In a new wide-ranging interview with America Magazine, Pope Francis spoke on African Americans for the first time since last year, calling racism “an intolerable sin” and encouraging Black Catholics in the US to resist discrimination.
The meeting on November 22 at the Vatican included outgoing editor-in-chief Fr Matt Malone, SJ; his successor Fr Sam Sawyer, SJ; executive editor Kerry Weber; Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell; and an African-American interlocutor in Gloria Purvis, America’s resident Black podcast host and a former EWTN Radio mainstay.
A historic affair, the interview was reportedly the first face-to-face meeting involving America editors and a sitting pope, and covered a variety of topics making headlines around the world and the Church in recent months—from the War in Ukraine to women’s ordination to abortion.
Another topic covered, decidedly more perennial, was that of African-American Catholics, one of the nation's oldest Christian religious groups and one which has faced racism and violence within and outside the Church throughout its history.
Purvis, who has become known in recent years for her outspoken advocacy against racism, asked the Holy Father about his thoughts on the recent revelation that African Americans are today among the most likely demographics in the US to leave the Church.
In response, the supreme pontiff used familiar rhetoric to recommend a firm resolve and partnership with the local episcopacy—especially those from the Black community.
“I would say to them that I am close to the suffering they are experiencing, which is a racial suffering. And [in this situation], those who should in some way be close to them are the local bishops,” Francis said.
“The Church has bishops of African-American descent.”
Increasingly few Black Catholics in America are in a diocese containing a Black bishop, however, and a follow-up from Purvis noted that more than three-quarters of Black American Catholics do not attend Black parishes, and even fewer are under the care of Black priests. She added that priests and parishioners from other backgrounds are often insensitive to the Black struggle.
Pope Francis replied that discrimination is not limited to the US, and that combating it is an ongoing issue across the Church. Notably, in 2021 the pope famously tweeted to his more than 18 million Twitter followers that “racism is a virus,” quoting his landmark encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” which dedicated a significant section to the topic.
Though the Holy Father did not use either avenue to highlight any specific US demographic, in this month’s interview he made note that he is “aware of [African Americans’] suffering.”
“They should resist and not walk away. Racism is an intolerable sin against God. The Church, the pastors, and lay people must continue fighting to eradicate it and for a more just world.”
The remarks were the first from Pope Francis to directly refer to African Americans since October 2021, when he praised the widespread protest movement in response to the murder of George Floyd the previous year, which was led in large part by Black activists.
Moreover, the comments to Purvis and America were perhaps the first time Francis has ever addressed the African-American Catholic community specifically. In recent years, the pope has corresponded on racism with a group of Afro-Brazilian priests and bishops, but a 2015 letter concerning the same, from a Black parish in Oakland, apparently went unanswered.
The Diocese of Oakland is among the Blackest in the US, an active microcosm of the nation’s roughly 3 million Catholics of African descent. It is estimated that there are around 450 significantly African-American parishes—with more closing each year—and some 250 African-American Catholic priests against roughly 26 such seminarians.
Concerning Pope Francis’ reference to the nation's African-American Catholic bishops, their number currently stands at six—the lowest total since 1979, the same year the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released its first group letter against racism, “Brothers and Sisters to Us”.
It is expected that at least two US Black Catholic prelates will step down within the next several months, having reached the mandatory age of retirement.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).