As the Savior of humanity, Jesus Christ had a record of embracing those disparaged by members of his Jewish culture. It was common for him to dialogue with tax collectors, gentiles, women, sinners, and prostitutes conveying to them that they were a part of the Kingdom. To Jesus, everyone, regardless of their unique and personal attributes, was invited to experience the divine life. As the Catholic Church has been forced in recent months to address the issues of racism and racial justice, Black Catholics have been increasingly vocal on social media. Many US Catholics may not realize this, but the Black Catholic tradition in America is extremely rich, with a vibrant history and a story of endurance and perseverance. With this heritage in mind, many boldly proclaim their Black Catholic roots with hope of educating the masses.
Not surprisingly, many white Catholics do not understand what we mean when we place an adjective in front of the name of our religion. They see the word “Black,” and immediately negative connotations, stereotypes, and caricatures arise. As a result, they will argue that the Church has no place for race. To put it simply, they think you’re being worldly when you interject race or culture into the equation.
I have been on the receiving end of immense backlash and angry attacks for embracing my Black Catholic heritage. I frequently defend what it means to be a Black Catholic to those who are ignorant of its symbolism and meaning. What is strange is how no one ever bats an eye over other groups of Catholics who celebrate their cultural roots. You can be a “Polish Catholic,” an “Irish Catholic,” or even a member of a proud “Italian Catholic” family and never encounter criticism.
It seems to me like those who advocate for purity tests for Catholicism are terrified at the mere mention of the term “Black Catholic.” As a result, in my conversations with others on social media I sometimes break down what it means to be Black and Catholic. I point out that when we come to faith in Jesus Christ through the Catholic Church, we’re incorporated into both a visible and an invisible institution (they have no disagreements there), but we also don’t cede our unique biological identifiers—how God made us. Ultimately, through the Cross he takes our unique features and elevates them into his mystery.
On this topic, both the public ministry of our Savior in the Gospels and the Catechism of the Catholic Church have much to say about using unique identifiers (race, sex, culture) while being immersed firmly into the obedient true Israel, Jesus Christ. With his transfigured power, he embraces the totality of the individual, and his Divine Grace and collides together with the elements that shape our being. It is through this fusion that Christ welcomes us and uses our whole self for a larger purpose in his kingdom.
The Gospels are filled with examples of how Jesus lifts up the marginalized and recognizes their God-given qualities.
Jesus and Women
Jesus, being not of this world, came to usher in a new divine ethic and morality on the treatment of those who are marginalized. He did this in subtle ways with large implications. Keep in mind that the key witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus were women (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 161-8; Luke 241-12).We know that patriarchal attitudes flourished in antiquity, and that women were subjugated to second-class status. One example of this is the statement of the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus that, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex” (Antiquities of the Jews, 4.219). Given society’s policy that women’s testimonies were invalid, it is remarkable that the Risen Christ chose to reveal himself to women first.
After returning from the empty tomb, where they had gone to perform the Jewish burial custom, their testimony might have been regarded as questionable by the disciples. Yet at the words of these women, St. Peter bolted through the door to see if their claims were true. Eventually, the disciples would come to have faith in the testimony of the women. This example of the testimony of these women is one example of how Christ’s Paschal mystery transcends the created order and gives things a new understanding and appreciation—even society’s understanding of patriarchy.
Something similar happened when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 1-42). After a long discussion and clarifying her literal understanding of prophecy, Jesus revealed his identity as the Messiah. Eventually, the disciples come, and they wonder why he is talking to a woman. After her conversation with Jesus, she runs swiftly back to her town bearing the Gospel and proclaiming the arrival of the long-awaited King. Again, Jesus uses a woman—and in this case one who is despised and rejected by society’s standards—to be an ambassador for his messianic arrival. She becomes a missionary as the disciples would be. By being a representative of truth, she dismantles the bondage of her crippling state of sinful affairs and is remade into a vessel for the Lord’s salvific purpose.
In both instances, this quote from St. Paul comes to mind: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27). Women, by all standards in Ancient Near Eastern civilizations were vulnerable to poverty, disproportionately treated in an inhuman manner, and subject to inferior status. Yet, Jesus chose women to be part of his inner circle, and he embraced their womanhood as a means of being an instrument of his will. By doing so, he revealed the true extent of God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom, there is no place for prejudice or bias, and both women and men have a pivotal role to play in spearheading the Great Commission.
