On Being African American and Catholic – Reflections by a Pastor on the Notre Dame Study

Most of you know that I have spent all but four of my years as a priest ministering in African American Parishes and that I am enthusiastic about my experiences. Like any pastoral setting, there are challenges, but there are also wonderful gifts. Chief among the gifts is the liturgical experience which is vibrant, life giving, joyful and filled with great expectation. There is support for the preacher, a great appreciation of musical gifts and an unmistakeable acknowledgment of the presence of the Lord in his Word and in Holy Communion. It has all been a wonderful blessing to me as a priest, and also as a Catholic and disciple of the Lord.

A study was recently published by Notre Dame and I’d like to offer a few excerpts of that study and comment on it. A full “executive summary” by William Gilroy is here: Notre Dame Survey of African American Catholics. As is usual with my commentaries, the original text is in Black, bold and italic typeface. My comments are in plain red text.

Among the key findings of the survey are:

On almost every measure of religious engagement, African American Catholics are considered stronger in their faith than white Catholics. For example, when asked how well their parish meets their spiritual needs, 78 percent of African American Catholics say their needs are being met, while 68.7 percent of white Catholics responded similarly. When asked if their parish meets their emotional needs, 75.7 percent of African American Catholics say their needs are being met, compared to 60.4 percent of white Catholics.

I generally think this is true. Black Catholics who attend Mass are generally very close knit to parish life at a variety of levels. Choirs are usually larger and well skilled, excited about what they do. Ushering is also a noble tradition. Women’s groups such as the Sodality are strong, to lesser but still clear extent, Men’s groups. Prayer groups are also strong since there is usually a strong “praying spirit” among African Americans.

“This finding also shows up among African American Catholics who attend predominantly black parishes,” Davis said. “A greater sense of community that comes from worshipping with others who share cultural heritage heightens religious engagement. Whatever forces are working against white Catholics’ religious identity and engagement were set in motion decades ago and those forces do not appear to be working against African American Catholics. Thus, it is quite possible that understanding African American Catholicity may inform us about the religious challenges of white Catholics. Too often we approach questions of religiosity in a vacuum. Comparable studies of religiosity are critical.”

Yes, here I strongly agree. Blacks, unlike most Whites,  share a kind of “sacred culture.” What I mean by this is that spirituals and Gospel Music permeate Black culture. It is also more common to freely express and inquire about religious matters. Sometimes I’ll be the store, and an African American will come up and, seeing my Roman Collar, inquire joyfully of me where my church is and also share something of their own background or church. It is not uncommon for some one to come to me ask that I pray, “right here, right now Father.” And so there we are, standing in the main aisle of Safeway praying together. Another may come to me and say, “Preacher! You got a word for me today?” It’s just a part of the culture. This is rare in the White communities where I grew up.

And this shared “sacred culture” finds a vibrant expression in the Mass in the form of Gospel music, joyful exuberance, call and response, lively interaction with the preaching though affirmations like “Amen!….Yes!….Go on preacher!…..Yes Lord!…..Hallelujah…….applause, a stomp, raised hands and so forth.

I think it is this shared sacred culture which has made the “New Mass” work so well in the African American setting. The traditional Latin Mass had a kind of “built in” culture and ethos, a certain music that was prescribed and so forth. But the new Mass stripped a lot of that away, and allowed the local culture to supply more. That of course works well only when there is a sacred culture to draw on.

White America had become largely secularized by 1970 and so the “culture” we ended up drawing on was questionable at best, a kind of Peter Paul and Mary folk sound, and a hat tip to the “protest songs” of the 1960s college crowd.

But in the Black community a sacred music and culture was ready at hand for Catholics to draw on, a music and ethos that powerfully and creatively lifts up God and praises his glory, sings of our “troubles,” but also describes how God brings us “through.” And in Gospel music, the focus is always on God rather than the “gathered community” so often emphasized in Catholic contemporary music.

There were also many other elements I have already mentioned (e.g. spontaneous acclamations) that made the “participatory” element in the New Mass an easy transition for African American Catholics.

