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Black Catholic Worship:
Some Reflections

by Bishop Perry

Greater reception of the contributions of black Catholics to the church is a ripe topic of conversation these days, both forBishop Joseph N. Perry black leaders astute in pastoral sciences and for people in the pews, who express a desire to see visible black leadership, to hear gospel music in the Mass, and to see rich expressions of kinte cloth and other black religious art in our places of worship. Then, too, the very topic may register puzzlement for those who seldom experience black Catholic congregations. But the topic of suitable cultural adaptation of the liturgy is not just an African American issue. It is an issue for Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans, indeed any people of color who have been reared as Roman Catholics, to sing a preponderance of Teutonic hymns or the light musical ballads of contemporary liturgical composers, to see religious art and statuary featuring white skin, or to attend Masses that were required by some unwritten law to be finished in fifty minutes or less.

  • Roots of Black Cultural Adaptation

Rome is serious about suitable cultural adaptation of the liturgy, while also seeking the retention of elements of the Roman rite. There is much that needs to be done by the church at large, handicapped by its European bias, as well as by Catholic communities of color so that everyone’s journey in Catholic faith can be validated in the rich weave that is Roman Catholicism. Our most frequent and largest assemblies are our worshiping assemblies, where the modern church can echo the Pentecost event, in which diversity initially was seen as a gift (Acts 2).


A universal Roman rite means unity in essentials and diversity in cultural accent. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) set two conditions for admitting elements from various cultures into the liturgy. Both are cautiously enunciated: “anything . . . . which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error”; and “so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 37).

Speaking of African American Catholics in particular, I find accurate the words of Sister Eva Marie Lumas, in her article in the July 1999 issue of [Rite]: “Real inculturation of the liturgy requires us to create ritual structures that affirm and complement our own religious sensibilities . . . prayers and preaching need to resonate with our root metaphors and our primary symbol systems.”
Black religion attests to a very active spirituality, a religious experience of depth because it involves an engaging dialogue with God. The popular separation between the sacred and the secular is blurred in the black religious experience. Most everything in the black experience is sacred and can be interpreted in light of God’s summons of us to be a holy people. Everything in the black experience merits biblical reference and affirmation. Even when we are sinning, we know God is watching and is actively working mercy in the human situation. In black religion there is found the passionate need to connect with God, the need to perceive God’s involvement in our suffering, working out our destiny. God knows all, has power over all, and is always correcting in the wake of evil and its attempts to derail the coming of the kingdom in this life.

This engaging dialogue with God in black religion results typically in invocations and prayers that are lengthy. It results in preaching that is, sometimes, long-winded, stirred by the preacher’s engagement with the worshipers, if only by the congregations “Amens!” and “Uh-huhs!” and “All right now!” and “Say it, Reverend!”— spontaneous vocalizations that signal the congregation resonates with what the minister is saying (and thus reciprocates vocally), that the word has cut a path into the souls of the baptized this day, that the word has leapt beyond pious platitudes and has lifted up the worshiping assembly to know that it is a sinful yet beautiful people, sacred unto our God. (This is for black Catholics what the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy calls “full, conscious and active participation.”) Within the Bible’s wisdom literature itself, we find creation’s endorsement for black humanity:

I am black but beautiful, 0 daughters of Jerusalem; dark as the desert tents of Kedar but beautiful as the draperies in Solomonís palace. . .donít look down on me because of my color. (Song of Solomon 1:5-6)

Black Catholic posture and response in liturgy barges through what is practiced as a passive, listening posture peculiar to most European inculturations of the Roman Rite. At the risk of enabling stereotypes here, black people of all heritages are not shy of employing their emotions in religious experience. Feelings electrically charge our assemblies, as evidenced in hand-clapping as an expression of praise and spiritual excitement. In moments of stirred liturgical drama, we simply are unable to stand holding a song booklet or with our hands to our sides staring ahead in blank silence.

  • The Roman Rite as Norm

Liturgical inculturation and adaptation are topics, naturally, that re-examine the foundational roots of Christian experience. Our principal worship, the Mass, was born out of the Jewish Passover ritual. From there, the Mass was nuanced in a Greco-Roman style that over the centuries cast the gestures and prayers of Roman liturgy in working, definitive form. The printing press gave us liturgical books dictating how eucharist is to be celebrated. Non-Greco-Roman Christians were handed a Mediterranean book that taught not only the norm of Roman worship but also a Greco Roman style of doing it.

