About 24% of all Americans identify themselves as Catholic, but in the black community, the percentage is far lower. According to a CARA Catholic Poll, just 3% of American Catholics, or 3 million Americans, identify themselves as both black and Catholic.
Further, just 250 of America’s 40,000 priests and only 16 of the 434 bishops in the United States are black.
In conjunction with Martin Luther King Day, the following is a profile of three black members of the clergy, who also shared their thoughts on evangelizing the black community.
Bishop Joseph Perry, 63, is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He grew up in an observant Catholic home in Chicago. His father was a laborer for the city in the sanitation department, and he also worked on the railroad.
Bishop Perry was one of six children. He attended various Catholic schools in Chicago and from a young age “had an affinity to the Church.”
At age 9, he told his mother he wanted to be a priest. At 15, he entered the high school seminary and was eventually ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1975. He became a bishop in 1998 and today serves a region of Chicago that includes many poor, inner-city blacks.
“In the 19th century, Irish and German bishops focused on evangelizing in those communities, but little attention was paid to African-Americans,” he remarked. “Historically, the Church in America has suffered from a lack of outreach to blacks, and the consequences are still with us today.”
He noted that 37 of Chicago’s parishes are predominantly black and that the archdiocese is engaging in a “Catholics Come Home” campaign to persuade more to come to church. The Church’s efforts are hampered, he said, by an “aging and crumbling urban infrastructure,” which has led wealthier residents to flee the city for the suburbs.
He continued, “What is left in the city are people who are poor (in many areas), so the Church is lacking in resources and has difficulty in keeping open parish schools.”
The parish schools, he added, historically provided black children with an introduction to the faith, which many would practice throughout their lives.
The recession of the past few years has been particularly painful in the inner city, he continued: “People have been out of work for years and are desperate. In their frustration they resort to crime, including domestic violence. They cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
He noted that when Catholic Charities distributes food or clothing in the inner-city neighborhoods, long lines of the needy form to receive them.
When he preaches in the community, he encourages the people to be hopeful: “I tell them to keep searching for what they need, but to continue to pray and not forget about God.”
Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, 45, serves the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore. He was born in Barbados in the Caribbean and brought to the United States as a small child. He grew up in Hillsdale, N.J.
His father was an unchurched calypso singer; his mother a Methodist who converted to Catholicism. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother encouraged Deacon Burke-Sivers and his three siblings in the practice of the Catholic faith. He served as an altar boy and was attracted to the priesthood: “I watched priests celebrate Mass, and I thought, I could do this.”
He spent four years in a Benedictine monastery in Newark, N.J., and was attracted to the “wonderful combination” of the Benedictines’ life of prayer and work. His mother was delighted to have a son in the monastery, but his worldly father was not.
Deacon Burke-Sivers opted for the married life instead, and today he works in university security and is the father of four children. He is also active as a deacon at Immaculate Heart Church, a featured speaker at many Catholic conferences and has an apostolate, Aurem Cordis, which promotes the faith. He hosted an EWTN series and has been featured on such Catholic radio programs as Catholic Answers Live. He travels 100,000 miles per year to speak, including international trips.
He’s saddened that more black Americans are not Catholics and believes it’s due to the perception that the Church is “a white man’s Church and a religion of slavery.” But, he added, “That’s completely untrue.”
His personal heroes include Father Augustus Tolton (1854-97), a former slave who is believed to be the first American black man ordained a priest, and whose cause for canonization was formally opened last year. In fact, he penned a new foreword to From Slave to Priest, a 1973 biography of Father Tolton by Sister Caroline Hemesath.
Deacon Burke-Sivers commented, “Father Tolton was rejected by every seminary in America because he was black and ultimately had to be trained in Rome. People would ask him why he stayed in a Church that persecuted him, and he’d reply, ‘What the Church teaches is still true, even if there are many sinners in it.’”
The deacon also likes to point out that 701 canonized saints are black. And, when it comes to evangelization of black people, the saints remind us that what is most important is not one’s color, but living the faith. He explained, “I need to be true to who I am. I’m Catholic first. And, oh yeah, I’m black, too.”
In the Big Easy
Josephite Father Anthony Bozeman, pastor of St. Raymond-St. Leo Parish in New Orleans, is president of the National Black Clergy Caucus, part of The National Black Catholic Congress. Father Bozeman grew up in a traditional Catholic home in Philadelphia. The family prayed together at home, and he attended Catholic schools and served as an altar boy.
One of the priests who served his parish was Msgr. James Daly (1913-2006), a World War II Army chaplain who served the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for many decades. The priest was an inspiration to him and led the future Father Bozeman to enter the seminary: “He was a good man and had a great desire to share God’s love with others. I wanted to be like him.”
Father Bozeman was ordained for the archdiocese in 2000. In 2009, he joined the Josephite Society of the Sacred Heart, the only community of priests and brothers in the United States exclusively engaged in advancing the teachings of the Church in the black community. He was assigned to his current parish, which is predominantly black and poor.
He describes New Orleans as “a tale of two cities.” While the city has a strong Catholic history, it is also “The Big Easy,” known for its worldly ways. A larger portion of the city’s blacks are Catholic than in any other city in the country, with perhaps the exception of St. Augustine, Fla., he noted. He believes more black Americans have gravitated to Protestant religions because of a more aggressive evangelizing effort on the part of Protestant churches. But, he said, there are examples of blacks, who, after receiving the Catholic faith, tenaciously held on to it despite adverse circumstances. One black community he visited in a remote area outside of Houston, for example, was without a priest for a century. It held onto the faith through such practices as faithful recitation of the Rosary, he said.
To those in this parish who would consider leaving the Church for non-Catholic religions, he likes to remind them, “We have the seven sacraments. We need all the graces we get through them.”
His personal heroes in the faith include Father Tolton (“I pray my ministry could be as fruitful as his”), Franciscan Sister Thea Bowman and his own aunt, Daisy Davenport. Of Aunt Daisy, he observed, “She experienced racism as an African-American Catholic but was able to look beyond it. She was very devoted to the Eucharist and knew that Christ was the center of the Catholic Church.”
Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.