This sacred culture was a time tested tradition in the Black community and, as a general rule, highly esteemed even by those less prone to shout “Amen.

On the often-used measure of Church attendance, 48.2 percent of African-Americans attend church at least once per week, compared to only 30.4 percent of white Catholics. I am not so sure of this number. Anecdotally, I think it is closer to 30%, especially among younger African Americans, who are far less “churched” than their parents and Grandparents.

While there is generally high satisfaction with various aspects of Mass and church service, such as preaching, music, readings and prayers, Catholics’ (both white and African Americans) level of satisfaction with these aspects of Mass are noticeably lower than Protestants.

Yes, frankly, we in the Church have not done so well in training priests and deacons to minister well in the things valued most highly by African Americans.

Preaching is highly valued among Blacks, and they generally prefer a longer sermon than most Whites. However, more than time, the sermon moment that is preferred is one in which the preacher carefully breaks open the Word of God in a way that is enthusiastic, creative, informative and easily applied for the up coming week. Most African Americans don’t what to hear only the “what,” but also the “so what” and the “now what” of God’s Word.

But too many Catholic priests and deacons (to include African American priests and deacons) are trained in a methodology of “informative” and “discursive” preaching as a goal, more than “transformative” and “kerygmatic” (from the Greek κηρύσσω (kērússō), to cry or proclaim as a herald) preaching.

The “say it in seven” mentality, common in Catholic training, that prizes brevity over anything else is also not a helpful approach. It is quite difficult to preach a transformative homily, (wherein the Word is read, analyzed, organized, illustrated and applied), in seven minutes.

Hence African Americans are often less than satisfied with the Sunday sermons they hear from most Catholic priests and deacons, especially compared to what they hear in the Protestant settings they often have contact with. There are many good and exceptional preachers in Black Catholic parishes but they are less in abundance than they should be.

It is sad, since good preaching can be learned, but most preachers usually think their preaching is just fine, and they are not open to being taught. It is also a fact that Blacks are not the only ones who rate Catholic preaching poorly. Frankly most Catholics think Catholic preaching leaves a LOT to be desired.

But until we work at training better preachers, and until the Catholic faithful are more open to Masses with slightly longer homilies, it does not seem that much will change. The 7-10 homily that says everything, covers all the things we need to hear, applies them creatively and with inspiration is going to be hard to find. In my own parish, homilies at the main Sunday mass are usually closer to 30 minutes, and it is a great luxury affored to me so that I can develop the entire passage and celebrate it with the People of God.

I know as I write this that I’ll get the usual comments on this that a sermon doesn’t have to be long to be good. This many be “true” in limited instances and settings, but it is not usually true. To really develop something takes longer than 7 minutes and I have never attended a public lecture that was 7 minutes, or even 10 minutes. A half an hour is more the norm among the Protestant preachers who, frankly rate higher in their abilities to preach effectively as a general rule.

The celebration “style” of priests is also an important matter. African American congregations generally value a celebrant who is praiseful but not clownish. Wooden and monotone proclamation of the prayers, a refusal to even attempt to sing the mass parts,  and the look of the “frozen chosen” are not appreciated in most Black parishes. While some Catholics value a “somber” look as indicative of solemnity and prayerfulness, this is less the case among African Americans for whom piety is manifest in a more joyful and exuberant manner in the presence of God. It is not just the priest from whom this is expected or valued, but also the lectors and musicians.

African American Catholics see room for growth in the racial positions of the Catholic Church. A total of 36.6 percent are satisfied with the targeting of black vocations, 38.1 percent are satisfied with the Church’s emphasis on black saints, 39.9 percent are satisfied with promoting black bishops, 40.2 percent are satisfied with the Church’s support for issues like affirmative action, 44.2 percent are satisfied with the Church’s position on problems in Africa, and 45.1 percent are satisfied with the promotion of racial integration in the Church.

Not sure what to do with this information.

Black vocations are harder to come by since, frankly, the Black family, and especially the Black male are in crisis. There are many reasons for this, too long to explore here. But the fact is, in every ethnic and racial group, it takes strong and large families to produce vigorous vocations.

