The November 14 post on the Archdiocese of Washington‘s blog alerted be to something I was not aware of. November is Black Catholic History Month. In a Church that takes her history and celebrations thereof seriously, this is one “diversity” recognition that I was not aware of and is another reason I am thankful to Our Lord for the Church. In full disclosure, for the all of the African Americans that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and being friends with, none were Catholic – at least that I recall. The closest to a “Black Catholic” is one of my best friends whose mother is of Hungarian descent and thus was baptized him in an Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church. Other than him, the only dark complected persons I knew that were/are Catholic are my cousins and friends from Puerto Rican – and I do not consider them to be African Americans – so that did not really count. (I am Puerto Rican and am very light complected, often classified as Caucasian, so for me Puerto Ricans are Americans – Hispanic Americans – no matter the color.) The celebration detailed below is larger in scope than just African American Catholic history. This is a mandate for two reasons. First, the Church is ancient and universal so her history stretches back over 2,000 years. Second, the proximity of her founding is one that was not a stranger to those of darker tones and by default, many of those who shaped the early Church would, in my opinion, be considered “Black,” at the very least African. Much of this history was often ignored and glossed over but it exists. Thanks be to God that modern historians and scholars now, for the most part, do not allow personal prejudices enter into the equation when evaluating the physicality of persons with respect to their origins. Thus we can accept the very real possibility that Our Blessed Lord was a dark-skinned Jew with hair that I affectionately call a “griffa” in honor of my sister’s own hair.
Time to reflect, learn and celebrateIn my school, we have a small display board dedicated to Black Catholic history. One of the items on the board is the biography of the Pope Victor I. Pope Victor I was the 14th Bishop of Rome and the first from Africa. In fact, there are three popes who are African, the other two being Pope Militiades who reigned from 311 to 314 A.D. and Pope Gelasius who reigned from 492 until 496 A.D. Out of all of the facts on this board, the fact that there have been Black Pontiffs seems to gain the most interest – and sometimes, disbelief. Black Catholic History in the Archdiocese of Washington I was blessed to grow up in the Archdiocese of Washington. We have had a strong and vibrant Black Catholic culture here for generations and thus, the ethnicity of Pope Victor I is not incredible to me. We have parishes dating back to before the Civil War such as St. Augustine Roman Catholic Parish, which was founded in 1858. We have the examples of pioneering Black priests such as Rev. Patrick Healy, SJ (pictured above) who served as the president of Georgetown University from 1874 until 1882. Even the first Black permanent deacons were ordained for the Archdiocese of Washington as part of the inaugural class in early 1970’s. Growing up here, I knew that there had been Popes of African decent, parishes where our culture and style of worship is integrated into the Mass and priests, deacons and religious that continue to serve our community with passion and love. More to come For the next few posts, I hope to share some of these facts and stories with you. I may also share how these stories have helped me to celebrate the diversity of the Roman Catholic Church.