Reflecting on the experiences of black Catholics during National Black Catholic History Month

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PROVIDENCE — As Catholics throughout the United States observed National Black Catholic History Month during the month of November, representatives of the Black Catholic Ministry of the Diocese of Providence reflected on the experiences of black Catholics in the contemporary Church.

According to Patty January, coordinator of the diocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministry, this year was an especially important year for black Catholics, as the 12th National Black Catholic Congress convened in Orlando in July.

“The National Black Catholic Congress is a gathering of black Catholics from across the nation,” she explained during an interview at the chancery. “We come together for a time of worship, praise and uplifting one another as black Catholics in the faith.”

The Black Catholic movement in the United States traces its origins to 1889, when the first Black Catholic Congress was convened by Daniel Rudd at St. Augustine Church in Washington, D.C. Rudd was the founder and editor of the American Catholic Tribune, a black Catholic newspaper published first in Cincinnati and then in Detroit between 1886 and 1897. Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized black American priest and a candidate for beatification, celebrated the opening Mass.

The Congress met five times in the following years, holding its final meeting of the century in 1894. In the 1980s, the organization was revived as the National Black Catholic Congress, with the sixth meeting taking place on the campus of Catholic University in 1987. Since then, the Congress has convened every five years to celebrate the heritage and examine the needs of the black Catholic community in the United States.

Several delegates attended this year’s Congress from the Diocese of Providence, including Virginia Gonsalves, a parishioner at Our Lady of Loreto Church, East Providence, and member of the advisory board of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry. One of the highlights of the Congress for her, she said, was the opportunity to meet and listen to leaders in black Catholic ministry from across the United States.

“Growing up in Rhode Island and living in Rhode Island, we’re not as apt to come into contact with black priests [and] religious as some other parts of the country,” she said. “So I don’t think we’re as knowledgeable about our history.”

The Congress included an opening address by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, as well as a keynote address by Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of New York Times best-seller “Just Mercy” about inequality in the U.S. justice system.

“To be in a place with over 2,000 other people from all over the United States who are there to rejoice in being Catholic and being black and being proud of both, it’s really good. I enjoy it immensely,” said Gonsalves.

Another component of this year’s Congress was a meeting to develop the pastoral plan of action that serves as a guide for Black Catholic ministry throughout the country. January served as a delegate from Rhode Island at the meeting, which focused on addressing the changing concerns of black Catholics in the contemporary Church.

“The biggest concern is the change in ethnicity that many offices now are becoming multicultural, and how do we develop and plan evangelizations around the Church,” she said.

As the presence of Latinos and other ethnic groups has increased within the U.S. Church, black Catholic leaders are seeking ways to continue to offer unique ministry to black Catholics without neglecting the needs of other racial and ethnic minorities or isolating themselves from the Church as a whole. January noted the differences in the liturgical practices of ethnic and cultural groups, explaining these differences are essential to helping individuals feel comfortable in the Mass and represented in the larger Church.

“There has to be a time in the Church when each cultural group can practice their spirituality,” she explained. “Once you lose your cultural identity, you lose your identity.”

At the same time, she stressed the importance of a balanced approach to ministry, one that respects the different cultural traditions within Catholicism while also acknowledging each group’s responsibility to make sure all members feel united to the Church as a whole.

“This Church means universal. It does not mean separate. While we need to be able to pass on our heritage as black Catholics and include our spirituality, we need to make sure that the Church is being welcoming and inclusive of all Catholics.”

Gonsalves agreed that Catholics need to become aware of different cultural traditions within the Church and encouraged others to engage with Catholic communities outside their own.

“We all need to be educated. We all need to be cognizant of the fact of what is happening with different communities in the Church,” she said.

One way to learn more about the black Catholic experience, she said, is to attend events put on by the local black Catholic community. In addition to organizing the delegation to the National Black Catholic Congress, the Office of Black Catholic Ministry sponsors events throughout the year, including, this year, a Day of Reflection in advance of the Congress and a Day of Empowerment in October. The office also assists parishes, including St. Patrick Church, Providence, with preparing liturgies to commemorate National Black Catholic History Month.

“It’s not just for blacks, it’s for all of us because we’re all Catholic. And Catholic means universal,” said Gonsalves.