Last summer, I had an opportunity to address the small Catholic campus ministry of Western Carolina University (WCU) on the topic of racism and my perspectives as a Black Catholic in the United States. Hoping to talk about the heartbreaking stories surrounding George Floyd, the resurgence of the case for Breonna Taylor, and a countless list of other massacres against human dignity, I thought it would be a good platform to echo a call for his majority White body and really all Catholics concerned with justice to “do the work. ”
Before my conversation with Deacon Matthew Newsome, the Catholic minister for Catholic campus ministry for WCU, he sent me a list of questions. One specific question stopped me in preparation for our encounter: In what ways have you seen racism or discrimination in the Catholic Church? At the time, I had been a Catholic for nearly two and a half years, so I felt my experience with explicit forms of racism, prejudice, or bias was small but noticeable. As I pondered this question and various answers I had, I wanted to highlight an issue that I felt was essential to my dignity and worth as a Black Catholic in God’s eyes.
Since we are always bombarded with messages about eternity and sainthood, I thought about how many times as a Catholic I’ve seen depictions of Catholics of color that truly emphasized the mark of catholicity. I thought long and hard about this question. I could think of maybe one parish in my archdiocese that has an inclusive iconography, and my own parish has statues of St. Martin de Porres and St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, but for the most part the parish names, statues, and religious artwork was very Eurocentric—meaning that the expressions were rooted in European history and culture.
Early on, one of the gems of converting to Catholicism was its universal appeal. Compared to Protestantism’s loose fragmented association of believers, with the Catholic Church I could appreciate the dual visible and invisible fellowship in the Body of Christ. I took pride in knowing that no matter the continent or culture of peoples, both the theological truths and various expressions all contained the same rich mystery of Christ.
Moreover, understanding the importance of solidarity, this extremely powerful term that conveyed a common bond to all cultures, furthered my love for the Catholic faith. As a result of my appreciation for the mark of catholicity, I was utterly perplexed by the heavy Eurocentric expression of the faith I observed. I figured this was a good topic to shed some light on.
Eventually, I met with Deacon Newsome over Zoom and said my piece, but I still felt unsettled by this idea of the whitewashing my beloved Church. I wanted to examine other areas where this phenomenon was evident. I discovered my prized 365 Saint book, which aided me immensely during my conversion to Catholicism, was a byproduct of the same type of European superiority. Page after page, I was inundated with great holy men and women of European descent. There was nothing wrong with learning about St. John Bosco or St. Bridget of Sweden but I felt a yearning for saints that reflected the world I knew as a Black man and citizen of a multicultural and multiethnic city, country, and world.
As I thought about this dilemma, I remembered I purchased Saints of Africa by Fr. Vincent J. O’Malley, CM, which had aided my appreciation for saints of the African diaspora a year earlier. I was privileged enough to have an invaluable resource, but the global issue of European dominance still exerted its tentacles across many continents did not sit well with me.
A careful examination of facts regarding the state of Catholicism across the globe strikes a lethal blow to those seeking to maintain the old ways of the faith. One would think with widespread depictions of European holy figures and art, the Church would be emphatically White. However, when looking at the data, this is not true.
Due to strong trends in the Global South, Christianity is shifting and becoming a powerful force in Africa and Asia. Since 1980, it has been reported that the percentage of Catholics has grown rapidly in Africa (238%) and Asia (115%). It is estimated that two-thirds of global Catholics live outside of the West. It is with these numbers and trends that the Catholic Church must come to terms with the responsibility of redefining what its identity and role will be at tearing down the Eurocentric worldview.
The Example of Pope Francis
It is typical that whoever is at the top influences the attitude and productivity of the entire organization. Taking that same approach, if we’re going to combat the monochrome nature of the Church, we can first look at the pontificate, example, and works of the Universal head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.
He became the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere and first non-European pope in 1,300 years. He has consistently reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to migrants and refugees, dedicated himself to the advocacy of indigenous peoples and their plight, and echoed a message of solidarity against exploitation in Africa.
One of the prime responsibilities of the Vicar of Christ is appointing men to the College of Cardinals. Though the College has historically been dominated by cardinals of European heritage, Pope Francis has increased representation of eligible voting cardinals from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. With his latest appointments at the end of 2020, the College of Cardinals will have 128 voting members, 42% of whom are European, down from 52% in 2013. By his nominations, this seems to indicate that Pope Francis is broadening the scope of the Church to reflect Her diversity.
Pope Francis understands that to truly be the Church that Christ envisioned, we must ensure that those on the outer margins are fully accepted and embraced into the heart of the Church. Sadly, there are many who see various parts of non-Western cultures—including language, expression, clothing, symbols, images, and artwork—as threats or believe they are watering down parts of the faith. Such culturally chauvinistic views shut out other traditions from participating in a manner that reflects their identity.
While addressing the need to reach out to society’s “outcasts” in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis calls for the Church and all people of goodwill to embrace solidarity and fraternal love with the parable of the Good Samaritan. With his expansion of this essential moral story from Jesus, the Holy Father highlights that we must be aware of the needs of those neglected on the wayside. By using the Good Samaritan as his foundation, Francis proclaims:
The parable shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbours, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good (67).
Those same cultures and expressions that are disregarded and unappreciated can sense the spiritual and moral urgency Pope Francis has called for. By making them fully functioning members of the Church, this is the right step toward reconciling and restoring the estranged segment within the Body.
Throughout his pontificate, he has regularly outlined an all-encompassing Body that consists of fully-incorporated members into the Church. Truly, the Holy Father is committed to ensuring the Catholic Church, with its prolific cultural expression and immeasurably abundant local uniqueness, is a place where all can be welcomed and celebrated.
U.S. Bishops’ Response
Though I’ve highlighted the global state of affairs, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has also acknowledged that many parishes don’t reflect the diversity of their diocese or global Church, which is a sad reality considering that many diocese have a heavy Black or Hispanic/Latino presence. Shouldn’t the parish reflect how God has elevated their culture into the Sacred mystery?
In Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love (2018), a pastoral letter against racism in the United States, the U.S. Bishops outline a realistic approach:
We need to continue to educate ourselves and our people about the great cultural diversity within our Church. One way to do this is to support actively the cause for canonization of the first African American saint. We can also promote knowledge of the martyrs, blessed, and saints of the different cultural groups and nationalities present in our midst, and propose them as models of faith for the entire Church. So many of our parishes are richly diverse, composed of people from various cultures and ethnic groups, such that they can be a model for the whole Church and for the country.
Though this document doesn’t include an overreaching bold plan that examines every facet of racism and power structures as many in the Church have call for, the document does a fair job at actually prescribing manageable and timely goals to reinforce inclusion for many Catholics of color. When parishes and dioceses truly commit to the recommendations outlined by the Bishops, many of His children who feel like strangers will be gathered in love.
It is essential that the Church gives believers an opportunity to respond to the beckoning call toward sainthood, and it’s in the best interest of the Church to display the genius of salvation. God has demonstrated his loving embrace of men and women of all cultural stripes, and they too are engrafted into the Beatific Vision. Believers should be able to see these saintly witnesses as fellow heirs of the divine promise. By promoting saints who reflect the diversity of the universal Church, the Church will more successfully proclaim that we are one divine family composed of every ethnicity, language, and culture.
Image: Ethiopian icons (St George, Madonna and Child). This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57103721