I know that this Archdiocese actively recruits Black vocations, so do I as a pastor. But the pool of “recruits” is smaller. Frankly many Black women have trouble finding a Black man to marry, only 37% of Black women have ever been married. Almost 1/3 of Black men are incarcerated, another 1/3 are unemployed. There are many issues to be resolved.

And lest we single out the African American community, the Latino and also the White community are not far behind as the crisis of the family becomes an American problem. Fewer and fewer of ALL Americans are raised in a traditional family.  And all this is making it harder to find priests and help them stay priests, when broken homes are more and more the norm, from which we must seek vocations.

As for the other matters, I do not think numbers like these are unique to African Americans. Any number of groups and interests think the Church “isn’t doing enough” in some or many areas. I suppose we don’t do enough to promote the collection for the Church in Latin America or Eastern Europe either. The fact is, the Church in America is rather parochial and a collection of interests, and its hard to satisfy any one group well. I work with many Traditional Catholics who don’t think the Church does enough to promote the Traditional Latin Mass. I have also worked with the Neocatechumenal Way who don’t think there are enough communities of “The Way,” and so on. So I think this is a human problem. In the end it is up to members of various charisms and groups to promote themselves and stop waiting for “the Church” to do this work. They are the Church too.

The survey also uncovered notable national demographic trends that are evident within religious denominations that have great consequences for the future Church.

A total of 52.6 percent of African American Catholics and 53.3 percent of African American Protestants are at least 45 years-old, compared to 63.2 percent of white Catholics and 62 percent of white Protestants. There are also huge racial differences in the percentage that are married, reflecting another national trend. A total of 39.9 percent of African American Catholics are married, compared to 53.9 percent of white Catholics.

I have already noted these factors above. The African American parish has a slightly “younger” look than most White parishes. This is due to have slightly more children but also due to the higher mortality rates, especially among Black men who die significantly younger than the American norm. Further as we have noted, the problem with marriage and family is a growing concern. And, while the Black community has struggled with this problem a lot longer, the wider American family is also in trouble. Frankly it “ain’t no great shakes” that only 53% of Whites are married and it will be noted that 53 and 39 are only 14 points apart. These are numbers for all of us to sober about.

In the end, we see that, like any sector within the Church, African American Catholics have glories and struggles, gifts and needs. I personally think that, liturgically, there are tremendous gifts in the African American community and that the wider Church can learn much from the liturgical experience and practices on regular display at predominantly African American parishes. Joy, high expectation, participation, a focus on God, and experience of the powerful presence of God in Communion are things that should be evident in every Catholic parish. Too many Catholic parishes look more like a widow than a bride, and the “wedding feast of the Lamb” is perfunctory and minimalistic more than loving and generous. Brevity seems more the concern than worship, and the encounter with a living and true God.  This is far less the case the predominantly African American parishes, and there is much for the wider Church to learn.

And, frankly, there are internal problems in the African American community that largely Black parishes need to do a better job of addressing. The decline in marriage, the rise in single motherhood, high abortion rates and other social problems need to be frankly addressed and turned back. Like any social difficulty, many of these trends go back to the early 1960s and are going to take time to reverse. But work at them we must.

Joys and struggles, gifts and needs, the human story.

24 Replies to “On Being African American and Catholic – Reflections by a Pastor on the Notre Dame Study”

  1. @ Charles. I don’t think your reasoning lines up with biblical teaching. Jesus himself was a preacher of the word but let Msgr Pope address your comments in a more specific way. Hang in there Charles. Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to a parish where you can truly experience all that God the Father has for you. You have a lot of gifts that the Church can use. I can tell by your comments. Pray for a Holy Spiritual Director, you won’t be disappointed. Keep going to Mass. I know you will. Your questions will be answered. Be open to what you hear.

