At Congress closing Mass, Black Catholics urged, 'Don't let the fire go out!'

Nina Shipman-Vick and Valerie Grays from the Archdiocese of Baltimore participate in the opening plenary session of the 13th National Black Catholic Congress July 21, 2023, at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. (OSV News photo/Mihoko Owada, Catholic Standard)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (OSV News) -- Sending forth the participants of the 13th National Black Catholic Congress at their July 23 closing Mass in the Washington metropolitan area, Bishop John H. Ricard offered them an admonition that he said he learned from his days as a youth camping in the woods -- "Don't let the fire go out!"

Bishop Ricard, the superior general of the Josephites, who formerly served as the bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, was the homilist at the Mass, celebrated at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. He encouraged the congress participants to be enlivened by the flame of the Holy Spirit, and to bring that spirit of faith back to their homes, parishes, dioceses and to the African American communities in their cities and towns.

"You've got to poke the flame and stir it up ... We can't let the fire go out," he said, also encouraging people to address problems like violence in their communities, the mass incarceration of people of color, and the challenge of reaching out to young adult Black Catholics raised in the faith, who no longer go to church.

An estimated 3,000 Black Catholics from 80 dioceses across the United States attended the four-day gathering, which included Masses, keynote addresses, breakout sessions for adults and youth, and a visit to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

"I'm grateful to God that you are here in such great numbers, to bear witness to our Church and our faith in the Lord," Bishop Ricard, 83, said.

In his homily, Bishop Ricard praised the legacies of faith of the six U.S. Black Catholics being considered for sainthood whose portraits were depicted in large banners hanging behind the altar, noting how the Holy Spirit had reigned down on each of them.

"We're here this weekend to reap the harvest that has been sown," said Bishop Ricard.

Those candidates for sainthood include Venerable Henriette Delille of New Orleans, the foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family; Venerable Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange of Baltimore, the foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious congregation of African American women; Venerable Father Augustus Tolton of Chicago, the first publicly known Black Catholic priest in the United States; Venerable Pierre Toussaint of New York, renowned for his charitable works; Servant of God Julia Greeley of Denver, known for her devout faith; and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and dynamic evangelist from Mississippi who died of cancer in 1990.

Sister Thea, who was known for her soaring style of singing, participated in the sixth National Black Catholic Congress, held in 1987 on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Remembering the impact of her life, Bishop Ricard said, "The Holy Spirit came upon the songbird. Didn't she become a witness of triumph over sickness and discrimination?"

Bishop Ricard also noted the legacy of Daniel Rudd, a pioneer Black Catholic journalist from Kentucky who founded the Congress of Colored Catholics that first met at St. Augustine Church in Washington in 1889.

That group, the bishop said, "is the granddaddy of the National Black Catholic Congress," a movement that was revived in 1987, after Rudd's group had held five earlier national gatherings around the turn of the century.

Honoring the memory of Rudd's effort, Bishop Ricard said, "They had the vision, they had the determination, and they had the will back then to come together, because Rudd believed that in the Catholic Church, there was the fullness of the revelation of the teaching of Jesus, and that was the answer to all of the problems that Blacks were facing."

The main celebrant of the July 23 closing Mass was Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., the president of the National Black Catholic Congress. He was joined by five other bishops, about 60 priests and nearly 50 deacons. Joining the laypeople in the congregation were numerous African American women and men religious.


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