The Catholic religion came to us in a European cloak. It never occurred to the Latin church in previous epochs that other cultures might have something to offer Catholic life and worship, beyond the established Eastern rites and the various ethnicities that make up the Eastern Catholic churches and ritual traditions.

So regarding the imperative of cultural adaptation while retaining the essence of the Roman rite, we might ask, “What is the Roman rite?” The Roman rite involves the Mass and other liturgical functions ordered for the Latin or Western church. The Roman rite entails the rubrics of Catholic liturgy, the logical order and shape of worship in the Catholic style, the behavioral dynamic between presiding cleric, the various other ministers and the congregation as a whole, the scriptural cycles of biblical texts ordered for Sundays, weekdays and feasts, the sanctoral cycle, the approved composition of prayers, and the prescribed use of vesture, vessels and other furnishings. The Mass of the Roman Rite carries an essential sequence: introductory rites, liturgy of the word, liturgy of the eucharist, concluding rites — all ordered for everyone Catholic the world over, for each day of the year.

  • The Merging of Black and Roman Elements

Black-and-Catholic worship first of all involves blacks doing the work of Roman liturgy as presider, readers, musicians, servers and preachers, greeters and ushers. It simply doesn’t do to have black congregations “ministered to” by all non- black priests and ministers. Black-and-Catholic worship will also mean variants in punctuation that are Caribbean, continental African, African American, Central and South American, in prayer styles, song, movement, gesture, garb, color and sacred artifacts. Several languages are used in black Catholic communities in America. Among them are English, Spanish, French, Creole and Italian, not to mention the many languages and dialects cherished among continental Africans. Black-and-Catholic worship involves venerating icons or sacred images of black men and women of God who lived and died for the Gospel.

The question, then, is how to preserve the Roman rite, the unified ritual tradition of Western Catholics of whatever racial or ethnic heritage, while including the gifted cultures of blacks and others of color who are as Catholic as anyone European.

Our church, in these times, encourages cultural adaptation of the liturgy but does not show us how to adapt and include elements that are Hispanic, African American, Filipino, Korean or Vietnamese. Each people must explore and bring forward to worship their own genius while respecting essential rubrics and adapting still other rubrics, where appropriate, without sacrificing anything essential to the validity of Catholic worship that is, the proclamation of scripture, the offering of bread and wine, the consecration of that bread and wine in eucharistic prayer and the sharing of communion.

Using terms like “essentials” and “rubrics” may immediately betray ecclesiastical caution, tempering what otherwise is truly the encouragement found in the Church documents that address this issue of cultural adaptation. I submit this is the typical style of Roman legislation—namely, affirmation tinged with caution.

  • Varieties of Black Experience

I think continental Africans do the work of adaptation much better than we African Americans. It probably has something to do with the fact that Africans have owned the soil of the land of their birth. With few exceptions, their world is black. Our world is white, with all others participating in our world yearning for equal recognition. Africans bring with them a pride and self-esteem that no one has succeeded in taking from them. It is impossible for Africans to worship without owning the liturgy and integrating all that is wonderfully and joyfully African in gesture, posture, song and sacred artifact. Africans are less apt to be handicapped by the instructions in red ink than African Americans, who were given the Catholic faith in this country only begrudgingly. Only lately have we African Americans found reason to believe that there is room in this Church for us. We of the diaspora still struggle with a self-esteem robbed from us in slavery and segregation. Whereas for Africans there is no question of the beauty of black skin, nowhere in the American experience has this been truly proclaimed.

What is natural to a culture’s ritual style should be permitted to happen spontaneously without a manual of prompts. Each culture brings its distinctions and styles that make the church so diversely rich. There are more fundamental goods predicated in human cultures than there are denials or distractions from fundamental Christian truth. “Catholic” means universal; and in this universality is found racial, ethnic and philosophical diversity. Catholicism must allow each people to embrace the faith in their own cultural definition, inclusive of the saga of each people and how they entertain God. Each culture’s genius in fact will complement the Roman rite.

In every other context, African Americans cannot be themselves for fear of social rejection. We must be something we are not in the worlds of business and academia, recreation and sports, in whatever context European Americans are a majority. Why can’t we be ourselves in church, away from the stress of living in a racist society? Why must we become white to be permitted to worship alongside our fellow European American Catholics? After all, we have had a stake in Catholicism from the very beginning, with the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8:26, who led Africa’s generous acceptance of the Jewish Jesus as its savior.

