Black Catholics find hope in Pope Francis
Local black Catholics are looking to the future with new hope after the selection of the first-ever Latin American pope.
Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio, 76, was elected by his fellow cardinals as the 266th pope last week at The Vatican. He chose the name Francis, after the humble 13th century Italian saint who lived a life of poverty. Pope Francis is the first non-European pope in more than a millennium. His election came in the wake of the resignation of Pope Benedict the XVI, who is the first pope to resign in 600 years.
Francis was a longtime archbishop and then cardinal of Buenos Aires. He is the son of middle class Italian immigrants. He’s known as a humble man who emphasizes social outreach.
“He seems like he has the type of attitude … comfort is the word I want to use, that the Catholic church needs at this point in time,” said lifelong Catholic Gabrielle Mortis, 20, a senior at Wake Forest University.
Mortis, a member of the predominately black St. Benedict the Moor, said she was glad to see the first pope from the Americas elected and impressed that Bergoglio is a Jesuit, a religious order whose members are known for being well educated and having a sense of social justice.
St. Benedict member Candice Wooten Brown has also been a Catholic for all of her 36 years of life. She likes the emphasis Pope Francis places on selflessness and helping others. During his Inagural Mass this week, Pope Francis urged the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to protect the environment and those most vulnerable, stating that the mission of the church, “means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.”
Brown believes such a message will benefit the church.
“I actually think the new pope brings an awful lot of hope and opportunities for the Catholic church and African-Americans in the Catholic church,” said Brown, a lawyer who works in Human Resources at Reynolds American.
Sister Larretta Rivera-Williams, the pastoral associate at St. Benedict, agrees that the new pope’s Jesuit background is a good sign, and she hopes he can keep his compassion and humility as he takes his new position of power.
Rivera-Williams said the historic election of Pope Francis shows the global diversity of the church.
“For me, it’s just another guy of another culture who’s going to be head of a church that’s made up of many different cultures of which I happen to be of one of those cultures,” said Rivera-Williams.
Rivera-Williams said that she thought about the Latin American sisters in her order, The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, when she heard the announcement. It’s also of importance to the Latino congregation at St. Benedict, which holds a separate bi-lingual mass at the church, a common practice at American Catholic churches, she said.
Thirty-nine percent of the world’s Catholics are in South America and the Caribbean. Francis’ home country has 31 million Catholics, the 11th largest Catholic population in the world.
Blacks make up a smaller but still sizable part of Catholicism, with 170 million in Africa alone. Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson was viewed by many as one of the top papal contenders. If he had been elected, he would’ve been the fourth pope from Africa. In the first 500 years of the church, three popes were elected from North Africa, where Christianity traces its beginnings.
Of the 78.2 million Catholics in the United States – which has the world’s third largest Catholic population – three million are African American. There are but 250 blacks in the U.S. Catholic priesthood of 40,000; consequently, St. Benedict and other predominately black parishes are often led by white priests.
Brown said the Catholic Church is far more diverse than people know. She attended Catholic churches around the country before coming to Winston-Salem and joining St. Benedict in 2001. She said unlike Winston-Salem, which has several Catholic churches, some cities only have one, so Catholics of all backgrounds worship together. “I grew up going to a church with a wide range of backgrounds and cultures in it and generally have hopped from church-to-church … and they’ve been the same way,” she said.
St. Benedict, whose long history in East Winston included the operation of a Catholic school for several decades, is the only church home Mortis has ever known. She says she has always been content there.
“I’m conformable here; it’s very homey to me,” she said. “…This is somewhere I feel comfortable coming to worship.”
Mortis believes the rituals and consistency of Catholicism would be attractive to many young and racially diverse believers looking for stability and direction in their faith. She concedes, however, that the hardline the Church takes on social issues like abortion, birth control and same-sex marriage may dissuade many.
Rivera-Williams agreed that there are aspects of Catholic culture that may make Catholicism less attractive to African Americans. The clapping, stomping, hand-waving and other forms of praise that are customary in African American churches are often frowned upon by the Catholic Church, which favors more ordered, formal services.
Also, women aren’t allowed to preach, which may turn off some, Rivera-Williams said. The homily, or sermon, can only be preached by clergy, and women are forbidden in the Catholic Church from holding such positions.
Rivera-Williams said that despite such limitations, local clergy of all denominations have always treated her as an equal. She is invited regularly to speak at First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue.
The good deeds of the Catholic Church is one of its strengths. Rivera-Williams said St. Benedict, for example, supports the East Winston community with a food pantry for the needy, programs for senior citizens and weekly computer classes. She said Sunday mass at the church, which is located at 1625 E. 12th St., is always open to visitors and new members.
Rivera-Williams is praying for the new pope, hoping he can draw all the diverse populations of Catholicism together to bring positive change.
“I think if the church is going to survive, it has to be a church of inclusivity, it has to be a church for the people,” she said.