By Ralph E. Moore, Jr.
It was the trip of a lifetime. It was not a vacation, but a mission trip to advocate for justice and the respect of the Black Catholics, worshiping and serving in the U.S. for over 400 years. We have kept our eyes on God and the unrequited love from our fellow church members, but hatred, prejudice and discrimination remain.
We arrived in Rome– Delores Moore (no relation), Mary Sewell and I– on the morning of Oct. 29. Our meeting with the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints was scheduled for the next day. The airport is an hour from our hotel and nearly as long from Vatican City.
We happily arrived on Oct. 31 for our session with the church leaders in an office in a corner of St. Peter’s Plaza.
St. Peter’s Basilica is named for the first pope, Simon, who Jesus renamed Peter – known as “the rock” upon which Jesus said he would “build” his church. St Peter’s Basilica is believed to be the largest church in the world. It is enormous and non-surprisingly devoid of many– if any– representations of Black or Brown saints among its many statues and portraits.
We were greeted by Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints (the head of the working congregation that investigates the lives of candidates for sainthood and approves the required miracles for sainthood). The Dicastery is the group that then recommends candidates for sainthood to the pope. Only a pope can declare a candidate a saint. The cardinal blessed the rosaries we had just purchased in St. Peter’s Square and thanked us for coming.
He left us to meet with Reverend Father Boguslaw Stanislaw Turek, the Undersecretary of the Dicastery and Father Patrick Dorelus, an African-American priest originally from Brooklyn, New York, who had been in Rome for eight years prior and who served as the interpreter for us and Fr. Turek. Dorelus is on the staff of the Dicastery, too. We had an unprecedented two-hour session with the advisors to the pope. Our meeting was unprecedented because we are not church or canonization-process officials. In addition, we advocated for the sainthood for six people, while everyone else pushes for their one. We are the Social Justice Committee of St. Ann Catholic Church in East Baltimore.
During our two-hour session with the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, we discussed both two big points: public acclamation and the dispensing of miracles. We framed our discussion by stating, “The Catholic Church owes Black Catholics, give us our saints now.” We also told them, “If it is wrong now–and it is–fix it now.”
After all the White supremacy we endured in the U.S. within the Catholic Church, having no saints from our race and nation is embarrassing! There are 11 White Catholic saints from the U.S. We told them of Black Americans being denied admission to churches–including some edifices we helped build– during chattel slavery and again under Jim Crow’s reign. We discussed how once admitted, we were required to sit in the back. Black Catholics were required to wait in the center aisle until all White congregants received Communion. I recall ushers standing in front of the holy water fountains to block us from using them and their stepping aside for access for Whites believers. We wanted them to understand that the White supremacy practiced by White Catholics was not only at an institutional level– with no admission to convents or seminaries– but a personal one also, practiced weekly in churches.
They listened as we discussed how Pope Francis (my favorite pope after John XXIII) dispensed with Pope John’s final miracle after canonizing several popes: Paul VI, John Paul II, John XXII and he is working on John Paul I. Fr. Stanislaw Turek, the undersecretary for the Dicastery tossed me a pop quiz question: “Who was the pope who commissioned Mother Lange and the other sisters to start the Oblate Sisters of Providence?” and I immediately responded, “Pope Gregory XVI!” And he nodded.
Delores, Mary and I hand delivered to the Dicastery a ream of signed letters to Pope Francis at the end of our meeting. We mailed 3,000 plus to the pope previously (1,500 in 2021 and 1,500 in 2022) and sent copies to Cardinal Christophe Pierre, his Ambassador to the U.S. They have never been acknowledged…now they have been put in the hands of the members of the Dicastery.
Cardinal Semeraro came back at the end of our meeting to wish us farewell. Father Turk exclaimed “bravo” and gestured with his upheld hands at the end of our discussion. We felt great about the audience as we left the building.
We have worked on the Initiative for the Expedited Canonizations of the First Six African American Candidates for Sainthood every day for over two years. We will keep working and praying until the ‘saintly six are given the respect from the church that they deserve. They are: Mother Mary Lange, Father Augustus Tolton, Mother Henriette DeLille, Pierre Toussaint, Julia Greeley and Sister Thea Bowman.
I heard the Dicastery met in Rome last week and I am aware the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops is meeting in our hometown this week. Hopefully and prayerfully, the Holy Spirit will be with them to recommend our saints now.
We are not looking for tokenism with the canonization of just one of the six unless there is the promise of doing all six eventually and before long– if not now.
The Catholic Church owes Black Catholics and so we respectfully demand, “Give us our saints now.”