The “saintly six” Black Catholics officially on the road to canonization led saintly lives years ago. Their inspiration should call us to action. So, we their supporters are going to Rome to advocate for their official recognition as saints.
Black Catholics have always had to fight for first-class membership in the U.S. Catholic Church, especially during the hundreds of years of enslavement and 75 years of legalized racial segregation. We advocated to be baptized while living and laboring on the plantation and we fought to be admitted to Catholic churches, some of which we built.
Once allowed inside, African Americans were forced to sit in the back or off to side pews away from Whites. Black Catholics were required, in most churches, to wait until all the Whites at Mass had received Holy Communion before they could receive. All the while, African-American Catholics put their envelopes in the collection baskets like everyone else. It was the only time ushers connected with them. They were not handed the paper bulletins, while White congregants got them freely. Some ushers blocked Blacks from dipping their hands in the holy water font as they entered or left the church, so as not to “pollute the water.”
The indignities dealt out at the local level were extended to the institutional level as well. At one time, Blacks and Brown persons needed not bother to apply to seminaries or convents, nor seek admission to Catholic schools, housing, or hospitals. They would not be admitted. To this day, there are few to no images (statues, portraits, or missal book covers) of any persons of color in Catholic churches in these lands.
Most disconcerting is that in 2023, there are no African-American saints recognized by the Catholic Church in its 247 years of U.S. history, while there are 11 White American saints. It is shameful, embarrassing, and just plain wrong. We, the founders of the Initiative for the expedited canonizations of the “saintly six,” say, “If it is wrong now—and it is—fix it now.”
We strongly feel the Catholic Church owes Black Catholics. So give us our saints now. Despite the gross, racist mistreatment by the White Catholic Church in this nation, Black Catholics have remained faithful to God and remained as members of the Catholic Church.
The six African-American candidates for sainthood: Mother Mary Lange, Fr Augustus Tolton, Mother Henriette DeLille, Mr. Pierre Toussaint, Ms. Julia Greeley, and Sr Thea Bowman lived through the omnipresent hurt and pain of racial prejudice and discrimination and they did great things with their lives despite it.
That is the reason why the Social Justice Committee of St. Ann Catholic Church in Baltimore has created this initiative. We are from a Black Catholic parish in inner-city East Baltimore. It is an activist congregation comprised of many lifelong Catholics. The committee is known within the archdiocese for its energy and activism.
Two years ago, the Social Justice Committee started a letter-writing initiative to Pope Francis urging him to canonize our beloved six immediately. The letters, each with a blank signature line, were distributed to churches throughout the area. At the first All Saints Day Mass the committee organized, a letter and an ink pen were left on each seat in the pews. Groups around the country and even some abroad (including Canada, Barbados, Italy, West Africa, and Germany) requested copies of the letter via email and obtained signatures. Some sent their letters to us, and a few sent them directly to the Vatican.
On December 14, 2021, the committee sent 1,500 letters to Pope Francis at his home address. On June 17, 2022, another 1,500 letters were sent. Copies were sent to now-cardinal Christophe Pierre, the pope’s ambassador to the United States. Our committee will be traveling to Rome at the end of October and will hand-deliver another 1,000 signed letters to the pope and the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. We have an appointment with the dicastery and we are still working on getting an audience with Pope Francis.
We have spoken to many prelates about the initiative: Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington; Auxiliary Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, urban vicar for the Archdiocese of Baltimore; Bishop Emeritus John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, superior general of the Josephites; Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. of Washington; and Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Joseph Perry of Chicago, postulator of Fr Tolton’s canonization cause. As laypersons, we needed some help from bishops to get the attention of the Vatican. Bishop Lewandowski’s successful assistance is evidence of it.
Another strategy toward achieving expedited canonizations of our six is to educate the public about their lives. When the St. Ann’s committee held its first All Saints Day Mass, the media was informed and articles and pictures appeared in The Catholic Review, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Afro-American, Black Catholic Messenger, The Commercial Appeal, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN. We have deliberately raised the profiles of the six African-American candidates because the more people know of and talk of and pray to them, the more the atmosphere can be created for their canonizations.
The committee considers the early Christian practice of public acclamation as suitable for Black Catholics from the United States, because the conventional canonization process is now prohibitively expensive, long, unwieldy, secretive, and unevenly applied. As has been researched and reported by various outlets, most canonized Catholic saints are male and European. For our centuries of faithfulness and commitment to the Church, Black Catholics have experienced unrequited love and racial hatred all in the form of unholy prejudice and discrimination.
It feels as if racism remains in the U.S. Catholic Church’s DNA despite church teachings against it. In many places, Black Catholics are the remnant of the Catholic Church in the city: staying in, supporting, and serving churches while Whites move to the suburbs. Yet and still, the Vatican follows the lead of the American bishops on who from the United States should be considered for canonization and when.
All are called to advocate for the expedited canonizations of the first six African-American candidates for sainthood from the United States. It is clearly a racial justice issue. All are urged to contact the bishops of their diocese (by letter, phone, or in conversation in person) and urge them to contact the Vatican to end the absence of Black American saints. All are encouraged to post pictures of Mother Lange, Fr Tolton, Mother DeLille, Mr. Toussaint, Ms. Greeley, and Sr Thea prominently in their churches. They can be purchased on the National Black Catholic Congress website or from the Office of Black Catholics in New Orleans.
During Mass in the Prayers of the Faithful, there should be included a petition for the expedited canonizations of the African-American candidates for sainthood. Before or after Mass, prayers for their beatification can be said with those present in the pews participating.
Letters to Pope Francis calling for the expedited canonizations can be circulated, collected, and sent to the pope in Rome. Feel free to contact me for a copy of the letter we’re using. Contact the pope’s ambassador and advocate for the expedited canonizations and organize others in churches to do so also.
Take the occasion of All Saints Day Mass on November 1 to acknowledge and advocate for the saintly six in your church, “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In” is a great theme hymn, especially as pictures of the six candidates are processed in. Create a program to educate the congregation, and whatever religious community may be serving your church or school, about the history of racial prejudice in the Catholic Church in America—and how the saintly six fought through it to do the great things they did.
Finally, brainstorm, organize, and advertise ideas to spread the word about the absence of Black American saints. Have everyone within the sound of your voice understand that if it is wrong now—and it is—the Catholic Church must fix it now.
St. Ann’s Social Justice Committee has committed to working persistently on this issue. We prayed, collected signatures, and spoke on a webinar and a podcast as well as many Zoom sessions and in person at churches. The committee is dedicated to faith in action. We believe God wants the six saints canonized here and now. We profess to be co-workers with God, to borrow a phrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us of in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“When we all fight for justice, we win,” the labor movement advises. So, for the expedited canonizations, we ask: "If not now, when? If not ours, whose?”
We are on to Rome to speak heart-to-heart with the cardinals of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints (and with hope, we will get an audience with Pope Francis). It is they in the dicastery who investigate the lives of the candidates for sainthood. They vet the requisite miracles proposed to them and attributed to the sainthood candidates. We will discuss how the U.S. Catholic Church has been a church of “no” for Black Catholics.
It is time for a “yes” from the Catholic Church to African-American Catholics. That is what we’re going to Rome to discuss. It’s time.
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 email@example.com.
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