If anybody asks you, who I am, who I am, who I am,
If anybody asks you who I am,
Tell them I’m a child of God.
(“Child of God”, Bobby Darin)
Some might find it hard to believe, but there are no African-American saints recognized officially by the Catholic Church. There are 11 White American saints, including Mother Elizabeth Seton, Bishop John Neumann, and Mother Katharine Drexel.
In 2022, how can this be? How can this inequity exist when Black, brown, and Indigenous Americans have endured much pain and suffering—particularly at the hands of the Catholic Church—in America and around the world?
Blacks and other persons of color have endured enslavement, racial segregation, silence from the Church in the face of mass incarceration, and modest attempts at charity to counter the nation’s mass poverty instead of serious words and meaningful works for change.
Some have spoken up, notable among them being the prophetic voices of those in the National Black Sisters’ Conference and National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, both founded in 1968. Even so, despite the Black Catholic Movement, White American Catholics have adopted White Supremacy as an integral companion to their belief system and White racism as their operating system. Rather than be leaders in the fight for racial justice, as dictated by the gospels of our Lord, they manage to see themselves as good Catholics and White racists at the same time.
And so, we see that the Church does not recognize Black Americans as saintly. They don’t fully see us as the children of God, as they so easily see themselves. They don’t understand that God loves everyone equally. That God’s will in heaven must be done on Earth, despite the frequency of their saying that prayer.
And so, as of this point in time, there are no African-American saints. Rather, we have six relatively new candidates for sainthood, who together have been dead a total of 720 years. The Black saints waiting outside the pearly gates are Father Augustus Tolton, Mother Mary Lange, Mother Henriette DeLille, Sister Thea Bowman, Ms. Julia Greeley, and Mr. Pierre Toussaint. Tolton died in 1897, Lange in 1882, DeLille in 1862, Bowman in 1990, Greeley in 1918, and Toussaint in 1853.
The Social Justice Committee of St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Baltimore—comprised of Delores Moore, Mary Sewell, Betty Lutz, Tyrone Wooden, Janiece Jefferson, James Conway, and myself—has been working on a letter-writing campaign to Pope Francis calling on him to expedite canonizations for these “Saintly Six.” We say, if it is wrong now (and it definitely is), then fix it now. Sainthood delayed, we also say, is sainthood denied.
The six candidates led exemplary lives of courage, charity, and commitment to others in the face of racial prejudice and discrimination. No US seminary would accept Father Tolton, so he studied for the priesthood in Rome. No existing women's religious order would accept Mother Lange and her three co-workers, so she founded the first-ever order for African-American women, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. In Louisiana, Black women were thought not to have enough virtue to become nuns and Black people were said not to have souls—so DeLille was not permitted to wear a nun’s habit in public.
All six of the candidates were grossly mistreated and mishandled, and they suffered missed opportunities at the hands of White Catholics in leadership, in seminaries, in convents, and in church congregations. In spite of the racism they all faced, they kept the faith.
But as the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. So these six candidates are told to follow “the process” for canonization managed at the Vatican. The process calls for a wait of five years after a candidate for sainthood has died before beginning the investigation of her or his suitability. (Exceptionally, Mother Teresa’s process began 2-3 years early in defiance of the rules.)
The process also calls for fundraising. Fr Maurice Nutt, CSsR was told by Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson that $1,000,000 would have to be raised to support the process for Nutt’s former teacher and mentor, Sister Thea. That is quite a lot of money, and the exact costs and strict accounting of how funds sent are spent are likely not provided. The Catholic Church operates with the three S’s: silence, secrecy, and slowness.
Pope Francis has spent a lot of time and energy trying to clean up sexual abuse and child abuse (including Canadian child-parent separations, tortures, and deaths). He has also had to deal recently with the ongoing Vatican Bank scandal. As such, sending vast sums of money to Rome—while there is much need in terms of poverty, homelessness, hunger, many health challenges, and vanishing Catholic schools in poor Black and brown communities—seems unfair and unwise. Note that. The Vatican has a vast art collection, derived by various means; it should be sold to pay lawyers and postulators.
And then there are the miracles required. Francis X. Rocca of The Wall Street Journal has described how long and tortuous the road to Catholic sainthood is. He wrote of the complexities of waiting for proof of miracles as the ultimate evidence of sainthood. Rocca says that “Pope Francis, in remarks to Vatican officials two years ago, reaffirmed ‘the necessity of the miracle’ in deciding that someone is a saint.”
Does the Pope know the help from God it took for the six African-American candidates to keep the faith and do the good deeds they did—while being punished for it?
Does Pope Francis have any idea how embarrassed Black, brown, and other people of color feel dealing out unrequited love to our Church? The lack of love and respect, if not hatred for the darker children of God is well documented in great books such as “The History of Black Catholics in the United States” by Fr Cyprian Davis, OSB; “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” by Fr Bryan Massingale; and the recent “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle” by Dr. Shannen Dee Williams. To borrow a saying from the Nation of Islam, “The White man’s heaven is the Black man’s hell.”
The Social Justice Committee of St Ann has collected 3,000 letters and sent them to the Vatican. We have also sent copies of the first batch to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Pope’s ambassador, stationed in Washington, DC. To this date, we have never received any acknowledgment from Pope Francis, his staff, or his ambassador. They seem to think, in their proclaimed era of synodality, that silence is an appropriate response to Black American Catholics. They can’t—or they won’t—see us or hear us.
And so, our committee’s plan is to seek an audience with the Pope and/or the Congregation for the Cause of Saints. We have asked a number of bishops for help, and so far they have been unable. Still, we hope to find the funds to travel and stay in Rome for three days (around $2,000-2,500 per traveler).
We want to explain to the Pope what unrequited love from the church feels like, how important the Saintly Six are to Blacks and other persons of color in the US, and how we know these six are in heaven. Pope Francis should see the 3,000 letters we have mailed to him as a form of the early Church’s sainthood process. “Public acclamation,” but on paper.
Pope John XXIII named the first Black saint in the New World in 1962. Accounts are clear that Pope John was very proud of that fact. St. Martin de Porres was from Lima, Peru in South America. Pope Francis is iconoclastic, just as Pope John was. Pope Francis also greatly admires him, so why not honor the six Black saints and his favorite pontiff by canonizing them now—by raising African Americans to the altar for the first time ever?
Their recognition is long overdue. The process doesn’t work for Black people. Pope Francis can and must fix this omission immediately. As we on our committee like to say, “If not now, when? If not you, who?”
God’s will in heaven, which shows love for all, must be done on Earth. Can you see how this pertains to the saintly Black six from the US? Fairness is not just an American value. It is a Gospel value, too.
See us. Hear us.
Ralph E. Moore Jr. is a lifelong Black Catholic, educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Jesuits. He has served on various committees on race, racism, and poverty for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He is a married man with two children and four grandchildren. He is currently a weekly columnist for the Afro-American and a member of the St. Ann Social Justice Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.