At National Black Catholic Congress, cardinal stresses visionaries' role in building a better world

Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory processes to the altar for the opening Mass for the 13th National Black Catholic Congress that he celebrated July 21, 2023, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (OSV News photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Archdiocese of Washington)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) -- Celebrating the opening Mass for the National Black Catholic Congress meeting July 21, Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory emphasized visionaries' important role in building a better world.

That message in his homily at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception reflected the congress's theme, "Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive," inspired by a verse in the Book of Habakkuk.

"Visionaries are important people for every culture. They are the ones who are able to see and to discover unimagined possibilities. They are those who offer people hope. They are the lead agents for change. We all need visionaries and fortunately, we Black Catholics have many such visionaries in our heritage to follow and to honor," Cardinal Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, said as he opened his homily.

The joyful Mass offered a celebration of the faith of the nation's Black Catholics and featured stirring gospel music sung by a combined choir of congress participants. The congregation of several thousand people included the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver, an historic Black Catholic fraternal order.

Concelebrating the Mass with Cardinal Gregory were Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley and about 25 bishops, including Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, who serves as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., president of the National Black Catholic Congress; Louisville Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, a member of the congress's board; and Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori. About 130 priests also concelebrated the Mass, which also included the participation of about 60 permanent deacons.

In his homily, Cardinal Gregory said Jesus offered a redemptive vision of freedom, from God the Father calling people to lead holy lives.

"He chose disciples -- ordinary men and women -- and entrusted that life-changing vision to them. We are the church that has been entrusted with the redemptive vision of the Lord," the cardinal said, calling it a "treasure that we must share with all men and women."

Washington's archbishop said that perhaps the most important contemporary visionary for people of color is civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who offered a vision and a dream that still resonates.

"Dr. King has been referred to as our nation's only modern-day founding father, so vital was his vision for this country and indeed for the entire world. His vision challenges everyone in the United States to dream of a better world, a more perfect union, and a society truly free from hatred and fear," the cardinal said.

Cardinal Gregory -- who in 2020 was named a cardinal by Pope Francis, becoming the first African American cardinal in the church's history -- also paid tribute to the six U.S. Black Catholic candidates for sainthood, saying, "Their progress in the sainthood trek must inspire us all to follow their courageous examples."

They include Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, who in 1829 in Baltimore founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious congregation of African American women in the history of the Catholic Church. On June 22, Pope Francis declared her to be venerable, a key step on the path to sainthood.

Two of those sainthood candidates have a special connection to the National Black Catholic Congress and to Washington.

St. Augustine Parish in Washington -- the mother church for Black Catholics in the nation's capital, founded by free men and women of color in 1858 -- hosted the inaugural congress gathering, which opened on New Year's Day 1889 and included a Mass celebrated by Father Augustus Tolton, the first U.S. Catholic priest publicly known to be Black and whose cause for sainthood is now being considered.

Five of those congresses were held before the turn of that century, and then that movement was revived with National Black Catholic Congress VI held in 1987 on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, where the speakers included Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and dynamic evangelist who died of cancer in 1990, and whose cause for canonization is also underway.

The three other U.S. Black Catholics being considered for sainthood include Pierre Toussaint, a philanthropist and founder of many Catholic charitable works in New York who died in 1853; Henriette Delille of New Orleans, who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family and who died in 1862; and Julia Greeley, who was born into slavery and after her emancipation later moved to Denver, where she became Catholic and was known for her devout faith. She died in 1918.

In his homily, Cardinal Gregory also honored the legacy of Father Clarence Rivers, an African American priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati who was a renowned artist and musical composer, and a pioneer in Black Catholic liturgical music. He died in 2004.

"He is but one of those Black Catholics whose legacy and memory should remain a source of hope and courage for the current generation," the cardinal said, adding, "In many respects, Clarence was the father of African-American liturgical inculturation."

Cardinal Gregory also noted how Pope Francis in his 2020 encyclical "Fratelli Tutti" reflected Jesus' "vision of universal harmony and friendship." That message, he said, invites people into "a genuine friendship with God and deeper unity among ourselves and all other people."

The cardinal praised Pope Francis as "a visionary for human solidarity," adding, "He invites all of humanity to share that vision that will bring true healing and lasting peace to our worldwide family."


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