When the National Black Catholic Congress opens another Chicago meeting Thursday, delegates will demand more progress toward all of those same goals. They also are calling for the acceptance of blacks at the highest levels of church leadership and for a full recognition of their gifts in a church they feel has too often dismissed their concerns. "Some of the issues that came up at the congress in the late 19th Century are the same issues that are important to the congress today," said James Cavendish, sociology professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "The difference is that we have 13 black Catholic bishops, and we have 350 black Catholic priests who can represent black Catholics."
Among those 13 are Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry and Belleville, Ill., Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Both men will participate in the four-day congress, which is expected to draw 3,000 people and will be addressed Friday by Cardinal Francis George. Delegates also expect to discuss other issues galvanizing the black community, such as combating poverty, militarism and AIDS.
The primarily lay congress, which now meets every five years, comes at a time when Chicago Catholics are dealing with school and parish closings in the black community and lamenting that only 11 black priests have been ordained in the city's history.
For black Catholics throughout the nation, the congress represents a force for change in such areas as leadership, evangelization and liturgy, and it's been a homecoming for men and women who have sometimes felt left out of the mainstream. "I say, 'Thank God for the congress,' " said Rev. George Clements, the veteran Chicago pastor who now works in Washington, D.C. "If we had not had that organization, we would not have the few black Catholics we have today. We needed an organization to help us stick together and survive. We needed an organization that gave us a sense of self-esteem and said, `You are an integral part of the Catholic Church, and don't let people run you out of the Catholic Church.' "
Sister Anita Baird, director of the archdiocese of Chicago's Office for Racial Justice, calls the congress "an opportunity once in every five years to come together and celebrate who we are as black Catholics." It is also a time, she said, "to evaluate the progress or lack of progress in areas we feel are vital to ensure the church continues to be inclusive." Baird, the only African-American in the archdiocese at the director level, would like to see all people of color better represented in the leadership.
Improving outreach to young people is also a congress priority. "How do we speak to them to encourage them to become future leaders?" Baird asked. Evangelizing more effectively to people of all ages, she said, is necessary to help prevent the closing of shrinking city parishes. The archdiocese this year shuttered four predominantly black parishes.
Two years ago, more than 700 of Chicago's African-American Catholics gathered for a Black Catholic Convocation, which focused on the future of financially troubled parochial schools and inner-city parishes and well as the continuing difficulty in recruiting black candidates for the priesthood.
Chicago also had a presence in the first black congress held in 1889 in Washington, D.C., where 200 delegates met with President Grover Cleveland at the White House. Mass was said by the nation's first black Catholic priest, Rev. Augustus Tolton, who settled in Chicago that year.
Daniel Rudd, a newspaper editor and the son of slaves, had conceived of the congress, said Rev. Cyprian Davis, author of "The History of Black Catholics in the United States." He believed that the Catholic Church was going to be "the savior of the Negro race and there would be a mass conversion of blacks to the Catholic faith," Davis said.
At the next four congresses, the delegates demanded the abolition of the slave trade in Africa, the "education of the races," an end to discrimination in Catholic schools and an end to the prejudice "which is today destroying the life's blood of the country."
At the Chicago congress in 1893, delegate Charles H. Butler spoke of that prejudice existing in dining halls and hotels, on the job, and in professional organizations. Then he talked about the church. "I cannot dismiss this consideration without saying a word to those who would carry their prejudices into the sacred confines of God's Holy Church, and relegate the Negro to an obscure corner of the church, and endeavor to make him feel that he is not as good as the rest of God's creatures for the reason of the accident of his color," he said. "How long, oh Lord, are we to endure this hardship in the house of our friends?"
Davis said historical records do not reveal why congresses lapsed at the end of the 19th Century and were not held for many years. Not until 1987 was there a resurgence of interest. "Black Catholics were becoming more conscious of their own rootedness in Catholicism and increased awareness of our history," he said.
Noticeably absent from this congress' agenda is the priest sex abuse crisis that has dominated meetings of Catholic clergy and laity for months. "With all the negative history and sex abuse scandal, people are coming together to celebrate faith (and) religious life," Baird said.
The congress ends with a platform document with key issues to bring back to communities and work on for the next five years. In a 2001 study of diocesan offices of black ministry, Cavendish found that numerous personnel said the congress had a strong positive effect on ministry to the black community and that it enhanced the work of their offices. Baird agrees. "This congress allows (leaders) to go back to the diocese and say, 'This is what is coming from the people.'"