Black sisters, priests will mark 50 years of shaping church

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Fifty years ago, Josephite Father William Norvel thought it was time for black priests to come together.

The year, 1968, was a tumultuous one in American history. The country was struggling to implement civil rights for blacks, protests of the Vietnam War became common and some were violent, and young people rejected the authority of their parents’ generation.

The black priests wanted to support each other. They also wanted to discuss how to respond to the times and gain the church backing to better evangelize black communities.

More importantly, they wanted to confront the racism they were experiencing within the church. The priests wanted to feel accepted for who they were: African-American clergy who could share a rich cultural heritage but were feeling suppressed by white-dominated church leadership.

Father Norvel and dozens of black priests met in Detroit in April in the first meeting of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus. The meeting came soon after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Questions abounded in the minds of the priests.

“I felt at that time we needed to bring to the attention of the church the racism experienced in our seminaries and in our church,” said Father Norvel, now 82 and retired in Atlanta, recalling that first gathering.

New Orleans to host meeting

That meeting will be commemorated in New Orleans July 28-Aug. 2 in New Orleans as black Catholic priests and religious gather for a shared celebration.

In 1968, the priests who attended the first conference returned to their parishes resolved to “have the church do something about” racism, Father Norvel said.

Mercy Sister Martin de Porres Grey was the only woman religious to attend. She has since left religious life. The organization’s history records that she was so inspired by the gathering that she organized a similar meeting of black sisters in August later that year in Pittsburgh. About 150 women attended, marking the founding of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

The sisters, too, wanted to support each other and address racism within the institutional church as well as in their own congregations, recalled Sister Josita Colbert, 80, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Baltimore who attended the gathering. Today she serves as the congregation’s vocation director.

Sister Colbert said she came away inspired from the first meeting and continues to attend the annual gathering, which includes the priests’ caucus, the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association and the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons.

“It was amazing and overwhelming at the beginning,” she told Catholic News Service. “We had speakers who challenged us in terms of what was going on in the world (then) and here in the United States as black people and what we as black religious women were going to do about it.”

In addition to the priests’ and sisters’ organizations, seminarians and deacons will join in the New Orleans meeting.

Father Kenneth Taylor, who pastors two parishes in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and is president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, told CNS this year’s gathering will be a time of celebration for all four organizations.

Reflect on role in church

The joint meeting also will be one to reflect on the role of African-Americans within the church, “especially during a time when we seem to have lost the interest of the church leaders because of the strong Hispanic immigration into the country,” Father Taylor said.

The organizations do not want to create a rift with Hispanic Catholics, but rather want to make sure diocesan bishops do not shrink African-American outreach while expanding Hispanic ministries, he said.

“This gives us an opportunity to come together in mutual support and encouragement,” Father Taylor explained. “It also gives us a chance to come together to talk about the needs of the black community and what we can do to help black Catholics become more engaged in the church.”

A deep concern for racism underlies the organizations today. Some clergy and women religious were outspoken about the racism they saw in the 1960s. Their strident stances in those early years often alienated diocesan or congregational leadership.

Although the stridency may have been dialed back a bit today, their views have not faded. Black priests and women religious continue to say they want the church to confront racism so that all the faithful can achieve true equality.

Father David Benz, 75, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1975 in the Archdiocese of New York and now is retired, said at times he feels African-Americans in the church almost appear “invisible.”

“I belong to the same church. I know what the social teachings of the church are, and we as a church see this and ignore that,” he told CNS.

Father Taylor credited the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for creating its Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, which is finalizing a pastoral letter on racism across American society as well as the church. A vote on the document is planned for the bishops’ general assembly in November.

Members of the priests’ and sisters’ organizations also lamented the overall declining number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, especially among African-Americans. With fewer vocations, it also means fewer opportunities for African-Americans to assume leadership positions in the church.

Having more African-Americans in leadership, especially as bishops, would help with evangelization, Father Benz added.

The New Orleans gathering will give participants a chance to reflect on such questions. Attendees also will honor past and present leaders, those whom Father Taylor called “exemplars.”

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