A Model of Joyful Activism by Jane Bailey

Fr. James Goode, OFM, founded the National Day of Prayer for the African American and African Family in 1989. Today it is celebrated on the first Sunday of February to inaugurate Black History Month. Its supporters include 14 groups such as the National Black Catholic Congress, the National Black Sisters’ Conference, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, and USCCB’s Secretariat for Cultural Diversity. Yet how many of us, Black or white, honor this specific day of prayer? How many of us understand what it means to be Black and Catholic?

To that end, I contacted Dr. Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies (IBCS) at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Xavier University is the only one of the historically black colleges and universities that is Catholic and hosts the only institute for Black Catholic studies in the nation. It is the perfect place to go to better understand Black Catholicism.

My stereotypical image of a Catholic parish is one of pews filled with white faces, led by a white priest who reports to a white bishop, under a white Vatican hierarchy from cardinals on up to the pope, worshiping a white Jesus, born of a white Mary. Admittedly, I am white. Yet how is it that I have not one image of blackness in the Catholic Church except for Cardinal Wilton Gregory, whose elevation was in the news this past November? I hoped my conversation with Dr. Bellow would enrich my monochromatic Catholic picture.

I knew as soon as I had my first conversation with Dr. Bellow that I had come to the right source. Her passion for the Catholic Church, and the African American culture within the church, was evident as her words tumbled out with the conviction of someone who knows her personal mission: to facilitate community spaces and resources for Black Catholics to understand their authentic Black selves and their true Catholic selves.

Dr. Bellow comes from an old Baltimore Catholic family. Her immediate family belonged to the parish of Saint Cecilia’s, a Black Catholic church. She attended the parish school, which was staffed by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest congregation of Black sisters in the nation. Kathleen Dorsey was steeped in Black Catholicism at home, church, and school. She grew up comfortable in her skin and in her Catholic belief.

During the 1950s a segregated America festered, including injustice within the church. Black men could not attend white seminaries, and those few who were ordained had trouble getting a parish assignment. The church reflected segregated society with its separated population and adherence to the white European culture of the Latin Mass. It took the Second Vatican Council to officially recognize that human cultures and faith complement one another and must be in dialogue.

Dr. Bellow came of age during this time of the civil rights struggle along with the modernizing trends of the church. She attended the predominantly white Archbishop Keough High School and Loyola University in Baltimore, which expanded her Catholic views and forged questions about the place of African Americans in the church. It was clear that most people of color did not feel welcomed as equal members of the church and preferred to worship in Black Catholic settings, where strong communal life is valued.

Continuing as an active participant in the Catholic Church, Dr. Bellow took increasing responsibility for both her professional and church life, always questioning and studying. This ultimately led her to obtain a Doctor of Ministry in Liturgical Studies from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The title of her doctoral thesis is the perfect summation of her life’s work: “The African American Catholic Assembly: Towards ‘Full, Conscious, and Active Participation’ in Liturgical Celebration and Black Life.”

Dr. Bellow’s more than 40 journal publications, workshops, and presentations during the last decade speak to her dedication to Black Catholicism. She herself is a model of joyful activism. The Catholic journey she started in Baltimore at birth seemed destined to lead to Xavier University’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies, which she now directs.

Xavier was founded in 1915 by Saint Katharine Drexel, foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament whose mission was to establish Catholic schools and churches for Native and African Americans. With its longstanding focus on the promotion of a more just and humane society, Xavier was the perfect host for the fledgling Institute for Black Catholic Studies. The institute was established in 1980 and grew directly out of the previous decade’s racial struggles within the church.

According to the IBCS Master of Theology Handbook, “The IBCS strives in every way to meet the charge Pope Paul VI issued to Catholics of African descent—to enrich our Roman Catholic Church with our ‘precious and original contribution’ of Blackness.” The institute’s primary mission is ministry formation for the Black Catholic community.

I asked Dr. Bellow why there is a need for an institute focused on Black Catholicism. She explained that in its contemporary practices and policies, the US church privileges European-American cultures to the detriment of God’s people, who are culturally diverse. Vatican II promulgated that engagement with diverse peoples of the world is at the heart of the church’s evangelizing mission, and the IBCS was established in the spirit of Black self-determination and Catholic teaching. Traditional Catholic theology is situated within a white European context, whereas Black theology originates from Black history. White theology studies God and who God is; Black theology emphasizes building a relationship with God. From a Black perspective, Christ is Black, and Mary is Black.

