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Posted February 14, 2006

Progress, new challenges seen
for black Catholic community

By Jerry Filteau Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- African-American Catholics have made strides in developing black Catholic leadership over the past two decades, but they face new challenges, said black Catholic leaders contacted at the start of Black History Month, which is observed each February.

"There's still so much work that needs to be done," said Beverly Carroll, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for African-American Catholics in Washington.

"We remain a marginalized group," Dominican Sister Jamie T. Phelps, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, said in a phone interview with Catholic News Service.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago, chairman of the bishops' Committee on African-American Catholics, also interviewed by phone, said a lack of black priests and seminarians is a concern.

Most of the country's African-American priests were ordained in the 1970s and 1980s, before vocations declined across the board, he said, and "they attended Catholic schools."

"As Catholic schools close, especially in urban areas, there is not that formative influence" that previously led young black men to consider priesthood, he said.

Only 1 percent of U.S. priests are African-American although 3 percent of the U.S. Catholic population is African-American. In recent years, however, the annual U.S. seminary surveys by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate have showed 4 percent to 5 percent of seminarians are African-American.

In 1988, when Carroll was named the director of the just-formed bishops' secretariat, it was just months after the sixth National Black Catholic Congress -- the first such congress in nearly a century -- had convened and drawn up a National Black Catholic Pastoral Plan focusing on evangelization. At the time there were about 1.3 million African-American Catholics. Now there are more than 2 million.

One of the main areas covered by the plan, which was subsequently endorsed by the U.S. bishops, was the development of black ministry and leadership.

"The mission (today) is still the same -- evangelization," Carroll said. "The focus of our work is still what are the best ways to spread the good news in the black communities. . . . What has changed is how we go about responding to that mission."

She said the 1980s were an exciting time of growth, vitality and enthusiasm in black parishes.

Drawing from the black bishops' joint 1984 pastoral letter, "What We Have Seen and Heard," there was an emerging sense "that we were no longer the recipients of someone else's leadership, that we had responsibility to be evangelizers in our own community. ... This opened doors to all kinds of programs and activities that were black-led," Carroll said.

She said leadership programs such as the Institute for Black Catholic Studies have empowered black Catholics to take up ministerial and leadership roles in their parishes.

Sister Phelps said that since it began in 1980 the institute has trained more than 1,000 people, mostly laity, for ministry and leadership.

While there is a shortage of black priests, religious and seminarians, Bishop Perry said, "we definitely have more black Catholic men and women in ministerial roles and black Catholic men and women educated in ecclesiastical disciplines than we had 20 years ago -- probably more than we have work for."

"That presents a two-pronged problem," he added. "Here in Chicago we have a problem of placement of these educated Catholics. They're not always well received in the white parishes, and then in the urban areas it's a matter of a parish being able to afford a professionally trained minister so that they can live off of what they have learned and worked for. That is a touchy issue right now."

All three cited the closings of Catholic schools in black neighborhoods as a major loss for African-American Catholics. Bishop Perry said it is in Catholic grade schools and high schools that most vocations are nurtured. In one's college years the dynamic of career and vocation choices changes, he said.

"We need an aggressive vocation recruitment program," Carroll said. It is not enough to say the diocese has a vocation program and it hopes all will apply, she added. "The church has got to develop new ways to nurture and encourage black vocations."

The National Black Sisters' Conference, formed in 1968, says that about 300 of the 70,000 women religious in the United States are African-American. Sister Phelps said the conference has held workshops around the country to help the vocation and formation leaders in women's orders do a better job of recruiting and forming black women. But "the formation people change every six years" so it's a continuing struggle, she said.

Carroll said a major concern in the black Catholic community is "to have a stronger outreach to youth and young adults." When the seventh National Black Catholic Congress met in 1992, its focus was family life and how to prevent family disintegration and the alienation of young black Catholics.

Carroll said the National African American Catholic Youth Ministry Network, formed in 1986, has been working to develop mentors to work with youths, and in many places black parishes that cannot afford to hire a full-time youth ministry coordinator have pooled resources to hire one who will work with two or three parishes at once.

She said family prayer is an important support for family life, and as part of Black History Month many black Catholic families observe the first Sunday of February as a National Day of Prayer for the African-American Family, a tradition begun in 1989 by Franciscan Father James E. Goode. Each year the secretariat's Web site -- www.usccb.org/saac -- offers resource materials for the day.