“The Synod for the Amazon was historic; no previous synod was as synodal and reform-oriented as this one.”
— Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM
A year and a half ago, I could hardly have dreamed of giving heed to an “Apostolic Exhortation,” since the Apostles are dead and I was Protestant. So, on the occasion of the latest one from Pope Francis—Querida Amazonia—this new Catholic was eager to get in on the game.
I had followed the Amazon Synod proceedings from the lead-up all the way through the dubious rumors that Pope Francis was planning to allow married priests in the Amazon (to shock the world, arm the anxious, and destroy the Church, of course).
Though that obviously did not occur, the exhortation itself did manage to shock me in its frankness about inculturation—namely, the rejection of attempts to prevent it. Some have openly questioned the sentiments of Cardinal Hummes, choosing to regard the Amazon Synod as a blip on the radar: nothing at all compared to the other synods of the last 50 years.
But the truth is this: we are at a turning point in history, and the Amazon Synod (along with its resultant exhortation) was a unique clarion call for inculturation. It went so far as to note specific things that should be allowed—even some that are often maligned by Western Catholics. In its bold affirmation of certain indigenous practices and ideas, it truly made history and paved the way for reform—not just in the Amazon, but throughout the Church.
Now, to be fair, I know next to nothing about Amazonian Catholicism other than what I’ve read on the internet, so I will refrain from speaking in detail on their experience as a young Catholic community in need of support, the sacraments, and a listening ear. But as a Black Catholic, I empathize with Amazonian Catholics in many ways, as my wing of the Church faces similar issues. Like the Catholics of the Amazon region, Black Catholics are engaged in early-stage inculturation—and must deal with its complexities and barriers—on a regular basis.
I say “early-stage” because it’s only within the past 50 years or so that Black Catholics, long domineered by a “White racist institution” (i.e., the Catholic Church here in the United States, as described by its Black clergy in 1968), have been able to more fully inculturate Catholicism within the Black context. My impression is that nascent Amazonian Catholic communities are in much the same kind of boat and stage.
Some of my most angry and most sad moments over the past year have been when my Traditionalist friends denigrated valid forms of the Mass that did not meet their cultural expectations for how a Mass should look, sound, and feel. Admittedly, while some of their criticisms were purely emotional and subjective, others were based on their perception of what the Church’s authoritative documents say about how the Mass should be.
That said, insofar as their reading of the Magisterium has led them to conclude that the city limits of inculturation just so happen to be in Medieval Europe, their reading is flawed and un-Catholic. Rules and regulations in the Church are immensely important, but it is all too easy to read into the rulebook the way that we like to play the game.
Over the course of the past six centuries, African-Americans and Amazonian Catholics have had similar experiences within this contest: often forgotten, sacramentally underserved, and at times totally disregarded. Both communities are rich in faith yet constantly misunderstood spiritually and liturgically—painted with a broad, brutal brush.
For these and other reasons, nearly every point made by Pope Francis in his exhortation to the Church hit home for me as an important truth to be remembered not only for the sake of Amazonian Catholics, but for Black Catholics and all others who exist and worship as Catholics outside the bounds of its most common Western expressions.
The fiercest critics of Pope Francis and the Amazon Synod have tended to paint them as joining forces to open the floodgates of Hell by instituting practices in the Amazon that they intend to soon impose on the rest of the Church. They turned out to be right about the universal implications of the synodal process, but they have nothing to do with married priests or female deacons. It is about respecting culture for the sake of the Gospel. It is indeed a universal call.
Some of the points made in Querida Amazonia resonated so deeply with my understanding of the relationship between Catholicism and African Americans that I felt Pope Francis couldn’t possibly have written the document without at least a few other communities (in addition to Amazonian Catholics) in mind. Here are a few excerpts, gently modified to make clear the broad application at the heart of the exhortation:
66. As she perseveres in the preaching of the kerygma, the Church also needs to grow in the [African-American community]. In doing so, she constantly reshapes her identity through listening and dialogue with the people, the realities and the history of the lands in which she finds herself. In this way, she is able to engage increasingly in a necessary process of inculturation that rejects nothing of the goodness that already exists in [African-American] cultures, but brings it to fulfilment in the light of the Gospel.”
It is no secret that the Church is dying among African Americans, and the reasons for this are hard to put into words. Commitment and money certainly play a part, but these twin obstacles are often nonexistent when laypeople are made to feel welcome, empowered, and listened to within their community. You don’t have to beg for foot traffic or funds when the people are glad to make an appearance.
70. For the Church to achieve a renewed inculturation of the Gospel in the [African-American community], she needs to listen to its ancestral wisdom, listen once more to the voice of its elders, recognize the values present in the way of life of the original communities, and recover the rich stories of its peoples. In the [African-American community], we have inherited great riches… These include “openness to the action of God, a sense of gratitude for the fruits of the earth, the sacred character of human life and esteem for the family, a sense of solidarity and shared responsibility in common work, the importance of worship, belief in a life beyond this earth, and many other values”
Recovering the rich stories of African Americans is a constant and ongoing process, almost cyclical, as the achievements and struggles of the past are often laid to the side as we struggle just to make it to the finish line ourselves. This is one place where the Church can step in and be a helping hand, a pace-setter for the race.
