Racism and Catholicism

Catholics in the United States are in an awkward situation as we face the current racism crisis. For those of us who are white, we need to confront and examine our consciences regarding how historically and currently we have consciously and unconsciously caused our African-American brothers and sisters to feel unwanted, abused and even hated.

For those Catholics in this country who are African-American the experience of being a “minority within a minority” makes it hard oftentimes to find co-religionists who truly understand, or at least can empathize with, the harsh realities lived each day.

For other U.S. Catholics, who are neither Caucasian nor African-American, there is the dual reality of both having experienced rejection from the dominant white culture in Catholic society, while also being tempted to “join on the bandwagon” of having sinful racist attitudes towards African-Americans.

Catholics were a tiny minority in the 13 original British colonies, while we were the majority in those parts of our country which were originally part of the French and Spanish empires. All three empires had racist histories of slavery. Our American society was, in part, built upon this history.

When Catholics first started coming to the British colonies, we were not often welcomed (especially here in Massachusetts, founded by Puritans, who wanted to leave England because they thought that the kings were “too Papist”). Even after the Revolution, the majority looked down upon Catholics who came here from Ireland. 

However, since Satan always has an angle, after the Irish-Americans became established here, instead of always welcoming Catholics arriving from other lands, they learned the sin of prejudice from the Yankees and made people arriving from Portugal or Cape Verde or Quebec not feel too welcome. That is one of the reasons why the system of personal (national) parishes developed — because people did not feel welcome in the territorial parishes.

We can see this sinful problem even in the New Testament, when people noticed that the Greek-speaking widows were not getting the same allotment of food as the Hebrew-speaking ones (Acts 6). God then inspired the Apostles to create the diaconate, so as to provide for all the widows and other people in need, regardless of their ethnic group, thus freeing the Apostles to dedicate more time to preaching and prayer.

At the moment there are no canonized African-American saints. Two years ago, Xavier University of Louisiana announced that it was going to help fund the canonization process for five African-Americans. They are Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Venerable Henriette Delille S.S.F., Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, O.S.P., Father Augustus Tolton, and Julia Greeley.

The two “venerables” are further along in the canonization process. The Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Black Catholics described Venerable Pierre as having been born and raised as a slave in the French colony of Haiti. “To escape the slave rebellions that eventually drove out the French government, Toussaint’s owners fled, with him, to New York. He was assigned as an apprentice to one of the city’s leading hairdressers, and became quite successful. When his slave-owner died, Toussaint quietly supported his owner’s widow. She, in gratitude, freed Toussaint from his slave status. Toussaint later married and used his considerable wealth to support charitable causes, including work against religious and racial prejudice.”

Venerable Henriette grew up to found a religious order. According to the archdiocese, “Mother Henriette Delille was born in 1812 as a ‘free person of color.’ At the tender age of age 17, she and two companions began to evangelize the large slave and free-people-of-color populations in New Orleans. Their efforts led to the formation of the nation’s second religious order for women of color in 1842 [the Sisters of the Holy Family]. Its mission: to care for the aged; to instruct the unlearned; and to care for the poor.” We have to remember, to our shame, that in part Venerable Henriette had to found that order because African-American women were not welcome in most Catholic religious orders back then. 

Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange’s life had some similarities to the two previous candidates — being from Haiti, like Venerable Pierre, and being a religious founder, like Venerable Henriette. Mother Mary Elizabeth co-founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, which was the first female order opened for African-American women, and she did this while Maryland was still a slave state. “Under great risk, these Sisters dedicated themselves to serving orphans and educating black children,” the archdiocese reported. “Mother Lange founded Baltimore’s historic St. Francis Academy. It continues to thrive today as a co-ed high school that educates mainly inner-city African-American and Hispanic youth.”

Father Augustus Tolton was the first known African-American Catholic priest (there were other African-American priests before him, but because they had light skin coloring, they were able to “pass for white” and get ordained). “A former slave who was baptized and reared Catholic, Tolton studied formally in Rome, because he was rejected from American seminary. Assigned to the Alton, Ill. diocese, Tolton first ministered to his home parish in Quincy. Later assigned to Chicago, Tolton led the development and construction of St. Monica’s Catholic Church as a black ‘national parish church,’ completed in 1893 on Chicago’s south side,” the archdiocese wrote.

According to JuliaGreeley.org, she was “Denver’s Angel of Charity.” She was born into slavery and her cruel master destroyed her right eye, while whipping her mother. After emancipation, Julia worked for white families, eventually settling in Colorado. “Whatever she did not need for herself, Julia spent assisting poor families in her neighborhood. To avoid embarrassing the people she helped, Julia did most of her charitable work under cover of night through dark alleys. Julia entered the Catholic Church at Sacred Heart Parish in Denver in 1880. Every month she visited on foot every fire station in Denver and delivered literature of the Sacred Heart League to the firemen, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”

It might be a good idea to pray through the intercession of these saints — and ask them to help us better listen to each other, to come to understand the ways in which we have made other people, including our fellow Catholics, feel less than ourselves. Although many a legal remedy very well will be needed, a change of heart is what is most needed to heal our country. The heart of Jesus bled for all of us. May we love each other as He loves us.



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