By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
“You can’t win. You can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game. People keep sayin’ things are gonna change, but it looks just like they’re staying the same.”
–Michael Jackson, as “Scarecrow” in the musical, “The Wiz”
Currently, there are no Black saints from the United States ever to be recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.
Whether the results of the recognition process are accidental or intentional– the consequences are the same: zero Black saints from the United States have been recognized. Eleven Whites are canonized and honored as saints. No one who looks like us– American Black Catholics– has been given the highest honor.
This is shameful.
When questions are raised about there being no Black saints from the United States, Catholics always refer Black Catholics to “the process.”
Why is that? Once a Catholic dies, she or he is basically eligible for consideration for sainthood. Mother Mary Lange, foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, has been dearly departed for 141 years. The other saintly five died ages ago also: Mother Henriette DeLille, foundress of the Holy Family Sisters, another African-American order of nuns, died 161 years ago. Father Augustus Tolton, the first openly Black priest, has been dead for 126 years and philanthropist Pierre Toussaint is the longest deceased at 170 years. Julia Greeley, who took care of the poor in Denver, has been gone from this world for 105 years. Sister Thea Bowman died 33 years ago.
But why must declaring sainthood take so long? It didn’t take very long for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was honored with sainthood 19 years after she died. The process for Pope John Paul II was also fast tracked as he was made a saint only nine years after he died.
Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, urban vicar of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, remarked in a recent conversation of the fast canonization of St. Clare of Assisi, a follower of St. Francis of Assisi and founder of the Poor Clares, a very austere order of women religious. Born on July 16, 1194 at Assisi in the duchy of Spoleto
], she died August 11, 1253.
St. Clare of Assisi was canonized two years later in 1255 by Pope Alexander IV. Amazingly quick by today’s standards.
As many are aware by now, in the earliest days of Christianity, saints were designated by public acclamation. But now there is a process: long, very expensive, grossly understaffed, complicated, unwieldy, mostly secretive and unevenly bestowed. Miracles are required to get through the final two stages of the “process.”
There are rules and exceptions to the rules. So, it looks as if the process doesn’t even follow its process sometimes.
Currently, there are approximately 10,000 Catholic saints. Most of them are Spaniards or Italian (surprise!). Most of them are also men, another standard kept by a White, male dominated church which calls itself “universal.” With all of its scholarship, wisdom and experience, a fundamental truth must now be realized and lived by the Catholic Church: Black Catholics can, must and will represent themselves.
A recent workshop during the 13th National Black Catholic Congress was quite informative. Workshop presenters included Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., president of the National Black Catholic Congress, and Jeannine Marino, a canon lawyer and secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. They have studied the process and gathered info on it. She informed the group that the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, the Committee of cardinals that recommends candidates for sainthood to the Pope, has a staff of only 28 persons handling 10,000 causes. The situation requires them to read life stories and testimonies from a book whittled down from thousands of pages to a document as thick as the old Yellow Pages phone book. The process, clearly, is slowed by virtue of the Dicastery being grossly understaffed, among other reasons. Still, the Church must ask itself about its outcomes: why are most saints European men? Why are there no African-American saints from the United States, while there are 11 White U.S. saints? And why is no one in power in Rome outraged or embarrassed by these shameful, glacial-paced slow results?
The Catholic Church doesn’t need to point to a process that they claim displays equal treatment among candidates for sainthood and yet clearly does not. Not after centuries of Church-sponsored enslavement, widespread institutional racial segregation– especially in the church– mass incarceration and mass poverty of people of color.The church does modest charity with relatively too little effort to support real societal change (considering its wealth, power and influence).
Black Catholics deserve more than “equal treatment,” they (we) should get equitable treatment or fairness commensurate with all the Catholic churches, schools and hospitals that we built–all while experiencing White supremacist treatment. We have remained faithful even through disgraces such as separate seating in churches to barred admission in convents and seminaries (as well as Catholic hospitals, schools and housing).
The Catholic Church owes Black Catholics and other persons of color for ignoring the Gospels and for widely practicing institutional White supremacy for centuries.
To slap a price tag of $350,000 to $1,000,000 after Black Catholics have remained faithful and endured unrequited love from the Church is a slap in the face– which adds to the proverbial insult to injury.
The Vatican, by virtue of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, requires tens of thousands of documents to start the sainthood investigations. But once the boxes are sealed in the prescribed manner and mailed, the Dicastery charges a fee to open the boxes. Apparently, you “gotta pay to play” the sainthood game.
And so, we press on.
Members of the St. Ann Church Social Justice Circle are aiming to be in Rome to see Pope Francis and Cardinals on All Saints Day, November 1, 2023, which is also the first day of Black Catholic History Month. The committee is strongly advocating for expedited canonizations of “the saintly six”: Mother Mary Lange, Father Augustus Tolton, Mother Henriette DeLille, Mr. Pierre Toussaint, Ms. Julia Greeley, and Sister Thea Bowman.
As we have said many times, “sainthood delayed is sainthood denied.” Getting those designations from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is a matter of them showing the world the respect we have earned for ourselves and that we will continue to push for openly. Committee members see themselves as “co-workers with God” on this matter (to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’). Our letter writing initiative and mass media communications are meant to educate the public about the need for Black American saints to be recognized and to be shown respect.
The St. Ann Committee is working so that God’s will be done (and displayed) on Earth, as it is in heaven. So be it. And let the sainthood process, which feels like an unwinnable game for Black Catholic Americans, be over…