The Pope’s Visit Warmed Some Black Catholics, Chilled Others

This article originally appeared in Urban News Service member publications in September.

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

Moore, of Glenn Dale, Md., 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, a retired police officer, believes Pope Francis covered the themes relevant to black Catholics during his recent visit to the United States; Callum, a physician, 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,” Moore said. “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, many African-Americans were among the throngs.

There are about 70 million Catholics in the U.S., including three million blacks, according to Fr. Thomas Gaunt, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Of that number, about 340,000 are African-born. Gaunt said urban centers, such as Los Angeles and Brooklyn, have high percentages of black Catholics, as do regions including southern Maryland and the Gulf Coast, where there were significant numbers of Catholic slaveholders.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops counts about 800 predominantly black Roman Catholic parishes among 17,337 overall. There are only 15 African-American bishops; and six of America’s 175 heads of dioceses are black bishops.

During his Sept. 24 speech to a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis cited Dr. 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.” U. S. Rep. John Lewis (D – Ga.), who marched with King in Selma, Ala., was visibly moved by the pontiff’s words.

“That dream continues to inspire us all,” the pope said. “I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of dreams – dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment.”

Several African-Americans said Pope Francis’s tenure has been marked by an acknowledgment of problems that have alienated some blacks.

Michael P. Davenport, 53, a security expert from Bowie, Md., 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.

“Through the various images that have been displayed of the Pope, we see one who is striving to share with us the good news of hope, who has shown a pastoral sense, and who unabashedly is showing to the world the meaning of being Christian in this day and age — one who is focused on word and action,” White said.

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.”

Some believe the pope was responding to requests that the church acknowledge its history during the days of slavery. On Sept. 2, the congregation of the majority-black St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, Calif., sent a letter asking that the pope “openly acknowledge and officially apologize to African-Americans for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the enslavement of and acts of racial injustice against people of color.”

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,” Davis concluded. “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,” The New York Times reported.

Callum, the Baltimore doctor, said the church needs to lure blacks back to Catholicism. St. Francis Xavier, founded in 1863, once boasted thousands of members. Her great-grandfather, Henry Kane, joined the church in 1896. Her mother was its historian.

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,” Callum said.

- Urban News Service