empowerment.

“We have a very diverse parish, so we felt that it was an especially nice fit,” he said.

The culmination of the event was a Mass celebrated by Father Ruggieri, which featured a Litany of Black Saints (including St. Martin de Porres, St. Maurice, and St. Moses the Black, as well as Catholics of other ethnicities who ministered to African-American communities, such as St. Peter Claver and St. Katherine Drexel).

In all, the Day of Empowerment raised roughly $500 for the Office of Black Catholic Ministry, which will devote the money to funding future events and programs.

November is Black Catholic History Month, which will be commemorated with a special Mass, as well as another gathering at St. Patrick’s. Anyone interested in attending either event can find more information on the Diocesan website.

According to Coordinator January, both promise to be, much like the Day of Empowerment itself, a wonderful opportunity to promote healing and brotherhood in the great, universal Church.