Black Catholic History is Catholic History!

Black Catholics have had a huge impact on the history and traditions of Christianity. The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States designated November as Black Catholic History Month 30 years ago to celebrate the long history and proud heritage of black Catholics.

Two commemorative dates fall within this month, St. Martin de Porres’ Feast Day on Nov. 3 and St. Augustine’s Birthday on Nov. 13.

Denver Celebrates First African American Cardinal

Just in time to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of National Black Catholic History Month, Pope Francis announced the first African American will be appointed to the College of Cardinals on Nov. 28.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., will be elevated to the highest governing body in the Catholic Church. This is an exciting action taken by the Holy Father who has not named an American to the College of Cardinals since 2016.

Kateri Williams, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in the Archdiocese of Denver states that the news is exhilarating to hear. She had the pleasure of meeting Cardinal-elect Gregory in Georgia during his service as Archbishop of Atlanta.

“He has an especially warm place in the hearts of many black Catholics in the Denver area,” Williams said.  “This historic moment is a call for celebration for all Catholics in our universal Church.”

Deacon Clarence McDavid from Cure’D’Ars Catholic parish recollects that as a child growing up in Denver it was not his experience to see a Catholic priest or religious who was African American.

In the late 1990’s, Gregory served as the keynote speaker for the Black Catholics’ Annual Faith and Unity Weekend and celebrated Mass at Denver’s St. Ignatius Loyola parish.

Margaret Wright, a parishioner in attendance, remarked that it has always been a pleasure to attend any of Archbishop’s Gregory’s liturgies and presentations.

“His words are powerful and very thoughtful,” Wright said.

“Such a gifted and holy man,” Shermita West from St. Jude parish in Lakewood said. “I am grateful that Pope Francis recognized Archbishop Gregory’s accomplishments, and his love of the Church and its people.”

With so much to celebrate in November, Williams hopes all Denver Catholics will take special reflection of the contributions of their black Catholic brothers and sisters.

“Black Catholic History is Catholic History!” Williams said.

All Are Invited!

Cardinal-elect Gregory is a featured speaker in a program sponsored by the archdiocese office on Saturday, Nov. 14.

To participate with the zoom event, you will need to register for the Tolton’s Legacy: A Road Map to Unity- 2020 Vision.

REGISTER FOR ZOOM EVENT

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.