  2. Well, one person’s “vibrant expression” during Mass is another’s gross disrespect of the Lord and His supper. There are at least two parishes in the archdiocese in which this “vibrant expression” includes a lengthy sign of peace. This involves almost everybody moving around the church to hug everybody else. The priest and deacon leave the altar to do the same; once they have returned and begun the Lamb of God, people are still hugging and chatting. There is a din more at home in a concert hall as people go to receive the Lord. Whatever the intentions behind the new Mass, I really doubt if it was intended to be like that. My attempts to raise my concerns with the parish priest were met with a cold rebuff, by the way.

    1. What you are describing is a liturgical infraction, and not what I would include under “vibrant expression” From time to time I have to issue gentle reminders that the purpose of the sing of peace is not a meet and greet and that people should not leave their pews. Further, the clergy do not leave the altar in my parish and I have explained why this is the case.

      I wish you wouldn’t call it gross disrespect however, since it is unlikely that the people you describe intend that. Rather they, and the clergy need gentle but clear correction so that their actions are conformed more clearly to liturgical norms and the focus of the liturgy at that moment. I have written of this here: http://blog.adw.org/2010/02/the-mass-in-slow-motion-sobriety-at-the-sign-of-peace/

      1. I accept that the intention is not disrespect. It does appear disrespectful, however, to those of us in the congregation who don’t join in the disruption and want to focus on the Lord as we prepare to receive Him.

  3. The “black culture” seems like European culture, in terms of religion at least, before Europe’s descent into secularism: High piety, big attendance at Mass, problems with marriage, etc. Though I could be taking too many small examples and making a big case out of them. Still, let’s pray our African brethern do not fall prey to secularism.

  4. Your insights are right on! Giving careful thought and consideration to the ‘history’ that has progressed both races I am inclined to believe that the past speaks to the present. When any child of God finds itself in the bowels of despair and injustice the relationship with the Creator becomes freeing, life giving, and everlasting! No shame or embarrassment is present as they freely praise and worship the One True God! A lesson in freedom every white man’s heart needs to open to and purified with.

    Once any child of God allows themselves to embrace the true freedom that comes from knowing and loving God through suffering, the soul and spirit advance deeper into relationship with the Father. To come together through praise and worship continues to renew, refresh, and rejoice as we come to remember, He is with us through it all, He will never leave us or forsake us….we desire and long for the opportunities where He is present as we journey to the kingdom.

    “I feel that your spirits are being raised up with mine to the heavens above; but the body which is corruptible weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind.” (Today’s Office of Readings)

    The black man has come to know the Truth and the Truth has set him free. We have so much to learn from him!
    When people have been freed from sin and death through the Truth how can they help from being set on fire with God? !!!

    So preach it Monsignor! Shake up your brother priests and speak the truth to us. We are starving and wasting away…..

  5. Very interesting article, thank you!

    I wonder about the homily part. For me, a too-long, too-showy (can’t think of a better word) homily, detracts from the real reason we are all there, the Eucharist. It makes the priest too much of a performer if that makes sense.

    I remember reading that only 30% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence, do you think that number is higher or lower in predominantly black parishes?

    1. OK but why divide the issue? Why is the Word made Flesh set at odds with the Word who is proclaimed? Jesus is the real reason we are there, and while his Eucharistic presence is the climax of the Liturgy, it is prepared for and ushered in by the Word he speaks to us to prepare our hearts. The two parts of the Masss are not at odds as if one could detract from the other. Rather they are one, for the Lord who speaks is the same Lord who feeds. Jesus did not just celebrate the Last supper and bring the paschal mystery to its completion, prior to that culmination of his ministry, he taught them at great length (mk 6:31)

      1. Father Robert Baron is revolutionizing the art of Catholic homilies. His seem like they are 5 minutes, but are in fact closer to the half hour you mentioned above. The enthusiasm and deep knowledge he brings gives me a boost all week. Do you think one of the African-American bishops might want to have a ministry like Baron’s “Word on Fire?”

  6. Msgr:

    I would run, not walk to a parish where this was true: “Joy, high expectation, participation, a focus on God, and experience of the powerful presence of God in Communion are things that should be evident in every Catholic parish. Too many Catholic parishes look more like a widow than a bride, and the “wedding feast of the Lamb” is perfunctory and minimalistic more than loving and generous. Brevity seems more the concern than worship, and the encounter with a living and true God.”

