I recently came across an op-ed written by Nate Tinner-Williams of Black Catholic Messenger (who wrote his first article after becoming Catholic for WPI) back in January 2022 about his experience of watching the Academy Award-winning film Spotlight, both prior to and after his reception into the Catholic Church. He relates this experience to the situation of Black Catholics in the US — both today and in the history of the US Catholic Church. And he also notes how their role continues to be overlooked in the story of the American Catholicism. He writes:
Boston is, by some estimates, the most racist city in America.
When I think about that, it makes “Spotlight” all the more curious—masterful cinematic work that it is. It is a Catholic story, with Catholic protagonists, Catholic opposition, Catholic victims, Catholic onlookers, and all the rest. But it is also quintessentially White.
Though you might not guess it, Boston has been roughly a quarter Black demographically since at least the late 1980s, and the archdiocese currently boasts of 16 Black parishes, according to data from the National Black Catholic Congress.
Watching my favorite film, however, I would never know it. In all of its winding coverage of various conversations, victims, cases, and locales, “Spotlight” has all of two Black characters—whom I would estimate shared a grand total of 25 seconds of screentime, a single speaking line, and no obvious connection to Catholicism whatsoever.
In 2021, Efran Menny wrote for WPI about the challenges faced by Venerable Augustus Tolton, a Black priest who “had to travel to Rome because American seminaries wouldn’t take him.” He expected to be sent to Africa after ordination, where he wouldn’t have to face the racism of the priests and parishioners in the US. That wasn’t to be the case. As Efran wrote, “Surprisingly, he was returned to his own racist town in Illinois to serve in the face of much hostility and hate.” Tolton died in 1897 at the age of 43 from heat stroke. Despite what is in so many ways a tragic and heartbreaking story, Efran still managed to find a message of grace in Fr. Tolton’s story, writing how, “at the end of the day, despite the persecution and discrimination, he walked confidently, submitting to God.”
I am grateful for the friendship of so many Black Catholics, and the more I learn about their experiences, the more I am humbled by their deep and abiding faith. Last year I learned something about the uphill climb against discrimination faced by Black Catholics, while we were recording the first season of the Field Hospital podcast. Around midseason, we had two Black Catholic guests lined up, one to speak about the history and traditions of Black Catholicism, and the other to speak about personal experiences of racism and life as a Black person in the Church. Then one day, we received an email from a (white) manager that neither of them was to be allowed to appear on the podcast. The only reason mentioned in the email was a vague statement about hearing “disturbing” things about one of the guests.
I asked what the issue was. They said they didn’t feel comfortable putting it in writing and they would only talk to me about it on the phone. I was in Rome at the time, so a phone call wasn’t exactly convenient. And I thought, “If the reasons are valid, then why would they be afraid to put them in writing?”
I was bewildered. I started to ask around, trying to determine if there were allegations that this person had done something illegal or immoral. It turned out that this wasn’t the case at all. I talked to many people across Catholic media and the story began to emerge. What it seems to have boiled down to was that someone totally unrelated to the podcast had, months earlier, mounted a personal crusade against one of the Black Catholics I’d invited, and attempted to get this person blacklisted from every Catholic organization, media outlet, and institution with whom this person was affiliated. And on at least two occasions, this person was investigated and exonerated of wrongdoing. I saw the documentation.
And the other guest we’d invited was also banned — despite having no personal involvement in the dispute. Apparently, we had invited the “wrong kind” of Black Catholic.
I brought my findings to management, but it was no good. There was no discussion. The phone call never happened. They just stopped responding to my emails about the matter and scheduled the next show. On top of that, they left it to me to do the disinviting of these guests. It was one of the worst feelings I’ve had in my life, to feel so helpless in the face of clear injustice. But in the end, I still had a podcast. And I cannot ever forget the response of each of these Black Catholics had, when I broke the news to them — resigned but steadfast, disappointed but determined to move forward in faith. I had been agonizing about this for over a week. My face got red every time I thought about it. I was hopping mad. In fact, I still am mad as I write this. My face is red right now. That is my privilege. Black Catholics know well what I was seeing for the first time.
In his op-ed, Nate continues,
African-American Catholics have no advocate, no jurisdiction, no saints, no quarter, no voice, and no choice but to forge ahead with little more than hope that somehow things will get better. (And I’m not sure any of us are particularly confident on that front.)
Recent reports say we are leaving the Church at an alarming level. I am doubtful of the numbers myself, but I’m also ignorant. Maybe I just don’t want to believe it’s really true that what I’ve come to embrace, after so many years rejecting it, has become for others an unacceptable byword—an embodiment of what’s wrong with Christianity rather than what’s right.
When a Black laywoman, Cynthia Bailey Manns (adult learning director at St. Joan of Arc parish in Minneapolis) was named as a delegate to the October Synod, the knives came out for her from the Lepanto Institute and LifeSiteNews and all the other usual places. I don’t know much about her views, but based on my exposure to her YouTube videos and articles about her, I like her spirit. She said in one interview, “The challenge for us is to get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit do what it does so well. I expect there will be a lot of lives changed at the end of the process. I hope I will come out different, too.” That’s exactly what the Synod needs from all its participants (and from all of us).
So many Catholics in this country appear incapable of doing anything but point out the faults of those who are outside the Church or who struggle with the Catholic faith. Too often we are blind to the corruption in our own hearts and our own communities. Perhaps, of all the absurd, erroneous, and outrageous things Bishop Strickland has ever tweeted, the most offensive was when in 2021 he posted that “We are worried about the wrong ‘ism'” — in other words, we should be worried about atheism rather than racism. To teach Catholics to direct their worries outward, to the “atheist,” the “other,” is a failure to remind us that we must examine our own faults and our own sins. Especially when Bishop Strickland doesn’t have a great track record himself — such as when he inexplicably delayed the ordination of a Nigerian seminarian for four years after he was ordained to the transitional diaconate (typically the wait is one year).
We are worried about the wrong “ism”. Racism is immoral & should be shunned but the root of our problems is ATHEISM. Let us repent of our sins & humbly return to God. It we do this racism & every other ill that plagues our society will fall into dust. We must address this root!
— Bishop J. Strickland (@Bishopoftyler) February 24, 2021
Evangelization starts with our own conversion of heart. As Pope Francis once said, “We need to take up the spiritual means that the Lord himself teaches us: humiliation, self-accusation, prayer and penance. This is the only way to overcome the spirit of evil.” There is also a communal and a cultural sense to this. I don’t think it’s out of line to say that many of us who are white Catholics in the US have very little sense of what it means to be a racial minority, and especially a Black person in the US. I include myself in this accusation. It’s time we listen.
Image: Cynthia Bailey Manns addresses parishioners at St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis.