A Tuesday in May. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart had its usual congregation of students, faculty and staff on a prayerful break. As could only happen at Notre Dame, they walked into an ordinary weekday liturgy and found it concelebrated by six bishops and more than 20 priests. The National Black Catholic Congress was on campus for “Stir into Flame — A Symposium on the Vocation to the Catholic Priesthood in the African American Community.”
The meeting, the first of two hosted at Notre Dame by the ICL this May, immediately preceded a convocation of 18 of the nation’s bishops and 300 pastoral leaders discussing Church unity and ethnic and cultural diversity. Although it is not unusual for Notre Dame to host bishops or meetings on Church diversity, this was the first partnership with the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC). The group was on campus at the invitation of Don Pope-Davis, vice president and associate provost at Notre Dame, and John Cavadini, director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life (ICL),
Founded in the late 19th century, NBCC revived in 1987 with a mission to establish an agenda for evangelization and for improvement in the spiritual, mental and physical conditions of African Americans. Headquartered in Baltimore, NBCC promotes Black Catholics’ freedom, growth and full participation in the Church and society, working independently of, but cooperatively with, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
NBCC knows their mission requires pastoral leadership. The ordination class of 2010 has 440 men, about a dozen of them African Americans. This is not sustainable, since the average diocesan priest is 59. When parishes close, they are too often small urban parishes,which is where Black Catholic spirituality has thrived.
When Notre Dame and NBCC began talking a couple years ago about mutually supportive projects, a vocations symposium seemed a natural fit. Notre Dame engages every day in helping young adults strengthen their Catholic identities and discern their life’s vocation. The ICL’s programs, such as Notre Dame Vision, are well-honed tools for spiritual growth among youth and young adults.
So for three days in early May, Notre Dame hosted about 30 African-American clergy in the ICL’s home at Geddes Hall. They prayed, dined, heard talks and panel discussions, and worked in break-out groups. Cavadini opened the symposium with reflections on the “Call to Holiness.” On one panel, graduate theology students Andrew Prevot and Steven Battin joined Ajani Gibson, a high school student from New Orleans, to offer the discerners’ perspective.
In his keynote address, Father Patrick Smith, pastor of St. Augustine Church in Washington D.C., outlined the “Identity and Mission of the Priest” and reminded his brother priests that an active prayer life sustains and nurtures their vocation. Bishop George Murry, S.J., provided a seldom-told history of Black priests in America, focusing on early path breakers such as Father Augustus Tolton (an ex-slave whose cause for sainthood is spearheaded by the Archdiocese of Chicago).
It was a democratic affair, with the bishops taking a back seat and priests speaking freely among peers. Analyzing their own vocations and available research, attendees determined that vocations start in the ordinary evangelization that occurs in home, school and community. Family devotions; liturgies; acts of charity, solidarity and advocacy; catechism and faith formation; youth and young adult ministries; spiritual guidance and traditional pieties — all provide nurturing soil for vocations to bloom.
When the qualities of a good candidate for the priesthood were reviewed, a bishop mentioned, without irony, that the man must be able to be obedient. Later, in individual interviews, some of the ordained men admitted they find obedience, not celibacy, the toughest vow to keep.
Symposium participants acknowledged that today’s priesthood has challenges — time consumed by finances and budgets; sacrifices of the single, celibate life; and clergy sex scandals that have undermined the people’s trust and support. Yet these were not prominent themes — not because they are unimportant but because the focus was on the positive paths by which other African-American men would come to the priesthood.
Research has shown that relationships and role models are crucial to vocational discernment. The priests committed to make more time to allow youth and their families to know them as multifaceted people, with hobbies, athletic interests, imperfections and a joyful satisfaction in the work they get to do for God.
In breakout sessions, committees outlined some 40 action steps at the family, educational and community levels that will help African-American youth develop their Catholic faith; know more about the role of African Americans in the Church, today and historically; have access to summer programs, discernment houses and other vocations outreach; and find better support in the sometimes-isolating world of seminary.
Pope-Davis, who facilitated the entire symposium, successfully cajoled the already-busy men to commit to work throughout the coming year to implement the Action Plan. He dangled a carrot: a gathering at Notre Dame again next spring.
The visitors welcomed the return invitation. For some, this was their first ND experience. In formal and informal evaluations they reported being impressed by the Catholic ethos so evident on campus and by the students they met. Also making an impression was ICL’s Notre Dame Vision program, which became a priority on the Action Plan as a tool to help African-American youth grow their faith and to come to envision their many potential roles in the Church. The best reason to return, however, is the hope that with persistent and multifaceted efforts, they can help sustain the cherished sacramental and parish life of the Catholic Church.
Nancy Powers is a consultant to the National Black Catholic Congress.