    And I’ve attended Mass in 8 languages in hundreds of parishes all over the world. But the number of times I have experienced what you describe in your first sentence can be counted on the fingers of my hands.

  7. Thank you, Monsignor. God bless you for your work. For years, American youth have admired and imitated the style, lingo and music of African American popular culture. Wouldn’t it be great if the expression of Catholic faith among blacks were more well known? Maybe that would catch on too! Come, Holy Spirit.

  8. I have seen the biggest impact on the life of african americans after they read the Gospel of Phillip.
    I have a friend who is african american, who did not believe in Jesus, and after telling him about Phillip, and how Phillip was sent to the Ethiopian, I told him to go search for and read his gospel. The very next day he was filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit and was even preaching to and changing the lives of his brethren.

    Do not confuse the Paraclete!
    The tongues were given to the Apostles to preach to their respective nations.

    The Gospel of Phillip can, and will bring about an awesome change in how African-Americans receieve and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    I pray you will have ears to hear, and eyes to see as you open your mind to God’s amazing plan which goes beyond all understanding.

  9. This is encouraging. My wife and I have two black foster-boys whom we hope to adopt. It is nice to see that there is hope for them in the Catholic Church. We don’t see a lot of participation of African-Americans in the Catholic Church even though we live in a diverse area.

  10. Why even write articles on here? And such lengthy ones, too? Why not just ban Catholicism and Christianity altogether (or at least cause schisms) given the statistics I just read on this site that <15% of Catholics as of 2010 think pre-marital sex is always wrong (in the US). With these kind of statistics, what goes for Europe which is far less Christian? What about the rest of the world? How do you even teach your religion with a clean conscience? Why do you adhere to it?

    That would also mean pretty much 1 out 10 Catholics is against it, and I'm guessing few of those are of the younger generation.

    But, please. Go on; keep making more Catholics — I'm laughing as Christianity implodes on itself.

    1. My dear friend,

      We are (at least I am) Catholic because I believe the Catholic religion to be true, not because it is popular, growing, or beneficial to society. There is, in the end, only one reason for adhering to any religion or set of beliefs: truth. The one responsibility of the mind to to seek and know truth. Showing sociological statistics cannot prove a religion false or imply that the doctrine is not worth preaching. If it is true, it ought to be taught.

  11. Please, please, stop calling black Americans “African Americans” as if they are some special class of persons simply because they have, in some cases, some long-distant linkage to black Africans brought here as slaves.
    I am white and was born and bred in Southern Africa, that is, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and for 48 years lived in those countries and traveled the whole of sub equatorial Africa before emigrating to the USA. Believe me when I say that even though I am now a naturalized American I am more African American than any black American born here and even speak a black African language. This fawning at the altar of political correctness has gone too far.

    1. Well, I’ve been termed an Irish Catholic for years, I don’t know, usages are sometimes debated, but they set up in locals and have meanings to those who use them. Many Blacks went through a period where they objected to the term black since it has many negative connotations in American English. At any rate, my advice is not to get too concerned about usages. For example, I too am white, but I’m really not White, I am tan, and many whites come in many shades. . Blacks are really brown. I am officially called “Caucasian” but I do not come from the Caucasus region Russia. All these things are just usages and euphemisms. So, no I will not stop using the term since that is the common usage, notwithstanding your objections. For in truth you are not White at all like paper, and neither of us come from Russia, likely. But these are just terms we use. So too with African American. You ought to come to America and use the term “African American” and really befuddle us! 🙂

  12. I disagree that the study’s premise that the strength of a person’s faith can be measured by that person’s satisfaction with his/her parish. The only true measure of our Faith is how we live in relation to God and His Church.

  13. Some years ago, at my Lutheran parish “Soon and Very Soon” was used as the processional hymn. The organ (yes, I know) started with the intro, and the tune was moving along okay…and then a rhythmically-impaired youth came in on the drums.

    Needless to say, the parishioners didn’t quite get into the groove. My Catholic husband C did not sing because he was trying not to howl with laughter.