Religious roots of African heritage are strong and have held Black culture together through the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow, and present forms of discrimination. African Americans have a particular worldview emanating from their African roots and experiences in the United States. According to Dr. Bellow, white culture is expressly individualistic in its ideas of freedom, whereas an African American worldview is communitarian in its struggle for liberation, working with God to free God’s people from enslavement in its many forms: spiritual, intellectual, and physical.

A 2011 National Black Catholic Survey showed that attending a Black Catholic parish heightens religious engagement for African Americans. Yet of the 21,000 Catholic parishes in America, only 798 are predominantly African American. More surprising, there are only 250 Black priests and five Black bishops ministering to the three million US Black Catholics. The statistics attest to the critical need for the Institute of Black Catholic Studies to broaden support for and understanding of the African American Catholic community. It forges the link between Black Catholicism’s history and its future.    

The institute is currently structured as a summer school of pastoral theology that offers two courses of study. The Master of Theology (Th.M.) program forms graduate students for church ministry and prepares some for ongoing scholarship in the academy. Interdisciplinary in scope, it is the only graduate theology program in the western hemisphere taught from a Black Catholic perspective.

The second IBCS track is the Continuing Education and Enrichment (C&E) program for administrators, parish ministers and clergy, and laypersons and community leaders dedicated to lifelong learning. As parishes become more diverse, leaders and the faithful need to know how to effectively evangelize and minister cross-culturally. C&E faculty are a mix of pastoral practitioners and scholars with ministry expertise.

A special aspect of the IBCS is the honor and respect for elders of the community. There is an annual weeklong retreat and pilgrimage for African American elders 60 years and older. Participants reflect on the traditional role of eldership in the Black Church and practice their ministry within the IBCS community. 

The holistic summer program fosters the ongoing academic, cultural, and spiritual formation of faculty and students through interactive courses and a vibrant community life that incorporates prayer, worship, and cultural experiences such as music and dance. Another important tradition is the annual Ancestor Commemoration, in which IBCS founders and other saints of the community and church are remembered with intercessory prayer, dance, drumming, and rituals. Participants are sent forth from the institute to put into practice the joy of cross-cultural ministry with, and not to, the Black Catholic community.

The future of the Black Catholic community may well rest on the shoulders of newly elevated Cardinal Gregory, the first African American to attain the rank. He bears a heavy responsibility, as he is the pope’s eyes and ears for issues affecting the US Black Catholic community. He is aware of the many challenges that are desperate for solutions. As Dr. Bellow noted, “In his new role of international leadership, the institute is an important resource for Cardinal Gregory and the US church at large. In our summer studies, the challenges of the Black community are considered in the context of the tremendous God-given gifts of Blackness. Black culture is the foundation for Black Catholic theologies, history, psychology, and approaches to pastoral ministry that have encouraged African American believers to faithfully participate in the life of Christ even as we struggle for full membership in his church.”

After a pause, she added, “How do you keep loving a church that does not love you back?”

The racism within the Catholic Church today may not be as overt as the openly segregated church of 1962, where Black seminarians had no place to preach. Yet racism swept under the rug of conformity to white Catholicism is still racism. Black voices are calling to the Catholic community to admit to these racist fault lines. Why aren’t we listening? Why aren’t we making more room for the African American Catholic community?

Dr. Bellow took my black-and-white snapshot and developed it into the full living color of a modern church struggling to hold fast to its roots in shifting cultural times. Holding on to my new picture of the church, I hear Dr. Bellow calling all Catholics to “full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebration” within a joyful collaboration that honors the Black Catholic community’s freedom to be authentically Black and truly Catholic. It’s time we listen.

Jane M. Bailey is a writer from Litchfield, Connecticut. You can find more of her work at JaneMBailey.com. Further information about the programs available at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies is available here, or by contacting Dr. Kathleen Dorsey Bellow at KDBellow@xula.edu.

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