Jesus and the Gentiles
To the Jews, Gentiles were considered outside God’s covenant. Because they did not enjoy the special status of knowing the Mosaic Law, the accepted knowledge understanding in Jewish society was that this class of people was less than human. Gentiles were so despised by Jewish believers that they were commonly referred to as dogs.
Despite this prevailing view, Jesus invites the Gentiles to be grafted onto the true vine. The Jewish people prided themselves in their relationship with God, but Jesus told the listeners that the kingdom would be stripped from many of them and given to a new people that will produce fruit. Therefore, Jesus affirms that those outside the covenant could even triumph over those who had the privilege of the Law, prophets, and their ancestral patriarchs. When many of the Jewish people he encountered were so stubborn when it was time to recognize the Messiah, Jesus made it clear that others would heed his call to fellowship. By promising the Gentiles that they would be partakers of the Gospel, Jesus promotes this ostracized segment into a unique privilege.
Continuing the advancement of the Gentiles, Jesus marveled at the Roman Centurion’s faith stating, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Matt 8: 5-13; Luke 5: 12-16). By this time, Jesus was well into his public ministry and interacted with local Jews, including Pharisees and other teachers of religious law, so he was aware of how people understood who he was and his mission. He could easily read the hearts and minds of many and detect inauthentic love and criticism. Yet, at the request of a healing for his servant, he praises this Gentile’s faith with high acclaim.
In Matthew’s account, after he heals the Roman officer, Jesus proclaims a profound truth that demonstrates that the Gentiles are also part of God’s plan of salvation. Jesus states, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt 11-12). This quote from Jesus conveys the Christian understanding of the inheritance of all people, not only those who are part of the Mosaic covenant. Here Jesus stressed the Kingdom will be open to those who appear to be outside the chosen race, while many of those who have access to the means of the ceremonial, civil, and moral law will be left behind.
But what does the Catechism of the Catholic Church say about matters of diversity and culture? Far from the current narrative perpetuated by some outspoken Catholics who impose litmus tests for their idea of “orthodoxy” and adherence to tradition, the Church has much to say on aspects of liturgical diversity and cultural expression. Paragraphs 1200-1209 of the Catechism lay out the Church’s teaching that the expressions of diverse cultures are incorporated into and enrich the amazing mystery of Christ.
The sacramental celebration of the Paschal mystery is immeasurably abundant and radiates throughout the world. Because it is available to all of God’s children, attempts to constrict its scope and breadth to a single expression is troublesome. A key component of the Catholic Church is her mark of catholicity. Because various cultures exist, the ways they comprehend and respond to the mysteries of Christ are plentiful. These cultures are not subverting the Church’s tradition or altering what is contained in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Instead, they celebrate the Mystery of Christ in a manner that relates to their culture’s unique attributes and cultural expressions. The many different ways of celebrating the liturgy and worshipping Christ become integrated into the Church and more perfectly reflect Christ’s salvific mission. Meanwhile, by integrating Christ, cultures become transformed and elevated by his presence.
The cultures and societies around the globe that have embraced the Paschal Mystery have not ceded their unique identities. Instead, the Mystery and culture work in a harmonious manner. The culture is incorporated into the glory and mystery of faith that unites all of God’s children to worship in spirit and truth as one.
A Personal Touch
Shortly before I was baptized in the Baptist tradition in April 2010, I had the realization that God wanted to use me. Yes, I marveled at the thought of an omnibenevolent God wanting fellowship with this little pagan barely finishing his freshman year of college. I knew that to be true to this commitment, I needed to give my all, so I kept no part away from his all-powerful will. In faith, he called me, and I gave him a central part of my life: my lived experience as a Black man. Yes, I had to change my thinking a bit to understand the nature of true love, but never did he turn me around. He divinized my culture and identity and navigated me toward the fullness of Christian truth. Together, and still to this day, I have cooperated with grace and God in return has made me a partaker in his divine nature. He has elevated what the world frequently tarnishes and rejects.
Through the weaving of his grand tapestry, God has a role for Black Catholics in the Church. Our gifts, talents, and strengths can be integrated with the divine life of Jesus Christ and used for abundant opportunities. I am not a perfect carrier of the Black Catholic baton, but I find the practices, history, and movement invigorating for my faith. I pray that my other brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ will one day see the joy I have as a gift from God rather than a means of division.
Image: Cardinal DiNardo with Efran Menny on his confirmation day.