Every year, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus gathers for their annual conference, but this year was notable for several reasons.
As has been the case for many conferences, the meeting was entirely virtual because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The membership also honored several influential Black Catholic priests in the organization who died over the past year. And, of course, the 2020 gathering was held amid racial tensions that have boiled over on the streets.
“It definitely caused us to feel there was a general sense that this is a time to act, a time to make sure that our voices are being heard, and to support our people in their time of need,” said Dominican Father Jeffery M. Ott, the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta.
Father Ott, a member of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus’ board of directors, told Our Sunday Visitor that the organization’s annual gathering on Aug. 17 provided an opportunity for Black Catholic bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians and religious to reflect on their identity in the Church, which he described as “an ongoing issue” for members.
“It was also a chance for the priests to reflect on our priesthood call and our ministry, especially in light of these times that we are living in with the pandemic and with police violence, racial unrest, and a reminder of the systemic racism that plagues society and plagues the Church,” Father Ott said.
Exploring the role of Black clergy
The May 25 video of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, exposed long-festering racial wounds in American society and within the Church in the United States. Recent instances of police officers shooting Black men — Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Dijon Kizzee in Los Angeles — have made systemic racism and police brutality increasingly difficult to ignore.
“With systemic racism and injustice, it goes much deeper than those cases,” said Deacon Mel Tardy, the president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.
“I think sometimes when we speak as a Church, we have to be careful to not water things down in the sense that racism is all about individual acts of overt racism or that people who are doing good things can’t possibly be racist, because that’s when we wind up enabling the system of racism, racial injustice, white supremacy and allowing those things to continue,” Deacon Tardy told Our Sunday Visitor.
The national reckoning with racism was not officially on the itinerary for the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus. Those who participated in this year’s virtual gathering reflected on their respective vocations, the challenges of ministering to the faithful during the pandemic and their flock’s pastoral needs, among other topics.
“The groups explored questions like ‘Who are we as Black clergy and religious today? As Black clerical Catholic men today, what are the gifts and contributions we can offer? What are our own needs and challenges as Black men in the Catholic Church?'” said Deacon Tardy.
The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus usually gathers annually with members of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association and the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons. The August virtual gathering was followed by priests, deacons, religious brothers, seminarians and a few bishops.
Call for action
The gathering began with a Mass where members who were celebrating milestone ordination anniversaries were recognized. Several influential members who died over the past year were also honored, including Fathers Lawrence E. Lucas and George Clements, both highly respected activist-priests who helped found the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in 1968.
The gathering also honored the late Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, who died June 5 at age 71 from leukemia, and Father Kenneth Westray, the organization’s vice president who died June 24 at age 68.
Following the opening Mass, participants broke out into separate virtual “rooms” for priests and bishops, deacons, seminarians, and religious. They spoke about issues unique to their respective vocations and ministries, though some common themes emerged.
“All of us felt that we needed to make a bold statement that is followed up with action. That it’s not just words that need to be printed, but action has to be taken,” said Father Bruce Wilkinson, a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Father Wilkinson told Our Sunday Visitor that an action plan is being put together that demands systemic change to address racism in the Church and society. Father Wilkinson said the hope is that the plan will be presented directly to Pope Francis.
‘Striving toward perfection’
While noting that the bishops’ conference last year released a new pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” and that a few individual bishops have adopted anti-racism measures in their own dioceses, Father Ott said the Church collectively has not been as strong as it could be in the call for racial justice.
“I can count on one hand the number of bishops who have spoken up and called for reforms, called for justice, in the last three or four months,” Father Ott said. “And that’s a continuing source of distress for us as Black clergy, too, that we don’t see our Church in a leadership role when it has all these resources, all of these people from mixed communities and this great magisterial teaching on social justice that can come to bear on these issues that are surfacing.”
Father Ott added that there is a certain “tone-deafness” or lack of understanding among American Catholics regarding how white supremacy, racism and white privilege play out in the lives of not only Black Catholics, but everybody in the Church.
“I wish the Church could begin to reckon with its role in slavery, the oppression of Black people from 400 years ago,” Father Ott said. “That would be a significant sea-change in this time, and I think it would be a light. It would be a sense of hope for Black people in the Church, and even outside the Church.”
Deacon Tardy said the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus will be looking to meet more often, perhaps three or four times a year, and provide a support system for Black deacons, priests, religious and seminarians, especially in areas where they may be a very small minority. He added that the organization is also looking to be a resource for Catholics interested in learning about and doing more to counter racism.
Said Deacon Tardy: “We’re here. We’re members in the Church. We’re leaders in the Church. We believe in the Church. We believe in Christ, and we follow Christ. The Church is not perfect, but we’re all striving toward perfection.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.