    C asserted that Catholics never slaughter spirituals…because they don’t try. At Mass the following weekend, I pointed out that “Soon and Very Soon” is in the missalette. C pointed out that so is “A Mighty Fortess” and THAT is never sung at Mass, either.

  14. There are many things that come to mind as I read. First is the creed in our statement of faith, “we believe in one, holy (Christ-centered), catholic (all created in his image and likeness are welcome) and apostolic (we invite folk to come as they are and become a more integral part of the body of Christ) church.” I am always reading (or would like to overcome my personal biases) to determine how I can do something to build the community. The understanding of the African American culture is one way that I can help to build the body of Christ. The same is true of every other culture that is in and near to our Catholic community. I am hungry for a bit more about the cultures that make up the body of Christ in the local church and want to understand them so that we can be the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” we profess to be.

  15. Fr. Pope:

    Great food for thought. I also have worked in multiple inner city parishes, predominantly black. I likewise had thought the road to more success, growing the church, deeper spirituality, and so forth, lay in the greater “so called” freedoms or latitude provided by the Novus Ordo, or New Mass. I pursued these goals with fervor, as they seemed logical. What ends up happening in the long run is a Church that disdains its own patrimony and traditions, (without really knowing them, especially the younger generations, as they only are getting it ‘second hand’ ir at all, and they are often disparaged, even by you here). The RC Church in 1962 did need some updating, but what came out of VII was a misreading of the intent of the Council, replaced by a plethora of movements, many agenda and politically driven, some very earnestly set forth as being “improvements.”
    I do agree that the more mainstream RCC in America, (why is it White? It is a lot of things). did suffer from the aftermath of a Church released from its moorings, and to say the the “Black” RCC in America today is better off than the white, while it may be true, is leaving out or actually, according to you, dismissing the idea that nothing was lost in the “white RCC” in this “abrogation” (or in the Black RCC for that matter) simply because a Protestant overlay in the Black RCC is more in concert with Black Culture, and the poor whites ( and I agree with you here) had been left with Peter Paul and Mary (and bad versions of that) protest songs, “folk music.” That was, indeed, liturgically and theologically, way worse than the tradition of gospel songs and spirituals. But to say something is on the right road in comparison to a poor model that works even less well is missing the point. The fruits of both are rotten, one just less so. That is strong language, but what I mean to say is the Catholic Church has NOTHING to gain by becoming a poor imitation of the Protestant Church of whatever stripe, choirs put on shows more often than not, even when not intending to do so, the faith is obscurred, Churches are judged on what ‘one gets” out of the worship “experience,” etc., and while all of this is understandable from a humanist perspective, it so many times becomes what one observer coined “Cain worship.’ Either the Church had it right for hundreds of years or it did not, and the case is just not there for the latter. Tweaking, pruning, or “organic growth yes, abrogation, disdain for patrimony and tradition, no. Black RCC churches in the fifties, at least where I am, were packed, despite at least some institutional racism.
    They moving and beautiful hymns and gospel songs of the Andrea Crouches and James Clevelands of the world are giving way to calls for “hip hop” masses as a way of staying “relevant.” Liturgical dancing is and oxymoron and a joke, protestant guest speakers, the local Democratic party royalty giving plugs at Mass, irreverent altar servers, “Who Dats” from the altar and choir to support the local football team, mural depicting Beyonce styled angels, (not that angles can’t/shouldn’t be black or female, but these are vixen like depictions) and the list just goes on and on and I have seen it all with my own eyes.
    The answer is a return to an authentic Catholicism with its great truths and beautiful liturgies. The Ethiopians have drums and such, but they don’t obliterate tradition and don’t entertain every crazy novelty, because they have strong and rooted traditions. The “Spirit of Vatican II,” (not VII itself) a catch all for all of this thrust to basically rewrite the Roman liturgy in whatever way suits one’s fancy has been a disaster for the whole RCC, black and otherwise. It is just more painfully obvious in the “white” RCC.

  16. Sorry, Msgr. Pope, not Fr.. and sorry for the plethora of other typos, bad typist here!!

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