Valerie Grays receives Holy Communion from the Rev. William Norvel at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

While American Catholics eagerly anticipate the arrival of Pope Francis, one group in particular is waiting not only for the papal visit, but for recognition: black Catholics.

For black Catholics, the papal visit is a time of anticipation, but also a time of reflection on their difficult, but important place within the Catholic Church in America.

Despite a rich history of black Americans involved in the Catholic Church, invisibility is a big problem for black Catholics in America. I know this personally as (at least) a fourth-generation black Catholic in America. I went to Catholic school and experienced racism firsthand from nuns and priests.

As a fourth-grader, I was accused with three other black girls in my predominately white parochial school of having stolen a box of candy and giving it to boy to sell for our profit — not the school’s — at a grocery store in our small town. We were pulled out of class, marched to the lay principal’s office and accused of stealing.

It turned out that the missing box of candy had been lost by a white student. We were humiliated, but the saving grace was my righteously angry father, who came to the school and made the accusers apologize for what had happened. We only became visible when we could be accused of wrongdoing; otherwise, we were ignored.

My memories of Vatican II center on white parishioners turning away from me when I went to shake their hands at Mass during the sign of peace. And this year, my mother was questioned before receiving communion from a deacon who asked her if she was “really a Catholic.”

Black Catholics are, after whites and Hispanics/Latinos, the third-largest ethnic group of Catholics in America. About 3 percent of American Catholics, or about 3 million people, identify as both black and Catholic, according to a 2014 survey by Georgetown University’s CARA. This includes African Americans, Africans and Afro-Caribbean.

[Why some hope Pope Francis will address racial tensions in America]

While that number is small compared with the number of Hispanic/Latino Catholics, black Catholics in America are important to the life of the U.S. Catholic Church. With a rich history steeped both in slavery and freedom, black Catholics established their own religious orders, became university presidents and have contributed to the life of the church in many ways. They created their own organization, the National Black Catholic Congress, formed in 1889 by Daniel Rudd.

However, their identities have often been subsumed within a church that is on the one hand attentive to the needs of many cultural groups, while it expects black Catholics to assimilate into larger parishes because of the growth of Latinos and other groups.

So it’s no surprise then, that black Catholics have several expectations from this papal visit.

The pope’s visit will include a stop at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in New York City, part of the predominately black Catholic parish Our Lady Queen of Angels, which was closed in 2007 by the Archdiocese of New York. Parishioners still meet to pray in the park across the street from the church, and many resisted strenuously when the church was closed.

While Pope Francis will visit the school, what he is not likely to hear is how the black Catholics who were previously part of that community have been scattered because of their parish being closed. Their displacement is just one indignity black Catholics have had to face.

It is also hard for them to see priests that look like them on the altar.The number of African American Catholic priests is small, 250 or so of the nation’s 40,000 priests, and many black parishes have priests from other countries who do not understand their unique experiences within the American church. This has created tensions throughout the country between parishes, and resulted in some black Catholics turning to evangelical or Pentecostal churches, which allow them to embrace their heritage in worship and other ways.

Black Catholics also still hope and pray for sainthood for the venerable Henriette DeLille, founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans. Delille would be the first African American to become a saint if her cause is established. A free woman of color, she founded the order in 1842 to educate and care for the sick and the poor.

It’s worth noting the leadership of many black Catholics within the American Catholic Church. Many also consider the ministry of St. Katherine Drexel, canonized in 2000, as a patroness of African American Catholics. Drexel spent her fortune helping black Catholics by establishing churches and schools, and she founded Xavier University, the only black Catholic university in America. The Rev. Patrick Francis Healy, a black and Irish American, would become the first black Jesuit and the first black president of Georgetown University in 1874.

But expectations for Pope Francis are high, coming after a year of discussion on racial tensions within the United States.

The kind of treatment many black Catholics experience, especially among young Catholics, contribute to why many leave the church. Couple this with the sex abuse scandals in the church that have affected black Catholics, as well, and it is a recipe for the 3 percent shrinking in the future if this population is not acknowledged and embraced.

So on this papal visit, I and many others will be watching carefully to see if Pope Francis acknowledges us, and will not forget our unique and deep history within the American Catholic Church.

Anthea Butler is associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania and writes regularly for several outlets on religion, race and politics. 

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