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.