November honors black Catholics
November 6, 2019
November has been designated Black Catholic History Month to celebrate the long history and proud heritage of black Catholics.
Two commemorative dates fall within this month, Saint Augustine’s birthday (November 13) and Saint Martin de Porres’ feast day (November 3). More importantly, November not only marks a time when we pray for all saints and souls in loving remembrance, but also a time to recall the saints and souls of Africa and the African diaspora.
Some people forget that Christianity did not originate in Europe. Black Catholic history began in the Acts of the Apostles (8: 26-40) with the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip the deacon.
This text is important because it chronicles the conversion of the first black African in recorded Christian history. The Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion predates the conversions of Saints Paul and Cornelius. Most significantly, many cite this conversion as the very moment when the church changed from a Hebrew and Hellenist community to the truly Universal and Catholic Church.
Black Catholics trace their faith history back to Christian antiquity long before other nations heard the Good News. Christian Africa was indeed a “leading light” in early Christendom. Black Catholics point to three popes who were born in Africa: Saints Victor I, Melchiades, and Gelasius I. All three shepherded the early church through tough and tumultuous times in history.
Black Catholics claim many canonized saints such as Cyprian, Zeno, Anthony of Egypt, Moses the Black, Pachomius, Maurice, Athanasius, Pisentius, Mary of Egypt, Cyril of Alexandria, Monica of Hippo, Augustine of Hippo, Perpetua, Felicitas, and Thecla. Some of these mystics, monastics, and martyrs literally made the Church what it is today.
Notwithstanding the moral crimes of chattel slavery, the French and Spanish missionaries ministered to their free and enslaved African population within their respective colonies. This ministry laid the foundation for black Catholic communities within the United States, i.e. Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Saint Augustine, Florida.
Many African-American Catholics cherish a certain Peruvian Dominican, Saint Martin de Porres, the only black saint from the Western Hemisphere to date.
Tragically, the American Catholic Church did not seriously commit its time and resources to minister to the African-American population during the antebellum or post-bellum periods. However, God intervened. In spite of insuperable obstacles and opposition, African-American Catholics created a remarkable movement of faith and evangelization. Many courageous people played pivotal roles within church history like Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, Mathilda Beasley, Daniel Rudd, and the Reverend Augustus Tolton. They witnessed their faith, ministered to their people, and left lasting legacies in the face of prejudice, ignorance, and indifference. One cannot read their stories without feeling tremendous joy, sorrow, and inspiration.
Black Catholic History Month provides opportunities to learn and share the whole history and rich heritage of Christian Catholicism.
St. Benedict the Moor Parish on 24th & Grant is Omaha’s only parish erected for black Catholics. You can read about its history of evangelization and faith in north Omaha. The parish celebrated its 100th anniversary in June 2018.
Archbishop George Lucas said that when this parish began, the sin of racism was evident in our Church and our world – something for which we must still repent. “We know that African-American Catholics were so often not welcomed in most other parish communities,” Archbishop Lucas said.
“But through the power of Jesus’ grace, and through the people who were able to work together, the parish community of St. Benedict the Moor was formed so people could be sure that in their lives, as they responded to the invitation of Jesus Christ to be his disciples and his friends, that Jesus wanted to identify with them. And Jesus has been right at the heart of this parish community from the very beginning.”