75. Given the situation of poverty and neglect experienced by so many inhabitants of the [African-American community], inculturation will necessarily have a markedly social cast, accompanied by a resolute defense of human rights; in this way it will reveal the face of Christ, who “wished with special tenderness to be identified with the weak and the poor”. Indeed, “from the heart of the Gospel we see the profound connection between evangelization and human advancement”. For Christian communities, this entails a clear commitment to the justice of God’s kingdom through work for the advancement of those who have been “discarded”. It follows that a suitable training of pastoral workers in the Church’s social doctrine is most important.
Here in my city of New Orleans, I was privileged recently to hear a Black Catholic scholar speak on the basics of Black Catholicism. Several local seminarians were in attendance, one of whom said that he attends such events (including an annual, weeks-long Black Catholic symposium during the summer) because he knows he will likely need the training in order to effectively minister in our predominantly Black city. This is at the heart of the Gospel: becoming all things to all people, for the sake of all.
77. This will give rise to witnesses of holiness with an [African American] face, not imitations of models imported from other places. A holiness born of encounter and engagement, contemplation and service, receptive solitude and life in community, cheerful sobriety and the struggle for justice. A holiness attained by “each individual in his or her own way”, but also by peoples, where grace becomes incarnate and shines forth with distinctive features. Let us imagine a holiness with [African-American] features, called to challenge the universal Church.
For the great majority of its history, the Black Catholic experience has been one of imposition rather than that of inculturation. Without placing blame at the feet of anyone, it was by the grace of God that inculturation finally did occur in our community in the 60s and 70s, albeit by force (i.e., agitation from Black Catholics themselves). The tension of that approach can be avoided when we heed the Pope’s call to encounter and engage rather than import and impose.
78. A process of inculturation involving not only individuals but also peoples demands a respectful and understanding love for those peoples. This process has already begun in much of the [African-American community]… Many of… those to be evangelized, shaped by a varied and changing culture, have been “initially evangelized”. As a result, they possess “certain features of popular Catholicism that, perhaps originally introduced by pastoral workers, are now something that the people have made their own, even changing their meaning and handing them down from generation to generation”. Let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples. Rather, we ought to know how to distinguish the wheat growing alongside the tares, for “popular piety can enable us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on”.
82. …we can take up into the liturgy many elements proper to the experience of [African Americans]… and respect [their] forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols. The Second Vatican Council called for this effort to inculturate the liturgy… over fifty years have passed and we still have far to go along these lines.
By a miracle, Christianity took hold among the Black population in America despite (or perhaps because of) the great brutality of their lot in life, suffering at the hands of their oppressors. We were “initially evangelized” in this way. Christianity is embedded in the culture of the Black community in ways most of us cannot put into words or often even detect, thanks to shared traditions dating back to the earliest African Christian slaves in this land. Over time, African traditions were combined with Christianity to create a practice of the faith that cohered for us, not meant to please anyone but God. Our loud instruments (vocal and otherwise), rhythmic features, and propensity to move, clap, and dance should be respected and celebrated, not cast aside as a form inferior (rather than equal to) softness, silence, and stillness.
107. …We also possess a great treasure in the seven sacraments, which some Christian communities do not accept in their totality or in the same sense. At the same time that we believe firmly in Jesus as the sole Redeemer of the world, we cultivate a deep devotion to his Mother. Even though we know that this is not the case with [most African American] Christian confessions, we feel it our duty to share with the [African-American community] the treasure of that warm, maternal love which we ourselves have received.
108. None of this needs to create enmity between us. In a true spirit of dialogue, we grow in our ability to grasp the significance of what others say and do, even if we cannot accept it as our own conviction. In this way, it becomes possible to be frank and open about our beliefs, while continuing to discuss, to seek points of contact, and above all, to work and struggle together for the good of the [African-American community]. The strength of what unites all of us as Christians is supremely important.
One of the most surprising aspects of Black Catholicism in my experience has been the propensity to link hands with Black Christians from other traditions in order to accomplish good work in the community. Coming from a Protestant background, I faced (and continue to face) a strong temptation to settle into opposition, a stern refusal to touch that which is not theologically pristine and complete. But the reality is that God has caused the Gospel message to flourish in a variety of traditions, and history says that many Black Protestants left the Catholic Church because its leaders chose Whiteness over Catholicity. And since Black Protestants were the first and foremost Christians to speak out against this racism and racial terrorism in the United States, it was only natural for neglected Black Catholics to find a willing friend in them even if they themselves remained Catholic. As members of a rejected class, Black Protestants and Black Catholics found unity and their prophetically corrective message in the Gospel.
Within this clarion call for unity among Christians for the sake of those trampled on and kicked away, Pope Francis’s prayer at the conclusion of Querida Amazonia strikes a special chord:
Mother, look upon the poor of the [African-American community],
for their home is being destroyed by petty interests.
How much pain and misery,
how much neglect and abuse there is
in this blessed land
overflowing with life!
Touch the hearts of the powerful,
for, even though we sense that the hour is late,
you call us to save
what is still alive.
Mother whose heart is pierced,
who yourself suffer in your mistreated sons and daughters,
and in the wounds inflicted on nature,
reign in the [African-American community],
together with your Son.
Reign so that no one else can claim lordship
over the handiwork of God.
We trust in you, Mother of life.
Do not abandon us
in this dark hour.
Image: By John H. White, 1945-, Photographer (NARA record: 4002141) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16914489
Nathaniel "Nate" Tinner-Williams is a co-founder and editor of the Black Catholic Messenger. He is also a theology grad/nerd and loves to engage in the New Evangelization through the internet. A lifelong Christian and newborn Catholic, he is always looking to discover just how deep and wide the Church truly is.