Celebrate Black Catholic History Month ‘for the greater glory of God’

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By Kateri Joda Williams

“For the greater glory of God.” That is the reason all Catholics celebrate the heritage and contributions of Blacks in Catholic Christianity during the month of November. In an address to African Bishops, Pope Paul VI declared that “you must now give the gifts of your blackness to the whole church.” Established in 1990 by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States, Black Catholic History Month honors the richness of the universality of the Church.

It is fitting that Black Catholic History Month is celebrated during the month we commemorate the saints. Many Catholics know of St. Martin de Porres, the only saint of African descent from this hemisphere. His feast day is celebrated on Nov. 3. We also celebrate the birth of St. Augustine, the first Doctor of the Church, born in North Africa on Nov. 13.

However, many Catholics are unaware of the current six African Americans proposed for sainthood. Those of us fortunate to live in Colorado should be familiar with Servant of God Julia Greeley, known as Denver’s Angel of Charity. Venerable Pierre Toussaint was born a slave, yet once freed, he became a businessman in New York City. Using his wealth, he supported charitable causes which included work against religious and racial prejudice.

In 1829, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange co-founded of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, the oldest religious congregation for women of color in the United States. Venerable Mother Henriette Delille, born in New Orleans, founded the second religious order for women of color, the Sisters of the Holy Family. As the education of slaves was illegal, the ministry of both these women was done under great risk.

Venerable Father Augustus Tolton was born into slavery in 1854 in the state of Missouri. Ordained in Rome in 1886, he was the first publicly recognized black priest in the United States.

Becoming Catholic at the age of nine, Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman was born in Mississippi in 1937. She was the first African American to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin. After a teaching career, Sister Thea served as a special consultant for the Catholic Church, giving presentations aimed at bridging cultural divisions. I was blessed with the opportunity to meet Sister Thea after a presentation at Queen of Peace Parish, where she combined her gifts of spreading the gospel with singing, prayers and storytelling. Diagnosed with bone cancer in 1984, Sister Thea worked from her wheelchair until her death in 1990. She prayed “to live until I die — to live fully.”

It is imperative that we understand our past to live fully in the present with faith in the future. Therefore, the influence of blacks in Catholic history cannot be limited to the month of November. Father Cyprian Davis, a Benedictine priest and professor wrote the definitive account of Black Catholics in his publication, The History of Black Catholics in the United States. The Josephite Pastoral Center and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., are also great resources from which the information for this article was obtained.

There is an opportunity for deeper reflection regarding the lives of the six Black Catholic candidates for sainthood during the Annual Black Catholic Retreat in April 2020 at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House. Come find yourself in the pages of scripture as we study “The Saints Among Us,” all for the greater glory of God.

COMING UP: A last chance for Australian justice

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My late parents loved Cardinal George Pell, whom they knew for decades. So I found it a happy coincidence that, on November 12 (which would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary), a two-judge panel of Australia’s High Court referred to the entire Court the cardinal’s request for “special leave” to appeal his incomprehensible conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse,” and the even-more-incomprehensible denial of his appeal against that manifestly unsafe verdict.

Thus in 2020 the highest judicial authority in Australia will review the Pell case, which gives the High Court the opportunity to reverse a gross injustice and acquit the cardinal of a hideous crime: a “crime” that Pell insists never happened; a “crime” for which not a shred of corroborating evidence has yet been produced; a “crime” that simply could not have happened in the circumstances and under the conditions it was alleged to have been committed.

Since Cardinal Pell’s original appeal was denied in August by two of three judges on an appellate panel in the State of Victoria, the majority decision to uphold Pell’s conviction has come under withering criticism for relying primarily on the credibility of the alleged victim. As the judge who voted to sustain the cardinal’s appeal pointed out (in a dissent that one distinguished Australian attorney described as the most important legal document in that country’s history), witness credibility – a thoroughly subjective judgment-call – is a very shaky standard by which to find someone guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It has also been noted by fair-minded people that the dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is the most respected criminal jurist in Australia, while his two colleagues on the appellate panel had little or no criminal law experience. Weinberg’s lengthy and devastating critique of his two colleagues’ shallow arguments seemed intended to signal the High Court that something was seriously awry here and that the reputation of Australian justice – as well as the fate of an innocent man – was at stake.

Other recent straws in the wind Down Under have given hope to the cardinal’s supporters that justice may yet be done in his case.

Andrew Bolt, a television journalist with a nationwide audience, walked himself through the alleged series of events at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, within the timeframe in which they were supposed to have occurred, and concluded that the prosecution’s case, and the decisions by both the convicting jury and the majority of the appeal panel, simply made no sense. What was supposed to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did.

Australians willing to ignore the vicious anti-Pell polemics that have fouled their country’s public life for years also heard from two former workers at the cathedral, who stated categorically that what was alleged to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did, because they were a few yards away from Cardinal Pell at the precise time he was alleged to have abused two choirboys.

Then there was Anthony Charles Smith, a veteran criminal attorney (and not a Catholic), who wrote in Annals Australasia that the Pell verdict and the denial of his appeal “curdles my stomach.” How, he asked, could a guilty verdict be rendered on “evidence….so weak and bordering on the preposterous?” The only plausible answer, he suggested, was that Pell’s “guilt” was assumed by many, thanks to “an avalanche of adverse publicity” ginned up by “a mob baying for Pell’s blood” and influencing “a media [that] should always be skeptical.”

Even more strikingly, the left-leaning Saturday Paper, no friend of Cardinal Pell or the Catholic Church, published an article in which Russell Marks – a one-time research assistant on an anti-Pell book – argued that the two judges on the appellate panel who voted to uphold the cardinal’s conviction “effectively allowed no possible defense for Pell: there was nothing his lawyers could have said or done, because the judges appeared to argue it was enough to simply believe the complainant on the basis of his performance under cross examination.”

The Australian criminal justice system has stumbled or failed at every stage of this case. The High Court of Australia can break that losing streak, free an innocent man, and restore the reputation of Australian justice in the world. Whatever the subsequent fallout from the rabid Pell-haters, friends of justice must hope that that is what happens when the High Court hears the cardinal’s case – Australia’s Dreyfus Case – next year.

Photo: CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images