Authentically black and Catholic – with something to say about Pope Francis

It was a funny though welcome text message, congratulating me on “my” new pope. From 3,000 miles away, my friend knows how much my Catholic faith means to me and wanted to share the good news. Though she was raised Baptist and doesn’t really practice any religion now, she understood.

What did I think of Pope Francis? Wait and see, I told her. The church is wading through earthly and spiritual challenges, and this conservative pope likely won’t rock the theological boat. But I said I was impressed by his humility, his commitment to social justice and his Jesuit pedigree. When she asked what a religious order was exactly, I likened priests and nuns to baseball players, divided into different teams. (My New Yorker husband, educated as I was at a Jesuit university, bragged that St. Ignatius of Loyola’s crew would be the Yankees.)

Pope Francis is from this side of the world, a Latin American – an American – and that means something, though it’s too early to know exactly what.

It felt good to be a part of the discussion during such an important transition, in a church that has not always been so welcoming to black Catholics. Before I go to bed each night, I can gaze at the small, painted wooden shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, so revered, especially among Hispanics. Bought during a visit to San Antonio, it is draped with rosaries, one my mother brought me from the Vatican and others carried with care as gifts from Fatima and Lourdes. Mary is my patron saint, after all.

I remember the New Year’s Day my husband, young son and I shared in St. Peter’s Square, listening to Pope John Paul II deliver his address in a host of languages while a cluster of excitable teens chanted “Papa.”

I have loved the church enough to criticize it, when it has been slow to heal the abused and punish the abusers, when it sent investigators to root out heresy among the nuns, or when clergy vowed to withhold the Eucharist as a weapon against politicians navigating private behavior and public obligation on the issue of abortion.

Yet as I watched the coverage of this new pope, touched by the sight of the crowds waiting for a first glance, I noted few interviews there or here with African-American Catholics whose rich history is woven through the growth of the church since its beginnings. The Archbishop of Atlanta, Wilton Gregory, former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, did offer his thoughts. But with fewer than 20 black bishops in the United States, the bench is not deep.

When so many speak of and to American Catholics, it is the descendants of immigrants who first come to mind — Irish, Italians, Poles and now Hispanics. That’s part of the picture, but it leads to an incomplete conversation.

Though African Americans make up just 3 percent of Catholics in this country, you wouldn’t know it from the depth of their devotion. When the National Gathering for Black Catholic Women met in Charlotte, N.C., a few years ago, the bishop in my city – no doubt mindful of a church in turmoil — seemed thrilled to be celebrating mass for hundreds of the faithful.

Growing up in Baltimore, home of the nation’s first cathedral and predominantly African-American parishes named for St. Peter Claver, St. Pius V, St. Francis Xavier and a roster of saints, our priests were Josephites, founded to minister to freed slaves. I thought most black people were Catholic. In grade school, my teachers continued the tradition of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order of African-American nuns, founded in 1829 in Baltimore by Haitian-American Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange with the help of the Rev. James Hector Joubert. They pledged to educate excluded children of color, house orphans and tend to the sick and elderly, and the order still serves throughout the world. Efforts to elevate Mother Lange to sainthood have stalled for the moment, though maybe, it is hoped among those who care, we can pray her there. It worked for Elizabeth Seton, whose Daughters of Charity took over my education in high school.

My parents told us the story of St. Martin de Porres, and we learned about other saints of color – there are hundreds – and made our First Communion in pretty white dresses like little girls in churches across the world. But there were differences even then: the little things, like being shunned when participating in annual athletic contests against Catholic schools that were neighborhoods and worlds apart; the big things, like watching the humble Cardinal Lawrence Shehan heckled by working-class white Catholics, with race trumping religion, when he promoted fair housing and civil rights policies as the work of the Lord.

But if dealing with racist pushback was expected – isn’t that a sin many Americans of every faith share – having to explain the authenticity of my faith tradition grew tiresome. Leaving the Baltimore bubble, where in my circle every other kid wore a less-than-flattering school uniform, I was treated like a unicorn. “Since when did blacks become Catholic?” a supposedly well-educated work colleague in New York joked to a group of African-American women. Were the ashes we wore that funny?

Small triumphs brought some relief. On TV’s “Homicide,” Andre Braugher as ultimate Baltimore detective Frank Pembleton – Jesuit educated and angst ridden – brought back memories of home.

And things are changing. The babies being baptized in my home parish in Charlotte are evidence of the diversity all American Catholics have begun to embrace.

But we still hold that outsider status. You need only look at the American cardinals on the short list this time out, named Dolan and O’Malley as you might expect. The next black pope will more likely come from Ghana, not Georgia.

Those examining Catholicism at a crossroads need to seek out the voices of all the faithful who may doubt but have always believed. The word Catholic does after all mean “universal.”

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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