Over the last few days, there’s been some interesting reaction to this post about Pittsburgh creating a “personal parish” for Black Catholics. Some readers were aghast, and called it nothing less than segregation. They considered it a major step backwards for race relations, and something damaging to the Body of Christ.
I asked Deacon Arthur Miller what he thought. Art is head of the Office for Black Catholic Ministries in the Diocese of Hartford. As his biography puts it:
At public forums, houses of worship, schools and universities across the country, Deacon Miller addresses issues of social injustice. With firsthand knowledge he speaks to his audiences from the perspective of an African American who grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s. Deacon Miller was 10 years old in 1955 when his schoolmate Emmett Till, age 14, was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman — an incident that energized the nascent Civil Rights Movement. His book, The Journey to Chatham (published by AuthorHouse, 2005), details the historic events seen through the eyes of Emmett’s friends.
Art insisted to me that this “personal parish” in Pittsburgh was not a case of segregation, because the parish remains open to everyone and seeks simply to offer a unique place of welcome for Black Catholics.
I asked him if he would like to write something about this, from his particular perspective as a Black Catholic clergyman, and he replied, “I already have.”
He sent me his “Letter to a New Catholic,” written several years ago, and told me I was free to post it. I offer it here as another important voice in this discussion. (The letter is long, about 5,000 words, so there is a link to the complete document at the end.) I’m humbled and grateful for his contribution here and hope it lends another perspective during this important moment in our country and in our church.
I received the following (unedited) email after the Black History Mass Feb 9 2014, my response to said email follows.
As an young African American Roman Catholic Convert as many other young Catholics I would have to say that I am offended by your ministry due to the fact that we have to label Catholics who are black and separate us from everybody else. As the Catholic Church we are the body of Christ and nobody should be separated, and by these actions, especially during the African American masses, I see much chaos. The liturgical music and dances both break canon law and the instructions of the Roman Missal, so I advise you to please be careful with this and to bring back our Roman Catholic identify with Gregorian and sacred chant and reverence instead of dancing, regardless of race since our religion comes first. These African American Ministries and practices should be done through the church but outside of the Mass instead, since Jesus deserves reverence and peace in the blessed sacrament. A great Idea I suggest to attract African American Catholics is to begin using the African rites of the Church such as the Ethiopian and the Coptic which have large African roots and also reverence and rhythm. Please contact me soon with feedback and may God Bless You.
Letter to a New Catholic
While reading your recent email, I was particularly pleased to learn of your recent conversion to our sacred faith. The Catholic Church’s deposit of faith is the very foundation of Christianity; it is our faith where every other Christian tradition finds their roots. Your Christian journey has brought you to us and the entire church is enriched because of that, in fact whenever anyone is brought into the fold the church is enriched and so I joyfully welcome you. As much as I am pleased to welcome you into the faith I am equally concerned with your understanding of what our truly Catholic/universal faith teaches us and the unquenchable depths of Christ-like inclusion to which our faith calls us. Since I feel you are of genuine good will and your criticisms are heartfelt and your concerns are troubling for you, I will attempt to answer them in what I pray will be patient and reasonable terms.
You indicated that you were offended by the ministry because “we have to label Catholics who are black and separate us from everybody else.” Indeed we are black and white Catholics, just as we are black and white Americans, but as Catholics we are not separated by our faith, we are separated by our cultural differences. It is important to realize our Church knows that our faith is not one that exists only within the spiritual context of the world but exists within the real world as well, with all its flaws. And within this real world there exists a real chasm that separates us all, race by race, ethnicity by ethnicity, class by class and culture by culture. A fact of our human condition is that we do separate ourselves by what we see and how we look.
Understanding this reality, the church from its very beginning used that human reality to glorify a spiritual reality.
The only place that unity of peoples can be found is in the Church and yet unity does not mean unwavering conformity. I take as an example the very beginning of the Catholic Church, on Pentecost. In Acts 2 vs 1-12 : At this vital time in the beginning of the church, God did not eradicate differences, God did what only God can do. At Pentecost God spoke through the apostles all languages. God’s grace is the power to understand, to hear in one’s own language, one’s own accent, one’s own dialect, one’s own lens, the powerful works of God and it came in unifying languages not a single culture or single language but a single loving message. The gift of separate cultures and languages did not diminish the diversity of the great crowd; the people did not cease to be Medes, Persians, and Elamites. They were not reduced to some vague amalgam, some generality without past or place. No, they did not become less than they were. What happened was the sum became greater than its parts, they became more than they had been, for they became one with all of those who heard and understood that God was alive and active in this world and eager that they, all of them, should participate in his purposes. It is the reality of the individual that made and makes the universal so powerful and appealing.
The unity of Christ’s Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, a unity that is celebrated worldwide today, is a unity that is based upon the understanding of who God is what God has done, what God is doing and God will do. The understanding that united the faithful is the grace to realize that every single human person is an example of the mighty works of God. But there is another form of understanding at work as well and that is our understanding that others hear of the mighty works of God, because the gospel is not our gospel, the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ that all of us, every single human person is privileged to hear.
And the unity of what we hear overcomes the differences of who we are. But it does not require we stop being who we are and it does not require we stop being who we were created to be. Pope John Paul II expressed his joy of cultural diversity when addressing the black Catholic community when he spoke to us in New Orleans in 1987
“I express my deep love and esteem for the black Catholic community in the United States. Its vitality is a sign of hope for society. Composed as you are of many lifelong Catholics, and many who have more recently embraced the faith… you reflect the Church’s ability to bring together a diversity of people united in faith, hope and love, sharing a communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit. I urge you to keep alive and active your rich cultural gifts….”
At the same gathering he reiterated the joy of cultural diversity and its importance by stating.
“While remaining faithful to her doctrine and discipline, the Church esteems and honors all cultures; she respects them in all her evangelizing efforts among the various peoples.”
Thus motivated, we take on our Pentecostal role, we too begin to evangelize as did St. Paul as expressed in 1 Corinthians 9: vs 19-22.
Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.
St. Paul, who some say was the greatest apostle, spread the message of salvation through graces that allowed him to understand that it is the message of inclusive gospel love that brings people to the fold, not their station in life, or culture.
However their station in life and culture can act as the doorway to faith.
We should remember, you and I, that we are members of a fellowship that far surpasses our cultural differences. And though we must never separate ourselves from those outside our own circle or culture, we must also never separate ourselves from who we are, from our present, from our past or our future in the false belief that another culture is greater than our own. Instead we must embrace a Pentecost understanding of our mission in Christ and speak to the diversity of the people with a unifying message of salvation, recognizing the churches doors are to be like the arms of Christ, open wide. It is the message of love that unifies us under Christ and this is the Christian message that is to reach the ears and hearts of all people precisely where they are.
Read the complete letter at this link: Letter to a New Catholic
UPDATE: Deacon Miller Saturday morning sent me a link to this website, with a video that may be of interest, called “Black Faith Matters.” It also addresses some of the same issues and concerns. Check it out below.