By Ralph E. Moore, Jr.
We are soon going to Rome! Two years ago, we– that is, the Social Justice Committee of St. Ann Church in East Baltimore– launched a letter writing initiative for the expedited canonizations of the first six African-American candidates for sainthood from the United States. Mother Mary Lange, Father Augustus Tolton, Mother Henriette DeLille, Mr. Pierre Toussaint, Ms. Julia Greeley and Sister Thea Bowman are the first Black Catholics from the United States being considered for sainthood in the 247 years of officially organized American Catholic Church history.
Let us be very clear, there are zero African-American saints and 11 White American saints from the United States. It is hard to believe that Black people have been overlooked by the Church after enduring 400 years of enslavement and legal racial segregation, followed by illegally practiced discrimination for decades after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision of 1954. It’s hard not to notice the Catholic Church’s relative silence on mass incarceration and mass poverty–essentially choosing to do charity instead of advocating for much-needed social and economic change.
And so, with our embarrassment, anger and awareness of the absence of saints who look like us and come from our country, we launched our campaign. The initiative has gotten 4,000 signatures. Using the United States Postal Service, we mailed 1,500 letters to Pope Francis in Vatican City on Dec. 14, 2021, and another 1,500 on June 17, 2022.
We sent copies to the Pope’s Ambassador to the United States, now Cardinal Christophe Pierre, at his Washington, D.C office. Since then, we have received another 1,000 signatures. We will hand-deliver them in Rome with hope to the pope and the cardinals. Our position on the expedited canonizations is: if it is wrong now –and it is– fix it, now. Our letter to the pope ends with the following questions: “If not now, when? If not you, who?”
So far, we have an appointment with the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. Cardinals are the members of the committee that vet the lives of the saints for moral rectitude. They also check for the requisite miracles needed to advance in the canonization process. They then recommend their approved candidates to Pope Francis, and he alone can declare sainthoods.
In our researching the process, we’ve learned from scholars that it is long, expensive, unwieldy and arbitrary. We find that the sainthood process has resulted, historically, in most of the 10,000 established Catholic saints being Italian or Spanish and not surprisingly– more often– male. Four of our proposed ‘Saintly Six’ are women.
Our Social Justice Committee members are: Delores Moore, Mary Sewell, Betty Lutz, Tyrone Wooden, Janiece Jefferson, James Conway and myself, Ralph Moore. We have used the media, social media and word of mouth to educate the public about the lives of the ‘Saintly Six,’ in addition to the letter writing campaign. There have been newspaper articles, speeches on Facebook and in person, a webinar for Fordham University and a podcast for nuns in Clinton, Iowa.
We say the Prayers of Beatification of the Six Saints every Sunday before mass. We distributed copies of a book, “Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood,” edited by Michael R. Heinlein, to every member of the St. Ann congregation and to the pastor, Father Xavier Edet, SSJ. We have installed two foot by three foot portraits of the six candidates for sainthood on a side altar in the sanctuary of the church. We have also included a petition about them in the “Prayer of the Faithful” said during mass. We have influenced several churches in the area to post portraits in their church also.
We have ordered T-shirts bearing the names of the ‘Saintly Six’ and wear them at appropriate occasions, such as the Social Ministry Convocation presented each year by the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the 50th Anniversary of Pax Christi’s founding celebration in Arlington, Va. We wore the shirts to the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary (Court 313) of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur, Georgia’s program for the six Black candidates for sainthood. They made and wore beautiful t-shirts of their own design honoring the six Black candidates for sainthood. We also wore our shirts at the National Black Catholic Congress, held in Prince George’s County, Md. in July 2023. It was Bishop John Ricard, SSJ, then president of the congress who eventually convinced the six causes for sainthood to work together.
At the Congress, enlarged portraits of the saintly six were prominently displayed onstage in the main meeting hall throughout the four days of the conference.
Bishop Ricard, a member of the Josephite Fathers and Brothers religious order, has been very inspiring and supportive to our initiative. Bishop Roy Campbell, current president of the National Black Catholic Congress has been very supportive, too.
We’ve met several times with Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and Urban Vicar, and he celebrated the first All Saints Day Mass we organized at St. Ann to which upwards of 300 persons attended. He secured us the appointment with the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. And so, on we go to Rome!
Three of us secured our passports a year ago. We raised the funds for the five-day trip, and we booked our flights and hotel rooms. We will go to Vatican City to speak person to person and heart to heart with the cardinals during our appointment and with the pope, once we get an audience with him (that part of our journey is still being worked on).
Mary H. Sewell, a member of the delegation to Rome said recently, “I pray our compelling discussion points open the hearts and minds of the Dicastery to recommend the canonizations to Pope Francis. The ‘Saintly Six’ are already saints in my mind. I have come to admire and respect each and each of the lives they’ve lived.”
Sewell said, “I have never prayed in color or based upon nationality. However, when it was brought to my attention that there are no U.S. African American saints, I wondered why. I felt I had to do something to help change that.”
She continued, “It would be great to look around in one’s church, and not see the exclusion of any of God’s children. Our church should reflect everyone, all children of God made in the image and likeness of God.”
We will be in Rome on All Saints Day on Nov. 1. It is way past the time for the group of saints in the Catholic Church to be diversified. It is time for the church to say to its members: “One cannot be a good Catholic and a White supremacist at the same time. Pick one– but you can no longer consider yourself both.”
Canonizing the first six African-American candidates from the U.S. would make a very strong anti-racism statement at this difficult time for race relations in the United States. Now is the time to say “yes” to Black Catholics, after centuries of “no.”
Wish us safe travels.