For much of this past year, America has been confronting the sad reality that racist thinking and practices remain all too common in our society. Millions of our brothers and sisters still experience indignity and are denied opportunity only because of their race.
We have come a long way in American society to overcome the scourge of racism. But the events of 2020 are a sad reminder that we have not come nearly far enough.
Black History Month gives us the opportunity to reflect on where we have come from and where we need to grow. For me, it is a time to think and pray about our Black Catholic saints.
Throughout history, holiness has always been God’s response to hatred. In every time and place, down through centuries, God has raised up holy men and women to proclaim and defend human dignity in the face of evil and injustice.
This has been true, too, in American history. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church in this country has not always been a consistent witness against the sins of slavery and race discrimination.
But our history is filled with Black Catholics who were not afraid to live their faith in Jesus Christ in the face of injustice and violence. I think about Ven. Henriette Delille, Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, Ven. Pierre Toussaint, and Servant of God Julia Greeley.
One of my favorites is Ven. Augustus Tolton, who was born in slavery, escaped into freedom with his mother, and became the first Black man to be ordained a priest in our country.
Father Tolton used to say, “The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery — that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both.”
Our Black Catholic saints refused to let their minds be enslaved by the ignorance and racism of others. These holy men and women faced hardships and hate, yet they never gave in to anger or bitterness.
The inspiring witness of America’s Black Catholic communion of saints gives us hope that we can indeed free ourselves from the sins of our past, heal old wounds and divisions, and come together to work for a society that reflects God’s beautiful plan of love for the human person.
As Catholics, we should know all our American saints. Our saints include immigrants and missionaries like St. Junípero Serra and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. They include martyrs like St. Isaac Jogues and Father Juan de Padilla.
Our saints include prophetic laypeople like Servant of God Dorothy Day and St. Kateri Tekakwitha; great priests like Blessed Michael McGivney and Servant of God Walter Ciszek; courageous consecrated women like St. Marianne Cope and Servant of God Thea Bowman.
We should know their stories and tell them to our children. We need to hold them up as examples, seeking their intercession.
In this month where we remember Black history, we should remember Thea Bowman.
Her grandfather had been a slave, and she grew up in the deeply segregated Mississippi of the 1940s. Raised in a Methodist home, at age 9 she converted to Catholicism, with her parents’ permission. At 15, she became the first Black woman to enter the order of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, having been impressed by their witness in the Catholic school she attended.
Sister Thea earned a doctorate in literature from The Catholic University of America and taught English and music and recorded albums of spirituals and hymns. She became an important figure in helping the Church in this country to rediscover and celebrate the culture and gifts of Black Catholics, before she died too young from cancer in 1990.
She helped us to remember that Africans were among the first Christians, pointing to Simon of Cyrene who helped Our Lord carry his cross on the way to Golgotha and the Ethiopian converted by St. Philip in the Book of Acts.
“Maybe I’m not making big changes in the world,” she once said. “But if I have somehow helped or encouraged somebody along the journey, then I’ve done what I’m called to do.”
Pray for me this week and I will pray for you.
And let us try to deepen our devotion to our American saints, who are our true spiritual ancestors, and they can help us to know God’s will as we continue the Church’s mission of spreading the gospel in America.
Let us turn also to our Blessed Mother Mary, who is the Mirror of Justice. May she help as we continue the work of changing hearts and fulfilling America’s sacred promise — to be a beloved community of life, liberty, and equality for all.