Since that beginning, black people have felt themselves to be equal players in this church on every continent where the gospel message has been taken— except North America, which, as recently as a hundred years ago, forbade giving black slaves the Bible. It was in the United States that we were refused entry into parish churches, convents, seminaries and cemeteries. It was in the United States that we were told God is white, heaven is for white people and that Jesus Christ did not intend any “nigger priests.” It was in the United States where, until recently, black Catholics were seen as poor folk ripe for mission work by certain courageous and sympathetic priests and nuns but hardly suitable for any contribution in leadership or stewardship. We were viewed simply as people others would pat on the head when we were docile and well behaved.

  • The Search for What is Authentically Black and Catholic

It occurs to me that what is black and Catholic is not wholly the same as what is black and Protestant. Although black Christians hold membership in greatest numbers in the Protestant traditions and have fine-tuned a black Protestant style, what is black and Catholic carries its own genius. We must explore what is uniquely ours and enrich it. We must steer clear of adapting wholesale Protestant modes in order to impress African Americans with our brand of religion. What is Catholic must feature scripture and the complement of sacred tradition, avoiding the notion of sola scriptura. Black-and-Catholic liturgy must feature both altar and pulpit. The black Protestant experience, from its Reformation roots, emphasizes the authority of the congregation with, on occasion, a charismatic minister leading. The Catholic experience emphasizes the priesthood of Jesus Christ, without which there can be no Eucharist, most of the other sacraments and lawful pastoral governance.

What is black and Catholic unites the black saga with the gifts on the paten and in the chalice as these are offered to God. What is black and Catholic allows for the joyful shouts and cries of pain thatt are our natural response to living in a racist society that is loath to see dignity and value in dark skin. Black Catholics yearn for worship that will bolster our confidence and move us along in a society that gives us few affirmations. As Eva Marie Lumas again rightly comments, we appreciate worship that “forces us to face our fears, admit our failures, acknowledge our blessings, rekindle our hopes, heal our wounds, restore our strength, develop our gifts and renew our determination to live so that God can use us anytime, anyplace, anywhere.”

We need presiders who don’t simply recite the Mass but pray it with human depth such that black souls can absorb the God who is mystery but whose face incarnates all colors. Black people have been carrying on serious conversation with God since the days of slavery and segregation. For this reason, black people take religion very seriously. Blacks never confine themselves to fifty minutes on Sunday. Blacks are comfortable being in the presence of God and their brothers and sisters, and are not in a hurry to get back home!

What is black and Catholic remains elusive to our grasp because, as black Americans, we are unique in that our African ancestral experience was stripped away from us.We did not choose to shed our African language or heritage, as did some European immigrants, but were forced to. We are, in many instances, products of American miscegenation, African culture mixed with various European and Native American backgrounds. There are a variety of racial, ethnic and religious components in the African American experience and, therefore, the black religious experience will not be one mammoth, undifferentiated whole. Consequently, some black Catholics, depending on the trace of their heritage, will lean toward a Catholic experience devoid of specific African American cultural accent; others will lean toward a Catholic experience that includes complements of the African and African American epic. Some black Catholics enjoy Roman Catholic cultural forms dating back several generations or more; others will have been formed initially in Protestant modes prior to their reception into full communion and will often appreciate whatever features of their former traditions can be reasonably received by Catholics.

Black Catholics have coined the phrase, “truly black and authentically Catholic.” The slogan represents, on the part of black communities, a serious search for meaning and validation. When black Catholics worship, what is truly Catholic must be obvious. In other words, our worship cannot be so culture specific, if such is possible, that it excludes other Catholics. Our worship cannot be so black, if such is possible, that our assembly cannot be recognized as Catholic. All other racial and ethnic groups must be able to find inclusion in our liturgical assemblies.

Finally, what is truly black and Catholic will garner nuance with the passage of time. The old Negro spirituals gave us the earliest black theology; that is, slave experience interpreting the biblical redemption of slaves and masters. Black experience has gone through the painful evolution of the civil rights struggle. Time and genius have given us gospel music as a contemporary poetic articulation of a people pining for salvation. What develops next will, again, represent what is alive and dynamic in the anguish and joy of being black this side of heaven.

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