Compare, if you will, two different articles written about being black and Catholic. First, this January 19, 2007, piece in The Tidings by Carole Norris Greene, a columnist for Catholic News Service. Greene writes:
Yes, there are ongoing efforts to invite more blacks to membership and fuller participation in the church in the U.S. But is there something missing that the other 90 percent of U.S. blacks see quite clearly? I believe there is: What they don't see are whites themselves in church leadership positions extending a warm welcome. It is not enough to engage blacks to do this.
With those few exceptions where whites are involved actively in black ministries (for example, four of the seven bishops on the U.S. bishops' Committee on African American Catholics are white), welcoming invitations from U.S. church leaders are not very visible. I am not saying they aren't there; they are simply not very visible.
Visibility is an important consideration in this visually oriented age.
Blacks on the outside looking in on what they perceive as "the Catholic Church" may only be going by what is right in their faces: news coverage of aging white men who sometimes look stoic during celebrations of the Mass; well-connected white men and women and the occasional blacks who've gained entree to televised ordinations, papal visits, high-profile funerals and the like.
Blacks on the outside looking in may not be aware of the countless warm and welcoming Catholic parishes scattered throughout the U.S. that are indeed predominantly white or very diverse, for I have been to several myself. Nor do they always hear just how diligently some predominantly white pastoral teams are addressing racism within their ranks and ministering more effectively among black members.
Greene's analysis suffers from at least three major problems. The first is that she plays the tired and oh-so-very worn victim card: "There aren't more black Catholics because the aging white men aren't doing enough." This is insulting to both whites and blacks. No one is discounting the role that race can play in all sorts of situations, but does Greene seriously think that if blacks were to see "aging white men" shaking hands with more blacks, that would lead to a mass entrance of blacks into the Catholic Church? Apparently so. (Don't look now, but the former president of the USCCB was [check one]: _ white, _ black, _ purple.)
Secondly, she apparently assumes that the majority of converts to the Catholic Faith come to the Church because they breathlessly follow the pronouncements and actions of those aging white men. Perhaps we live in alternative worlds, but I would happily bet my vast Veggie Tales collection (four DVDs, two videos) that the vast majority of converts become Catholic because of something else, usually the personal witness of a Catholic friend, co-worker, or family member. And that often happens despite the pronouncements and actions of certain aging white men. Besides, the work of evangelization, although meant for all Catholics, is the primary responsibility of lay people, not clergy or religious. This sort of stuck-in-a-rut clericalism needs to be corrected if people such as Greene are going to understand that blaming the big boys in the big house is not a convincing or helpful complaint.
Finally, as important as it might be for Catholics and parishes to be welcoming and inviting, does that take away the responsibility that every person has to seek and pursue the truth, even if it leads to the all-white parish with gold-plated luxury cars in the parking lot? At some point it behooves people to take it upon themselves to ask the tough questions and seek the answers. In my own journey to the Catholic Church, I spoke to no living Catholics before deciding that I would, one day, become Catholic. But I did read umpteen books and articles, most of them written by dead white men (Irenaeus, Aquinas, Newman, Chesterton, Danielou, etc.) in the course of making that decision. Yes, Catholics can and should do a much better job of witnessing (as opposed to simply pressing the flesh and flashing a smile). But those who are seeking truth shouldn't think it's going to be handed to them on a gold-plated platter surrounded by flashing lights and a sign that says, "Jesus Is Catholic, Why Aren't You?"
Now, compare Greene's article to an interview I recently had with Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, a good friend and one of the most dynamic, vibrant Catholics I know personally—regardless of color (as you can see from this May 2000 photo, we are spitting images of each other.) Deacon Harold refuses to play the victim card, or the race card, or any card at all. Rather:
IgnatiusInsight.com: What stood out the most to you when you read the story of Father Augustine Tolton?
Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers: What struck me most was the fact that Father Tolton, despite enduring a lifetime of racial animosity and prejudice, remained a Catholic. He was taunted by harsh insults and derogatory racial remarks from Catholic school classmates. Many parents, who did not accept a black child in the school, threatened to withdraw their children and withhold financial support from the parish. When a local pastor welcomed young Augustine with open arms, some parishioners, appalled by the presence of the Tolton family, went so far as to petition the bishop asking for the pastor's removal and even threatened to leave the Catholic faith entirely.
With the help of several supportive priests who tutored him in theology and philosophy, Augustine Tolton discerned a calling to the priesthood but was rejected by the Franciscan Order and every seminary in the United States. Upon his return to America after being ordained to the priesthood in Rome, Father Tolton discovered that a white priest often referred to him as the "nigger priest" and told his white congregation that attendance at the black church was not valid for white Catholics.
In the face of such bigotry and hatred, I asked myself, "Why didn't Father Augustine Tolton leave the Church?" As I reflected on the life of this noble priest, it became clear to me. Father Tolton was able to discern what many Catholics today who leave the Church fail to perceive and do not fully appreciate: that what the Catholic Church actually teaches is true, good and beautiful despite the hypocrisy and contradiction of Church members who do not actually live the faith they profess. Father Tolton always acknowledged the great gift of his Catholic faith and recognized that personal sin and human weakness are not greater or more powerful than the strength of objective truth found in Catholicism. Father Tolton was a visionary who saw far beyond issues of race and politics, looking inward--into the heart of the Church herself.
This perspective is echoed beautifully in the words of our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, who addressed black Catholics in the United States with these words: "It is important to realize that there is no black Church, no white Church, no American Church; but there is and must be, in the one Church of Jesus Christ, a home for blacks, whites, Americans, every culture and race. 'The Church is catholic . . . because she is able to present in every human context the revealed truth, preserved by her intact in its divine content, in such a way as to bring it into contact with the lofty thoughts and just expectations of every individual and every people.'" (Pope John Paul II, Meeting with the Black Catholics of New Orleans, 12 September 1987, no. 7; cf. Slavorum Apostoli, no. 18). [emphasis added]
If you've not yet read the interview, please consider doing so. Deacon Harold's frank, unapologetic assessment of many issues is refreshing. Another example:
IgnatiusInsight.com: What specific challenges and issues do black Catholics face in the United States today? How are they being addressed?
Deacon Burke-Sivers: I believe that in the black Catholic community, the challenges are two-fold: material (substance abuse, violent crime, absent fathers and the disintegration of family life, as mentioned above) and spiritual (moral relativism, sexual promiscuity, subjective truth, and the influence of liberal theology). Both the material and spiritual influences represent serious affronts to our Catholic convictions and gravely hinder evangelization efforts.
In the face of these challenges, combating the tangled web of systemic racism cannot be the sole response since racism cannot answer the deeper, more serious questions that black Catholics need to ask: Where are our husbands and fathers? Are we so preoccupied with getting drunk or high, or so obsessed with material wealth that we cannot notice what is happening to our children, to our future? Why have street gangs replaced families? Are we so busy watching pornography or sleeping around that we have become completely oblivious to the fact we are treating each other as "things" and objects, and not as equal persons made in the image and likeness of God? Do we even care? To answer these questions we must not simply look outward at the culture in order to accuse and blame. We must also take a serious look inward: we must examine ourselves, rediscover the beauty and truth of our Catholic heritage, and renew our commitment to live the teachings of our Catholic faith with courage, fidelity and enthusiasm!
Frankly examining our motives, desires, and needs is, I think, a far more honest and meaningful way to approach the often challenging matter of being (or becoming) Catholic as a black. And, yes, it is also more difficult. But let's also admit that it is rarely easy for anyone—no matter their race, background, height, or taste in lawn furniture—to become Catholic as an adult. We undoubtedly need to look for ways to help others discover and learn the truth, and we need to ask ourselves if we ever cause scandal and keep others away from the fullness of the Faith. Sure, I say all of this as an aging white man, but can we please, please, stop it with the tired, "I'm so '60s I still listen to The Doors on record," excuses? It is time, as my aging black friend has stated so well, to take a serious look inward, point the finger at ourselves, and do what is in accordance with truth, beauty, and holiness.