African National Eucharistic Congress ‘Sparking Hope’ for Revival

Every five years the congress brings together thousands of Catholics of African descent, including clergy, religious, and laity from across the country for a weekend of discussions, spiritual workshops, and mini-retreats.

Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, Charlotte Amalie, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, Charlotte Amalie, U.S. Virgin Islands. (photo: Farragutful / Wikimedia Commons)

The African National Eucharistic Congress (ANEC), which took place this past weekend in Washington, D.C., is already “sparking hope” for spiritual revival, one participant told CNA.

Clovis Kwale, 28, works for the Diocese of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He said he and his companions are returning home reenergized with eucharistic zeal and full of “hope for the diocese to be revived in its spirituality.” Kwale believes he and his companions “will carry the good news back to preach this joy to the people back home.”

“We believe that Christ in the Eucharist is within us,” he said, “in our hearts and in our communities.”  

A Diocese Struck by Disaster

Kwale’s home diocese is tucked away in the Caribbean Sea and consists of the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. As of 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the population is 77% Black or African American.

In large part due to its vulnerability to hurricanes and other natural disasters, the territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands is one of the poorest regions in the U.S.

Kwale explained that a recent series of major natural disasters, including two back-to-back hurricanes in 2017, has devastated his diocese and the people it serves. This devastation, Kwale said, has led many in the diocese to a crisis of faith, with many feeling forgotten both spiritually and materially.

Because of the incredible suffering the population continues to face, Kwale said that large swathes of the Christian population “believe the faith in them has died away.”

“Despite the fact we are U.S. territory, we are suffering like any other country in the world,” Kwale said, adding that many “believe our God really doesn’t care about us.”

Yet, he said that ANEC has given him a glimpse of a community “built out of the foundation of the Eucharist” that puts “Christ at the center of everything.”

What is the African National Eucharistic Congress?

An initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), ANEC began in 2004 after Pope John Paul II called for a universal “Year of the Eucharist.”

Now, every five years the congress brings together thousands of Catholics of African descent, including clergy, religious, and laity from across the country for a weekend of discussions, spiritual workshops, and mini-retreats. At the congress’ core is the celebration of holy Mass, which is the central event.

Sister Joanna Okereke, a Sister of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and the USCCB’s assistant director of cultural diversity in the Church, told CNA that “the gathering brings together African Catholics from across our nation to celebrate the living presence of Jesus in the Church.” 

Sister Okereke said ANEC seeks to uplift African Catholics in their faith, to reflect on the issues impacting the faithful, and to encourage African youth to “stand firm in the faith in which they were raised.”

“Many Africans born in this country have considered a vocation to the priesthood and religious life through this participation in the Eucharist,” Sister Okereke added, “encouraging them to be part and parcel of what the Church is doing in this country.”

This year, ANEC was held on the campus of The Catholic University of America. Among the participants were 18 bishops, including Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. Cardinal-elect Christophe Pierre, and Bishop Jerome Feudjio of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the first African-born U.S. bishop.

According to Sister Okereke, the African Catholic presence in the U.S. is “fast-growing,” and the congress is an effort by the bishops to invite that growing community into a deeper participation in the Church’s evangelistic mission.

“The African National Eucharistic Congress is a rich ground of evangelization,” Okereke said, adding that it is an “opportunity for African Catholics that are in the peripheries to be reached.”

The Church in the Peripheries

Among the many pilgrims to this year’s congress was a 25-person delegation from the Diocese of St. Thomas. The group consisted of a mix of men and women representing the laity, clergy, and religious from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Speaking to CNA on Friday, Feudjio said that “even though it’s a paradise for many Americans,” the U.S. Virgin Islands is “the poorest diocese in the United States.”

Despite this, Feudjio said that the faithful in his flock, along with people of African descent across the country and world, have a great deal to offer the Church’s mission of evangelization.

Besides helping to revive the faith of those in his diocese, Feudjio also wanted to show his fellow bishops that even the very poorest members of the Church “are really contributing to the life of the Church in America.”

According to Kwale, the congress is “already sparking hope for the spiritual livelihood of our diocese.” 

Many fellow attendees have told him that “coming here has opened their hearts and their minds to the essential presence of the Eucharist in their lives,” he said. 

Their experience at ANEC, Kwale said, proved to him and his compatriots “that indeed we can still have faith and trust and confidence in God, which most of our people have backed away from.”

“We are so happy that we had this delegation of 25 come here to witness this,” Kwale added. “If 25 people out of a million can see good, we hope that the others can see better from them.”

Back home, Kwale said the diocese is planning to spread its newly found eucharistic fire to each of its parishes and schools. The delegates who participated in ANEC will be working with the priests and parishes of the diocese to hold their own eucharistic revival events and rededicate their work to Christ in the Eucharist.