The announcement during a national meeting of black Catholics of a workshop to study a separate rite for black Catholics, reported in an article Monday, did not accurately reflect the position of the board of directors of the National Office for Black Catholics. The office has not endorsed a separate black rite, according to Walter Hubbard, executive secretary of the office. (Published 8/9/89)

ATLANTA, AUG. 6 -- The national group representing black Catholic laity has put its weight behind a proposal to establish a separate African American Catholic rite as a means to give the nation's 2 million black Catholics a greater voice in their churches and a more flexible worship style. Eckley Macklin, of Hartford, a member of the board of directors of the National Office for Black Catholics (NOBC), announced the board's action Saturday night during a three-day meeting attended by about 300 black Catholics. He said the board will conduct a three-day workshop in November to study the matter from the perspective of lay Catholics. A separate rite for black Catholics was one of the demands set forth by the Rev. George A. Stallings Jr., when he established his Imani Temple in Washington last month. Since then, the National Black Clergy Caucus approved a yearlong study of the issue and the 13 black bishops also agreed to study the unprecedented proposal. The quasi-official National Office for Black Catholics is a low-profile, low-budget unit within the church that has been able to wield considerable influence. It has been given much of the credit, for example, for increasing the number of black bishops during its 19 years of existence from one to 13. The group, which maintains headquarters in Washington, has the blessing of the church hierarchy. Most of its $180,000 annual budget comes from a yearly collection in Catholic churches across the country. The proposed rite has been characterized as a "super-diocese," based on culture or ethnicity rather than geography. It would use its own cultural adaptation of the Mass and would be governed by its own bishops, who would nevertheless be answerable to Rome. Although there are 18 such distinct rites within the Roman Catholic Church, almost all originated in the 1st or 2nd century as a result of the earliest Christian missionary activities into remote parts of the world. No such rite has ever been created for a cultural or ethnic group already a part of the predominant Roman rite. But some black Catholic leaders think it is a possibility. "If we have enough people calling for it and putting pressure on Rome to see there is a need for it, I think it can be done," said Giles Conwill, an inactive priest teaching at Morehouse College here and a speaker at this week's convention. In announcing the workshop, Macklin, who heads the Office for Black Catholics of the Hartford diocese, said the NOBC board wanted to make sure of lay contributions in shaping the rite. "The question is who should say what {the rite} should be," he said, to applause. He reminded the convention that such a separate rite for blacks was suggested more than a century ago by the U.S. bishops' First Plenary Council of Baltimore, meeting just after the end of the Civil War. Many at the conference said they were hard pressed to give an opinion about the proposed rite because of uncertainties about it. "I'm not too clear what they're talking about," said Elizabeth Thomas, a pediatric nurse practitioner from Seattle. But she added that she believes "there should be some way in which {blacks} can use our own spirituality. We have a beautiful gift of spirituality to give the church." Dolores Grier, the first black woman to hold the post of vice chancellor of the New York archdiocese, expressed uncertainty about changes. "Black lay people do not want anything to change in the liturgy. . . the bringing of the Lord Jesus Christ to the altar, the bringing of Jesus Christ to us. That can't change," she said. "They can put in singing or dancing or jumping up and down, but that can't change." Stallings did not attend the conference here, nor was any discussion of the "Stallings issue," as it was often referred to, included on the program, which was set well before the emergence of Imani Temple. But he was very much present in corridor discussions and conversations with news media representatives. "We have been inundated by questions about Stallings," said Walter Hubbard, of Seattle, general secretary of the NOBC. In conference sessions, there was always a smattering of applause when Stallings's name was mentioned. Leaders of the conference were determined that the controversy over Stallings should not eclipse the conference agenda, with its focus on building black Catholic leaders. "I'm not going to talk about George Stallings . . . . Enough's been said about that already," said the Rev. James Goode of San Francisco, a longtime friend of Stallings's. "Some of us got so bound up in the George Stallings question and what's going to happen to George Stallings that we forget about us." An even sterner call to duty came from Sister Thea Bowman of Canton, Miss., in what was regarded as the emotional high point of the gathering. Frail and speaking from a wheelchair because of a long bout with cancer, she began with a gentle rebuke about the session's late start. "We are called by God," she said. "We are called by the church to be fully functioning." She told the gathering it simply must "not tolerate rudeness . . . racism . . . sexism . . . . " "We are called as black Catholics to share our gift of blackness with the church," she said. She singled out men and women in the congregation involved in programs to combat drug addiction, AIDS and homelessness. "How are you going to let them know they are not alone?" she asked. "I'm talking about survival." As she continued to speak, aides wiped perspiration from her face and neck, and "Amen" and "Yes, Lord" welled up from the congregation. Visibly weakening, she paused and covered her face with her hand to gather strength. Then her voice rang out in the spiritual: "If you need somebody, here am I, send me. . . . "