Images of seven Black Catholics placed at the altar during the Diocese’s Black Catholic Apostolate Mass shared a dual message for those in the congregation: remember and celebrate the good and holy works they did in their lives, and stand on their shoulders to continue sharing their light.
The portraited faces were of six on the way to sainthood – Venerable Augustus Tolton, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Servant of God Julia Greeley, Servant of God Henriette Delille, Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowma – and of St. Josephine Bakhita, canonized in 2000.
They are but among countless Black Catholics who have shown us the way, said Deacon Timothy Tilghman of the Archdiocese of Washington, guest homilist for the Mass.
“It’s great to see the six African-American candidates for sainthood on the altar, but there are many saints who are not canonized who have shown us the way, and it’s important for us to live our lives in the way that they lived their lives, so that the faith continues to spread and the light of our witness will overcome the darkness,” he told The Catholic Witness.
The annual Mass, sponsored by the Diocese’s Black Catholic Apostolate, is celebrated in conjunction with Black History Month. It was held on Feb. 7 at St. Francis of Assisi in Harrisburg.
Father Deogratias Rwegasira, AJ, served as the principal celebrant, as recently-appointed spiritual moderator of the apostolate. He was joined at the altar by several Black priests serving in the Diocese and clergy from the parish.
In his homily, Deacon Tilghman encouraged the congregation to be witnesses to the light in order to break the chains of darkness and despair.
“What is it that we’re called to do today?” Deacon Tilghman asked. He encouraged the faithful to revisit the day’s Gospel passage (Mark 1:29-39) of Jesus meeting Simon’s ill mother-in-law, and others who were sick with disease or possessed by demons.
“There was sickness in the neighborhood, there was sickness in the nation, and there was darkness throughout the world,” said Deacon Tilghman. “We’re all asking the question: how do we overcome the sickness and the darkness? … When the darkness comes, and if the Spirit intervenes, the power of our witness and the good trouble that we bring cause the demons to depart.”
“There is a question for us to ask, we who are the Church: Who do people see when we come? Do they see Jesus in his glory, in his power, in his love? Or do they see somebody else?” Deacon Tilghman posed.
“When we go into the village, when we go into the neighborhood, when we go into the nation, when we go into the schools and the statehouses, and even when we go to Capitol Hill, we go with the faith of our ancestors who are part of this community of saints. This is our faith, and this is our Church.”
Inspiring the congregation in the sung chorus of “There is Power in the Name of Jesus,” Deacon Tilghman remarked: “When we witness, we break the chains of darkness and despair, and we radiate the light and the love of Christ. This is our faith. This is our Church. This is what we celebrate today. This is what we celebrate every day.”
Be Who We are On Paper
Deacon Tilghman serves at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, an African-American parish in Washington that is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Part of his ministry includes meeting with young African-American Catholics on actions they can take to witness against racial injustice.
In an interview with The Witness, Deacon Tilghman said the challenge for the Black Catholic community is the challenge for the Church in the United States: “If people of
color don’t stay in the Church, it’s not just the people of color that suffer; the entire Church suffers,” he said. “We cannot afford to lose the beacons of the light. We have to do a lot of work to make sure we invite everyone in, and people feel at home and have the opportunity to witness.
“We have to meet people. The Church is not a demographic. The Church is a body of people. Everybody knows the demographics; nobody knows the people in the neighborhood,” he said.
Asked what specific action the Church can take in this effort, Deacon Tilghman referenced the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his final sermon on April 3, 1968, the night before his death: “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”
“We just need to be the Church that we are on paper,” Deacon Tilghman remarked. “If you read about the Church in the documents of Vatican II, and especially if you read about the Church in the documents written by Pope Francis – Evagelii Gaudium, Laudato Si’, Fantelli Tutti – you have a description of a living and breathing institution, a body of people that loves people and stands for justice. They’re not looking to meet demographics, they’re looking to meet the person on the ground and love them in the place where they are.
“We just need to be,” he said. “The power of our witness, when we are Church, is going to attract people to come. It’s real, it’s authentic, it’s true, it’s loving, and it’s very powerful.”
The Diocese’s Black Catholic Apostolate was established more than 30 years ago to address the economic and spiritual concerns of people with African ancestry, and to promote leadership, foster evangelization and address issues of racial injustice through family and educational programs. Today, those undertakings remain a mission of the apostolate.
Under the auspices of the Diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministries, the Black Catholic Apostolate is indirectly supported by the Diocesan Annual Campaign. Its spiritual moderator is Father Deogratias Rwegasira, AJ, and the coordinator is Angelé Mbassi. Activities of the apostolate include regular Masses, participation in national conferences and an annual summer picnic.
Father Rwegasira will be featured in “The Called” in next Thursday’s edition of The Witness.
(Learn more about the Black Catholic Apostolate at www.hbgdiocese.org/multicultural-ministries/. To learn more about the Diocesan Annual Campaign, including how you can support the important ministries of the Diocese, visit www.hbgdiocese.org/giving/diocesan-annual-campaign.)
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness